Scarlett Sieber is SVP of open innovation and ecosystem building at BBVA. She implements the innovation global strategy and vision within the US, and heads the North American region for BBVA’s global fintech competition, Open Talent. Scarlett is also the US lead for BBVA’s millennial initiative. Prior to BBVA, she was COO and co-founder of a data visualization tech startup, Infomous.
I caught up with Scarlett at Sibos 2015 in Singapore, and asked her about making the unusual step from startup to bank, and about her role leading innovation teams for BBVA across multiple locations.
Scarlett, can you explain your role at BBVA? How did you end up in your current role?
My title at BBVA is senior vice president of open innovation and ecosystem building, which is a fun title where your role is to think differently and work with startups in whatever capacity that makes sense. I came from the startup world, and I had a data visualization company that was a finalist in BBVA’s Open Talent contest last year. That’s how it started. I definitely didn’t picture myself at a large corporation, and a bank of all places! They approached me about the role and we talked a bit more and it sounded really interesting. I did my own background research and saw the chairman’s vision, and I was really excited about it. Now I’m part of the team!
I’m part of the Global Innovation team, the center of our new digital business based in Madrid. I’m based in New York and my focus in on the US specifically. I run our early stage fintech competition Open Talent from North America, and do everything from the recruitment of the startups to the logistics of the actual final. I also work closely with the other teams at the new digital business, which is our venture team, our business development team, and our digital M&A team, and offer myself as a resource in whatever capacity makes sense.
You came from a startup background and moved into a bank. That’s rare! It’s usually the other way around. What has been the biggest change in the way you work and the way you deal with customers?
Yes, it’s a bit strange. First of all, running a startup especially at an early stage is very difficult, because you have to wear multiple hats. I was the manager, I was the salesperson, I was the investment person – I catered to a number of different roles. The biggest change for me is that my team is based in Madrid and I’m based in New York, so in some ways there are similarities because our tech team is based in Buenos Aires. I also have to think now from a logistical perspective, with legal and compliance, and all these things that I never had to deal with before. They’re new to me, but I enjoy it.
I attended the BBVA Open Talent contest in Barcelona and I thought all the participants were equally good, with strong business ideas. Are there any particular startups that excite you in the New York contest?
Yes! Well, given that I was running the recruitment process, I personally know a lot of the finalists, so they all excite me for different reasons. We had over 650 applications globally from over 70 countries, and the quality was really high.
In fact, the two winners from the North American finals were in the lending category. The teams were really strong and did very interesting things. They were all about international students and providing them things without credit scores. Right now, they’re focusing on universities, but their business model is going after a lot of different targets. Also, since we’re really into data and big data, we were able to see a lot of that. Geographically, in Latin America there was a lot of financial inclusion in remittance, and in the US there was lots of lending.
Do you think there’s a way for startups and BBVA to work closely together beyond the accelerator programs and the Open Talent program?
Definitely. We’ve been doing this for seven years and in that perspective we’ve been ahead of the curve. Yet, we want to be true partners. We also had a day where there were interactions between the BBVA executives and the startups. First of all, we asked the startups, ‘What do you care about?’, and ‘When you’re thinking of working with banks, what are the issues you have and what do you want to know more about?’. We had those teams present the way they see working with startups. At the end, we had a lot of mentoring and speed dating. The goal for us is truly about helping and partnering with the companies, and whether they win or lose, we wanted them to have value. Of course, the prize money and the mentorship are great, but we want to have a continuous relationship with them.
Open Talent is the best pipeline for us, and we’ve been approached by other accelerators and are mentors for many of those.
You find that there are fintech ecosystems coming up in cities and countries, and now there are fintech groups in almost every country. Is this a good sign? Is this something that’s going to help the fintech community, or will it be a hindrance?
I think it’s a great thing because these are other resource points for the startups. The fact that the government is playing an active role in trying to help them, whether through mentorship or through straight-up funding, is great. From the BBVA perspective, fintech hubs are providing us with more access points for interacting with startups. Even in places where we don’t have a strong banking and retail presence, we can still spend time with the companies because they could have services that will be applicable to our business. I think that’s a great thing.
Talking of millennials, a lot of banks, I feel, don’t have sufficient attention on that group of customers, and this is going to be the largest market for them in a few years. What is BBVA’s take on the millennials, and what kind of programs do you have planned to capture that market?
In fact, outside of the innovation role, I’ve been dubbed the US lead for our millennial initiative. We realize they are the bankers of the future and the customers of the future, so we’ve been doing some case studies and tests – internally and externally – with the ecosystems of some of our major hubs such as Spain, Mexico and the US. I believe that your employees are your customers. We have a lot of millennials within our bank, and of course as our real customers too, so getting their feedback and helping to iterate accordingly is something we’re focusing on. It’s definitely different and fun.
Do millennials really hate branches?
Yes. Millennials don’t go to branches, so I personally think that branches will be one of the areas disappearing over time. It’s about simplicity and ease of access, so the branchless and seamless transaction through your phone will be the future.
Most of the banks have marketing campaigns centered around products – saying, for example, we have new current accounts and new savings accounts. How do you think the focus is going to shift when it comes to marketing to millennials in order for them to have that seamless experience?
We were talking at an earlier session at Sibos that less than 33% of advertising reaches millennials. Banks are definitely going to have a challenge with the best way to target them. We acquired Simple, a millennial bank, and one that they would go to. Again, it goes back to simplicity and ease of use and they, in terms of marketing, did a few things. I think it’s more around the messaging in general and their friends talking about it as opposed to you pushing marketing messages towards millennials. The other part would be about our millennial initiative, where we’ve found that millennials are all about experiences, so perhaps from a marketing perspective, connecting with them at those experiences will be the best way. For example, we would say if you go on a skiing trip and use a BBVA card, these are your advantages.
What do you think are the three major trends in fintech, in the near future, over the next year?
You’re going to be so bored with my No 1 – blockchain. Blockchain, distributed ledger, and us being part of the R3 initiative is definitely one. Two of the Open Talent winners already use bitcoin for payments. I also think insurance tech, as I’ve been hearing more and more about that, and then there’s identity and security. That’s an area you know we care strongly about, and just based on the startups who apply, there are a lot of them focusing on that and I can see that expanding next year.
How has Sibos been for you so far?
I’ve never been here before, so it’s interesting to me and what I really like about it is that I feel like people are genuinely here to learn. It’s also great for networking. All in all, the sessions I’ve either spoken at or attended, the audience seemed really engaged and they were actively taking notes on how they could apply this within their own organizations. I like it, and it’s large, with more than 8,000 people. Wow!