I know that you think it is going to be challenging. And you are right. I know that you believe in your concept and in your project. And you should. But don't underestimate how much of a commitment it is to create and run a start-up. Have no illusions.
MEDIA 7: Hi, would you like to tell us about your professional journey?
ELISABETH DANA: With pleasure. Listen, I am French and British, I think that's a good start, so you understand where my accent comes from. And I am based in the United Kingdom in London. And I have been in financial services for 20 years. So basically, that's my whole career to date. I started in Paris, as a banker, banking SMEs, which involved extending a lot of credit to small companies. Then I went and did an MBA in the U.S. after which I arrived in London. I have worked in big banks for 16 years. So that's kind of a big part of the first half of my professional life. And then in 2016 -as an alignment of many things professional and personal- I decided I was going to walk away and resign from the big bank I was working in (Barclays Bank Plc, which is a British bank) and build a business of my own, and use what I learned in the first half of my career to create something different, and to contribute to my industry, instead of just being a soldier in a big bank.
For the last four years, I have been working on the Infinity Circle ecosystem. Infinity Circle is at the intersection of financial services and technology. It is about creating a digital offering, which can be global, and which can be quite a departure from the traditional way of operating in wealth management, which is what I specialized in financial services. That’s the entrepreneurial journey to date. And it has been quite different from what I expected it to be. On many levels, it has been
more intense working around the clock, In the corporate world, I was already working close to 100 hours a week. But it has also been much more interesting. And it has also been about having an element of freedom to some extent. It has come at a cost, of course, but I am free to decide what, how, and when. Although, again, it's not what I expected it is freedom. The stakes are however much higher when you don't work for someone else. So, I guess it's one thing to know the entrepreneurial journey is going to be tough, it is a different thing to walk the walk.
M7: So, you have always been associated with financial services. So how did you take an interest in it? When did you come to know that you wanted to build a career in finance?
ED: Oh, that's a very good question. And actually, the answer might surprise you. Because if somebody had told me when I was 18, I was going to be a banker, I would have said, “No way! That's not me.�� I wasn't someone who started with a vocation early on. My undergrad was in political science and journalism. In fact, when I was 18-20, I had no idea who I was. I had no idea what I was going to do. I studied for quite a long time because I went to university for eight years in total. So I think that tells you that 1) I love studying and 2) I had no intention of getting into the active world in a hurry. So, I wasn't destined to be a banker. I actually started my career in my early 20s as a freelance journalist in Paris writing articles. I wasn’t even hired by one specific newspaper; I was on my own. I was writing articles for several newspapers in France. At the time, all my leads to get work led me to the financial services or the banking world. I was very young, and I needed to work. So, I just took whatever I found as mandates. I interviewed CEOs of banks, heads of compliance in banks, new financial product designers in banks, the regulators.
As a journalist, I approached these people, interviewed them, I wrote interviews or articles that I would then sell on to national newspapers in France. At one point, one of the CEOs of a Middle Eastern bank in Paris accepted to take my interview and said, “You know, I don't have much time. I have 40 minutes. So, why don't you join me for lunch? And as we eat, you can ask questions and take notes.” So, I went for that interview over lunch. He was a senior banker in his 50s and I was in my early 20s. Towards the end of the lunch, he said to me, “I think you are great people's person, and that your time is a bit lost being a freelance journalist because that's quite a lonely path. Would you ever consider a career in finance?” I told that person at the time, that I wasn't even particularly good at maths and that I didn't see that happening. And he said to me, “Listen, I scout talent constantly for the bank. You know, I have loads of geeky quants, and tech people, but I don't have many people who can actually talk to clients, who have social skills and can go and represent the bank and negotiate with clients.” It's alright to be client-facing when everything is fine however EQ is needed to negotiate and problems solve. If you decided to learn, I will offer you a job, I will train you in the quantitative aspects of the role because I think you could be a great client-facing banker. So, I finished that lunch, and I thought it was all a bit weird.
I continued a few months as a freelance journalist, and I took him up on his offer! That is how my career started. I worked for years for that bank which gave me the needed foundation to pursue a banking career. Afterwards, that branch of the middle eastern bank in Paris had to shut down, it wasn't profitable enough. The commercial activity was then transferred to the neighbouring Luxembourg branch. At that point, I decided to pursue an MBA in the U.S. because I thought, “Okay, I have learned a lot. I do have soft skills that are valuable however if I really want to turn this into a career, I need to get quantitative training.” I went to the University of Chicago, which was renowned for its almost mathematical approach, which is everything I was lacking. So, I studied for two years for my MBA, where I was challenged by my peers who in the main were engineers looking for a more commercial edge and career catalyst. I was competing with professionals who were highly quants oriented. My MBA helped me level up. And afterwards, the gates opened, and I found an amazing job in London at Barclays, just before the global financial crisis. So, you see financial services found me.
