Oct 2, 2023

Monica Millares: Pioneering Personalized Fintech from Mexico to Malaysia

Monica decodes fintech’s future for us—and reimagines the power of transactions

Monica Millares: Pioneering Personalized Fintech from Mexico to Malaysia

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Did you know that while women constitute almost half of the global workforce, they represent less than a third in the fintech sector? Enter Monica – the fintech expert and change agent challenging the status quo. With a journey that spans continents and roles, from Mexico's bustling streets to Asia's dynamic fintech hubs, Monica's tale is one of grit, innovation, and undeniable flair. Grab your coffee, folks, because we're diving deep into the world of fintech with one of its leading experts who's serving up major goals.

With roots in Mexico and branches extending to London and Southeast Asia, Monica's story is a testament to where drive and adaptability can lead. Monica's hunger for global experiences brought her to the UK to complete her master's in IT management. From the early stages of her career in a development bank in Mexico to the marbled halls of Visa and Barclays in the UK, Monica's path was always marked by growth.

Yet, it wasn't long before the beckoning call of innovation pulled her into uncharted waters. "I was lucky, well prepared, and had the courage to say yes," Monica reflected. She took a leap from the corporate world of Barclays to the uncertain terrain of startups. And there she was, embarking on a journey with Tandem Bank when it was just a nebulous concept, an idea without a name or even a banking license.

A few caffeinated years later, Monica found herself spearheading the charge once more. This time, it was Malaysia’s turn to be the backdrop for the genesis of a new Challenger neo bank. "When I joined Tandem, I was part of the team building a bank. But this opportunity in Asia with BigPay was me leading the team,” Monica emphasized, underscoring her transition from team member to leader. Six years and countless hurdles later, BigPay has flourished into one of Malaysia's top digital wallets, with footholds in Singapore and an upcoming presence in Thailand.

Monica's agile journey wasn’t just about numbers and business strategies. Alongside her corporate achievements, she harbored a deep-seated passion for coaching and personal development. The resonant hum of her podcast “Purpose Driven FinTech: Building Products with Impact,” which started as a simple COVID project, now offers an interplay of insights from fintech bigwigs.

Diving into the essence of her choice to join the world of fintech, she recounted a defining encounter with Ricky Knox. “I remember his words,” Monica leans in, “He told me, banking is broken.” The challenge to reform banking’s tarnished image and offer a genuinely helpful experience became a mission she couldn't resist.

Monica's gaze wandered briefly as she pondered her enduring commitment to fintech. "Why I stayed in fintech is it’s hard," she began, her words reflecting the weight of her journey.

For many, the allure of the startup life is often blinding, but Monica is keenly aware of the hurdles. "There will be times where you think, ‘Oh, shoot, this is not working’," she shares candidly, emphasising that the pressures from all corners of the startup ecosystem are relentless.

Yet, Monica's tethering force to fintech is personal. "I've lived the pain point," she remarks, recalling her own struggles with financial stress and recounting her days in Mexico City. It's a city painted with stark contrasts: towering skyscrapers casting shadows over slums, where an arbitrary line of fate decides which side of the street you're born on. Growing up, Monica was acutely conscious of the privilege of her "normal" household, juxtaposed against the backdrop of extreme poverty just a stone's throw away. Such inequalities moulded her perspective. "Summary, I believe in the pain point. I've seen the pain point, and I think I can do something about it," she reflected.

Diving deeper into the humanistic pivot of fintech, Monica envisions a future where fintech isn't just about cutting-edge technology but about being deeply in sync with the human pulse. "Many of the products that we do...we see teams building processes that fit within regulation and technology constraints," she laments. However, Monica champions a paradigm shift. She underscores the pivotal role of the 'jobs to be done' framework, elucidating that individuals don't wish to merely open an account or take a loan. They aspire to financial security, to achieve their goals, to ensure protection for their families.

"Being more human," Monica reflects, "means putting ourselves really in the shoes of the customer." And as technology, like blockchain and AI, propels forward, Monica envisions a convergence. An intersection where these advances don't overshadow the human element but amplify it.

Her voice imbued with passion, Monica paints a future where services are not just products off the shelf but tailored solutions. “Because of all these technologies, now we have the capabilities so that we can offer people personalized products that fit their lifestyle."

In Monica's world, fintech isn't about sterile transactions. It's about fostering genuine connections, where services align seamlessly with individual narratives, and where being human isn't just a buzzword, but the very soul of the industry.

And this passion for genuine connection aligns with her take on women in fintech. "You don't have to be the president of Visa or MasterCard to have an impact," Monica began, her voice resolute. True to her word, her advocacy for women in fintech is evident in the grassroots initiatives she is proud to champion. From offering one-on-one mentoring sessions without fanfare or seeking validation, to creating a podcast platform where she aims for 50% of her guests to be women, Monica is challenging the status quo, one step at a time.

She emphasises the need for exposure and representation, recounting personal experiences of being sidelined due to the absence of a "founder" or "C-level" title. Instead of waiting for an invitation to join the conversation, she pioneered her own space. "If they don't invite you to the table... you go and build another table. You make it better.”

Amidst the slew of tech jargons, Monica's podcast centres on real-world issues. It’s a platform to showcase raw, personal journeys of leaders, spotlighting stories often overlooked in the male-dominated fintech world. By fostering conversations about leadership and diversity with both male and female guests, she is nudging the industry towards a future where inclusivity wasn't just an afterthought but an ingrained culture.

