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Episode #30: Michelle Tran

Episode 30

As a financial industry veteran, Michelle Tran knows there’s a need for greater diversity in banking and fintech.

That’s why she started NYC Fintech Women, a group of more than 8,000 women supporting each other to create more opportunities for females in financial technology roles. Michelle talks with Becca and Bryan about gender-equity in fintech and the trends she’s seen in digital wealth management during her time at Vestwell.

Featured Guest: Michelle Tran

Michelle is a passionate leader with success in financial services and fintech. She is currently SVP, Head of Enterprise Sales at Vestwell, a digital 401k provider helping millions of people save for retirement. Her professional background includes BlackRock (San Francisco, Hong Kong, NYC), Apex Clearing, and Harness Wealth. Michelle has industry experience that includes FinTech, WealthTech, Asset Management, Clearing/Custody, Payments, BaaS, Digital Assets, and more.

Michelle is the Co-Founder of NYC FinTech Women, the largest fintech community (8k+) with the mission to empower, connect, and promote women in FinTech. She frequently speak on fintech topics at leading conferences, events, and podcasts. She have been recognized as an industry leader by the Innovate Finance Powerlist (Senior Leader category 2019, 2020, 2021), #28 on the Top Women In FinTech 2021 by FinTech Magazine, and Primary Venture’s 40 NYC Leaders You Need to Know.

Becca Hoeft

As a marketing, public relations and corporate communications leader, Becca (only her mom calls her Rebecca) started her career in consulting and has been involved with six startups ranging from film, fashion, technology and food, with her first startup being a social enterprise importing leather fashion accessories made by single mothers in Nairobi, Kenya. Speaking across the country, she is known for leading award-winning teams and has received recognition from the Cannes Film Festival for Best Media Campaign, Hermes, MSPBJ Women in Business, and most recently, the Top Women in Communications awards. When the day is done, you’ll find Becca behind a good travel book planning her next adventure, plunking a tune on the piano or laughing with her blended family.

Bryan Toft

Bryan Toft is Sunrise Banks’ Chief Revenue Officer. In this position, Bryan oversees commercial banking/lending, treasury management, mortgage and fintech partnerships. He has been with Sunrise Banks for more than a decade. From 2014-2017, he served as president and CEO of Community Bank Owatonna.

Bryan has held a variety of roles at Sunrise Banks including credit analyst, commercial loan officer and EVP regional manager of commercial lending in Minneapolis.

Bryan received a B.S. in Computer Science from Buena Vista University and an MBA from the University of St. Thomas. He is a board member of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, Twin Cities Metro CDC and Charter School Property, Inc.

Featured Music

VAULTZ

"All Over You"

Listen Now

Episode Transcript

0:00 – [MUSIC PLAYING]

0:01 – Michelle Tran
There’s just so many different fintechs that are making it really easy for those that are underbanked or underserved to get access to financial services. I think Robo Advisor really started with that because that was like, hey, I don’t have $50,000. But if I have $500, I can start investing.

0:20 – Becca Hoeft
Welcome to the NextGen Banker podcast where we explore what’s next in banking and talk with the innovators responsible for creating positive change in the financial sector. I’m Becca Hoeft, Sunrise Bank’s Chief Brand Officer. And I am here with my colleague, Bryan Toft, Sunrise Bank’s Chief Revenue Officer. We are so excited to welcome Michelle Tran to the show today. Michelle, thanks for being on the podcast.

0:49 – Michelle Tran
Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited.

0:52 – Becca Hoeft
And like I said as we were prepping, I am so excited too. But before we get started, it’s just a reminder for all of our listeners to stick around to hear our musical feature at the end of the episode. Each NextGen Banker episode showcases one new artist from somewhere around the globe, representing a wide range of different genres. So be sure to check it out.

1:15 – Bryan Toft
Now, let’s hear a little bit about Michelle. She is passionate about all things fintech and wealth tech. And we’re looking forward to hearing about those topics today. And she’s a co-founder, a board member, an advisor, so many things going on. And we are going to ask her about all of that. And with that, let’s dive right in.

