Episode #6: Theo Lau

Episode 6

Theo Lau is an author, podcast host, startup advisor and public speaker. She wrote “Beyond Good: How Technology is Leading a Purpose-Driven Business Revolution,” with Bradley Leimer. Theo talks with David about the role companies can play in fighting inequality and working towards the common good.

Featured Guest: Theo Lau

Theodora (Theo) Lau is a book author, public speaker, and advisor, whose work seeks to spark innovation to improve consumer financial security. She is the founder of Unconventional Ventures, which focuses on developing and growing an ecosystem of corporates, entrepreneurs, and VCs to better address the unmet needs of consumers, with keen interests in women and minority founders, as well as the longevity economy. She is the co-author of Beyond Good: How Technology is Leading a Purpose-driven Business Revolution. She co-hosts One Vision, a podcast on fintech and innovations, and runs a weekly blog on Irish Tech News. She is also a regular contributor for top industry events and publications, including Harvard Business Review and Nikkei Asian Review.

David Reiling Headshot

David Reiling

David Reiling is an innovative social entrepreneur focused on empowering individuals through community banking and financial technology. David is the Chief Executive Officer of Sunrise Banks and has been in the community development banking industry for more than 25 years.

Featured Music

The Sweet Sorrows


The Australian Sessions
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Episode Transcript

Theo Lau: [00:00:00] There are a lot of good ideas out there. There are a lot of people who want to change the world, make things better, and it’s a matter of finding them and uplifting them.

David Reiling: [00:00:15] 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 am your host, David Reiling, and I’m very excited to welcome Theo Lau as our guest today. Theo, welcome to the show and thank you for being on the NextGen Banker podcast.

Theo Lau: [00:00:35] Thank you so much for having me.

David Reiling: [00:00:37] Absolutely. And for our audience, just a little background on Theo: she is an author, public speaker and advisor whose work seeks to spark innovation to improve consumer financial security. She is the founder of Unconventional Ventures and the coauthor of Beyond Good: How Technology is Leading a Purpose-Driven Business Revolution. Theo also co-hosts One Vision, a podcast on FinTech and innovations, and runs a weekly blog on Irish Tech News. Lastly, she is a regular contributor to top industry events and publications, including Harvard Business Review and Nikkei Asian Review.

Theo I have to start out by saying huge fan of your book. I’m not just saying that because I have a, I have a small, very small, aspect in the book, but I’m a huge fan from the standpoint of, I believe my life’s work and passion is really about purpose-driven business. And so I read your book, in fury, just to seek and gather more information.

So let’s kind of jump in a little bit, in regards to the book itself. Let’s just start out really simple. Where was the motivation? Where was the intuition? The spark that led you to write the book?

Theo Lau: [00:01:53] We did not start the fire. I think that’s what we always tell people. It’s something that we truly do believe in personally, before we were fortunate enough to have a chance to do it professionally and, Bradley and myself, we’ve been writing for a while now, and we’ve spent so much time talking to people around the world and with people like yourself.

You are a true inspiration, David, I’m just going to come out and say it like that. For those who have not read the book, go straight into the book, look for the few pages that are, has a different color. If we could, we would have done a different texture to call it out, but that was David’s story.

And we were so inspired by so many people who have done so many things in spite of, despite of, and given everything that’s going on, we just felt the urge to want to tell a story. And this happened in 2019, right, when things were still normal. We got approached by a publisher in the UK and got intrigued by a few of the articles we put out and asked if we would be interested to put our story together.

And the rest, as they say, was history.

David Reiling: [00:03:02] Fabulous. And it’s really interesting to me, so you have a publisher in the UK, and I think it’s really important for our audience to know this: While we’re both based in the US this purpose-driven company, this, I’ll call it revolution, of doing well and doing good is global.

And it really is seen across the planet and it has some momentum. Now you start the book off in a place that I quite frankly loved the most. You talk about hope and what it means to have hope and the opportunities that I, and I’ll say for our listeners, that bankers have in particular, the financial industry has, to provide hope.

Let’s just talk about what gives you hope now?

Theo Lau: [00:03:45] It’s challenging? I’ll be honest. When we started writing the book, we were looking at it from a perspective of, we felt a lot of challenges in our society. We feel increasing inequalities between different demographics. We feel like despite a lot of the innovation that has been taking place, especially within financial services, a lot of that is still doing the same thing. I call it as, you know, building many replicas of the old, with the new paint. And you have to dig deep to look at what else is happening. You have to peel back the layers and find the voices which oftentimes have been buried by those who are the loudest.

And we set off a mission to start looking for those voices, looking for inspirations. And we found there were a lot of them, but they were challenged from the perspective of they did not have a mic at the table. And so that in itself was painful, but also gave us hope that there are a lot of good ideas out there.

