Women in FinTech: “The Ability to Serve Customers in the Best Manner Possible is Where I Draw Energy.”

As part of our #WomeninFinTech series, we sat down with Kristin Marcuccilli, executive vice president and chief operating officer at STAR Financial Bank.

We talked about her transition from the world of college football to the world of banking and finance, what technology she thinks will lead the way, and why it is important to work with like-minded individuals to drive a business forward.

Finovate: How did you start your career?

Kristin Marcuccilli: STAR Financial Bank is a privately-owned family bank that’s been around for more than 75 years; in fact, my grandfather’s name is the “T” (Thomas) in STAR. Despite this family history, I didn’t always aspire to become a banker. I earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and pre-medicine from the University of Notre Dame, and my student work in football operations and player development ultimately led me to my first job in the Notre Dame Football office for three years.  It wasn’t until later that I decided to pursue a master’s degree in business administration and management from Indiana University.

While working toward my master’s degree, I asked my dad about potential opportunities with the bank – though I still was unsure if this was the right path, I became more curious as I progressed in my studies and job experiences. When an opportunity to join the bank arose, I had to follow the same process as anyone else. Our bank has strict rules about family employees: we must work somewhere else for five years first; new positions won’t be created just for family members; and we must pursue an MBA or banking certification to even be considered for a senior management role.

In 2008, I joined the bank as a project manager, and haven’t looked back since. Over the past 11 years, I have worked my way up to chief operating officer, and I now help oversee our technology partnerships, project management efforts, bank operations and strategic direction. During my time at the bank, I’ve helped establish a strategic vision, oversaw a website redesign, helped implement 55 Interactive Teller Machines and have enhanced our digital banking strategy.

Finovate: What sparked your interest in fintech?

Marcuccilli:My interest in fintech stems from the reason I choose to work in community banking – it’s a relationship business, and our team’s involvement in creative thinking that will ultimately help change and influence the way people and businesses interact with their bank is an ever-present and ever-evolving challenge. A passion for fintech calls for an entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to embrace failure and change nearly every day. For me, that’s an exciting challenge.

Finovate: What technologies have you seen lately that have excited you?

Marcuccilli: New technology seems to appear overnight. Years from now, we expect that real-time payments will be the norm – no more waiting for money to move overnight or over the course of several days via check. The application of biometrics and advanced analytics for enhanced security will continue to expand and evolve, and artificial intelligence will support personalized customer experience through digital channels. Electronic delivery of documents, signatures and account opening will also likely be dominating a once paper-intensive banking environment. Self-service kiosks will also have advanced to replace much of the standard transaction activity both as in-branch and as standalone options. All of this excites me, as the ability to serve our customers in the best manner possible is where I draw energy.

Finovate: Why is it important for banks to embrace new tech? How is Star Financial Bank doing this?

Marcuccilli: In our rapidly changing industry, banks that are slow to adapt risk falling behind and losing critical business. Bankers have a significant advantage when it comes to building valuable relationships and supporting their local communities, but they must also add modern technology to remain nimble and relevant.

At STAR, we place a strong emphasis on maintaining our community focus while optimizing delivery channels and meeting customers where they are on their financial journey. We take a collaborative approach when evaluating and implementing new technology, starting at the top with our CEO who encourages the team to embrace change.

I am proud to be part of a powerhouse team, working alongside innovators and leaders who dedicate significant time and effort toward studying technology and client behavior to best meet our community’s needs. We have a group of smart, data-driven individuals who ensure our technology and services align with our business and customer demands.

Finovate: Where do you think the future of fintech is heading?

Marcuccilli: Delivery channel optimization (to ensure convenient and engaging customer experience), security threats and payments are all rapidly evolving and will continue to be a major focus in the fintech space. To effectively address these trends, there will be a growing demand and emphasis on the selection of third-party partnerships.  Finding the right technology partner – both a technical and cultural fit – will be important in facilitating the best experience for customers.

Finovate: Why is the #WomeininTech movement important?

Marcuccilli: There is a general lack of female representation in financial services, especially when it comes to the technology side of the house.  As industry professionals, we can help influence this by supporting and encouraging women to join and contribute to the field. Series like these are a powerful way to highlight how women are innovating and making a difference in their local communities through financial services and technology.

Finovate: What piece of advice would you give women starting out their career in finance/ fintech?

Marcuccilli: My advice is to be open to different possibilities within the financial services and fintech space as there are no shortage of opportunities. It’s important to surround yourself with strategic and smart individuals who help build up the team, supporting professional goals and development. I’d also encourage women to become involved in their local communities. Learning and growing from individuals outside of your organization can also be key to professional success. When we commit to staying attuned to business and industry trends and recent developments, we’re able to better support an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and growth in our local communities.

Finovate: And what piece of advice do you have for other banks to attract and retain more star female talent?

Marcuccilli: At STAR, we prioritize collaboration and innovation, and that’s been very attractive to top talent. Showing potential employees that the bank cares about exploring new ideas from all levels of the institution, not just from management or the C-suite, can be a powerful differentiator. Institutions that break down silos, encourage cross department collaboration and transparency, and embrace change will find more success in attracting and retaining star female talent.