1:33 – Becca Hoeft
Yeah, and I’m going to kick it off. So you have this just incredible, extensive background, Michelle, in finance. And you’re currently head of Enterprise Sales at Vestwell. And I understand, Vestwell really focuses in on providing the infrastructure for companies to power 401(k) and savings programs. And I know also, you’re super passionate about fintech. And it’s really obvious from– you just look at your resume on LinkedIn– it’s just obvious from everything you’ve accomplished.

2:06 – Becca Hoeft
So I just– Bryan and I were talking. Like, I just want to know how did you first get involved in finance and fintech? It’s not like always a first choice for the eighth-grade student.

2:20 – Michelle Tran
Definitely, I wouldn’t say it’s a first choice. When you’re in eighth grade too, you want to be a rock star. You want to do something super cool. I wasn’t 13 and saying, hey, I want to work at BlackRock. I probably had no idea what BlackRock was.

2:37 – Michelle Tran
I’m a first-generation immigrant. My parents are from Vietnam through China. My grandparents immigrated from China to Vietnam and then Vietnam to the states. And when you’re typically a first-generation immigrant, your choices of what you do are sometimes limited in terms of, hey, you should be a doctor, you should be a lawyer, you should go into something that’s stable.

2:59 – Michelle Tran
So out of all those choices, I can’t stand blood, so doctor was not a route I was going down. But financial services was really interesting just from the economics perspective. And full transparency– when I finished college, I wanted to travel, but I also wanted to work. I wanted to do both.

3:16 – Michelle Tran
And I had the opportunity to go work for Merrill Lynch in London. So I was like, yes, I’m going to take that because one, I get to start my career. I wasn’t really interested in backpacking, doing that thing. I get to start my career, but I also get to do it from a really cool city that allows me to go to Italy on weekends or allows me to jump off to different places. And so that’s how I really got my start in financial services itself.

3:41 – Michelle Tran
And I think I learned that there are many different facets of financial services. And it’s not just one thing. And I think that was one thing that we continue to tell women too, through NYC Fintech Women is that sometimes when you start a career, you’re super narrowly focused because you don’t know what else is out there. So you should definitely explore, discover.

4:03 – Michelle Tran
On the fintech side, that came a lot later. Fintech wasn’t really a term really, until 2015 or so. Well into my career, I was in Hong Kong managing our distribution for global private banks, working at BlackRock at the time with our iShares business. And truth be told, my husband was done with Hong Kong. So he’s like, OK, how do we get back to the US?

4:28 – Michelle Tran
So I approached my manager. And she’s like, well, there’s this great new thing happening in the US. And it’s called Robo Advisors. I’m like, what? Who are these Robo Advisors? And this is in 2014, 2015, when if you were anywhere within wealth services, wealth management, financial services, it was like, Robo Advisors are going to take over the world.

4:50 – Michelle Tran
Didn’t quite happen, but from our viewpoint, really wanted to see, OK, well, having someone figure out what do we do with Robo Advisors from a BlackRock perspective? And so that got us back to the US, but also got me really embedded in fintech, so much so that our first meeting with a Robo Advisor I show up in my full suit because that’s what I’m used to. And the guy shows up in jeans and a hoodie, right, because that’s what you do as a tech founder.

5:19 – Becca Hoeft
And a Patagonia vest.

5:21 – Michelle Tran
Yeah, poly Patagonia vest.

5:23 – Becca Hoeft
Yes.

5:24 – Michelle Tran
So I walk into my first meeting completely out of place. I was like, OK, I need to rethink that wardrobe a bit. So that’s how I got my foray into fintech.

5:36 – Becca Hoeft
Awesome.

5:37 – Bryan Toft
There have been a lot of changes over the years in people and how they’re investing and saving their money and being involved in wealth tech, I guess I would call it with Vestwell. What are some of the trends that you’re seeing today in that space, wealth tech, or even 401(k) investing? What are you seeing there?

5:56 – Michelle Tran
One, I mean, the biggest trend is that we just see so much more of a focus from the employer side on offering retirement options. And a couple of different reasons why is that one, with the turnover and the great resignation that we’re seeing over the past year, what are employers doing to retain new employees or existing employees? Or what are employers doing to make themselves more attractive to candidates? And 401(k) is a big part of that.

