The Big Interview: Nicola Anderson, chief executive of FinTech Scotland

Nicola Anderson was confirmed last month as the chief executive of FinTech Scotland.

Sunday, 21st February 2021, 7:00 am
The CEO says she’d like to see more female and BAME colleagues in fintech. Picture: contributed.

She had held the role on an interim basis since Stephen Ingledew stepped into a new position of executive chair in November. The businesswoman was previously a senior regulator at the Financial Conduct Authority. She said when her appointment was announced that joining the team had strengthened her passion for entrepreneurial innovation and how it can benefit citizens and the economy.

The organisation is an independent not-for-profit body aiming to ensure that Scotland seizes fintech opportunities and “achieves positive economic and social outcomes by encouraging financial innovation, collaboration and inclusion as part of the country’s broader digital economy objectives”.

Having just been officially appointed chief executive of FinTech Scotland, what do you aim to achieve in the role? What learnings are you bringing from your experience of financial services?

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FinTech Scotland is a cluster of fintech small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and committed strategic partners, from across industry, universities, Scottish Enterprise and regulators working and collaborating to advance Scotland as a global fintech nation. We will continue to foster an environment that encourages, enables and supports innovation in financial services.

We will look for ways to build connections where the power of the collaboration drives the right changes for people and businesses as we all continue to move towards a more digital economy. We have an open opportunity to champion inclusion and support opportunities for all. I’d highlight the following as key:

We will focus on SME business growth, development and the support needed in response to Covid, working with Scottish Enterprise on this and in implementing recommendations from the Logan Report.

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We’re looking at international growth opportunities for SMEs, working with other fintech clusters across Europe and exploring the opportunities with Asia, the US, Canada and Australia. We’ll also work with Scottish Development International, attracting more fintechs to Scotland to drive job-creation and economic growth as well as help homegrown fintechs grow, connect and export their solutions.

We expect growing engagement and more partnerships between fintech SMEs and larger financial services institutions, and we’ll continue to work with strategic industry partners and fintechs to advance this.

We’ll be looking at more research and development (R&D) in fintech, working with the world-class research and academic community across Scotland. For example, work at Edinburgh Innovations and the University of Edinburgh is advancing R&D in financial services and in supporting fintech developments.

The FinTech Scotland cluster is interested in connecting across Scotland’s R&D strengths and looking at the role fintech R&D can play in economic recovery, financial inclusion, advancing the climate change agenda, and consumer engagement in sustainable finance.

We’ll also be doing what we can to support diversity and inclusion in future talent. I’d like to see more female and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) colleagues in tech and fintech and I know we can set our sights on achieving that in Scotland.

What effect has the pandemic had on your duties and the work of FinTech Scotland? Its global reach has been broadened digitally, for example

Practically, like so many others, we’re all working from home. We transitioned into a rhythm of virtual meetings all made easier through video calls. The pandemic has accelerated the demand for digital capabilities in so many aspects of our lives, including financial services, and fintech has embraced the opportunity to deliver the changes needed.

We’ve seen and continue to see three main trends:

Scottish fintech SMEs continue to innovate and make advances in a range of products and services to help people stay connected to their finances and manage a variety of developing, and often difficult, circumstances – with some specifically focused on helping address the impact of Covid for citizens, high-street retailers and the wider economy.

More opportunities for collaboration between financial service institutions and fintechs, with more partnerships developing.

The ability to connect globally and be able to virtually travel between countries in days. In January alone we’re been virtually to Ireland, Sweden, Lithuania, Asia and the US.

The Logan Report has detailed how the sector can help catalyse the post-pandemic recovery – citing Fintech Scotland’s governance model as a template for industry networks. What is your view on this?

I think the report highlights a number of great points that recognise the value of developing skills through knowledge share, collaboration and value of community. It also highlights the need for products to have a market fit.

Looking specifically at FinTech Scotland, it’s a cluster of committed participants – fintech SMEs, strategic partners, from across industry, universities, Scottish Enterprise, regulators, and the third sector – all working with each other to advance Scotland as a global fintech nation. The true value of these connections comes through the cluster participants learning from each other and through genuine collaboration to innovate, advance market issues, and progress economic development.

I also agree with the points in the report that tech can be agnostic and think it’s our responsibility as a domain-based cluster organisation to connect with innovations and tech applications in other sectors so we can think about cross-sector lessons, opportunities and growth through the diffusion of innovation.

