Exploring Fintech’s Potential For Impacting Society Through The 2019 FinTech Challenge At Michigan Ross

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By Alex Johnson, MBA ’21 

Finance, technology, and social impact are words that are not often seen together. However, the fusion of these topics is precisely what we were tasked with thinking about as part of the 2019 FinTech Challenge, which took place at the Ross School of Business earlier this year.  

Specifically, the nearly 50 teams who participated were asked to develop a fintech solution to increase financial inclusion in rural Michigan. Despite my team’s (Corey Stearns, MBA ’21; Chashak Tulsyan, MBA ’21; Ledge Greenfield, MBA ’21) broad experience in finance, technology, and consulting, we knew this would not be an easy problem to solve; but being interested in fintech career paths, this challenge was an excellent opportunity to engage in action-based learning and build our knowledge of this space. 

The first step was to understand the financial problems facing those in rural Michigan. While looking at generalized statistics provided us with a solid foundation, we felt that engaging with rural Michigan residents in person would reveal insights left out of the statistics. After interviewing around a dozen rural residents at the Kerrytown Farmers Market in Ann Arbor, we discovered three key problems faced by rural Michiganders: distrust of digital banking; lack of proximity to brick-and-mortar banks; and, as a result, limited knowledge of the breadth of financial product offerings.  

The second step was for us to develop an impactful, but commercially viable, solution to address these issues. We determined that lack of trust in digital bank offerings was a key problem to solve, so we developed a plan for Carcajou -- a physical kiosk placed at the post office, staffed by a human, that is connected to digital banks to replicate a brick-and-mortar banking experience. 

Ultimately, we projected that Carcajou would be profitable for us, increase market share of our digital banking partners, and most importantly, put hundreds of thousands of dollars back in rural Michiganders’ pockets through access to a broader suite of financial products and offerings.

We thought our idea was pretty good, and a panel of expert judges, from J.P. Morgan, Oracle, startups, academia, and even the White House, agreed, awarding us first place in the FinTech Challenge!

While winning the top prize was satisfying, the ultimate award was the learning from the journey. Through the process, we were able to vastly increase our knowledge and understanding of digital banking, payment options, government partnerships, and the people of Michigan itself.  

Hearing feedback from judges, including University of Michigan Professor Adrienne Harris, who worked in the Obama administration before founding a successful fintech startup, was especially instrumental and one of the most memorable parts.