Celent Shines Spotlight on AI in Financial Services

From banking chatbots to speculations on superintelligence, the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on financial services is one of the hottest topics in fintech. Our Summit Day sessions on AI at FinovateSpring earlier this year were consistently among our best attended sessions.

To continue this conversation, we exchanged emails with Alenka Grealish, Senior Analyst, Corporate Banking, Celent. Grealish’s recent report, AI in the UI: Adoption, Use Cases, and Business Cases, represents Celent’s latest investigation into the issues surrounding the rise and role of AI in financial services.

Finovate: In setting up this conversation, I noted that Celent referred to this as part of an inaugural initiative. Why is now the time to turn the spotlight on this technology and its impact on financial services?

Alenka Grealish: We observed the beginning of a shift from all experimentation to gradual implementation amongst vanguard banks. It was common to have nine proofs of concept to one pilot at the vanguard banks. We’re now seeing more pilots and a few moving into production.

Finovate: What are we talking about when we talk about AI? How broad is this technology?

Grealish: Broad. What defines AI has expanded in the commercial world. The narrow Turing Test no longer applies. The current goal of AI developers is not to replicate humans, but rather complement them and build applications that team with them. A great example is found in anti-money laundering.

The broad definition includes rules-based and learning-based models. A useful way to categorize AI capabilities is: natural language processing and understanding, natural language generation (data-to-text), speech (speech-to-text and vice versa), vision, and data insights (machine learning driven analytics that generate, for example, cash flow forecasts for customers and next best action for bankers).

Finovate: Has AI become a catch-all for a variety of technologies, some of which are AI and some of which are not? And is that an issue for AI adoption going forward?

Grealish: AI has certainly become a buzz word and its definition stretched by tech vendors. Semantics aside…Critical to successful AI adoption is not to seek a problem for AI to solve but rather the reverse:  determine the key problems you’re trying to solve (e.g., high false positives in AML) and/or goals you’re trying to achieve (e.g., personalize customer-banker interactions). Then, (the next step is to) examine the potential means to solve/achieve. The means could be a combination of rules-based and learning-based AI or established tech (e.g., OCR) combined with AI.

Finovate: What were the top two or three high-level takeaways from your research?

Grealish: I was struck by the percentage of banks $10+ billion in size which had implemented front-office AI. I had expected less than 10%.

Finovate: Your report notes a difference in AI adoption between retail and commercial banks, calling the former an “early adopter” and the latter “vanguard.” What distinguishes the two?

Grealish: The vanguard phase is when a small number of entities, less than 5%, moves into production. The technology is not mature but works sufficiently well for low risk use cases. These entities tend to have nimble organizations and little to no legacy baggage. The early adopter phase typically occurs when the vanguard banks are successful and appear to be gaining a competitive edge and inspire the next wave of adopters to take action. The early adopters are innovators but are likely juggling multiple priorities and hence cannot always be in the vanguard.

Finovate: One of the areas you highlight is the use of AI-enabled technologies for employees and workers. What sort of use cases – especially those relevant to financial services – are you seeing here?

Grealish: In terms of employee enablement, I’m excited by what I see.  AI is proving helpful in basic “tell me” support, such as, “do we offer this type of product?” and “where is this feature located in our online portal?” It is also progressing in higher level support, such as data insights on sales trends and next best action suggestions.

Finovate: You note “relative complexity” as a main hurdle to broader adoption of AI. How are financial services companies navigating this challenge (hiring talent, partnerships, etc.)?

Grealish: AI is not a standalone technology but rather is woven into current processes and platforms and/or drives new processes and platforms. Hence, success begins at the top of the house, banks with a transformation, data-driven leadership team view AI as one component of a broader digital strategy.

Next, successful banks have a business model comprising four key elements: a collaborative multidisciplinary organizational dynamic, an enterprise-wide AI initiatives team, strong data and model governance, and regulatory engagement and compliance playbook. At the operating model level, these banks have basic automation expertise and are incorporating AI to solve the hard stuff, such as analysis of unstructured data.

At the foundation, these banks are migrating to a modern data and tech infrastructure that supports a digital-first strategy.

Finovate: You note that the primary business goal for most businesses using AI-enabled technologies is cost savings, but that customer engagement “is increasingly a goal.” What are some of the more interesting use cases for AI-enabled technologies in customer engagement?

Grealish: We’re in the very early days of customer engagement, that is, brief, basic “tell me” conversations. These “tell me” conversations are taking off thanks to Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, which are driving consumers’ comfort level engaging with machines. The outlook over the next 5 years is promising. “Do it for me” type interactions will become common. For example, a small business will simply ask the online virtual assistant to choose the optimal payment type based on its criteria. Further on the horizon are “Alert and advise me” type interactions. For example, a mid-market company has an FX exposure and is alerted with action options to hedge the exposure.

