How important is financial literacy when it comes to empowerment? How can speaking to customers have so much impact? What does success really look like as a product leader in financial FinTech?
We chatted with Nina Mohanty, Founder and CEO of Bloom Money, to find out!
Nina took us through her leadership journey in FinTech, and what inspired her to develop an app that empowers migrant communities to build generational wealth.
We’ve got highlights from the convo below. But if you’d like to listen to the whole thing just click the links.👇
Where did your passion for financial literacy and empowerment start and what influences drove you?
It's a really interesting question because ending up in FinTech as a professional career was completely by accident. But I think I would’ve ended up ancillary to or within the financial literacy or inclusion space regardless, for multiple reasons.
To start with, my parents were immigrants in the US. I grew up in California, my dad is from India, and my mother is from Taiwan. So an immigrant household. And I myself am now an immigrant in the UK.
And one of the things I realized as I grew older was that I had a very privileged upbringing; my parents came over as skilled engineers, and my mother opened a 529 fund. For those that aren’t based in the US, a 529 is the tax code around this tax-efficient investment structure where you can use any of that money within that investment structure for education purposes.
Because of that, I was able to go to the University of California, Davis, I was able to study abroad, and I was able to do a master's degree. I also didn't have any student loan debt. This meant that when I graduated, any mistakes I made with personal finance were my own. And I did make a few and got myself into lots of debt because as Americans, our approach to credit is a bit different than elsewhere.
So I racked up a lot of credit card debt and didn’t fully grasp that small print that says it's ‘0% APR for the first 12 months.’ But then after that, what happens? So I treated it like it was free money and it took me a long time to claw myself out of that debt. I only paid it off a few years ago, and so I think my lived experience has made me very passionate about it.
I was just in India, and I'm constantly reminded that there are lots of people living in poverty all over the world. So I think one of the biggest tools to help them has been FinTech products that have come out in the past 10 to 20 years.
I’m very excited about the space. It's probably something I would’ve ended up in regardless of whether I had fallen into a job at MasterCard or not, but I'm glad I'm here.
Your first job in FinTech was at MasterCard. How did you think payments and FinTech could impact the world at that time?
I think that my first job at MasterCard was the most formative experience for me and is what made me fall in love with FinTech. I still speak about MasterCard so fondly because it was a wonderful environment to work in as well.
At the time, Ajay Banga was the CEO of MasterCard, and he would always go on about doing good by doing well and that triple bottom line. And that was always something that was talked about openly from the very top. The leadership was constantly talking about it so you really felt like you were part of something bigger here.
I started in the UK office around the time when Monzo was Mondo and it was a prepaid card, Revolut was on the MasterCard Start Path, which is MasterCard’s incubator, and Starling hadn't even launched yet. It was just a really exciting time.
And back then, all of these cards were managed by the prepaid team, which is really funny because now they're called the EMI and FinTech team. But they used to just be prepaid cards, and it wasn’t sexy at all. It was like, “Here's a gift card that you top up, and now we're saying that you can do it with an app.”
But I think it was being at MasterCard at that time that just made me go, Whoa. I also remember being a bit of a busybody and being so eager to soak up knowledge. I would take on these side projects and my boss would say, “If it doesn't keep you from doing your day job, I’m happy for you to go and chat with other people.”
So I was speaking to the guy who’d basically introduced the contactless payment on the TFL and was now doing it in Doha and other cities around the world. And I was flabbergasted that you could have so many touchpoints.
I think that was when I realized that FinTech and financial services touch every aspect of our lives, and we can apply technology to make people's lives better. So that was definitely the moment where I was head over heels and knew I couldn't go back.
You’ve progressed from MasterCard to several other companies, can you tell us about that journey and each next step?
So I went on to Starling Bank and had the absolute privilege of working with a kick-ass team that was launching the current account there.
It’s definitely one thing to work in a FinTech, but I was just so in awe of Anne Boden and what she was building, not least because she’s a woman who was building and running a bank. She also had lots of women both on her leadership team and in high positions throughout the business, so that was super impressive.