6:26 – Michelle Tran
The other piece is that you also just have a lot of regulatory fire underneath employers right now too, to say, hey– hey, if you’re in California, and you’re a company and you have five or more employees, you have to offer a retirement option. So it’s nothing like government to say, you got to do something.

6:43 – Michelle Tran
But we do see just a lot of big companies, big financial institutions say, hey, we see the trend. How do we get in market? And it’s kind of like what happened with Robo Advisors back in the day, right? So they started going direct to consumer. And then they really quickly figured all these big financial institutions, banks, advisors, all want to be able to offer great technology that gets to these consumers too. It’s an extension of their own business.

7:11 – Michelle Tran
And so that’s what we’re seeing on the retirement side too. We’re seeing a lot of these big groups, big insurance companies, big wealth managers to say, OK, we see the same trend in the small business space that you do. But we want it branded us. We want to run the investments. We want it to look like it’s us and not you. So how can we do that?

7:31 – Michelle Tran
And so that’s one really cool trend that we’re seeing. And primarily a reason that I joined Vestwell too, was because this is a trend I saw within the Robo Advisor space when I was at Apex. And Apex does that for wealth management. They were able to open accounts quickly, get people invested fully in the experience and in the brand of a larger institution.

7:53 – Michelle Tran
And so we’re doing it again in the retirement space. And it’s really cool to work these big companies because at the end of the day, they have the client, they have the trust. And so how do we help them grow their business?

8:04 – Bryan Toft
Yeah, we’ve seen that a little bit too with some of the employer channel options through our fintech partnerships that we have some consumer lending or employee benefits in that way, one called True Connect where people can get a loan from their employer, essentially. I mean, it’s not from their employer, but it appears that way.

8:22 – Bryan Toft
And there’s a trust factor there. People do typically trust their employer. And so when you have a white-labeled 401(k) option, for example, through an employer or someone that someone recognizes, you even see that with like Google, Apple, Amazon. Some of those brands are some of the most trusted brands in the country. So that trust is such a big factor.

8:46 – Bryan Toft
Shifting to some of the co-founding you’ve done. One is Dreamers and Doers, my understanding is focused on women entrepreneurs. And then you’re a board member of Take the Lead Women about gender parity and leadership. And equity for all is such a big piece of what we do at Sunrise and try to promote, both internally and externally.

9:10 – Bryan Toft
With some of that work in that space, how have you seen– because we’re focused on banking and fintech and all of that– in terms of equity, whether it’s gender equity or other equity, what have you seen technology be able to do when it comes to changing the game, providing opportunities? And financial inclusion is a big part of why fintech exists. Can you speak to that a little bit?

9:34 – Michelle Tran
Yeah, I mean, fintech has done such a tremendous job of diversifying who these big companies can go after, and also the services and the financial services that are available to different parts of the population. So you have neobanks who focus on certain segments. There’s Cheddar that focuses on Asian-Americans. There’s Kinley that focuses on Black Americans. There’s Daylight that focuses on LGBTQ.

10:04 – Michelle Tran
And the reason why they are doing that is because there’s different sets of problems each of these populations are trying to solve or that they face, right? So for example, LGBTQ, like, if they for example, wanted to adopt a kid, then what type of financing comes with adoption? So you can have a very specific conversation about that.

10:23 – Michelle Tran
Where if you try to perhaps do that with– total example– but like, Citibank is a huge national bank, how easy is it for you to do that? Whereas you know, you go into neobank that really understands what you’re trying to accomplish. Even so, you have firms like Propel, which is really helping kind of get access to food stamps and things like that.

10:47 – Michelle Tran
So there’s just so many different fintechs that are making it really easy for those that are underbanked or underserved to get access to financial services. I think Robo Advisor really started with that because that was like, hey, I don’t have $50,000. But if I have $500, I can start investing. And it’s not just for those that have $50,000 or more or even higher.

11:10 – Michelle Tran
Or I can buy $50 of Apple even though it cost $164 right now. Which is kind of fun– there’s an app called Stockpile. So I started two accounts for my sons. And now they’re like, oh, mommy, can we buy Minecraft? I was like, actually, you can.

