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Payments Powerhouses: Advancing Fintech Innovation with Sopnendu Mohanty, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Elevandi

In this instalment of Payments Powerhouses, we discuss fintech innovation, financial inclusion, and more with Sopnendu Mohanty, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Elevandi and Chief FinTech Officer of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

Payments Powerhouses Ep 12 Úna Dillon

Sopnendu Mohanty is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Elevandi, a non-profit created by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) in August 2021.

A veteran in the FinTech world, Sopnendu is armed with over 25 years of global experience in the financial sector covering financial services, technology, and innovation. He also serves as the Chief FinTech Officer of MAS.

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Welcome to Payments Powerhouses, Sopnendu. After spending two decades in finance and innovation, what made you switch from banking to the public sector?

Sopnendu: That’s a story I find hard to believe sometimes myself! I actually didn’t plan to make that switch – I’d say it was all an accident. The opportunity came along at some point in time, and I made the decision purely out of what my gut instinct told me. I don’t regret my decision at all, as the last seven years in the public sector of FinTech have been the best part of my life. And I am grateful to everyone whom I had the opportunity to work with throughout this time.

That’s great to hear! Tell us what excites you about the public sector.

Everything! Many of my friends have commented that I don’t do a job - instead, I’m indulging in a hobby. And I agree wholeheartedly. When your job becomes your passion and hobby, it actually keeps you motivated. You don’t feel tired anymore, as you’re able to stay focused and energised. You’re always optimistic about finding opportunities to do things better.

The good thing about my job is that it makes a lasting impact on people’s lives. Through my job, I find ways to make financial services more inclusive, equitable, and accessible for everyone. I am proud to be part of this impactful public good.

Now that we’re on the subject of the public sector, let’s talk about Elevandi. What does the word ‘Elevandi’ mean?

‘Elevandi’ means “lift off”. But I’ve also been told that it may also mean “wisdom of the elephant”. Either way, both interpretations fit very nicely with what we do at Elevandi. We work to uplift the conversations we have in the FinTech world, in terms of the digital economy, financial services, and equitable wealth distribution.

Why was Elevandi set up?

Elevandi takes its roots in the first-ever iteration of the Singapore Fintech Festival in 2016. What was originally intended to be a small seminar exploded into a massive event with at least 13,000 people in attendance.

As we continued to organise more iterations of the Singapore Fintech Festival, it eventually grew to become the world’s largest FinTech festival that was attended by at least 130 countries and even Heads of State. We realised that we needed to establish an institutional authority to back the festival’s remarkable success.

That’s how Elevandi was born. Elevandi’s objective is simple: to be the world’s most premium knowledge platform that is open to everyone regardless of status or wealth. Elevandi seeks to connect people from all over the world together, serving as a platform for them to share knowledge and insights with each other.

What other key milestones is Elevandi working towards?

We are working on an impact forum that will be set up in Kigali, Africa. We have already set up a board for this purpose, with key representatives hailing from different parts of the world, including Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

Singapore Fintech Festival will continue to be the core anchor, with these other events supporting it to generate more insights for Elevandi to work with.

Ultimately, we have to remind ourselves of why the Singapore Fintech Festival became so popular in the first place. As the most affordable and accessible FinTech event in the world, it serves as the platform for even ordinary programmers to connect with the best and brightest minds around the world.

This best represents our value system as a whole. We want to be a world-class knowledge hub that everyone recognises and turns to when needed.

I personally attended your inaugural Afro Asia FinTech Festival back in 2019, and I thought it was very exciting. It opened my eyes to the potential of FinTech in Kenya.

It’s surreal to think about how we can put together impactful events like these in other parts of the world from within Singapore. This truly shows that if you have that desire and hunger to build a world-class platform, the world will come together to make things work for you.

Having visibility into both the public sector and the private sector, what are some of the challenges and opportunities faced by companies in both sectors?

No matter what stage or sector a startup is in, there are a few key things that will always keep their founders awake at night: access to funding, talent, business models, macroeconomic challenges, and permissions. These are all part and parcel of the startup journey, whether the startup is based in Singapore or anywhere else in the world.

How is Elevandi bridging gaps to advance the FinTech ecosystem?

Elevandi looks at each individual building block and generates insights that are relevant to both the public and private sectors. With the input that we provide for these startups, they can then incorporate it into their growth strategies.

