Tackling exclusion in financial services
Of all of the guests I’ve spoken to as part of our interview podcast series, my most recent guest, Nizam Uddin OBE is arguably the one who arrives with the most focussed sense of purpose.
Nizam is Chief Strategy Officer at Algbra and he begins by telling me about the work his organisation is doing.
“We are creating a global digital financial institution and at the heart of what we’re trying to do is address exclusion.
“We think there are loads of voices and loads of consumers who are ‘unbanked’ and ‘underbanked’ and part of what we’re here to do is to ensure that we serve their needs.”
Nizam continues by highlighting how big a problem the concepts of being ‘unbanked’ and ‘underbanked’ are; “[there are] 1.7bn people that the World Bank considers to be ‘unbanked’ and ‘underbanked’.”
Of this group, Nizam explains, 1.3bn are considered to be ‘addressable’, “by that, we mean of an age, for example, where they may be able to use some of the more advanced mobile technologies.
“800m of those [people] happen to be of a Muslim background. That’s just one large demographic that needs to be looked at.”
How to solve the problem of exclusion
“If we’re serious about true inclusion, we have to go further and deeper to understand what is excluding people and those most excluded are often the ones whose voices are not heard at all.”
Operating in listening mode
“We’re intentionally not going out there and saying, ‘this is what we’re going to be doing’ because we’re in ‘listening mode’ at the moment.
“Part of what we’re trying to achieve here is to say that we are meeting the needs of the consumers that we think are unheard.”
It’s quite clear from what Nizam has to say that Algbra is more concerned with understanding the needs of its customers before committing to one particular product feature or another.
“We don’t think we are reinventing the wheel [in terms of product features], where we are reinventing the wheel is the tier one approach we’re taking.
“What we are trying to do is to understand…these are the services that are in need in our communities that are currently not being met.”
The challenges that communities are facing
“I can tell you the challenges that some [people] face around whether they are part of a diaspora community and want to send money back to family members.
“…there are individuals who want to really feel that they can bank with an institution that serves their social conscience needs.”
Clearly, Nizam is focused not just on customers who are excluded because of who they are, but also on communities who are excluded by not being served by a suitable solution.
“…[some of these people] want to bank with a B Corp, they want to bank with a financial institution that really cares about the environment and the supply chain.”
Hearing the unheard
The theme of working to give a voice to the ‘unheard’ has been present throughout Nizam’s career and his experience and passion for this subject shines through.
“Working previously for the Prince’s Trust focussed on young people, my job was to go around the country and focus on community integration.
“…[this] was very much to understand where, across the country, geographically or by ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion who is missing out?”
Nizam stresses again that Algbra isn’t working to ‘reinvent the wheel’ but instead is listening to the industry and communities as a whole.
Addressing financial inclusion
“When [the industry] talks about financial inclusion, quite often it’s a case of ‘these are our products’ and attached to this will be an element of education to help people with financial literacy. That’s broadly what happens.
“When I think about what does a genuine systemic approach to financial inclusion look like, I think ‘OK, what are the obstacles that are preventing inclusion’? Then you start thinking a bit more creatively.”
Nizam also introduces the concept of knowledge equity. “Knowledge equity starts looking at ‘lived experience’ in a different kind of way, so in the same way that you’d go to an accountant for financial advice…knowledge equity says that we have to give equity to the knowledge of individuals who have lived through life.
“Instead of looking at them through a deficit model, that is ‘they are poor, they are disenfranchised’, you think [instead], that ‘they are a rich source of capital, they have lived life in a very particular way’.”
Working upstream of harm
During our conversation, we turn to the topic of protecting vulnerable customers within financial services; a topic that has been the recent focus of the FCA and is arguably even more critical since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we at Algbra are interested in is what can we do to prevent people from being in those vulnerable groups in the first place? That ‘upstream’ piece is the space that we are wanting to be in with providing our financial services.
“[There is] a really impossible balance, If I look at vaccine hesitancy as a real-life example when we see the news that says that particular communities are not taking up the vaccine for very good reason for their context; it could be a historical relationship with medical practitioners, lack of trust in government and so on.
“[But then, to try and help] you tailor messages for them. One of the unintended consequences of doing that is exceptionalising communities who don’t want to be exceptionalised. This tension is something that has to be considered regularly when we do the work in engaging communities that otherwise are underserved.”
It’s this example that Nizam uses to encapsulate the systemic approach to inclusion that he and the team at Algbra are looking to implement.
Ultimately, Nizam is very clear, the work that is being carried out at Algbra is happening so that the organisation can launch something that is fundamentally inclusive.
“We are happy and proud that most of [our background work] won’t come out externally because actually, externally we want to be an incredible institution for everybody but we are doing the thinking about who it is that needs us the most.
“That, I hope, will be reflected in our language, our approach and our product.”
How to move the industry in the right direction
My final question for Nizam was to ask, based on his unique experience, what advice would he give to marketers working within financial services to help improve inclusion within the industry.
“Be cognizant of what you know, of what you think you know [and be aware of] what you know you don’t know! That constant reminder is an affirmation of the need to educate ourselves on a regular basis.
“In terms of the use of language, tone and biases coming through what processes and measures do you have in place internally to test that?”
Nizam also made the point to take the opportunity to learn not just from financial services but from other industries.
“Also looking outside of our own industry there are so many bastions of good practice elsewhere. The creative industry is a really good one, partly because if you’re Nike and you want to sell trainers the consumers are very diverse and your marketing needs to reflect that.”