11:27 – Michelle Tran
They can open they only bought like, $15 worth. But to them, that’s a big deal. But it also gets them thinking, where does my money go? What happens to it, both the upside and the risk. I think like, Microsoft fell a little bit after they invested. They’re like, we lost money? I’m like, yeah. It’s not worth $15 bucks anymore.

11:50 – Michelle Tran
So you know, I think fintech itself is doing a lot. Specifically for women, there’s been a lot of focus too on, what are these crowdfunding platforms for women? There’s IFundWomen, which focuses on women-founded companies. And you can crowdfund them.

12:05 – Michelle Tran
So you have $10 and you find one that you like, you can help get them off the ground. And that’s really cool, right, because actually, institutional VC money for female founders is at an all-time low. It’s really sad. It’s like under 2%.

12:22 – Michelle Tran
Actually, last year was a record funding year. I think was like something like $330 billion. And it fell from 2020 at like 2.6% to 2% in 2021. And so last time I checked, we were a little bit over 50% of the population. But yet, we only get 2% of the funding. So how can we provide more money for all these different platforms?

12:46 – Becca Hoeft
And all of that is just a perfect segue to my next question. But first, growing up and going to high school, college, graduate school, banking and finance wasn’t necessarily, I would say, top of mind for me specifically. And as I’ve grown up in the industry, I think it’s been interesting, especially as a female leader sitting on the executive team is that for me, I didn’t have the opportunity to see another female leader in the banking or finance industry.

13:27 – Becca Hoeft
But what you’re doing, Michel, really inspires me because you have co-founded the New York City Fintech Women, which is a group of more than 8,000 members, just focused in on empowering women in fintech. And so I have to admit, you know, I’m the super fan. And I’ve been watching you grow this group over time. And so I just have to know, like, what’s the story behind this? How did you get this started?

13:53 – Michelle Tran
Well, first, you’re making me blush. So forgive me if I’m blushing. So one, just to your point in terms of representation, that’s totally it. Like, you have to see people who look like you, who kind of half fit your profile, doing things that you want to do. And it spans everything from race to seniority to things like being a mom. I’m a mom of four kids, which is coming from New York in the Bay Area, that’s like a crazy, ridiculous number.

14:25 – Michelle Tran
But like, we got to normalize some of that stuff, right? You got to talk about the fact that I have kids. And it’s burned me in the past that I talked about kids, but I’m going to do it anyways.

14:33 – Michelle Tran
But so how we started really was– frankly, I was in a meeting. Well, one of my roles, leading a client meeting, leading a sales pitch. And the room was full of guys. It was all men. Which is fine. I’m very used to that.

14:48 – Michelle Tran
The problem was, I had someone who continued to interrupt, who continued to give the pitch right after I gave it. And it was like, everyone else in the room recognized it too. And so it was just like this frustration point I had.

15:03 – Michelle Tran
And that accumulated from the fact that I was going to 1,000 fintech events, and there weren’t a lot of women. Or I was going to a ton of women in tech events, and I’d have to hone in on the 10 people or ask everyone ‘what’s fintech?’ because I think there is power and having a community that’s really focused on the same conversation and same goal.

15:21 – Michelle Tran
So really, started it. I paid $80 to meetup.com and started a meetup group. And I said, hey, ladies, let’s all meet at a bar on Tuesday. Because as you guys from New York know, when it rains on a weekday, you don’t get a lot of people out. And it happened to rain that Tuesday. But we got 16 women, and that’s how it started.

15:40 – Michelle Tran
I don’t even think that bar exists anymore. It’s somewhere in the Flatiron. But that’s how it started. And that’s how I found my co-founder too, Sasha Pilch. She came up to me. You know, she was brand spanking new from Australia. I was working at a fintech called Quovo, which was acquired by Plaid.

15:55 – Michelle Tran
And she was like, hey, what are you doing? Like, are you building this thing? Can I help you? I was like, I don’t know. What are we building? I don’t know.

16:03 – Michelle Tran
But we quickly had a number of women come out of the woodwork. We’re like, great, let’s all get together. Because you got to lean on each other, build your own personal board. You want to lean on each other not just for career aspirations and goals and mentoring and sponsorship, but professionally.

16:19 – Michelle Tran
Like, you have to be able to have a network to say, hey, I have this great deal coming up. Who can you refer me to, or who do you know, or are you interested? So within our careers, really, leaning on each other to propel our careers as well.

