If you run a business or earn income on the side, invest in good record-keeping. It’s important to separate your business and personal expenses by opening a dedicated business bank account, and carefully track any deductible expenses. Yes, this work takes time (or money, if you hire help), but it can save you time, money, and stress in the long run.
As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cameron Peake.
Cameron is the co-founder and CEO of Azlo, a digital banking platform that helps entrepreneurs and small businesses succeed. Throughout her career, she’s used technology to bring financial services to underserved markets.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?
Myearly career was in international development, where I realized how a lack of financial products (or ill-fitting financial products) could sustain the cycle of poverty. From there, I made it my mission to use digital technologies to bring the right types of financial products to new markets — a passion that has taken me from Haiti to Zimbabwe and back to the U.S.
One experience that led to this realization was in Haiti. Before the earthquake in 2010, banks were serving just a fraction — around 10% — of the Haitian market. The earthquake destroyed a lot of the existing banking infrastructure, so that number was further reduced by the time I started working there. As a result, most people were forced to operate entirely in cash. You’d see people keeping money under their mattresses, where it was vulnerable to theft. You’d see people riding the bus for days to send money across the island. Giving people the ability to store their money digitally had a huge impact on their lives from a safety, time, and cost perspective.
Similar stories emerged in Indonesia. When I started working in the area, there were many microfinance institutions serving their immediate community — but these institutions weren’t connected at a national level. You couldn’t use your ATM card in national ATM chains, and you couldn’t send money from one financial institution to another. This translated into lost time and money for consumers. For example, I remember speaking with one guy whose daughter was in college on a different island. To send her money, he had to close up his shop (he owned a small food cart), drive about 30 minutes, wait in line for 45 minutes to send the money, and then drive back. The whole process took hours, and the transfer fees were incredibly expensive. We launched a product that allowed him to send her money directly from his phone, which he could do in seconds anywhere.
These experiences sparked my passion for using digital channels to offer cheaper, immediate financial services to people that banks haven’t traditionally served in the past.
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?
I was working in Haiti, in 2010, when the initial results came in for their presidential election.
The results announced that the top two winners were politicians, but there was a lot of popular support for another candidate, Michel Matelly (a former pop star).
Many people believed that the elections had been rigged by the increasingly unpopular sitting president, and massive protests erupted. There were fires in the streets, tear gas, and gunfire. The airport was closed and most roads were deserted except for protestors. I was under house arrest (and even then, I wasn’t entirely insulated — I actually had some tear gas waft into my hotel!). Eventually, after several days, there was a break in the violence and I drove over the border to the Dominican Republic in a caravan of cars, in order to return to the U.S.
This was the moment I realized that the work I was doing to improve the financial system wasn’t in a vacuum … macro-conditions like election fraud or micro-conditions like someone’s health status were intertwined with the good I was trying to achieve through the lens of digital financial services.
That’s why, at Azlo, I’m so passionate about focusing beyond just banking and transaction processing. We’re working to support the overall success of individual entrepreneurs through education, community, and other resources.
(In case you’re wondering how the story ends — the Haitian election results were contested by the Organization of American States, and the pop star went on to win the election — a pretty cool example of democracy at work.)
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At Azlo, our work is fundamentally about helping entrepreneurs and small businesses succeed. To do that, we need a deep understanding of the challenges they’re facing.
One thing we know is that people are motivated to start businesses so they can do more of what they love, but they often find themselves overwhelmed by operational challenges that consume too much of their time and energy. Many of these operational tasks are related to managing their business finances: keeping records, receiving and sending payments, depositing checks, analyzing cash flow, reconciling invoices, etc.
We’re working to find new ways to automate and ease these financial tasks so entrepreneurs have more time to do what they love.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Since day one, we’ve been focused on serving small digital businesses — not large companies and not businesses that operate entirely offline — since our users have wildly different needs.
If you look at a lot of the small business banking options out there, most are just larger commercial accounts that are stripped down and have a monthly price tag slapped on them. Azlo is solely dedicated to meeting the needs of small business owners in the digital age.
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?
I work at the intersection of finance and technology, but when I think about what I really do, it’s tech all the way. I’m passionate about disrupting and improving old models, and creating experiences that work for real people.
I think the rise of financial technology companies (including Azlo) has forced traditional finance companies to change and evolve. Tech has no shortage of problems in this area, but on the whole I think it’s a little more open to a diverse set of players. Tech platforms have also offered a means to hold companies more directly accountable, by putting customers in direct and public contact with companies.
Technology can also serve as an enabler and a democratizing force. Digital platforms have allowed underserved communities, around the world, to access new opportunities. If you’re based in rural Iowa, you can still reach new markets around the world. If you’re a woman or person of color, you can reach customers and sell goods without necessarily facing the biases found in the offline world. This has exposed a new set of talent to groups that maybe haven’t come into contact with them previously.
I think all these forces have aligned in a way that’s brought pressure on the traditional power structures that defined Wall Street.
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?
- Support more women at the middle management layer, both through hiring and through training. Today’s middle management is tomorrow’s senior management.