I think it was the summer of 2017 when they officially launched the current account and there was this whole drama where the processor went down. Monzo, Starling, and Revolut were all using the same processor at the time, and when it went down it was an absolute shitshow. We were all running around and the Slack was going off, and we were just thinking, What do we do? This is nuts.
It’s situations like that where you learn more in two hours than you do in two years.
Getting to learn from the people that were building there was also incredible. The thing I often say now as I'm building my own business and people ask if I want to be a bank is, “Honestly, I've seen and gone through it, and I don't know that I have the nerves of steel that that woman does.” She knew exactly what she was doing every step of the way.
I then had the opportunity to go over to Bud, and they said, “There's this thing called Open Banking. You should check it out.”
And I thought, Well, that's random.
I met one of the guys, Jamie, who's now the CEO of a company called Fronted. He was the one that lured me in and said, “Open Banking is going to change everything. You’ll want to be a part of this.”
So I took a leap of faith and joined them. I was probably employee number 12 at the time, and we were in a tiny studio off of Brick Lane. It was incredible to watch it grow and to be part of the conversations, explaining APIs to people.
It was hilarious as well because people would go to conferences and this is probably the point where I realized that it takes years of saying something on stage for someone to digest it and build it into their product roadmap. But we were basically going on a charm offensive to get all of our third-party partners in our marketplace to build out public APIs.
And it was just trying to explain to them how great things could be. “Imagine a world where your customer can not only view their balance, but they can top it up.”
And then most recently I was at Klarna. I had the incredible opportunity to join the team there and help set up their US operations on the West Coast.
Klarna is Klarna. Even people who don't work in FinTech know who and what Klarna is. I read recently that they laid off a bunch of people, but they were at 6,500 employees, and it's strange to think that we weren't even 2,000 at the time. And that felt like a lot.
So it was a very exciting time to be there. I dabbled in a bit more of the commercial space, but then moved back again towards product and looked at new product lines and that kind of strategy and expansion role.
It was really exciting to see everything on a larger scale because I went from MasterCard, which is this global, multinational corporation, then down to Starling, where I was employee number one hundred and something. Then I went to Bud, which was tiny; we were all in one room together and we grew quite quickly.
But then going to Klarna, I realized what high growth looks like, and I got to finally learn about different aspects of the company.
I don't know if they'll do it anymore, but notoriously, Klarna used to have a thing called ‘Smoooth Week.’ And when it started out they’d fly everyone into one of the offices. But as that's grown, how do you get 2,000 people to one place?
In the year before the pandemic, we all flew out to Berlin to christen the new tech hub that was opening. There was a mini exhibition hall where every team set up a stand. It was almost like a science fair if you can imagine. Then they put a board up behind them and everyone was just milling about.
I was like a kid in a candy shop. I was going around talking to the app security team and asking about app penetration. And they were so excited that this random person was asking them about it.
I was speaking to the Open Banking team and we were nerding out about account-to-account payments. I randomly spoke to the treasury team at Klarna, and they were like, “Who are you? Why do you care about this?”
I was just so eager to draw everything in and to be honest, I think that’s been the driving force. Most of my career is just raw curiosity. There's nothing too boring for me to want to understand or learn.
Then over a year ago, I left to start Bloom. So that’s my career in a nutshell.
Walk us through the journey of starting your own business. What was your biggest inspiration?
During the early days of the pandemic, there was a lot of soul-searching for a lot of people. I've mentioned my insatiable curiosity, and one of the things about me is that I want to constantly be learning and growing. And I hit a point where I just realized I had completely plateaued.
So internally, I realized that I wasn’t really learning. I was waking up and doing the same thing every day. And it was fine. I was in a good place, I was doing it well, and getting paid well for it. Fine. Not much to complain about.
But as I was saying, in my early days at MasterCard, I was flitting around being like, “Hey, I know nothing about transport, but I really want to know about this product that you're building to allow people to pay with cards in Doha when they get on public transport.”
