Marcia Tal of Tal Solutions: “Responsible borrowing is fine”

Responsible borrowing is fine. Many people will borrow money over the course of their lives, and that’s why so many products exist to help. There are lending products that can help us achieve and meet certain goals at certain times in our lives — like going to college, paying for a home, or starting a business. We […]

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Responsible borrowing is fine. Many people will borrow money over the course of their lives, and that’s why so many products exist to help. There are lending products that can help us achieve and meet certain goals at certain times in our lives — like going to college, paying for a home, or starting a business. We can be responsible about borrowing money and not feel like we’re doing something wrong.

As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marcia Tal.

Marcia Tal is the CEO of Tal Solutions® and the founder of the PositivityTech® Intelligent Platform: The Science of Transforming Negatives to Positives®. Utilizing open source and proprietary advanced analytic models, PositivityTech is a custom and fully scalable technology platform that flips the script on complaints so that organizations view them as a critical source of information that powers success.

A leader in the fintech industry, Marcia is in the unique position of having been a corporate executive, founder of a fintech platform, and a consultant to enterprises. She has over 30 years of experience helping organizations uncover growth opportunities in hidden assets, from data sets to people. As EVP at Citi, Marcia created and built the Global Decision Management function in over 30 markets, introducing advanced analytical tools and strong governance process into business decisions.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the finance field?

Math was always my strength. It came naturally to me, and I really enjoyed finding solutions to problems. After studying abroad my junior year of college, I found myself taking five high level math classes simultaneously in order to graduate on time. I was the only woman in the majority of my classes.

I wasn’t sure what I could do with a degree in math — it was definitely not a popular degree — but I remember my professor said to me, “Math teaches you how to solve problems. You are trained with experience in proving hypotheses in methodical ways, and this can be applied in any career.”

When I graduated, I was fortunate to work in Risk Management at Citi. During my 25 years at Citi, in addition to learning from extremely talented and kind people, I was exposed to the breadth of finance and, in particular, managing risk. I was able to be creative, apply my math and problem solving skills beyond risk management, and I created a new global function in the world of finance: Decision Management, a name I coined.

I believe that finance creates opportunities. Financial products, including lines of credit and loans, savings and investments, help people achieve life goals like creating their own businesses, buying homes, and giving their children the best opportunities they can. I also believe that finance should not be associated with ruthlessness. We as finance professionals must hold ourselves to the highest level of integrity, and practice ethical and responsible work that enables economies, institutions, businesses, and consumers to prosper.

Over the course of my career, I have seen the challenges that companies can experience when they are not listening to their customers. With PositivityTech, we are working diligently to elevate the customer voice and approach their complaints as strategic assets that can help us improve the banking experience.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

It is challenging to transition from being an executive at a premier global financial institution to the founder of a startup.

Recently, Thasunda Brown Duckett, the CEO of Chase Consumer Banking at JPMorgan Chase, said, “I rent my title. I own my character. I choose to show up with my ownable assets.” I have always understood that I rented my title. As leaders, our role is to be part of a team and lead teams, holding different roles at different times to ensure that our skills and capabilities are contributing to the company’s collective success.

I have also always understood that I owned my character. My character comes with me in all that I do and how I do it. From integrity to tenacity to care and empathy, to being there for your team, your boss, and your colleagues — we bring our whole selves to work.

Thasunda’s message about “ownable assets” truly hits home. In my corporate career, my brand identity was linked to the company’s brand. When I started a new company, I had to work very hard to redefine my ownable assets. In doing that, I began by articulating my values, passion, and goals. I’m happy to say that eight years later, I believe I have been consistent in building my brand and ownable assets.

The following story illustrates what it was like to transition from being a corporate executive to an entrepreneur. At the first conference I attended after leaving Citi, I was excited about my new, beautifully designed company business cards. To me, the branding and logo were my new ownable assets.