- Collect and highlight more data. I love seeing the increase in statistics about how female-led companies perform relative to the general market. This helps to remove bias and make the case for further investment.
- Invest in a diverse pipeline. We should always hire the best person for the job, but we have to make sure that we’re bringing in a diverse group of candidates.
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?
Financial literacy is about making smart, informed financial choices … and I think a big part of the problem is that the average American may not have a lot of choices or options available to them. I don’t know if we can expect people to know about things that seem entirely out of reach.
For example, the vast majority of stocks are owned by the wealthiest 10% of Americans. Only about half the households in America own any stock, and only about 15% invest directly (instead of through mutual funds or a retirement account such as a 401k). Middle-income Americans may not have much wealth to invest, so they don’t have a lot of incentive to study investing techniques. It’s the same thing with loans — if you don’t have a lot of options available, you may be forced to choose whatever’s available even if it’s not great.
It’s hard to get motivated about learning and understanding the “best” choices if you don’t have options to choose from.
I think three ways to increase financial literacy would be …
- Make financial products (loans, investments, etc.) more accessible and customer-focused. The first step to increasing financial literacy is ensuring that there are relevant choices available for everyone. For example, we created Azlo because we saw a lack of small business banking solutions developed with small businesses in mind.
- Create realistic, helpful, comprehensive financial education curricula that actually apply to Americans today.
- Teach financial literacy in schools and beyond, at points that are really relevant to people’s lives.
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, OR 5 non-intuitive essentials for smart investing, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.
- If you run a business or earn income on the side, invest in good record-keeping. It’s important to separate your business and personal expenses by opening a dedicated business bank account, and carefully track any deductible expenses. Yes, this work takes time (or money, if you hire help), but it can save you time, money, and stress in the long run.
- Plan, but be prepared to adapt. Your investments (and that includes investments in your business or career) can be profoundly affected by factors outside your control, such as the larger economy, natural disasters, political movements, and more. Having a clear strategy is important, but you need to be able to adjust to stay on course.
- Question each major expense or investment. For example, a lot of people buy a car, or get an expensive education, or buy a house simply because everyone else they know has done the same. However, if they really considered the alternatives, they might have found that another solution is more practical. For example, if you grow up in the suburbs and then move to a metropolitan area, you might be inclined to keep a car (even if parking is scarce and expensive, and public transport is cheap and convenient) simply because you’ve always had one. That’s not a good reason — instead, access the costs and understand the alternatives before making a choice. And remember that you can assign a price to something like “convenience.”
- Compound interest is one of the most powerful forces in investing. Understand how to harness it, and take advantage of it by starting to save and invest as early as possible.
- Always value your time when you make decisions. Oftentimes that is something we discount or ignore, but it is an incredibly important factor.
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?
My husband is a tech founder too, and he always has my back. He’s constantly supporting me while encouraging me to push harder. When I get home every day, we either deliberately DON’T talk about work so we can get some headspace, or we dive deep into strategy and work through the challenges we’re facing. Having him as a true partner has been invaluable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Have a growth mindset.
Instead of telling yourself that your capabilities are fixed and limited (“I’m good at X, and I’m bad at Y), train your brain and learn to do better. When you encounter challenges, don’t throw your hands up and believe that you’ve reached the limits of your natural ability. Instead, figure out how to work through it and remove blockers.
When I first started preparing for business school, I was telling myself the story that “I’m just not a math person, and I’ll never be good at it.” I didn’t try to study and improve, so when I took the GMAT (a key part of the application process), I didn’t do well on the test.
My husband, who’s always in my corner, was like, “What are you doing? You can do this — you just have to work at it and train your mind.” So I took three months where I studied every day and changed my lifestyle so I could do well on this test. At the end of it, I took the GMAT again, and I got results that allowed me to get into a fabulous school for my MBA.
Proving to myself that a “growth mindset” can have this outcome has given me the confidence to apply it in so many other areas of my life.
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. 🙂
Climate change is really at the top of my mind right now. I think that’s true for many of us, and I’ve been thinking about it even more since my daughter was born last year. I think about the legacy I am leaving behind. And as business leaders, we should all be aware of the havoc and uncertainty climate change can introduce into our mid-and-long-term plans.
This is a complex topic, and I don’t think I can recommend a silver bullet to fix or stop it. A big first step is recognizing that it is, in fact, a problem, and taking an integrated and coordinated approach across government, corporations, and individuals to address it. It is going to require massive societal restructuring, and that is complex.
That said, one big thing I see missing is accessible information. Finding resources that explain the major contributors to climate change in an easy, accessible way is nearly impossible. And then translating that information into actions that we, as individuals, can take seems even harder.
As individuals, we often feel disillusioned about our ability to affect change because it is so much bigger than us. But if we were to understand some of the tangible ways that we — in aggregate — could make an impact, I think we could see some pretty powerful shifts. For example, if most Americans added just two vegetarian meals per week, what would that do to the agricultural industry and their contributions to climate change? Where could we apply pressure to companies to improve their supply chains or reduce energy consumption?
To me, it starts with understanding the major inputs to the problem, and then clearly communicating what we, as individuals, can do to change it.