So I got to a point where I was that person wandering around saying, “Hey, this seems like a really cool project that you're working on. I'd love to lend a hand and be a resource to you if I can.”
I was actually met with, “Oh, actually, we're fine right now,” or, “We don't need the help.” And I get it, sometimes a team just doesn't have the capacity to onboard someone to help, even if they want the help.
So I was going around and knocking on doors and saying, “Hey, I want to help you, I want to learn from you, and I want to grow my skill set.” And I just felt so stuck. Every day felt like Groundhog Day.
I'm sure for many of us, given the context, the backdrop was the pandemic as well. We were all waking up, going to our desks or kitchen counters, and doing the same thing over and over. But in the background, I just thought, I’m not learning anything here.
I’d gone and enrolled for four hours of French class on Saturdays and I was doing product classes at night and just trying to stretch my mind as much as I could. But I just wasn't feeling like I was growing and being fed the nutrients that I needed.
And then simultaneously, I’d started doing a bit of research that would ultimately lead to Bloom. But it was this simultaneous realization that a lot of the products that I was building were basically copies of each other, or the people whom I was building for were copies of each other.
Oftentimes, I talk about the fact that a lot of FinTech is focused on people who are like us who work in tech and have disposable income. But one of the things that made me fall in love with FinTech was this idea that we could actually better people's lives no matter where they are in the world, not just our own.
So I looked around and thought, Is this what you want to be doing right now? I hopefully have a long time to build a legacy, but it just didn't feel like it was perfectly aligned with my values.
But some people would say, “You know what, you have a job and there's a pandemic going on, so just hold on to that.” And that's a very realistic and pragmatic thing to hold on to, of course. But the more I studied, the more I actually got to do the bits that I love doing most, which is speaking to customers. At Klarna, for example, I was always the first to volunteer to do product and user research.
Back in the days when we were queuing to get into the grocery stores, it started out with me just having a chat with the security guy and asking him to tell me about financial services and how he manages his money. Then it was talking to a bus driver who was having a cigarette break and then a woman who was cleaning at the mall. And it started snowballing.
I went onto Facebook groups and tried to chat with people about how they manage their money. There was never a leading question but I always tried to keep it very broad, very open, and conversational, and I started to gain all of these insights.
I remember there was a certain point when I was speaking to my friend about it, and he said, “There's something here, you've got to do it.” And so almost a year ago now, I handed in my notice, and off I went to start Bloom.
On my wall, if someone walked in, they'd say, “What’s she planning here? There's something wrong here.” There wasn’t any red string, but definitely arrows and all of that nonsense. There were printouts of various UI that I really liked, product features from other businesses, and products that I thought were really great. And there were Post-its and annotations all over them.
It was this realization of, “Okay, we're doing it. We're going to do it.” And that was when I left and started my journey as a Founder, but a Founder with a product heart, I would say.
What is success to you? If you could go back and say, “I will be successful if…” What’s the answer to that?
I will have been successful if the products that we build accelerate families on their generational wealth journey. I think about my parents, and it's very fitting actually that we're having this conversation now.
I was just home in India because my grandmother passed away, and she was actually my last living grandparent. And not to bring the conversation down or anything but I had this realization because my grandmother was very Hindu and they do 14 days of prayer and worship to help the spirit move on. And during this time, I realized I wasn’t only mourning her passing, but the closing of a generation.
I had a very close relationship with my grandparents. My grandmother on my dad's side that just passed was a homemaker. She raised five children. Her husband, my grandfather, was a bus conductor. And on my Mom's side, they ran a printing shop. So fairly humble roots.
My two parents were both given a great education. In my dad's case in particular, my grandfather always said this to him, and my dad has since always said it to us, “We will always find a way to pay for school and books.”
So he put my dad through school, and then my dad and my mother from Taiwan both pursued degrees. They studied computer science, and they ended up coming to Silicon Valley to work as engineers during the dot-com boom.
They've now handed off and given me and my brother this amazing opportunity where we don't have student loan debt. We have a pot of money or enough security on my end to pursue building a company of my own. They also have a house that’ll one day be passed down to one or both of us.
