Rebecca Mann's alternative take on financial services

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Rebecca works in finance, but does not have a typical financial services job. She is a Senior Program Officer in the Financial Services for the Poor (FSP) team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and manages FSP’s academic research partnerships and projects on innovative measurement techniques and evaluation. She helps part of the two billion adults who live outside the “formal” financial system, who lack access to affordable credit and insurance in rural areas such as East Africa or South Asia, to ensure they do not get pushed deeper in to debt and distress.

Throughout the course of Rebecca’s global career, she has spent time as a researcher at the London School of Economics Public Policy Group and as an attorney at Herbert Smith LLP in London and Brussels. Rebecca holds an MPA from the London School of Economics and bachelor degrees in Economics and Law from the University of Sydney.

Rebecca is the winner of the 2016 Advance Global Australian Financial Services Award – and you’ll soon be able to see why.

What does it mean to you to be the 2016 Advance Global Australian Award Winner for Financial Services?

I’m thrilled! Given that I’m not in what many people would think of as a traditional role within the financial services industry, it’s particularly nice to see that the breadth of career options in this field has been recognised.

When I graduated in 2006, finance was becoming toxic as a vocation in the face of the global crisis and the risky lending practices that precipitated it (vampire squid, anyone?). But we still live in world where approximately two billion adults live outside the formal financial system: they earn and save their money in cash, they lack access to affordable credit and are unable to insure themselves against risks to their health, livelihoods and families. Access to the right financial tools at critical moments can determine whether a poor household in a rural area in East Africa or South Asia is able to capture an opportunity to escape poverty or deal with a crisis without being pushed deeper into debt and distress. New fintech and mobile products are making that possible. So while I’m not what the average person might imagine as a financier, it’s really great that this award recognises work to empower households and communities with low cost, safe and appropriate financial products.

How did you come to be working at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation? Describe your role there.  

In many developing countries, it is difficult for the private sector to serve the world’s poorest people because of their rural locations, low literacy levels and volatile transaction patterns. After three years working at Herbert Smith Freehills in London, I completed an MPA at the London School of Economics and then joined the Foundation in Seattle because I was attracted to the Foundation’s technology-driven and rigorous approach to economic development.

I work within the Financial Services for the Poor team, where we believe that everyone benefits from an economy that includes everyone. We are working towards a robust, open, and low-cost digital payment system that includes poor and rural households and enables them to become customers and suppliers within the wider economy.

Within the FSP team, I am a research specialist working with academics at Harvard, Yale, MIT and other research institutions to investigate innovative new models for the design, delivery and regulation of digital financial services in developing economies. I am specifically interested in how new technologies and trends including universal mobile coverage, low-cost smartphones, biometric authentication and social networking can be harnessed to create a financial system that is low-cost, fraud resistant and inclusive.  To learn more about our research in this area, you can read a recent post on our work in the Harvard Business Review.

Was it always in your plans to move to the US to live and work, or was it something that happened organically? 

It happened organically (without the use of pesticides or fertiliser).

What foundations did studying at the University of Sydney provide for you to go on to live overseas?

The University of Sydney was a great launching pad for life and a career overseas. After growing up in Wollongong, I moved to Sydney to study and after a short interlude discovering boys and pre-mixed alcoholic beverages, really enjoyed making the most of the various opportunities afforded by an urban and diverse campus. The University of Sydney Union is a huge part of student life and my days spent being engaged in various arts and sports communities were busy and fun. But mostly, being at Sydney meant that when abroad I had friends to meet (and a couch to surf) in almost every major city outside Australia.

Did you have a mentor when you first started your career? What are you most looking forward to with the Advance Global Australian Awards Mentoring program?

There were people that I admired or whose career trajectories I envied but looking back, I was slow to appreciate the value of work-related mentorship. Initially it struck me as a bit narcissistic and cheesy to formalise conversations about career development and I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it in a purposeful way, but I am now immensely grateful for the people I routinely call on when faced with a major life decision or a tricky professional issue. Having a trusted group of people to ask thoughtful and challenging questions about what you are spending your life doing is enormously valuable, and I hope to be able to be in some way useful to my mentee!

What are you most looking forward to at the 2016 Advance Global Australian Awards and Summit?

A decent flat white, meeting Dr Genevieve Bell and sneaking in a run around the Royal Botanic Gardens.