Elevandi also highlights potential issues before they happen. This is especially the case of highly-regulated industries, where some of the biggest risks emerge due to late policy changes. Consider a promising idea that requires time to build a product that can be brought to market. If the regulations are not clear or - God forbid - the regulations run against the product, then all that hard work and value are gone in an instant.

That’s one of Elevandi’s key responsibilities. We kickstart the necessary dialogues at an early stage to prevent such problems from happening. MAS’ FinTech Regulatory Sandbox is a great example of what Elevandi does, where policymaking works earlier than intended.

Through our process, we help companies to be more comprehensive, thoughtful, and balanced in their respective growth paths.

With this year’s biggest FinTech event (Singapore FinTech Festival) happening now, how is it different from previous iterations?

We took a big risk for this year’s Singapore Fintech Festival. Typically, global conferences are anchored around one common theme, with storytellers referencing others’ successes in their speeches.

This year, we’re changing things up by bringing the people behind these success stories to the festival. These people will share their own successes with no intermediaries stepping in to speak on their behalf. So you won’t see someone take to the stage to tell you about the awesome work X person did in the Philippines - X person will be telling their story themselves instead.

However, I am also aware that these people are relatively unknown - that’s why bringing them to the festival is a big risk in and of itself.

That said, we ultimately decided that as people are exiting the lockdowns and quarantines of COVID-19, resilience should be at the top of their minds. And this begins with us taking the risk by bringing the people behind the success stories to the festival. Everyone has a personal story to tell, regardless of their industry.

On one hand, we have a Nobel Laureate speaking about the social aspect of ESG. And on the other hand, we have Stuart Haber, the co-inventor of the blockchain. Essentially, what we have is a wide range of speakers representing different verticals, and they’re all going to be present at SFF 2022.

Are there any particular stories you’re looking forward to?

Project Ruby immediately comes to mind. We invited a speaker who is a key part of this project, and he will share more about how it has brought the FinTech and international security industries together to combat child pornography. This fascinating story demonstrates how a particular set of data can be viewed from a different angle to indict the perpetrators of child pornography.

We will also have people with alternative viewpoints we may not agree with. For example, there are people who take a contrarian stance towards climate change, and we also have others who will question the growth of digital transformation.

The prime spotlight will be cast on our future digital bank CEOs. Almost every key company who secured a digital bank license in the last few years will be in Singapore, so now is an opportune time to open the stage for them. They are the future of finance, and I know they have exciting stories to tell during the festival.

The theme for this year’s SFF is ‘Building Resilient Business Models amid Volatility and Change’. In your perspective, have investors and company leaders been focusing on the “wrong” business performance indicators?

This has been quite a heated subject of debate now. The KPIs and metrics that were once hailed as the holy grail may not necessarily hold the same water anymore.

Take out all the noise and you’ll find that what a successful business really needs is a product or service that accomplishes the following:

  • Is useful
  • Has cash flows
  • Has a real impact on people’s lives
  • Has a substantial value that people can feel and understand

The metrics which were used to evaluate valuation have increasingly been called into question. And you can see a lot of corrections taking place to fix some of these issues.

What advice would you have for business leaders and executives, amidst these past years of uncertainty and change?

Personally, I wish things weren't that bad. But these downturns are all part of the overall journey. These downturns are invaluable, as they’ll teach you lessons that you may not necessarily be able to learn elsewhere.

As an example, people still continue to question the viability of digital banks and whether they’ll be profitable. I suspect that in this extraordinary time of global inflation, it is the digital banks who will come in with a groundbreaking business model that will establish a new benchmark for the financial sector.

There has been a spotlight on sustainability at SFF for several years now, since around 2019. How has the conversation around sustainability changed over the years, and especially amidst the recent pandemic and economic pressures?

Awareness surrounding ESG is definitely much bigger now compared to the past. The numbers speak for themselves. There has been a flurry of conversations surrounding standards, disclosures, taxonomies, and so on.

As the Chief Technology Officer at Elevandi and more broadly as a tech representative in the ESG sector, my role is to identify platforms that serve as the infrastructure needed for ESG to go mainstream.

Accessing data is the core part of this whole infrastructure. This is data that is trusted, monitored, and cannot be changed. And the first step we have to take is to ensure that access to this data is a non-negotiable platform before we can really scale ESG deployments.

