Financial technology industry leader believes Australia can be a major player in this increasingly China-led sector
(Ma Xuejing / China Daily)
When Danielle Szetho was appointed CEO of FinTech Australia, she knew it was going to be a challenge, but one she was well prepared for.
At the time, she said her vision was to make Australia one of Asia’s leading markets for fintech innovation. That vision remains unchanged.
Incorporated last year, FinTech Australia is a national association for fintech startups, with 120 member companies.
While fintech may not be headline-grabbing, it is changing our lives almost on a daily basis in terms of how we bank and how we pay for things.
It is a sector of the Australian economy that is being noticed overseas, especially in China where fintech innovation is opening endless possibilities for Australian startups. It is also providing lucrative investment opportunities for Chinese companies.
Back in April, Chinese investment giants Tencent Holdings and Sequoia Capital China were among investors in Australian startup Airwallex.
“Chinese investors have a lot to gain from investing in Australia’s fintech sector,” Szetho said.
“Already we are starting to see Chinese fintech firms establishing bases in Australia given Australia’s world record for uninterrupted economic growth and long-standing cultural links between the two countries.”
She firmly believes Australia can be a major player in the fintech and technology sector.
“The problem we have in Australia is that we don’t leverage our strengths,” Szetho said.
Recruited from media group Fairfax, Szetho began her new role as FinTech Australia’s first CEO on July 1 last year.
She was born in Malaysia, and her Malay-Chinese family moved to South Australia when she was just 1 year old.
“My father was recruited by a mining company in South Australia, so I spent the first five years of my life in Adelaide,” she said.
“Then mum moved to Sydney and dad went to Melbourne and I have been traveling between the two cities ever since.”
From an early age, Szetho was drawn to mathematics, science and the arts. But it was science and technology that fired her imagination.
“Technology is changing our lives,” she said.
“One of my challenges is to try and get ordinary people to understand and engage with technology, especially when applied to financial services. On top of that, we need to make it accessible to all.
“Too often we hear: Technological change is fine if you are living in urban centers but what about those living in remote areas? It is a question relevant to most of our region.”
She also makes the point that, in Australia, “we have to focus on what we are good at”.
“It is no point trying to be all things to everyone, but we can develop technology that is unique to us.”
One area is blockchain technology — a field in which Australian work has raised the interest of Chinese companies.
Put simply, blockchain is an ever-expanding public ledger of transactions. Secure from tampering, the distributed database has complete information about the addresses and their balances, right from the genesis block to the most recently completed block.
To use conventional banking as an analogy, blockchain is like a full history of banking transactions.
“Where can this be applied? Well, take agriculture,” Szetho said.
“Blockchain will follow the movement of a commodity from the farm to the end destination, wherever that may be within your home country or overseas.
“It will record all documentation and ensure that people are paid. Not in three months’ time but within days,” she said.
“This is something we are doing a lot of work on, and there are companies here in Australia that have attracted Chinese blockchain companies.”
Szetho said blockchain has wide application, especially in agriculture and in the mining sectors.
In her view, within 12 to 18 months, China will be a world leader in blockchain technology — but Australia “will be close behind”.
“When it comes to this technology, Australia is punching well above its weight,” she added.
Although Australia has some of the best regulatory standards in the world, the challenge, especially for fintech, is to pull them all together, she said.
That is why Szetho believes FinTech Australia needs to bring all parties together from accelerators, hubs, venture capital and the government to promote the benefits of “this new technology”.
The biggest problem technology innovation faces in Australia is investment, and governments that say a lot but fail to match the rhetoric with hard cash.
Even so, this has not stopped foreign investors from looking around.
Last year, a delegation of Chinese entrepreneurs from three of China’s most promising fintech startups spent three months in Sydney advising Australian startups on how to launch in China, while also looking at how they, the Chinese companies, can expand into Western markets.
In a sign of closer fintech trade ties between Australia and China, Stone & Chalk, a Sydney-based independent fintech hub, in August launched its Fintech Asia incubation exchange, which it describes as the first cross-border fintech incubator between Australia and Asia.
Yiming Wu, chief executive of S Capitol, which provides cash management services for more than 1,000 Chinese startups, said he is considering Sydney as the location for the 18-month-old company’s first overseas office.
“The Sydney venture capital investment is growing very fast and, for us, Sydney could become a test pad for the entire Western market,” he said.
S Capitol, which has a relationship with Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, is currently managing 1.2 billion yuan (US$175 million) in cash for its Chinese startup clients.
Szetho said there are other factors that drive Chinese fintech companies to Australia: Tourism and education.
For example, RoyalPay, which holds the Australian license for Tencent’s WeChat Payment service, will help the company understand Australian regulation and help develop relationships with local retailers. But its target will be those Chinese studying in Australia and Chinese tourists visiting Australia.
Morgan Stanley and PwC in China say WeChat Payment has 300 million cards loaded into its digital wallet and will look to grow mobile payment services to Chinese tourists in Australia while working to open Chinese e-commerce opportunities to Australian merchants. So far, 300 local businesses are already on board.
Szetho said the opportunities are “endless”.
Even the Australian government’s recent federal budget, handed down on May 9, included some encouragement for the sector, she said.
“It proposed expanding Australia’s fintech regulator environment to allow fintech businesses to test a wider range of fintech products without needing a license.”
She said this appeared to reaffirm the government’s commitment to Australia’s fintech industry. “It sees the industry as a driver of increased consumer choice and jobs growth in financial services.
“What remains to be seen is its implementation, and that will be the real test. Unless we can get many of the initiatives in the fintech sector off the ground, we will fall behind,” Szetho said.
“Unless we can get local investors to commit to the sector, then don’t be surprised if we see Chinese investors filling the space.”
CEO, FinTech Australia
2011-13: Australian Graduate School of Management, University of New South Wales, Australia
2012: MBA, international exchange program, UCLA Anderson School of Management, Los Angeles, California
2001-04: Bachelor of digital media, University of New South Wales
2017: Member, Digital Finance Advisory Committee, Australian Securities & Investments Commission
2016-present: CEO, FinTech Australia
2014-16: Industry head, banking and finance, Fairfax Media, Australia
2014: Head of data partnerships, Fairfax Media
2013-14: Manager, data commercialization and campaign analytics, Fairfax Media
2012-13: News product manager, Fairfax Media
2003-11: Cofounder, design agency Binalogue, Australia
What is your career goal?
To lead innovative, high-performing teams to deliver projects and products that improve the way people live, work and play.
What advice would you give someone wanting to get into the technology sector today?
Go overseas and learn as much as you can. Yes, we have a ‘brain drain’ of talent, but a lot of that talent is coming back home (to Australia) and bringing their skills and knowledge with them.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
My father, Patrick. He was global best practice lead for the M&A (mergers and acquisitions) team for (mining giant) BHP Billiton. Not only did he give me a healthy dose of global perspective and ambition, he started to teach me about market dynamics and how to operate with integrity at a very early age. He has pushed me beyond my boundaries, so that I could be confident enough to voice my perspective in any forum.
How do you find time to relax?
I make time. You have to. I make it a point to keep my weekends free to chill out.
Born: July 11, 1982