From the Tech Side: Interview with Checkbook.io CTO PJ Gupta

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Ever wonder what’s on the other side of some of the fintech we showcase on the Finovate blog? That’s the entire premise of our FinDEVr conference series. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, check out this interview from PJ Gupta, CTO and founder of Checkbook.io.

We recently interviewed Gupta, who founded Checkbook.io in 2014, about the company’s digital check platform. You can try out a digital check at checkbook.io/?type=finovate

Finovate: Where did you start your career and how did you gain experience needed to found Checkbook?

PJ: My most recent corporate role was Chief Network Architect at VISA, where I was responsible for the VISA USA commercial and corporate network. From the outside, the VISA network works seamlessly; however, on the inside, the payments ecosystem is very inefficient, both from a business as well as technology perspective. Things move slowly at large established bureaucracies—while fundamental changes always come from the outside—so I decided to leave my cushy job to venture out on my own.

Finovate: What has been the most important technological development in your field in the past few years, and how has it impacted/influenced your work at Checkbook?

PJ: There have been quite a few, but I would say that the two key tech developments for our work at Checkbook are:
Access to bank APIs which allow us to verify bank account credentials and balances in real-time
Ability to use front-end technologies (i.e., tokenization) to seamlessly complete a payment transaction without payment information having to be shared with the merchant’s web servers.

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Finovate: What is the most difficult aspect of Checkbook from a compliance standpoint and how do you simplify it for developers and merchant clients?

PJ: Our API has tokenization built into it, so that whether accepting a payment or making one, the user’s sensitive payment information is not shared with the merchant. This allows the merchant to bypass compliance altogether. Furthermore, we are audited and maintain compliance on our side thus reducing the compliance burden for our developers/merchants.

Finovate: Tell us about your favorite integration of Checkbook’s API.

PJ: We have numerous integrations of our API, so it’s hard to give you just one example. Here are a handful of my favorites:

A) We have an Accounts Receivable plug-in available for Shopping Cart platforms, and other private-label applications. Below, you’ll see a screenshot of one of our corporate customers who uses our APIs to receive payment from their shopping cart (in this case they use WooCommerce/Word Press).CHeckbookIMG3
B) Cleanly, which is the ‘Uber’ of dry cleaning, is another one of our clients that uses our Direct API. Cleanly uses it to support both accounts receivable and accounts payable to their contractors/workers. Here is a testimonial from them:

“Checkbook has been a huge help for us in providing a scalable solution for sending out payments with an elegant look, easy integration, and one-click payments. It is by far the most cost-effective and easiest way to get payments taken care of, whether you’re reimbursing customers or paying vendors. We’re happy we made the switch.”
– Alex Prober, VP Engineering

C) Another client, Suretrader.com, was able to easily integrate our iframe for accounts receivable using less than 10 lines of code.

D) We are integrated with Quickbooks, which allows business customers to send digital checks through their QB account with the click of a button. Check out the integration video.

E) We also support accounts payable with SalesForce’s Accounting Seed, where our UI/UX is especially user-centric. Furthermore, we have been able to work closely with their product team to make further enhancements (like invoice reconciliation). Check out the integration video.

Finovate: How do you respond to people who claim that checks are dead?

PJ: Completely agree. Paper checks are dead. They are inefficient, slow, and very costly; however, there is no alternative available. ACH has multiple issues namely: payee/payor bank account verification, 3-day settlement delay and not all DDA accounts are ACH enabled. Using our digital checks obviates all of the above problems while also offering a modern user experience that people expect nowadays.

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Finovate: What are some upcoming initiatives from Checkbook that we can look forward to over the next few months?

PJ: Think of seamless integrations with major accounting packages. If you’re a user of one of these packages, your bank account will already be verified so you’ll be able to send a digital check with a single click, and the recipient will get it delivered instantly by email. And the next step would be going international!

Finovate: Aside from the major players, what company do you admire for its approach to technology?

PJ: I like the upstarts. Privacy.com is a very early stage startup that has a cute business model and simple problem to solve. It has a browser plugin which allows the user to pay using a disposable credit card number and they, in turn, withdraw money from the user’s account. The business model is interesting because they share the interchange with the issuer. I don’t know how successful it’ll be, but it’s good to see startups coming up with completely new ways to solve persistent problems.

Finovate: What do developers love most about Checkbook’s API?

PJ: To describe this in two words: simplicity and versatility, illustrated by our flexibility in doing the following:

1. Using Checkbook.io for A/P and/or A/R

2. Sending one check or a million with the click of a button

3. Using Checkbook.io’s APIs for shopping cart integration

4. Using Checkbook.io infrastructure as a private-label solution for your payroll needs

5. Sending digital checks through your existing accounting software platform like Quickbooks (integration video) and AccountingSeed (integration video)

For more information on Checkbook, visit the company’s Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, and watch PJ Gupta’s FinDEVr Silicon Valley presentation, API for Digital Checks.

For more developer content, check out FinDEVr Silicon Valley this 18/19 October 2016 in Santa Clara.