Serving the Unbanked/Underbanked with Financial Technology

Unexpectedly, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s Annual Bank Research Conference, a few weeks ago, got me thinking about the importance of having African-American founders building financial technology tools for the unbanked and under-banked.

I had been sitting in this conference thinking about how it would be nice for there to be more African-American representation in the room because of the impact the banking sector had on the African-American community when you think about lending practices among other things. I could count five in the room. So, you can imagine my surprise when FDIC Chairman Gruenberg started talking about unbanked and under-banked rates in the US in his keynote address. He presented data that provided insights into unbanked and under-banked rates across demographics. The data on the African-American community caught my attention, in particular.

While the rate at which African-Americans are unbanked and under-banked is falling (among US households, 18.2% were unbanked in 2015, as opposed to 20.6% in 2013), we are still the most unbanked and under-banked in the US and the FDIC apparently is working to figure out how to continue to drive this rate lower.

Source: FDIC


Source: FDIC

Two of the more interesting parts of Chairman Gruenberg’s speech were some of his suggestions for encouraging households to enter traditional banking channels was to eliminate fees associated with opening an account and dealing with overcharges, and his comments on the FDIC’s findings about under-banked households are more likely to own a mobile phone and using it as the primary tool for their finances.

The Chairman highlighted opportunities for banks to bridge the gap between unbanked and under-banked by using the mobile phone not only for traditional banking functions, but also to provide updates on the status of accounts in a timely fashion, and to send alerts to help manage over-drafted accounts and other things that could leave the bank account vulnerable.

When Chairman Gruenberg brought up the FDIC’s observations about the rates at which the unbanked and under-banked use their mobile phones and how that could be an opportunity for the banking sector, I couldn’t help but think about the makeup of the technology industry and the rate at which African Americans are underrepresented. From there, I thought about all of these financial technology products that take different approaches to helping people manage their money, but how I could think of few that had the African-American community in mind from their creation. Off the top of my head, PYT Funds is the only one that comes to mind.

The majority that come to mind speak to the lived experience of their makers who have experience with pain points very different from those are unbanked and under-banked. So, an app that skims off the change in your online transactions and sends that to a savings account has the opportunity to meet the need of individuals in this group, but don’t necessarily have them in mind from the beginning. This is important when trying to develop products that are helpful from the perspective of an individual who is trying to think through where the money for the month is going to come from, the status of their employment, and other things that impact their ability to engage in traditional banking.

Clearly, this is an opportunity for banks and other companies in the finishing technology space to figure out how to meet the needs of the unbanked and under-banked. I would love to see founders who are familiar with this experience through actually having lived it or have seen it from a relatively close vantage point be the ones to execute on it.

African American Music Appreciation Month

Thanks to Peter Bakke for the tip on June being African-American Music Appreciation Month.

To get you started, consider taking a listen to Robert Glasper’s new album, Everything’s Beautiful, where he samples a bunch of Miles Davis recordings.

I’ve been meaning to listen to more of Prince’s discography, so I’ll probably start working through that this month.

Other music on the list:

Mahalia Jackson

Duke Ellington

Andrae Crouch

Mississipi Mass Choir


A Tribe Called Quest

Christian Scott


Wayman Tisdale

Victor Wooten

Who’s on your list?

Atlas Mara Still Trying to Gain Footing

Last year, I brought up Atlas Mara management getting dressed down in an investor conference call due to the lack of confidence the market had in the firm. Well, their Q1 2016 results can’t be too much more encouraging considering the $2M loss the bank posted.

Apparently, management plans to implement some cost reductions and new plans for generating revenue. We’ll see how that goes. One of the early questions about the firm was how much it was paying the management team. Will they take a pay cut?

Further, is the management team still based in Dubai? If so, perhaps they should consider making a move to the continent. Hanging around Jo’burg or Nairobi on a daily basis may strike up new observations for revenue opportunities.

Then again, I’m no expert on these things. I’ll be checking with some bankers to see what they think about Atlas Mara’s performance.

Queen of Katwe

Last year, I wrote about my frustration with the difficult time I was having finding a movie about a black princess that my daughter could watch.

As you can imagine, when I saw that Disney was coming out with a movie called Queen of Katwe, I was thrilled.

When I finally watched the trailer, I was further surprised to see what the content was about. You’ll have to check out the trailer to know what I’m talking about.

Kudos to Disney for telling a different story. As time progresses, I look forward to Disney exploring more of Africa’s history and telling her stories.