There are a lot of people who want to change the world, make things better. And it’s a matter of finding them and uplifting them, and that in itself was what gave us hope is there is a way to move forward and then came COVID. Which I would say the past 16 months plus has been very challenging. I can feel it every day.

I had kids at home. I had to do virtual schooling since March of 2020. We wrote the book during the pandemic. Between Bradley and myself we have four kids at home. It was a lot and we had to keep the business moving and we saw all of the essential workers out there that are keeping the economy going and how initially when COVID, the pandemic, brought us all together.

And that was another layer of hope. And that was when we started going into the deep, into the book and looking at the different trends, the, the aging population, the women, the gig economy workers. And through those, we got hope and inspiration of a different way on how we can use mass market, how we can use financial services, something so fundamental that we can make a difference.

Right? How do we deliver aid to people and you can compare and contrast to how different countries handle it and the mindsets in all of those. And now the book is published and now we are a year and a half after the pandemic and life is going back and coming back and it’s a mix of emotions.

I’m sorry. This is a really long-winded way of answering you.

David Reiling: [00:06:34] Quite good, actually. So you have a couple of themes in there I’d like to maybe touch on and I’ll go back to hope before I get to the equalities and inequalities. The hope aspect. And, and I’m, while I’m talking to you Theo, I’m really talking to the audience who are bankers in a way, and reaching out to them because I think as bankers, we lose sight of it.

Of our ability to portray and give hope to people. So every time we make a loan or we include somebody in the financial system, I think we lose sight sometimes that we give that person some hope. I always think of a small business when you can approve a loan and they can buy a piece of equipment or they can grow their business to the next level, you know, that is inextricably positive and hopeful for not only that person in that small business, but their family and the community and the people they employ. And so hope is embedded in banking, it’s just, we, we lose sight of it amongst all the technical analysis and things. And so I’d like to kind of bring that out to bankers because I think if you, you find that energy, I think it is, of hope it really reinvigorates what you do on a day-to-day basis.

Theo Lau: [00:07:46] Absolutely. And I think I agree, like for example, some of the newer trends, if you will, of earned wage access, right. Giving people access to the money they earn earlier, and that in itself can solve so many problems and help people pay rent, put food on the table and all of those. As we move towards digital, I feel like everything has become abstract. It becomes a one and a zero. It becomes something behind the screen, but we cannot forget that there’s a human behind that on the other side, right.

David Reiling: [00:08:19] Absolutely. A hundred percent. There’s still that human aspect as to we’ll talk about digital as well, but as much as we go digital, you’re right, there still is the human aspect that is behind that.

So one other thing that you had mentioned is that discovery of there is a community out there of people who are doing good. And I would also really like to highlight that, and you bring this out great in the book, in that there are, there’s a community of people doing good. And we talk to one another and the fact is, is we want more people to come and join this conversation.

And your book really is a great, I don’t know, it’s a billboard. It’s a great communication for bringing this group together and to have people realize globally, join the community. It’s really a lot of fun. And so it’s not only fun, but it’s rewarding. So let me switch to another idea that you brought up. So let’s talk about equality and inequality and yes, we went into COVID with really a mindset of there is a difference, but would you agree that COVID really exacerbated, and really boy, it showed us starkly, the inequalities that exist?

Theo Lau: [00:09:27] It did. It did, very much so. I’m a fan of numbers and a few of these numbers haunt me and hurt me. For example, during last Christmas, it was reported that there were 70 million Americans who were food insecure.

If you put that in contrast of the population in the states and you start to think, and, and that’s how I relay it to my kids, in your class of 20 something kids, little kids in your class, a few of those who were attending classes with you on the computer, they could be starting their day hungry, right.

And, in the wealthiest nation of the world this should not happen when we have so much of a sense of unity in the, in the very beginning to where we are right now, where you see a lot of the essential workers, they are the ones who are delivering food, delivering groceries to us while we are hunkering down at home, that by itself is a privilege.

It was a privilege that I was able to afford the internet so my kids can stay in class where millions of the school children do not have access to even do anything within the last year; that in itself is inequality. That has always been there, but I think COVID, and the need to social distance from each other, brought that up.

David Reiling: [00:10:50] Yeah. And so I couldn’t agree more. And if we were to look at financial institutions, what should banks and financial institutions be making sure we do that everyone gets a fair shake? Do you see anything particular that came out of the book and your research where banks can lean in and be a part of solving this inequality situation?

Theo Lau: [00:11:13] I think there is a lot. Wow. It’s a lot. So for example, when we start thinking about branches and what do branches do, right? There’s a whole lot more that you can do when you have access to people face-to-face. I know that from a cost perspective or from an operations perspective, there’s a lot of branches shouldn’t even exist because it’s a draining on the operations cash, shouldn’t exist because it’s a drain on, you know, how much cost it is to maintain the flow.

