#FPD: Fintech product essentials and the role of women in the sector with Monica Millares of BigPay
In this latest edition, we spoke to Monica Millares, Product Leader at BigPay and avid fintech equality and sustainability advocate. Monica is the host of the Fintech Product Podcast (Career advice for women in fintech) and publishes the weekly newsletter Connecting the dots in FinTech APAC in collaboration with the fintech news mogul, Marcel Van Oost. She’s also on the Advisory Board of the Australian e-learning platform, PayEd.
Monica joined Malaysian fintech startup BigPay in 2017 after spending nearly 9 years in the UK working for financial giants like Visa and Barclays and fintech pioneer Tandem Bank. She was part of BigPay’s founding team and instrumental in building and launching what is now one of the fastest-growing fintechs in Southeast Asia. Over the past 5 years, BigPay has expanded its offering beyond digital money accounts to include various regulated financial products such as international remittance, micro-insurance, and digital personal loans. With over 1.2 million carded and transacting users on the platform, the neobank closed a $100m funding deal in 2021 and is on a mission to become the leading challenger bank in the region.
What’s it like to build a fintech’s product operations from scratch, what are some of the biggest challenges fintech product professionals currently face, and why is supporting women key for the future success of the fintech sector? Learn the answers in Monica’s complete story below.
How did you end up doing product in fintech? Can you please share a bit about your career journey so far?
I’m originally from Mexico, so my career journey started at a development bank in Mexico and my first role happened to be in product management.
After 3 years, I decided to move to the UK to pursue a master’s degree at the London School of Economics (LSE). Since my Bachelor’s degree was in Industrial Engineering, at that time, I wanted to focus and specialise in something more relevant to my financial services product experience, so I opted for technology.
From a young age, I was fascinated by the impact that financial services could have on people, especially those in the lower economic classes.
Following the completion of my studies, I landed my first job in the UK at Visa, where I gained valuable experience in global sales account management. Although I did not work on product development, I had the opportunity to work with big clients like Barclays, Citibank, and HSBC, analysing their portfolios and gaining a better understanding of how global financial systems worked at that moment.
From there, I moved to Barclays and was responsible for existing customer management on the credit card side of the bank. Whilst that role wasn’t product-specific, it still gave me the opportunity to work with marketing, data science, operations, customer service, and finance — practically with every single stakeholder within the business. Such that every single time that we launched a campaign, the whole team was ready to action, whatever had to be actioned. Despite this, I really missed being in “product” at that time, so I decided to speak with my manager and see if there were any opportunities. And eventually, I moved to the product team within Barclays.
In 2015, while I was still working at Barclays, I began my transition to the fintech industry. At the time, the fintech scene in the UK was just starting to take off. It was during this time that I met Ricky Knox, the founder of Tandem Bank. We hit it off, and it seemed like a good match.
What was the transition from a corporate to a startup like?
Joining Tandem Bank was the determining step in my full-blowing career in fintech ahead. When I was going to move from Barclays, people were curious, and asked: Where are you going? I told them I was joining a new bank. Then they asked: What’s its name? But it didn’t have one yet, as it was the very beginning, and I was one of the first employees there.
Coming from a corporate background with all the structures, processes, and operations in place, transitioning to the fintech scene was like entering the Wild West. It was exciting, but also daunting. However, working directly with the founders, who were serial entrepreneurs, made it more thrilling and gave a lot of room and freedom for the execution of the procedures, impacting the decisions that led Tandem to success eventually.
The founder of Tandem, Ricky, is very purpose-driven, and we aligned every week on the mission of the company. We were there to build a good bank, help people with their money, and relieve them of their financial stress. It is a passion-driven and mission-driven company, and that made my fintech journey purposeful and exciting.
But, there was another side to it. Coming from a big corporate bank, where I had a whole team at my disposal, I found it challenging to be the first and only product person in Tandem at the time. When I met the CPO for the first time, I asked him what my role was. His answer was: “Well, you’re the expert in credit cards so you need to launch credit cards”. I was stunned and slightly confused, and I next asked: “What do you mean I’m an expert in credit cards?” His answer was: “Well, you know way more than anyone else here. So that’s why you are the expert”.
I used to believe that working in big corporations would offer me more opportunities, bigger budgets, and more money. But I was proven wrong. Sure, they may have more money, but in a large organisation, you are a small piece in a huge machine, with limited responsibilities and little autonomy.
This all changed when I joined startup Tandem Bank. There, we were building the machine from scratch, and it was an exhilarating experience. I loved the freedom to explore and innovate without being bogged down by restrictive procedures. I realized I thrive in a fast paced environment with a bit of chaos.
So where did you start from? How did you build Tandem’s credit card product foundations?
One of my strengths is that I am organized and structured and I like to think systematically. So basically that’s what I did — I created a system. I approached the project like starting a campaign from scratch, so I started by mapping out all the elements needed for it.
Did you face any challenges during that process?
I loved driving Tandem’s credit cards product and the founders and management team were really supporting throughout the entire process. But the biggest challenge that I had was the fact that I was still quite junior so when I was dealing with big technology partners, for example, I lacked confidence. On top of this, most of the time, I was the only woman in the room facing British white men with gray hair, and as I was on the client side, I had to manage them and them what to do. I found that intimidating.