Soul City: A City for Black Folk

My head is still shaking after learning that a prison sits on the land where Floyd McKissick was trying to build a city for black people.

White Flight, Urban Crisis, New Cities

Soul City was a project McKissick began working on in the late 1960s as part of an initiative at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to deal with the urban crisis in America. White Flight was taking place and the health of urban cities was not good – crime, bad housing, few job opportunities.

The initiative was to fund the development of 13 new cities to test whether the creation of new places to live was a viable option for dealing with the urban crisis. McKissick applied for the initiative to develop his idea for Soul City.

Floyd McKissick

Floyd McKissick was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. His contemporaries included Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Whitney Young. As the Civil Rights Movement gained steam McKissick and Carmichael pushed forward the Black Power Movement saying that the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t going far enough and things weren’t moving quickly enough for black people in the country.

The whole time I’m listening to the introduction of this podcast, I’m wondering why I don’t recall ever hearing about McKissick and well I know that there’s so much that I don’t know about the movement someone at his level I think I should have run across his name and not exactly sure why that is. The podcast puts forward a theory I’m not sure I agree with, but I hadn’t heard of Bayard Rustin for a long time either and he had kind of been written out of history for a while too.

Soul City, Silicon Valley, and Wealth

I was shocked to learn that Soul City had an incubator called Soul Tech One, which was focused on nurturing new companies. I couldn’t help but think about the early days of Silicon Valley, which had begun its evolution just 20 years prior. In the 75 years of so since the beginning of Silicon Valley, the billions of dollars of individual wealth that has been created is mind boggling.

Today, the conversation around the lack of presence of black people in the technology sector is at its peak. To think that someone was trying to set up the infrastructure that could have taken a shot at being significant in generating wealth through technology in the black community is inspiring. We can finish this. We have the creativity. We shape culture. We have the stamina to make it happen.

For some time now I’ve been having conversations with friends about getting black people in this country to a place where we’re operating from a position of power economically. My talking about this isn’t really what will get it done at this point. Someone I care about a lot really impacted how I look at wealth and positioning myself to build it for myself while working on seeing a bunch of rich black people in the US and Africa who can and do write checks for nascent businesses and who shape policy.

This shift in my thinking is a large reason why I haven’t been writing for the past few months. I’ve really been working hard and have made good progress, and have a couple more years to go. The past week though has been difficult and I have felt concerned about my ability to continue executing the plan. This podcast pissed me off and inspired me. Good oxygen for my fire to keep me going.

Soul City and a Prison

We eventually learn that the Soul City project failed after it lost oxygen due in part to an audit that Senator Jesse Helms ordered for the project. To this day I still feel bad for confusing Jesse Helms and Howard Coble as a kid. The two couldn’t have been more different legislators.

All these years later a prison sits on the land that was Soul City. There are countless studies on the all too familiar relationship the black community has with prisons in this country. The irony was overwhelming to hear that one of those structures sits on land that could have been home to a thriving black community – a project that could have potentially seeded more like it.

Let’s Go on a Road Trip

I’m curious to see what remains of Soul City plan to drive down there in the next couple months. Feel free to email me if you’d like to come along –

Lumumba Was Here

Wrote this last year.

Kwame Som-Pimpong

Yesterday was the 54th anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, independent Congo’s first prime minister.

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, one of the first blacks to attend my alma mater, wrote a nice piece on the importance of Lumumba and his death. He recently published a biography of Prime Minister Lumumba that I look forward to reading.

Here’s a letter Lumumba wrote his wife, Pauline some time before his death.

Tomorrow, we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tuesday, President Obama gives his State of the Union address.

Lumumba and King were decades younger than President Obama when they died. It’s incredible how productive they were in such a short time. Much more work to be done still to realize their massive dreams.

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Bill Janeway Knows a Lot about Technology and Economics

Barry Ritholtz did a fascinating interview with Bill Janeway, Managing Director at Warburb Pincus, a private equity shop whose name you may have seen when Timothy Geithner joined as President a few years ago.

Side note: Warburg Pincus is the largest shareholder in Kosmos Energy, the exploration company that was part of the discovery of the Jubilee oil field in Ghana nearly a decade ago. Wow. Time flies. Check out Big Men if you’re looking for a movie to watch this weekend. 

Janeway draws on economic theory and the history of the US technology sector over the course of the interview. This is one of those interviews I will listen to a couple more times to be sure I caught all the events, people, and companies I should look up, such as Ferdinand Eberstadt. Check out the interview below.