As part of our ongoing Growth Profiles series, meet Ulku Rowe, Technical Director in the Office of the CTO at Google Cloud and CapitalG Advisor. Read on to learn why she thinks financial services, long a leader in technology transformation, is still ripe for innovation and growth.
Ulku is a Technical Director in the Office of the CTO at Google Cloud, working with financial services industry players to help power their digital transformation. Before joining Google, she was a Managing Director of Technology at J.P. Morgan Chase and at Bank of America. Ulku holds an M.S. degree in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a member of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Fintech Advisory Group.
Tell us about your background and what brought you to Google.
Ulku: What drove me into financial services in the first place was some luck and a bit of intuition. I had just completed my graduate studies in computer science, and I had no idea what I wanted to do next. But I did know that I wanted three things in a career: I wanted to work with smart, driven people; I was looking for a space where applied innovation in computer science was being used to solve large-scale, real-world problems; and third, I wanted to work in an international setting.
At the time (this was about 20 years ago), financial services was leading the way in using technology to transform itself. I joined an international options trading firm in Chicago, one of the first in the world to use computational algorithms to model the financial world — way before AI modeling was even a thing. Over the next two decades, I have gotten to witness and play a role in how technology continues to transform global financial markets.
Today, I believe cloud computing and machine learning present the biggest technology shift in our generation. The opportunity to be part of that change, and to have a role in influencing how it redefines the industry, is fascinating. That’s what drove me to Google Cloud in 2017 and why I’m excited to be a CapitalG GTM advisory board member.
How have you seen consumer relationships with financial services evolve over the past few years with the expansion of technology? What does digital transformation look like for this industry?
Ulku: Financial services play a critical role in society, for individuals, businesses and the global economy. We all rely on those indispensable services in our daily lives, for everything from buying a coffee to investing for retirement. It’s critical that these services be easy to use, secure, low-cost, accessible, and available whenever we may need them.
From data analytics to AI to cloud, technology-driven solutions make all of this possible. The earlier focus was on delivering financial services digitally. Today, it’s about how to make those services more personal and frictionless. The next stage is ambient finance, where these services are embedded into our daily activities and available without the customer having to ask for them. Where the best financial options are presented to people automatically in an equitable, cost-effective way.
How can growth-stage companies differentiate their offerings from other financial service competitors?
Ulku: In my opinion, successful financial services companies share a few traits. They focus relentlessly on the customer. They build a technology platform that enables them to scale with resilience, security and agility. They have a deep understanding of the regulatory and compliance landscape. And finally, they know how to partner. In financial services, no firm can succeed alone — partnerships are critical to staying ahead in a crowded market.
What are the most meaningful ways you have seen financial services companies build trust with their customers?
Ulku: Just as with human relationships, trust is built over time by showing up consistently, doing what you say you will and being there in times of need. Every time you have a system outage, every time your advertising doesn’t match your product experience, every time your users can’t get their questions answered, trust gets eroded.
The most meaningful advances in customer trust in the last few years have come from companies that have increased financial inclusion by introducing new populations to their services. Peer to peer networks like PayPal and Venmo let people exchange funds as easily as exchanging emails. Low-cost international remittance services like Wise ease the burden of sending money abroad. Payment services like Stripe enable small businesses to participate in the online economy. Robinhood has introduced an entire generation to equity investing.
How has machine learning affected the financial services landscape? What has been your first-hand experience in this evolution?
Ulku: Machine learning (ML) has a long history in academia. I remember fondly the theoretical ML/AI classes I took in college. But for many years ML lacked large-scale applicability, due to challenges in managing large volumes of data and the scarcity of computational power. That changed with the availability of cloud computing. Even then, until a few years ago ML was an interesting but not quite actionable area for most financial institutions because of a variety of factors like complexity, regulatory uncertainty, and lack of talent.
Fast forward to today, most of the conversations are now around how to operationalize ML pipelines, best practices for model management, and talent growth. While we are still in the early days of adoption, we now have a glimpse of the massive impact AI, done right, can have in transforming financial services. Use cases span the entire lifecycle of financial services including customer understanding, support, risk management, identification of financial crime, optimizing operational efficiency, and more. We also see a lot more tech companies providing tools to make the use of AI easier and more understandable.
What advice would you have for founders seeking to enter financial services? Where are their biggest opportunities?
Ulku: My advice to founders is to approach the industry with a personal lens, and solve a problem that resonates with them. Financial services is one of the industries that is most ripe for disruption, and there have already been amazing successes. Of the 700-plus unicorns in the world with billion-dollar valuations, financial services is the number 1 industry with over 17% representation. Through the services they provide and the collaboration/competition they create, fintech founders are reshaping the financial industry. They are making banking more accessible to everyone; they are lowering the cost of transactions; they are providing credit to small and medium businesses, and more.
However, the transformation of financial services is far from complete. There is still too much friction in the user experience, costs are still too high, unbanked and underbanked populations are still too large. The biggest mistake right now would be not doing anything at all. The timing has never been better to start a new company to take on one of the remaining challenges in financial services.
I should add that my advice to founders is to find a way to get onto CapitalG’s radar. The level of expertise CapitalG brings to its portfolio companies through the Google and Alphabet network is unparalleled. As companies shift from start-up to scale-up, having access to high-caliber product, engineering, marketing, sales and operations expertise can be the difference in whether one makes it to that unicorn list or not!