For example, there will be other technology innovations in different regulated industries, such as the health industry or the oil and gas sector that help those sectors control and manage regulatory compliance. This type of innovation could play a role in the financial services industry and fintech. We’ll look to understand those cross-sector and nationwide opportunities and find ways to learn about, and support, new fintech innovations as a result.

Scotland’s fintech sector obviously contributes to the economy, but you have highlighted how it is helping society via, say, financial inclusion. Can you give more details on this?

Scotland has a growing reputation for fintech for good. There’s a growing understanding of the potential to make a difference through new technologies and access to data as well as determination in the fintech businesses here to build solutions that make progress on known issues.

We created the FinTech Scotland consumer panel to facilitate a more direct connection between the fintech SMEs and trusted societal consumer groups. Through input from organisations like Money Advice Scotland, Age Scotland and Fresh Start Edinburgh, fintech entrepreneurs have been developing products and services to improve financial inclusion.

Examples include fintechs such as Amiqus, building capabilities to ensure people can get access to the services they need. The team is collaborating on an initiative called ProxyAddress that aims to help people at risk of homelessness maintain access to important services that can help them recover.

The initiative serves to stop the Catch-22 situation in which people who become homeless can find themselves – when you lose your address you also lose the ability to fill in a range of applications that can help you get back on your feet. ProxyAddress is in pilot at the moment to help combat this specific issue.

Another example is Inbest, a fintech aiming to help people maximise their income by confidently claiming potential benefits to which they may be entitled. There are billions of pounds unclaimed in means-tested benefits in the UK. Inbest is working with organisations such as Advice Direct Scotland and Fresh Start Edinburgh to help people know within minutes if they may be entitled to apply for benefits.

Soar and CU apps are other examples, this time focused on the credit union sector and helping these community-based institutions to continue supporting people locally through new technologies.

These businesses are all working with trusted community authorities, charities and institutions to help address on-the-ground issues, at a local level. Trust, built through mutual and respected understanding of both the issues and of fintech capabilities, will drive positive change. It will take time, but momentum is building.

FinTech Scotland has been shining a spotlight on diversity – for example the finding that the proportion of women working in tech is now 32 per cent, lower than the 35 per cent seen in 1984. What is your view on how a better gender balance and broader ethnic diversity can be achieved?

I think it’s important to acknowledge the point, to accept that action is needed and to put plans in place to achieve change. We all need to play a role and we need to be alert to the risks of falling backwards on this issue as a result of the pandemic, where evidence highlights the negative impact of Covid on women and BAME communities in particular.

We’re seeing more women in leadership roles in tech and we’re seeing some female fintech entrepreneurs. This is important as it helps others see possibilities and I hope it helps us build future pipeline talent – thinking of the phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see”.

We are also seeing more available support for female entrepreneurs with the likes of £1 billion funding from Royal Bank of Scotland available for female-led businesses, Barclays’ female founders programme, and Lloyds Banking Group’s programme to help female entrepreneurs break down barriers faced when starting a business. I think these are all positive steps and hope to see more great initiatives like this.

You studied business at university – what attracted you to this subject?

I grew up in a family that ran a couple of micro local businesses and I wanted a university subject that could help me learn more about business generally. When I was making my university choices those personal experiences played a role.

What has been the most pivotal moment of your career?

So far, I’d say it was the move into financial services and regulation. It opened my eyes to the depth and breadth of this industry and the real impact it has on so many levels. I also made the move at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, it was a big learning curve at a time of significant change.

One of the key things I hang on to from that experience is that no question is an obvious question, the diversity of contribution is genuinely valuable, and don’t assume people are thinking the same way as you.

There are now some 150 fintech firms in Scotland, up from 26 when FinTech Scotland started out. How many could this reach in January 2023, when the industry body reaches its fifth anniversary, and more widely what would you like the organisation to look like at that stage?

We’re just at the early stages of fintech and numbers will increase as customer expectations change, regulations continue to change, and we move more and more into a digital economy. We’ll see more homegrown businesses emerge, some SMEs in other sectors start to diversify and become involved in fintech and new fintech businesses come to Scotland from overseas. What that number looks like is hard to say.

Equally important though is that we’ll see a significant number of that 150 we know today grow, further develop and others move on to scale.

We’ll be an organisation that helps fintech growth through across sector opportunities and one where inclusion and collaboration create future innovations that serve the future digital economy.

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