M7: Thank you. This is such an amazing story. Like, it's usually the other way around, you know, from school only being pressured to choose your field of expertise. So, what do you want to pursue when you're going to college? What are you going to do for your MBA? But in your case, the profession chose you?
ED: Yes, I would say my path was and still is quite unusual. I never would have thought I would spend 16 years in big banks. Equally, I never thought one day I would have my own company. And I never thought that I would have ambitions to disrupt my industry. But that's just how life unfolded.
M7: So, what is the 21st-century FinTech for you?
ED: That is exactly what we have been working on for the last four or five years- to define what that is exactly. For me, 21st-century FinTech is the ability to deal with your finances as a private person in a totally ubiquitous manner. Until now, everything to do with finance- whichever field of banking, is a very closed-off world. It's very regulated. It's very male-dominated. And for clients of any department in big banks- it's an expensive, slow, and rigid service suite. There are a number of reasons why this is, but for me, FinTechs in the 21st century is going to be the opposite of that. The new value propositions in my view going to simplify and demystify financial services in general. Services are going to be simpler, cheaper, faster and more personalized. As a client, you are going to be able to take action from your phone, or your laptop, or your desktop, or your iPad or tablet. And it's going to be secure.
As a private individual, you are going to be empowered to take control of your finances, instead of having these big banks dictate pace, cost and access.So, I think it is partly about giving power back to the people. And I think that's been the take of the 21st century. And when you look at other parts of the nascent FinTech industry, not specifically wealth management, or personal finance, but for instance cryptocurrencies or the use of the blockchain, within financial services, or any new developments in technology- it's all about decentralization, about empowering users over institutions or central governments or central banks. So, for me, the FinTech of the 21st century is freedom.
You need to manage yourself emotionally, psychologically, physically. And you have to push, push, push. You have to become very, very good at knowing when to push and when to regroup. You have to be very good at time management.
M7: So, did COVID-19 bring any challenges for Infinity Circle?
ED: Another very good question. We are an early-stage business. Infinity Circle is 300 years old, as some banks. We are a young business. Being a start-up is already challenging. Everything about is challenging. But being a start-up hit by both Brexit and then the pandemic has been very tough. It has been 18 months now since the global pandemic was declared. We started our first material fundraising efforts for a pre-product, pre-revenue business literally a month before the pandemic. So that means that most of our fundraising to date has been done, from my kitchen, here on Zoom, talking to investors all around the world. In a way, it is fantastic, because we still could carry on. But on the other hand, it's very challenging because asking investors to part with money without even having met them physically is a very difficult thing to ask. Now, I know that that there has been a record high level of funding all around the world during COVID-19, especially for digital businesses, but it’s been for more mature businesses. The younger the businesses, the riskier the investment is for an investor. And so for early-stage start-ups fundraising during the pandemic entirely on zoom, having to demonstrate that there is a good reason for investors to part with their money and that you are the right team to deliver on a vision has been brutal.
When you are a mature business, it is a different matter. Investors can see past years’ financial statements, track records, or a mature product and cash flow and revenue generation. They can see the user experience; they can go on the platform if it's a digital offering. If I had a penny for every prospective investor who told us he will invest when the product is launched, traction is evident and the business is revenue-generating, we would now have the funding we seek! When you are building costly innovation, at a conceptual stage, it is very challenging to convince investors only on zoom to invest a million or two million dollars. Now when you meet someone face to face, you are negotiating strong of your six senses. You can see that person, you can see their body language, you can spend some time with that person and build a level of trust. However, on zoom, you have just two senses, you can see and hear, and that's it. And so it is much more difficult.
M7: Oh my God! It has been a crazy journey for you. You have been building a start-up during COVID-19, getting enough funds for that, convincing people to invest. It's a big deal, even meeting face to face.
ED: You know, doing everything on zoom is okay. It is harder to convince investors. That's one thing. But the hardest thing is when you're looking for funding, you have to do your due diligence on who you are talking to and where that money is going to come from. In normal circumstances, without COVID-19, if somebody offers you 1.2 million pounds of equity funding, you would jump on the plane, take a train, or drive and go and meet that person. If that prospective investor runs a business, for example, you would check out that business and the operation. You would have been able to do due diligence in the normal way, which implies meeting people physically. But during COVID-19, the lockdowns and the travel ban, you can't do that. So if you get a funding offer, which was our case for example from a plausible Thai investor, it was almost impossible to ascertain fully the legitimacy of the offer.
It was very difficult to validate data in the usual way taking into account cultural differences. So you find yourself doing so many things from your kitchen, again, with your laptop and your phone. But it's very difficult to perform full due diligence. But anyway, that's only the fundraising part and hopefully, the business is going to move on from fundraising at one point. But yes, it has been challenging. And I feel for all the other entrepreneurs out there who run start-ups and who also have had to endure the economic effects of the pandemic because there were times here where, as a team, we wondered whether the business would survive.