Monica's advocacy is about us all. "The podcast isn’t about diversity," she clarifies, "it's about how we create products that have more impact." Yet, in building a more human fintech future, she believes that understanding the unique struggles and stories of women is crucial.

However, it’s her vocal presence on LinkedIn, a public sphere teeming with professionals, that underscores her determination to highlight the gender disparities in fintech. Whether it is celebrating achievements or drawing attention to concerning statistics, Monica's posts are more than just words; they are a call to action.

And then comes the crux of the matter: representation. Monica's poignant reflection on the scarcity of female role models in leadership roles echoes loudly. "This generation of women... we lacked role models," she admitted. For her, it wasn't just about breaking glass ceilings but also about paving paths for future generations. She emphasizes the need to challenge societal norms and underscores that a fulfilling career didn't negate the possibility of personal happiness.

Monica's advocacy for women in fintech isn't a detached mission; it's a deeply personal journey. By sharing her own experiences, challenges, and successes, she's reshaping the narrative, offering both hope and a tangible roadmap for other women looking to navigate the fintech space.

From her impassioned commitment to gender equity, Monica seamlessly shifts to unpack the intricacies of global fintech dynamics, drawing from her rich tapestry of experiences across continents. "Mexico and Asia, or to be precise, Latin America and Asia, have much in common," she explains, her voice a blend of nostalgia and wisdom. She elaborated on how both regions, as emerging economies, offered vast opportunities for growth, a fact underscored by the staggering percentage of the unbanked or underbanked populace. Meanwhile, the UK's developed economy contrasts sharply with the burgeoning fintech sectors of Latin America and Asia, presenting its unique challenges and dynamics.

Monica's professional journey was coloured with illustrious roles, particularly at BigPay, one of Southeast Asia's burgeoning neobanks. As she recounted her integral involvement in the company's formative years, it was evident that Monica wasn't merely an employee; she was a pillar. From leading product development teams to hands-on creation of nearly every tool within the BigPay app, she was intrinsic to its success. "I joke that I'm the mother of BigPay," she chuckles, underscoring the depth of her commitment and influence.

Monica's approach to fintech, however, transcends mere product creation. She views the industry through the prism of genuine financial wellness, relating personal finance to physical health. Just as most know the secrets to physical fitness yet struggle with implementation, she recognizes that the majority understand basic financial principles but falter in their application. Monica and her team sought to bridge this knowledge-action gap, endeavouring to instil sound financial habits in their user base.

The conversation shifted to her experiences of building credit cards from scratch, a herculean task that she undertook early in her career. She was candid about the lessons she had gleaned, emphasising belief in oneself and the power of teamwork. "You can do anything," she declared with unwavering conviction, her voice resonating with the countless hours and challenges she had surmounted to realise her vision.

Drawing upon her years of hands-on experience, Monica's advice was a goldmine of practical wisdom: the importance of seeking help, the inevitability of figuring things out along the way, the indispensability of teamwork, and perhaps most crucially, the need to leave one's ego at the door.

While Monica emphasised the foundational principles that underpin successful product development and team dynamics, her role at PayEd illustrates another dimension of her expertise. PayEd, an education company that’s paving the way in understanding the implications of payments in the financial world, operates out of Australia. Its philosophy hinges on the belief that every financial transaction has the potential to reshape society. Monica's fervour for imparting education shines through as she spoke of their mission, especially their emphasis on engaging with the youth.

Monica’s role at PayEd goes beyond administrative duties, exemplified by her energetic representation at the international Money 2020 conference in Amsterdam. Their live demonstration, a harmonious blend of education and creativity, showcased the art and rhythm of payments in an unforgettable manner.

Bridging her world of payments and passion, Monica’s energy shifted as she delved into another dimension of her expertise: podcasting. Each episode, she explains, is a deep dive into the soul of FinTech, often revealing the vulnerable and human side of her guests. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she shares her love for the unexpected moments, the profound wisdom, and the genuine connections she’s forged. Monica's top tip for budding podcasters was clear: understand your "why."

But of course, Monica’s journey hasn’t been without its difficult moments. Monica approaches with candour\ the mistakes she’s made – in product development and managing relationships. While these errors shaped her professional journey, they also imparted invaluable lessons. Her experiences reiterate the timeless truth that in adversity, lies opportunity. From learning the value of calm communication to understanding the intricacies of product scoping, each lesson honed her leadership acumen.

Pensively, as she pondered the future of FinTech, Monica's visionary instincts shone. Hyper-personalization, she predicted, would be the industry’s future, leveraging tools like blockchain, AI, and open banking to tailor experiences for every individual.

In Monica's journey, one doesn't just see a trajectory of career achievements but a roadmap of resilience, innovation, and transformation. I can’t help but feel that Monica embodies the spirit of women in fintech, showing that with perseverance, authenticity, and solidarity, our societal boundaries can be transcended. Her journey, marked by challenges and triumphs, is now the very role model women never had before.

As we reflect on Monica's narrative and its wider implications, one can't help but wonder: How many more Monicas are out there, waiting for the right moment to emerge and reshape the future of fintech? How will the industry evolve as it embraces the diverse voices and perspectives of its trailblazers?

Images courtesy of: Monica Millares

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