16:34 – Becca Hoeft
You know, you said something that really stuck out to me because when I talk to my fellow women colleagues, we always talk about the idea is that you can’t be what you can’t see. It just makes it that much harder. But when you start paving that road, when you start showing the younger generation what they could be, the possibilities are endless.

16:58 – Becca Hoeft
And so my next question is really around women and women’s roles in fintech. Since you started this group– and what was the year you started it?

17:06 – Michelle Tran
Late 2017.

17:08 – Becca Hoeft
OK, so it’s been a few years in existence. What barriers are you seeing right now? I mean, I think we’ve seen a lot of growth from my perspective. I’ve seen a lot of growth from just fintechs and banks and women’s roles. But what barriers do you see that women still face in the fintech industry?

17:32 – Michelle Tran
One I would say is firms being intentional about hiring women and wanting real parity within their employees. One thing I always tend to hear, and this is the reason why we started hashtag #HireHer, which is our job board, was hey, we don’t have a lot of women candidates. We think it’s a pipeline issue. Oh, it might be nice to have one female here.

18:00 – Michelle Tran
And it’s like, you have to be super intentional from the CEO and on down. And you have to be vocal about it, about making sure that there’s diversity within your company. Female gender diversity is the biggest one. But there’s so many different areas of diversity that you need to lean into. And it’s being really focused on that.

18:22 – Michelle Tran
Because the biggest thing that gets me is everyone’s like, oh, well, I don’t have enough candidates. I don’t have enough. They’re just not there. I’m like, they’re there. Trust me.

18:31 – Michelle Tran
We’re ready. We want those jobs. We want to help out. We want to have impact. You just got to make it visible. And you have to be ready to work for it too, to find those candidates. So that’s one of the bigger barriers.

18:44 – Michelle Tran
The other one too, again, I think is the network. We have thankfully, a lot of male senior leaders who come to us and say, hey, I’m starting this thing. I’m looking for a female co-founder. And can you help us because I don’t know any? I don’t know any females. I don’t know any technical females, or I don’t know any female business leaders.

19:02 – Michelle Tran
So that’s a huge step for that person to say that, right, and say, OK, I’m just not going to lean into my usual network and pull someone there. I’m going to reach out and say, OK, I’m being very intentional. I’m going back to that intentional thing. So I think it comes down to just making sure that those roles are visible, people are being super intentional about wanting to hire and taking those steps.

19:26 – Bryan Toft
OK, Michelle, last question for you today. And as the podcast name suggests, we look to the future and what the next generation of banker looks like. So we wanted to ask you, what do you think the next gen banker looks like?

19:41 – Michelle Tran
The next gen banker is not an office. The next gen banker may be sitting in Portugal or in Bali, yet working on clients, if they are allowed to, regulatory-wise. But then, the next gen banker is thinking very creatively about how to get to their client. It’s not this standard, you know we’re in New York, the standard kind of New York power play.

20:04 – Michelle Tran
But there’s a lot of really great areas to find opportunities. And so next gen banker is going to be very outside the box. Maybe it’s that skater kid who finds an opportunity in something. They’re just not going to fit a mold. And they’re going to be vocal about that.

20:22 – Becca Hoeft
Michelle, thank you for being on the show today and sharing your story with us. You’re certainly an inspiration for me, for all of us, and for the future generation of finance and fintech leaders. Thank you so much.

20:34 – Michelle Tran
Thank you guys so much for having me, but also, having this conversation so people know that we’re out there and we’re ready to make a big impact.

20:46 – Becca Hoeft
For this episode’s musical feature, we’re showcasing Vaults. Vaults is a project created by guitarist, producer, and artist Ellie Puckett. Puckett lives in Los Angeles and has toured with Maggie Rogers and Lorde. Here is “All Over You” by Vaults.

21:03 [MUSIC – VAULTS, “ALL OVER YOU”]

22:00 – Becca Hoeft
That was “All Over You” by Vaults. Find more of Vaults’ music on Spotify. If you would like your music featured on the NextGen Banker podcast, just email David at nextgen-banker.com with a link to your music and website. Thanks for listening to the NextGen Banker podcast. We’ll see you next time.

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