M7: So, you mentioned that at Infinity Circle you are combining finance with technology. So, being a business lead leader, how do you prepare for an AI centric world?
ED: You are right, the developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the acceleration of AI during the pandemic is extraordinary. I was, personally, a great believer in the potential of AI before the pandemic but now we can all witness the speed of development of AI and machine learning in every area of our life- from IoT to a whole host of applications. And although potential applications can still seem very abstract, these are already present in every digital platform and service that we use. So we here at Infinity Circle are aiming to really be part of the future AI innovation applied to financial services. We are aiming to develop our bespoke algorithms on the platform to serve our clients. I am a great believer in the fact that you can, thanks to AI, scale new types of businesses and service clients in new and exciting ways, even in financial services, where it's very red-taped and regulated. I believe it will be a cost-efficient way of delivering an amazing, personalised service. Ultimately, there is a lot to be done. And it is going to take a number of years to refine the AI component on the platform. It is not going to be an overnight deliverable, but we are definitely integrating AI in our offering. We are great believers in that methodology.
M7: Wow. So lastly, what is your advice to the people who are looking forward to building a start-up? Or, you know, making a career in FinTech industry? What would you like to advise them?
ED: I would think the best way to go about answering your question is to imagine that I am talking to myself five years ago. And I would say: “I know that you think it is going to be challenging. And you are right. I know that you believe in your concept and in your project. And you should. But don't underestimate how much of a commitment it is to create and run a start-up. Have no illusions. It is a fantastic opportunity, but it is all-encompassing, meaning, the moment you start, it becomes your responsibility from the moment you open your eyes to the moment you fall asleep. It is relentless. There are no Saturdays and Sundays and there is no “it's-the-evening-now” and no “it's-lunchtime-I'm-hungry”. If you want this, know that it will come with a lot of sacrifices. You need an extraordinary level of resilience and a level of being thick-skinned and cannot be destroyed by negative feedback. Because there are thousands of other start-ups out there also fundraising. So, the turndown rate when you pitch is probably around 98%. So, 98% of the people you pitch to will say no. During the pandemic, as a team, we held 256 pitches on zoom, with a 98% rejection rate. Without resilience, you are not going to make it, let alone be happy!
If you have a dream, and if you have leadership skills, go for it because the world needs innovation and the world needs a new breed of leaders. And I think the pandemic showed us all, is that the world needs things done differently.
M7: How did you deal with the no? If the ratio is that 98 percent of people say no, how did you deal with it? Didn't you feel demotivated?
ED: The process has involved lots of stress, tears, loneliness and of self-introspection. Because when these people say no, you have to really ask yourself, “Do I believe in my vision? Do I have what it takes to execute on my vision? You have to be brutally honest.” Like Beyonce said if you get really, really down, you can only allow yourself one day off your game, but then you need to move forward.” So I think that's how I deal with it.
Sometimes, I take one day off where I don't work and spend time with people that matter or spend some time alone in nature. One day, that's the allowance.” One day to detox all the negativity and then come back to work.
It’s almost like being an athlete. And that, I think anybody who has entrepreneurial ambitions needs to understand. You need to prepare to perform at the Olympic levels. You need to manage yourself emotionally, psychologically, physically. And you have to push, push, push. You have to become very, very good at knowing when to push and when to regroup. You have to be very good at time management. You cannot waste your time, you have to focus on things that matter. You have to prioritize. You have to grow. You have to learn constantly and also learn how to say no. And you know what, that's an important piece of advice. I think before the Infinity Circle, I would always try and say yes to request of me and of my time. I learned quite quickly that if I continued with that attitude it wouldn't work. So I think it is important to learn the art of saying no. I even read a book during the pandemic called “The Art of Saying No” by Damon Zahariades.
M7: Do you recommend reading this book?
ED: Absolutely. It’s simple. It's not quantum physics. But it's very important. The few hours I spent reading this book focusing on this topic was valuable. Saying no doesn't mean you're unpleasant and unkind with someone. You can say no with a smile and explain why it's right. It's very important to know how to say no.
M7: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
ED: Well, I think as a concluding thought, beyond the challenges presented to us all by the pandemic, is to stress how critical it is to pursue a venture you love. If you have a dream, and if you have leadership skills, go for it because the world needs innovation and the world needs a new breed of leaders. And I think the pandemic showed us all, is that the world needs things done differently. The old ways of leadership, mostly about profit and market domination is not very interesting and certainly not the optimal way to impact the world positively. I think a world where we embrace everybody's uniqueness, a world where we are respectful to people and the planet, is a world I would much prefer to leave for my son.