When I used to browse the conference’s expo area as part of Citi, people would look at my name tag and quickly try to sell me their products. But, as a founder of a new company, I noticed that people looked at my name tag and didn’t approach me at all.

After 25 years at Citi, I was the same person, but my title was different. Only I knew that I still had my ownable assets: my expertise, experience, and character. It was up to me to bring them to the table and make sure they would continue to be recognized and valued.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Just last year, we launched PositivityTech, which enables organizations to uncover insights from their customer complaints. Then, this spring, we unveiled PositivityTech’s Bias Index: an artificial intelligence-powered predictive model that identifies prejudice within customer and employee complaints and makes it possible for financial institutions to respond to systemic discrimination and repair their products or unjust practices.

With the Bias Index, we’re able to pinpoint particular products, policies and practices that have a high correlation with bias — whether it be age, gender, race, religion, or military status.

For example, we’ve discovered that products like mortgage and auto loans are four times more likely to have biased practices, because these transactions are done face-to-face and have a high risk of employees bringing bias into their decision-making.

As tensions due to social inequities have boiled over this year, the PositivityTech platform can help financial institutions turn their customers’ voices into intelligence and proactively weed out systemic discrimination. I believe that negative input can have a positive impact, and that as financial professionals working from a place of empathy and kindness, we can flip the script on complaints and help institutions provide equal treatment to all customers irrespective of race, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, military service, or citizenship.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At PositivityTech, our philosophy is be realistic, be human, be visionary, and we are building something completely new. Businesses approach their customer complaints in a very transactional manner. They focus on satisfying customers’ immediate needs and meeting the requirements set by regulatory bodies. But most companies do not realize that their customers’ voices are their most valuable asset. As a result, they miss systemic patterns that manifest in complaints.

No one else is drawing the kinds of conclusions from the data that we are. Our expertise in customer listening is infused into the PositivityTech platform, and this data holds hidden opportunities. We reframe customer complaints as strategic and predictive insights, so that your data consistently reveals opportunities for action.

We are experts at identifying new data sources and building global industry capabilities from these new data sources. At Citi, I introduced the concept of using credit bureau data to build new variables and better assess the risk of existing customers, and not only new customers. The use of this data became mainstream and drove new product development, services, and untapped revenue streams in consumer banking.

Similarly, PositivityTech is flipping the script. We are putting a spotlight on customer complaints — data that businesses usually interact with transactionally only — and proving their hidden value.

Young, disruptive financial companies as well as nonprofits have reached out asking me to speak with their employees as part of fireside chats. When I share my team’s background — which includes 150+ years of experience across all disciplines of financial services — and why we built PositivityTech, I see that companies today value expertise, knowledge and wisdom, and are interested in learning and applying not only what we are doing but what we have done.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

Culturally, there is a major shift happening. The “all white boys club” is no longer something people aspire to be part of. Today, people want to be part of something that matters.

The new generation of young professionals are raising their voices and calling out inequities — sharing stories, photos, and videos of their experiences — and one by one, industry by industry, things are changing. They are the external force pushing the glass ceiling down. Corporations are recognizing that they need to be part of this change and part of the solution or they will be left behind. I’m glad to see that more women are gaining leadership positions in the financial industry, including Jane Fraser as President and CEO at Citi.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?

Individuals need to make sure they are putting themselves out there in authentic ways, and accompanying it with hard work. That isn’t easy, but it’s necessary at every stage of your career.

Companies need to examine whether their employees represent the diversity of their customer base. They need to empower their employees to build task forces that address challenges, and then invite them to share recommendations and to implement those recommendations.

In a recent Times of Entrepreneurship Letter From the Editor, Elizabeth MacBride wrote, “It’s always emotion that drives real change… [now] it’s clear how vulnerable so many people were in an economy that has for 50 years placed the ideas of efficiency, size and financial return above values like fairness and compassion.”We all need to use what’s happening in society right now — the anger about an unjust system, and the economic and human impact of the pandemic — to push for positive change.

Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?

