Aug 11, 2023

Richard Turrin: The Man Writing the Future of Money in a Cashless Era

From MBA professor to IBM innovator to bestselling author, Richard Turrin is shaping Fintech and democratizing financial markets

Richard Turrin: The Man Writing the Future of Money in a Cashless Era

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We’re in an age where technology leaves no career untouched. And in this age, Richard Turrin stands as a living example of the art of adaptability. As an author of two international bestsellers, Cashless: China's Digital Currency Revolution and Innovation Lab Excellence, Richard’s path through finance, academia, and tech is one we can all learn from. Settled in the vibrant cityscape of Shanghai, China, his journey has mirrored the rapid transformations he chronicles in his books.

Richard’s narrative unfolds as a tale of resilience, turning adversity into opportunity at every crossroad. The global financial crisis of 2008 pushed him and many others to make a pivotal choice: reinvent oneself or risk obsolescence. “We all have to look at the concept that our careers aren't going to be a linear path anymore, and they're iterations of you, whoever you want to be.”

For Richard, the decision was clear – to embark on a new life, far from his investment banking roots. His luggage was marked "Shanghai," a city pulsating with the energy of economic upsurge. “I literally arrived with two duffel bags, plopped them down and said, okay, I live in China now," he says, chuckling, capturing the confident adaptability that’s helped him forge his path.

What unfolded was a series of careers that rode the waves of technological evolution. After serving as a professor at Hult International Business School, where he brought math and business analytics to life for MBA students, Richard donned another hat. He joined IBM. His role was integral in bringing paradigm-shifting Fintech to the banking industry in Asia, employing cutting-edge technologies, like AI Robo-Advisors, to solve real-life banking issues.

After leaving the corporate world, Richard found relevance in the digital realm, reconnecting with a web of former colleagues and weaving new bonds. Social media wasn't just a platform; it became a lifeline. "It was a way of sharing," he recounts, reminiscent of water cooler chats in the corporate corridors. The journey morphed into a dance with algorithms, as Richard, the self-professed computer geek, recognized the mechanics behind virality.

"I want to be good at it," he asserts with the determination that characterizes every pivot in his career. This drive, to excel, to master the digital realm, spiraled into a weekly LinkedIn newsletter, where Richard’s words resonate with his 43,000 followers. A self-described “tireless evangelist for using technology to democratize access to financial markets,” Richard now finds himself an influencer, having reimagined banking and created a thriving Finech ecosystem. And he lives up to the name—he is a clear and captivating communicator, generous in spirit and in knowledge, with an enthusiasm that is catching.

From his virtual pulpit, he casts light on a phenomenon that he has personally witnessed—China's cashless revolution, where convenience reigns supreme. Richard reflects on the shift, recalling how he once hauled bricks of money to pay his apartment's security deposits, contrasting it with the effortless tap-and-go lifestyle that's now second nature in much of China.

But here's the twist: Going cashless isn't just about shedding physical notes. It's about diving into a new paradigm where super apps integrate every facet of life with payment systems. It's an experience that transcends mere convenience. As Richard emphasizes, Western counterparts like Apple Pay and Google Pay are just scratching the surface compared to China's Super app ecosystem.

Yet, a crucial point arises—the concern for financial inclusivity. Richard doesn't shy away from addressing the elephant in the room: What about those left behind? He points to China's digital Yuan, the Central Bank's digital currency (CBDC). It's a step beyond the realm of smartphone exclusivity, designed for those remote, rural, or simply averse to digital devices.

Richard’s insights delve into the heart of the matter—financial inclusion. The world's shift toward cashless doesn't spell doom for those without digital dexterity. In fact, it's a call for innovation that reaches every corner, every generation.

Take his experience with an 80-year-old lady, her first QR code, and a bouquet of flowers on the streets of Shanghai. "An 80-some-year-old lady had her first phone, and had QR code, and wanted to sell me some flowers," he recounts. "I swiped and paid, and the five RMB went into her account and her face lit up… she looked back to her daughter like ‘wow, I got money!’” It's this simple connection between tech and daily life that defines Richard's perspective.

For Richard, this is the key difference between Asia and the West. "Why Asia?" people ask. Richard cuts to the heart of it. In Asia, technology is embraced as an aspiration, a flame that ignites possibilities. In the West, where technology looms large, it's perceived as a specter, a harbinger of change to be feared.