What really helped me overcome that challenge was the fact that I was very much focused on personal development and life coaching. It was a mindset game...It was my own mindset and my own drive that helped me push through along with having amazing founders on the side.
Tandem embraced me for who I am and they believed in me. They offered me a space I could thrive in and that was priceless.
In 2017, you decided to move to Malaysia and joined the local fintech startup BigPay. What made you do the move?
As part of Tandem’s story, there was a point where the entire company was at risk. As part of the restructure, I started working closely with Ricky on the management of the Board to help keep things afloat. It was a critical time for the company’s survival.
During this period, I received a phone call from a headhunter who asked if I was interested in a new opportunity in Malaysia. At first, I declined because I wanted to stay in the UK. But a month later, the headhunter called me again and asked if I had heard of Richard Branson. I said yes, and he told me that Tony, the Richard Branson of Asia who owns AirAsia, wanted to start a bank. The founders were in London and they really wanted to meet me. The headhunter urged me to go for a coffee and said I had nothing to lose. So I thought, why not?
Long story short, I met with the founders and had many conversations that ultimately led to me moving to Malaysia to join their team. It was a huge risk, but I took the plunge. The most difficult part was saying goodbye to Ricky and the founding team of Tandem, but in the end, it was the best decision I ever made.
When I joined Tandem, there weren’t many fintechs in Europe or Asia, so it was a great opportunity to learn from management and be part of the team that built the bank. But now, I saw a chance to leave the nest and become a part of the leadership team in a new place, and I took it.
What advice would you give to anyone considering to pursue a career in fintech product management?
Working in a startup is challenging by its nature. It’s hard. It can be extremely difficult as you will be working long hours. Things might go wrong, and there will be a lot of stress because if you don’t deliver, the company doesnt survive and everyone loses their job. Therefore, it’s crucial to like the work you’ll be doing. If you are only joining a fintech company because it seems sexy in the media but you don’t really care about it, then it’s not the right choice for you. You should pursue something you enjoy doing.
The second most important factor when joining a fintech startup is the people you’ll work with. They are crucial to your success and the success of the company. The third factor is a mix of saying “yes” and figuring it out as you go.
When working in product development, the top challenge is to have a crystal clear understanding of why you are doing what you’re doing and the objective you want to achieve. You should also be clear on your target audience and the problem you are solving for them. In fintech, there may be different cohorts of users, so it’s important to design with them in mind. Understanding the purpose and target audience makes a product and everything else make complete sense. That’s fundamental.
One way to tackle this challenge is to come up with an effective framework. A common framework includes starting with the context of the project, the problem statement, what you want to do, why you believe you can make a difference, the customers you will be serving, the customer problems you will be solving, target dates, regulatory restrictions, necessary licenses or permissions, potential partners, and the economic viability of the project.
Context is super important. Look out for context and formulate the problem statement. Define the following: this is what we want to do. This is why we believe we can make a difference or why we can win. These are the customers that we will be serving and these are the customer problems that they will have. These are the dates. So, these are fundamental things any fintech startup should have in place.
If you asked me what one trait any product manager in Fintech should have, I would say critical thinking. Critical thinking is the ability to understand the root cause of a problem and apply the first principles of thinking. It also means thinking about the entire ecosystem and understanding how every decision will have ripple effects in other departments or touchpoints. It’s important to remember that we don’t have all the answers and that every decision we make will have an impact. As a product manager, it’s crucial to be able to connect the dots, ask questions, and challenge assumptions.
Overall, building new fintech products from scratch and working in a startup can be challenging. But with the right mindset and approach, it can also be highly rewarding.
You’re a very passionate equality and diversity advocate in the fintech sector, so why is this?
I have been working in the financial services industry for several years, across different countries such as Mexico, the UK, and Malaysia. In my experience, there seems to be a noticeable difference between men and women in the industry. Men tend to be more assertive and upfront when asking for what they want, creating a “mate” culture that can be intimidating for women. As a woman in the fintech sector, I have noticed that we lack the peer network that men seem to have, making it difficult to find Champions advocating for our career advancement and giving guidance on how to manage difficult situations.
Unfortunately, despite the potential for change in fintech, esearch and media reports show that although fintech is slightly better than traditional finance, there is still a long way to go to achieve equality. As we’re doing this interview right before International Women’s Day, I reflect on my perception of women and personal development in the fintech sector.
In my opinion, one of the main issues is that women tend to be less assertive when it comes to career development. Women often overwork to close the pay gap, but when it comes to asking for what we want, we don’t always speak up. I have read that men tend to ask for what they want more often than women, and I have personally witnessed this to be true in the industry.
Another issue is the lack of structures and transparency in the industry. Many fintech startups lack clear career progression plans, titles, responsibilities, and pay bands. This lack of clarity makes it difficult for women to know what they should be working towards and how they can progress in their careers.
If we want to see a change in the fintech industry, we need to address these issues. We need to create more Champions advocating for women’s career and salary advancement in their respective organizations, and we need to provide clear structures and transparency in career development and pay bands. By doing so, we can see actual results and change, not just diversity and empowerment talk.
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