As of now, there is no standardized curriculum around financial literacy. You can seek it out on your own, but there are very few financial literacy classes that are a part of formal education. As a result, people lack understanding about credit, credit scores, and the value of money. To improve financial literacy, I’d recommend:

  1. Proper financial education starting at a young age. The earlier this education begins, the more children will have the opportunity to understand the world of finance. Organizations like the National Academy of Finance are doing amazing work to add real world finance, STEM lessons, and relevant experiences to schools’ curricula.
  2. Earlier in my career, I worked with Junior Achievement, teaching middle school students about financial literacy and responsibility. I worked with the kids to organize and run a campaign selling candy. We came up with a budget, plan, and marketing strategy, and tracked spending and profit. It was a very valuable exercise for everyone, including me
  3. Gamification. Games are a great way to help children understand finance.
  4. Work towards global equality. Organizations like Women’s World Banking (WWB), are doing their part in bringing greater equity and economic stability to women, families, and communities in emerging markets.

You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.

I have five children and seven grandchildren, and I have consistently reinforced that they can be whoever and whatever they choose to be, and that being kind and giving are paramount. Your financial situation changes a lot over the course of your life. Embrace what is required at that point in time, and recognize the importance of financial independence in whatever form it takes. I believe that:

  1. Responsible borrowing is fine. Many people will borrow money over the course of their lives, and that’s why so many products exist to help. There are lending products that can help us achieve and meet certain goals at certain times in our lives — like going to college, paying for a home, or starting a business. We can be responsible about borrowing money and not feel like we’re doing something wrong.
  2. Learn how to budget, and keep close track of your own budget. This is an important part of learning independence. College is an in-between time when parents may still provide for their children, but when their children can make their own decisions about what to do with the money they are given.
  3. Speak up for what is right. Make sure you are paying attention to the terms and conditions and understand your responsibility and the responsibility of your institution.
  4. Read every contract before you sign it. Every financial decision comes with a contract, even something as simple as signing up for a credit card. Ask questions, and then ask more questions.
  5. Learning is key to all success. It is okay to say “I don’t know” and to ask for help. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am very grateful to many people who have helped me along the way. On a personal level, to my family for their continuous support. On a professional level, to so many of my bosses, colleagues, and team members who have helped and continue to help me immensely. When you transition from being a corporate executive to an entrepreneur, the learning curve is steep and having experienced, trusted colleagues is invaluable.

Specifically, I owe a great deal of thanks to my former bosses at Citi, Steve Freiberg and Ajay Banga, who believed in me, but even more importantly, believed in the power of analytics and innovation. At Citi, the culture was rooted in intellectual curiosity and the desire to lead the industry, so it was very welcoming to new ideas. I was able to introduce new capabilities that ultimately became industry standards because I had the support of my bosses and leaders.

I also could not be doing what I’m doing today without Angela Curry. She was a core part of my team at Citi, and, as my Chief Operating Officer, she continues to help me build PositivityTech into what it is today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Vision without execution is merely hallucination.” — Albert Einstein

Having a vision is important, and communicating that vision is critical to getting the support you need. However, translating that vision into a strategy with tactical sets of initiatives, which can be developed and implemented with a talented team, is both challenging and essential for your vision to become a reality.

Execution can always improve. But to begin moving forward from dream to reality, you must be able to translate your vision into a roadmap with definitive plans, resources, and expected outcomes.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

When I left Citi, I had a vision of what I wanted to do next: I wanted to use my experiences, knowledge, network, and influence to be impactful. I wanted to be collaborative and nontraditional by listening to others and learning from diverse and unique points of view. I wanted to challenge myself intellectually and discover something new. I wanted to make a difference.

What I am doing now at PositivityTech is the summation of everything that I set out to achieve. I have always been passionate about empowering individuals to find their voice and speak up with the knowledge that they will be heard. I urge companies to listen to their customers’ voices. They are hidden assets — and a valuable tool for growth and change.

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