But I think what we lost sight of is there are still a lot of people who rely on that one branch, that one branch, where it’s not just financial services transactions that they do, but it’s also their face and interaction to the community, right? If that model of the model that we have right now doesn’t work, that means we should throw it away. That means we just need to rework it, to find ways to make it work and to find ways to offer services to people who are not digitally connected or cannot access services, right? So that in foremost is thinking about not just the people we typically serve, but also people that need our services, that are on the fringes of who we serve.

David Reiling: [00:12:23] Yeah. And so with that, do you think there’s also a role in, in policy? Are there policy changes that bankers should be endorsing and not just –it seems like we’re always on the defense of no more regulation, but are there actually policies that we should be endorsing and promoting and encouraging our lawmakers to adapt to make that positive change?

Theo Lau: [00:12:47] There is a lot. So one of the initiatives that we are supporting right now and actively involved in, it’s around the Care infrastructure. We don’t think enough about the people that are powering the economy, not just the service workers, but also women, also caretakers.

The United States is the only country, developed country, in the world that does not have paid leave, right. And so that in itself creates a lot of the inequalities and the challenges we see in our society, particularly women who have to take off when they’re, you know, delivering babies or on maternity leave, oftentimes they’re not paid.

And as we get later into our lives, we have to take care of our parents. Our aging parents are, you know, in-laws, loved ones. Most of the time, the people that take time off to do that are, again, women. The challenge of that is when we start doing that in our later years, it’s much harder for us to go back to find jobs.

And so, if you think about from a money perspective, you lose money in the early days when you took off and then you lose more money in the later days, when you take time off for family caregiving and it impacts your long-term retirement security, right? And so when we start looking at the differential between how do we improve long-term financial wellbeing of different demographics of people, different genders, different age and whatnot, there are a lot of policy changes that are needed to uplift.

David Reiling: [00:14:17] Yeah, definitely. And as we think about the next generation, I have conversations– my kids are in their early twenties– and so we have conversations every night now in regards to what it’s like in the generational differences.

When you think about the next gen, the millennials, the Z’ers and beyond, does it give you hope? Do you see that their mindset is in the right space?

Theo Lau: [00:14:40] I do, I do. So my kids are eight and 11 and my daughter is specifically, she listens to most of my podcast episodes and I got her on one for a few minutes and she would point things out that I wouldn’t even think about before, right. Or when they’re watching TV shows, one of their favorite shows is MasterChef Junior, and she would call out in the first season, she’s like, why are there no female judges in there? Right. So there are things that I think is inherent that they feel it needs to be there and they challenge why things are not how they’re supposed to.

And so I, I do have hope. I just hope that we don’t burn the planet down too far along by the time they grow up.

David Reiling: [00:15:27] I have that same conversation. I never win that argument. And they’re like, well, what are you doing about climate change? And I’m like, ah, we’re working on it. They’re like, well, work faster.

What’s the problem? I mean, if you don’t solve that, the rest of this is kind of moot. So, uh, yeah, we, we do have a lot of work in which to do there. So let’s switch gears. Let’s talk technology for a second because, huge fan of technology, but the fact is technology can be used for a lot of good, but it also has its downsides in terms of, in regards to, algorithms and AI, we can take those same biases that we have, that your daughter pointed out, why there are no female judges, and we can embed those types of mindsets right into the code that we’re creating. And so, when you think about the technology, what are some good? What are some bad that you see?

Theo Lau: [00:16:16] I am a big fan of tech. I love toys. I love technology. I like how it’s able to bring, I think it helps us in our daily lives and makes things more efficient. It frees up time, you know, all of the typical argument, but I think the one and foremost thing that I really value technology for, for what it is, is the ability to bring people together.

My parents are in Hong Kong and I had not been able to bring my kids to see them for the last year and a half, which I missed two birthdays of my mother, missed two birthdays of my dad and we never did. And we had FaceTime. It does not replace being there in person, but at least it allows them to be part of those moments.

It’s not ideal, but it’s a work around in the meantime. Those are the moments that I cherish technology the most, and the fact that you and I can be here talking while we’re in different states. It does not replace human connection. I think that’s the, one of the downsides, a lot of talk about remote work, fully remote.

I support flexibility to choose where you work. I just hope that we don’t lose sight of the need for a human-to-human connection. I can see it with my children. They did the entire school year virtual. And at the end of the school year, my daughter, she actually had her camera off and I asked her on her last day, why wouldn’t you turn your camera on?

It’s your last day, you want to see your friends. And she said, mommy, I don’t know them. I had not met them. They’re not my friends. That’s how kids take, you know, when, when you are connecting but you’re not really together and it breaks my heart, but it also brings, you know, to the forefront of the limitations of what technology can do.

