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Redesigning Finance in Detroit

An hour before my hotel alarm goes off, I’m thrown awake by a chorus of hammers, trucks and drills from the construction outside. Where am I? Right, Detroit. The city of a legendary decline and an even more legendary revival. I’ve heard enough “dark” stories to shape my groggy and not so pleasant image of this city – but it’s an image that will be shattered in just a few days.

About a month ago, CNote was invited to participate in the FinTech program sponsored by Village Capital and Paypal. The program focuses on supporting entrepreneurs creating innovative financial solutions for underserved communities and small businesses. It is in a perfect alignment with CNote and I was  excited for the opportunity to learn from other companies sharing a common mission to democratize finance. Detroit was chosen as a destination for the first program workshop. First skeptical of the choice, once we got there, it became clear why Detroit. On the way from the airport, we passed by urban farms – huge white greenhouses in once deserted parking lots at the borderline of downtown Detroit. Not exactly what I pictured about the city in dismay – I was intrigued.

compressed vilcap_1The next four days we spent together with other 11 companies, learning about the big problems each of us are solving, about huge numbers of underserved individuals and businesses seeking access to basic financial services, and solutions our companies are designing to correct the inequality. To say that it was inspiring is like saying Steve Jobs was just another businessman – each day after hours of intense discussions, hard questions, personal stories about what drives us and why we won’t stop, we left even more energized to work on what could change in the lives of millions.These are people who have been largely ignored by a massive unfeeling financial industry And yes, we are talking about millions…millions who don’t understand what they get charged in their medical costs, millions who can’t drive because they can’t get the car insurance, millions who don’t have emergency funds saved to start their lives after an earthquake, millions whose houses get damaged in the hurricanes, millions who are behind their financial goals, millions who don’t get access to capital to start their business, millions who became a victim of online fraud, millions who can’t pay expenses for the their families in their home countries…These are not just millions, but millions of individuals with their own goals, aspirations, desires, needs which must be respected and met no different from others who are more privileged. And that’s why Village Capital and PayPal brought us together in Detroit to help build the tools that will serve these faceless millions who have been overlooked too long.

As we were getting deeper and deeper into conversations about how broken the existing financial system is, and ways we intend to rebuild it to serve people and to proclaim financial inclusion and financial freedom, I suddenly had an “aha” moment – how symbolic it is to have these discussions in Detroit, the city that was brought down to its knees by human greed, the city that is being brought back to life by human faith, creativity and altruism. It takes a community to rebuild the city, so as the financial system. We could not be in a better company than 11 others in the Village Capital program. We at CNote are excited for what is to come, we hope you are too!

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