But this is easier said than done, given how the dataset is pulled from multiple jurisdictions. Furthermore, different people have varying interpretations about how data is moved from country to country.

Project Greenprint reflects MAS’ commitment to using ESG data responsibly. This is a collection of initiatives that harness technology and data to build a transparent, trustworthy, and efficient ESG ecosystem that enables green and sustainable finance.

Project Greenprint comprises three M’s:

  • Mobilise capital
  • Monitor implementations
  • Measure the impact

Project Greenprint is still in its infancy, but it represents something very exciting for all of us in the future.

Singapore was recently announced to have become Asia’s number 1 financial hub and third overall in the world, according to the Global Financial Centres Index. What would you say are the key ingredients or factors for a city to become a successful FinTech hub?

On a broad level, Singapore’s success is attributed to the government’s comprehensive and coordinated approach to FinTech. Yes, Singapore is a small country, but that hasn’t stopped it from doing the hard work to make things work.

As a country, we have been very open and progressive towards innovation. At the same time, we adhere to a strict regulatory standard, refusing to compromise on our stance no matter the circumstances.

What’s one thing that you think Singapore is doing right and should continue to focus on?

Before I answer this question, let’s consider the three types of capital that a startup needs to grow: intellectual, financial, and human capital.

In Singapore’s case, we’ve been performing well on the intellectual and financial fronts. But where human capital is concerned, we’ve been struggling. This is partly due to design - we’re a small country and don’t have enough people to meet the growing demands of the world we live in. Furthermore, technology is just moving so fast within Singapore, and the upscaling process is not able to keep up despite the country’s best efforts.

So I’d say we definitely have to do so much more to develop Singapore’s human capital. And this isn’t easy too - you can’t just ask people to read a book and become experts this way. They need to be extensively educated, accumulate real experience with coding, and also have access to projects.

These resources don’t necessarily live and breathe in Singapore, and could very well exist outside of the country. What this means is that in order for Singapore to build a global talent pool, our local industry must first be diverse. I’m talking about pulling the best minds from different countries coming together to collaborate.

Whatever is created must work as well in India as it does in the Philippines and Indonesia. And this cannot be achieved without global collaboration. That’s why it’s so important to provide support and give respect to global talent, making them feel comfortable to migrate to Singapore to live and work here.

Speaking of connecting Singapore to the world, coming from the payments industry, much has been said and done to improve cross-border payments connectivity here. How will initiatives like the linking of QR payment rails by the ASEAN-5 (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines) governments benefit the region?

By streamlining payment processes this way, you definitely make your commercial activities much simpler and more seamless. People become more incentivised to make things work, and the entire region thus benefits as a whole.

This is especially so in a challenging region like Asia, where local businesses are often frugal in their operations. Take a local coffee shop in a small town as an example. Given their limited budget, a QR printout on their storefront is very likely the most ideal approach.

I’d say QR is a very durable product that works and can be scaled for any operation.

There has been lots of chatter about CBDCs helping to solve problems with cross-border transfers. What's your personal opinion on the outlook of CBDC initiatives in Southeast Asia?

The best way to explain this is to consider how the future of finance is heading straight toward the tokenisation of assets. This comes with many implications.

One of these implications is that you’ll need a new currency to buy and sell tokenised assets. At present, these assets are unfortunately highly speculative cryptocurrencies. That’s why CBDCs are being created; backed and controlled by central banks, they serve as a counter to the unregulated nature of cryptocurrencies.

On LinkedIn, one of the things you mention you take pride in is “hacking people’s ability to make an impact” (or “promoting empathy”). Why is this important to you, and how do you put this into practice?

“Hacking people’s ability to make an impact” is my value proposition. This stems from my roots in India, where I grew up under challenging circumstances that required me to depend on many people around me to move forward.

This notion of tapping into people’s potential to make an impact was something of a survival skill for me. In order to press forward, I did not just have to make friends. These friends also needed to be competent people who carried the potential to be purposeful and impactful in their work.

In turn, this has paid huge dividends in my public life, where I put together policies that influence people. My current position is perfect in this regard, allowing me to utilise my skills to influence and “hack” the people around me to make things work.

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Payments Powerhouses is a monthly editorial series interviewing the movers and shakers of the payments and wider fintech industry in Southeast Asia and beyond. If you’d like to be featured on Payments Powerhouses, reach out to us here.