Q&A: Belgium to New York via Benin

18 February 2019

On February 14, Datactics – the Belfast-headquartered regtech, providing data quality and matching software – announced the opening of two new offices in New York and Milan. Among the changes, the company has a new chairman of the board, Graham Paterson, Luca Rovesti has formalised his role in the Milan pre-sales office, and Charlotte Gréant has been appointed business development manager in New York.

Comparatively, fintech is still the new kid on the block within financial services – so it’s not surprising that those in the market have come from unconventional or unexpected backgrounds. Bobsguide caught up with Gréant, to find out what makes her tick, her thoughts on the market, and what’s next for Datactics.

Tell us what brought you to where you are now.

Everything started for me in Benin, in Africa. Before I graduated I did an internship at a public transport company founded by Belgian entrepreneurs, run locally in Africa. Me and my co-intern wrote a solution report because we very strongly believed in the public transport organisation and the way they wanted to organise it. It was actually a disaster, with a lot of problems. I wanted to change it, so I moved permanently to Benin for a year and a half, and together with the local community – local management, local everything, we managed to expand the company from ten employees to 45 employees – and we were breaking even. For me it was very important that it was run locally so that it was a sustainable business as well.

Benin is difficult though. People get killed on buses, it’s a difficult environment. After a year and a half, I decided it was time to do something different, so I moved back to Europe and worked for one of the shareholders of the bus company, in 3D printing – but I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted to do. There’s a big difference between leading a company, and being one of 2,000 sales reps. I was in Belgium and it was great to be home, but the job wasn’t making me completely happy. Liking what I do has been a big guide for me throughout my career.

Then I got an offer to open an office for the Belgium American Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco – and I didn’t hesitate for very long. There I got in touch with the Belgian tech community, and the wider tech community in general. That sparked my passion for fintech. In Benin I faced how important it is to have financial inclusion and I saw how much corruption there is today. In the past perhaps banks did a lot of bad things, and there’s a lot of good that can be done.

In San Francisco I met the founder of Clear2Pay, who later sold the company to FIS – who was also one of the investors in the bus company in Benin. When the founder sold the company to FIS he started to invest in fintech start-ups, and he asked me to move to New York to help him co-found b-hive, the fintech ecosystem with headquarters in Brussels, and help set up b-hive in New York. That’s almost two years ago.

Organising a lot of events, I kept in touch with the fantastic Datactics people and we decided to start doing things together. Now I’m working part time for them – say 70% of the time, the rest with b-hive – growing the community in New York, helping with business development, setting up meetings, and attending multiple events. We’re also organising a launch event in May as well.

What challenges do you see in financial services at the moment, that fintechs can help with?

There is substantial need for banks to innovate. Back offices date back to the 1970s, and there’s also a big need for banks to get their data in line with so much new regulation – such as GDPR. The challenge there is huge, to avoid combining random data, there’s a bit of plug and play, but it all needs to be correct. It’s important for technology to disrupt the banking scene a little bit and put pressure on financial services. When you hear about a big data leak – these things can ruin a bank’s image.

On the banks’ side though, it’s difficult for them to work out which start-ups can really scale with them, and can the start-up really do what they say they’re doing – if they can match and plug in the right APIs, provide the right technological agnostic solutions, if they can work with the bank’s systems, and other software partners.

Are there any other regulations you feel are shaping the fintech agenda at the moment?

There’s pressure for firms around know your customer (KYC). It’s more important to have a real-time view on your customer. Many banks still try to solve this manually, which is really difficult to keep up to date rather than reviewing it every five or ten years.

What’s driving fintech innovation at the moment?

It’s all about data. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data – you can’t start an email without putting machine learning in the subject or else no one will respond. Ideally, you’re using machine learning with blockchain and artificial intelligence. I have a feeling that the blockchain hype is fading away a little bit. Two years ago, blockchain was mentioned constantly, and now, cryptocurrencies aren’t really proving to be the innovation many had hoped they would be.

Data really is the new bacon.

And tell us your plans with Datactics. Where can the firm go?

The market is huge. The fantastic thing is that it’s a very good product. We haven’t had a single meeting in which someone has said ‘no we’re not interested’. People are eager to learn more about it. Of course, you always have competitors, but we don’t have direct competitors. There are other companies that have similar solutions, but we’re really focusing on banking solutions, which makes us unique.

Banks of course are always driven by their sale cycle – the biggest banks need these innovations the most, but their sale cycle is the longest so it’ll take them way longer to implement these new technologies, and with start-ups it can take too long in the sense that cash needs to come from somewhere.

We’ve been doing a number of proof of concepts – and companies are really eager to get started, and pay, which is always a good sign because you pass compliance procedures before you sign the contract and it can move things along just that little bit faster.

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