When it comes to corporations, Richard points to fear as a key hindrance. "At the level of a company, you can look at digital transformations as being problematic from fear." Whether it's fear of job loss or fear of new technology, it's a tangible obstacle that resonates across boardrooms.

On the government level, he illuminates the difficulties in providing digital services to disconnected populations. "In the developing world, what you see is the inability to provide digital connectivity to a large percentage of the population." Richard's analysis isn't just a sweeping observation but a practical investigation into the facets that stall digital progression.

But he doesn't leave the conversation in the problem space. His eyes light up when he talks about Asia's readiness for the digital leap. This is a man who's seen the future, not in the shiny screens of a tech conference but in the crinkled eyes of an old lady selling flowers.

His insights may deal with macro topics, but they remain firmly grounded in micro realities. Richard's words remind us that in the midst of talks about digital transformation, there are real faces, real fears, and real aspirations. The future, as he sees it, is not a distant dream but a palpable reality taking shape in the here and now.

Richard's voice takes on a fervent tone as he explains why he is such a relentless advocate for digital transformation. His time in China has given him insights that are both profound and personal, making him an evangelist for the future.

His anecdotes about remote, rural regions of China describe a world where technology isn't just about convenience or novelty. It's about fundamental access and empowerment. Hiking in these regions, he's witnessed villages that were once isolated, change. "They became part of the economic system and they got that way through digital payments. It helped them immeasurably to live better lives," Richard shares with the passion of someone who's seen transformation up close.

His insights aren't confined to a single nation. His observations sweep across Asia, focusing on how digitalization has given access to things that were previously reserved for the wealthy. In Southeast Asia, where traditional banking systems have left 95% of the population unbanked, digital wallets are unlocking new possibilities. He's seen firsthand how digital payments have skipped over credit cards, democratizing financial access.

His passion, however, is not blind to the potential pitfalls. Richard's eyes narrow as he recounts real, hard examples where digital payments have gone bad. He speaks of the microloan mishaps in China and India, and the digital loan sharking in Kenya. His enthusiasm for technology's promise doesn't overshadow the ethical concerns that must be navigated.

As he reflects on his experiences, Richard's optimism is tempered by realism, but his belief in the transformative power of digital finance is unwavering. "I'm passionate about it because it fundamentally makes lives better," he asserts. The nuances and challenges don't deter him; they simply fuel his understanding of a complex landscape.

For Richard, the drive towards a digitally connected world isn't just about technology; it's about humanity. His stories bridge the gap between the cold, hard world of tech and the warm, vibrant lives of people who are touched by it. Whether it's in the remote villages of China or the bustling streets of Southeast Asia, Richard's advocacy for digital transformation is rooted in a vision that goes beyond screens and circuits. It's about giving access, creating opportunities, and making lives better.

Richard’s views on AI and machine learning's future in banking are far-reaching and filled with potential. He expresses both admiration and frustration for the use of AI-driven chatbots for customer service. Richard applauds innovative solutions, like Parthean’s ability to enable users to verbally interact with their finances but is hopeful for a more dynamic and creative application of AI in the banking industry.

Looking to the future, he anticipates AI's capacity to narrow the gap between digital "haves" and "have-nots" in banking. The idea of a chatbot serving as a financial advisor or coach could democratize financial literacy, allowing more individuals to understand and control their finances, regardless of their literacy or education level.

Richard’s overall message is one of optimism, with a belief that digital technologies can make the world a better place. While he acknowledges the need to address concerns like privacy, digital ID, and government overreach, he firmly advocates for the promising future that digital connectivity can provide.

A passionate educator, Richard does not shy away from embracing the digital era. He believes that understanding the digital component is essential, regardless of one's field. This doesn't necessitate coding skills, but a holistic understanding of how digital systems are transforming industries, particularly financial services.

When it comes to advising young innovators, his words carry a compelling urgency. The future of financial services will be slim, agile, and heavily reliant on digital mediums.

Understanding the digital world is no longer a bonus but a necessity. His advice to the younger generation is clear: be digital in some way or form. It's not just about being part of the change; it's about leading it.

In a way, Richard’s career path mirrors the very themes he explores. In a world of flux, his life's narrative becomes a guidebook, a lesson that reminds us all that even when the only constant is change, the trajectory of our journey is ultimately defined by the courage to embrace the unknown and mold it into the future we want to see.

Images courtesy of: Richard Turrin

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