So when I think about generational wealth, it can often take multiple generations. We got very lucky that it happened in the space of just two generations, but sometimes it takes longer than that. And what we want to do is be the catalyst to speed up the generational wealth transfer.
As more and more people seek new opportunities and come to the Western world to build new lives, we want to be there to be that catalyst and say, “Let's introduce you to how the financial system works here and give you all the tools and education you need to take advantage of it. And then we're going to build products that you don't have to crowbar yourself to fit into, but that actually fit your lifestyle.
That’s something I keep coming back to when we talk about financial inclusion because it's not a particularly sexy topic. Someone once asked me what my definition of financial inclusion is, and I said, “It’s a world where we don't have to contort ourselves to fit the existing system. Rather, the products and services fit us.”
I think we’re getting closer and closer to it with embedded finance and this idea that we can create tailored products for specific people, where you have challenger banks that are being built for LGBTQ+ communities, gamers, digital nomads, or whatever it may be. We're getting closer. And that’s what really gets me excited every day.
However, it's not enough to say that embedded finance or Open Banking is going to help change that. We have to be intentional about building products that are designed with an understanding of who's underserved and think about how we can serve them, or at least be mindful of it.
How have you made conscious decisions from a product-led perspective to account for the underserved segments of the population?
At the end of the day, it's all about serving the wants and needs of our customers, and the best way to do that is to speak to them.
A great example of this is Experian, the credit rating agency. They launched a product called Experian Boost, which is based on Open Banking. And they said, “Give us access to your account through Open Banking or an account information service provider; they’ll aggregate all of your transactional data, and then they'll start rifling through to find positive indicators to help you build your credit score.”
Now, in theory, I love the idea of this. But one of the things that I had to point out to a few people who work at Experian was, “What are the factors that you’re looking at?”
In the UK, some of the factors they’re looking for are subscriptions, such as Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Prime. Then they're looking for things like your savings or investment accounts. They're also looking for things like your council tax that you pay each month, or a direct debit that's going out for your utilities.
And I had to point out to them - what happens if you have one person paying for Netflix, but tonnes of people are using the login? What if they're not using Netflix because someone who’s working multiple jobs doesn't have time to sit down and watch it so they don't even have a subscription?
What happens if you're using council tax as one of your indicators and someone who lives in council housing doesn't pay council tax? So I had to point these things out to them.
Recently, we were running a workshop for a group of women that live in the Tower Hamlets Council, which is the borough in London that has the most income inequality. And someone commented saying, “It should be fairly easy. You've done workshops for your girlfriends in the past.”
I said, “Well actually, it's not, because one of the things that I had to educate myself on was how benefits work.”
Often we talk about how your rent should be X percent of your total pay. We talk about the 50-30-20 rule in personal finance management, but what happens if you're, again, living in council housing and you're not necessarily paying rent? Or when we talk about income, what happens if yours is coming from a bunch of benefits that are lumped together?
So there's a basic understanding of your customer and how they’re different that’s really necessary, and I don't think we talk about it enough. We just assume that the majority of people live on a salary. But we haven't even touched on wage workers and the many earned wage access products that are popping up.
Another thing we talk about a lot is Shariah compliance. There's been a huge explosion in Islamic finance/FinTech, and I'm delighted to see that. But people ask, “Why is this important?” Well, there are millions of Muslims living in this country and there are many more living around the world. It’s the fastest-growing religion, and yet they don't have financial products that are in line with their faith.
This past Ramadan, they were saying that 50% of Muslim households in the UK are living at or below the poverty line. I can't say that's because there aren't products for them, but perhaps if we had more products that are built with them in mind and their faith-based needs, we could help make a dent in that.
There are so many different aspects that we have to take into consideration here. Even things that are as subtle as perhaps a woman not earning money but at the same time is managing the household finances. It’s little things like that where unless you speak to the end customer, you're never going to know, and it's all going to be a theory until you launch and then realize you forgot about a lot of things.