And then, you know what you said about the potential for bias and what it can create for our society if we’re not careful, but that doesn’t mean that we stop innovating. That just means that we need to work harder to find what does not work and make it work better.

David Reiling: [00:18:18] Absolutely. And again, that high-tech, and somehow the high touch, that interaction, the emotion, the empathy, all that comes with it.

I want to take you one place, because I do think that when it comes to financial services, particularly this, this ambient, this ability to embed financial services into products and services in everyday life to where inclusionary and inclusion really becomes so great because it’s just a part of it.

And it might be a little hard to describe to listeners, but the fact is like getting an auto loan, you don’t really want an auto loan. You want a car, but how do you make that process so simple and so easy that that experience is the vehicle to get that car just becomes so less burdensome and so much more accessible and fair and equal to people?

Do you see that embedded nature growing? Do you see, is that, is that the future that we’re looking at for FinTech?

Theo Lau: [00:19:17] That would be my ideal state because at the end of the day, that’s a means to an end, isn’t it? Like you say, and one of the analogies I like use as if you get into a car today you are so used to pulling up your map application.

Doesn’t matter if it’s Google or Waze or Apple, you put in your destination and off you go; it becomes second nature. Why can’t we do that with our financial wellbeing? One of the areas that I spent a lot of time on is longevity, the fact that we have gained an extra 30 years of healthy living since the early 1900s.

But the fact that we haven’t really changed how we save money and how we plan, that in itself is a big opportunity. What if there is a way we can set, this is my financial future? I don’t know how to get there, but I know that I have my student loan, I have my credit card loan, I have my mortgage. I need something to sort all of that out for me, at the same time, a machine that knows all of my incomes and side hustles and gig work and all of that, add that in and know that I have children that eventually they will need to go into college and plan for that, know that you can help me set aside money to help for my family financial caregiving when my parents do get old, that I would need to help and support them and knowing where I would like to be in the future, what I would like to do. Add all of that in and put that in the magic box and a financial GPS, voila.

And that in itself would have been ideal because I would say people don’t plan to be poor, but as just the thought of having to think about what will happen to me 30, 40 years, it’s just not something natural, right. So that’s where tech can help is to take a lot of those guess works and dynamically adjust and shift it. Just like when we’re driving, when there’s traffic, you reroute. Why can’t we do that with our money?

David Reiling: [00:21:13] Love it. Beautiful. The financial GPS totally sticking in my head. So one last question for you, Theo, and it is the NextGen Banker question. So what does the next generation of banker look like? What skills, what ideals, what mindsets must bankers possess to be successful, not only as a banker, but to help others succeed? What comes to mind?

Theo Lau: [00:21:38] Wow. Hm. That’s an adjective soup. Let’s see, um, empathy. You have to have empathy, human empathy. That foremost diversity, diversity not just with the sense of gender or ethnicity, but also diversity of backgrounds, right. And that’s the one thing I always reference whenever people ask me about examples of banks that do it well. I always use your bank because of how you bring different people into your workforce and how you include them and give them the opportunity to be part of your growing ecosystem. And that’s what we need to do more. We don’t need people that look like us and talk like us.

We need people that think differently, that are from different backgrounds, with different education, with different ways and mindsets of thinking about things. Because, guess what, our audience, the people that we serve are getting more and more diverse. We need to change with that, right.

David Reiling: [00:22:41] Absolutely. The beauty is in the diversity. Yep.

Theo Lau: [00:22:44] And it’s intentional, right?

David Reiling: [00:22:46] That’s for sure. And you have to be open to it and really embrace it. And quite frankly, it’s like most things, as you start to discover it, it becomes more and more colorful and more and more beautiful as you begin to play with it, so. Well, Theo, thank you so much for being on the NextGen Banker.

If you want to hear more of Theo, please listen to her One Vision podcast. Theo, great to talk to you and connect, love your book, Beyond Good, recommend it to all the listeners. Have yourself a wonderful day.

Theo Lau: [00:23:15] Thank you so much for having me.

David Reiling: For this episode’s musical feature, we’re showcasing the Sweet Sorrows.

The Sweet Sorrows are veteran Irish singer-songwriter Sammy Horner and his Australian wife Kylie. They globally tour their acoustic, folk and Americana music, delighting audiences with their humor and vocal harmonies.

Here is “Adelady [add-a-lady],” by the Sweet Sorrows.

(Song plays)

That was “Adelady,” by the Sweet Sorrows. You can find the Sweet Sorrows’ music at https://thesweetsorrows.com/ and on Spotify. If you would like your music featured on the NextGen Banker podcast, email Nextgenbankerpodcast@gmail.com Off Site Link with a link to your music and website.

Thanks for listening to the NextGen Banker podcast. We’ll see you soon.