Innovating with humanity in mind. (Episode 54)

Interview with Valla Vakili, Managing director and Head of Studio at Citi Ventures.

Should companies be philanthropic? Should a bank? COULD a bank? I am afraid that many people would answer “no” to these questions. It is the objective of this text to get us to think that the answers should be “yes”, and that we should take a more philanthropic approach to innovation.

Because the origin of the word “philanthropic” is “for the love of humanity” (phil = love, anthrōpos = mankind). So to be philanthropic is to do something for the love of humanity. And if there is one trend that has grown stronger in the last few years it is the insight in the corporate world that companies can not just exist to serve its customers and make money for its shareholders. It must also exist for the better benefit of us all.

I talked about innovation with humanity in mind with Valla Vakili, Managing director and Head of Studio at Citi Ventures. Studio is an product incubation team that sits within Citi Ventures, where Valla and his team develop products and services that drive economic vitality for people, businesses, and cities

The old model of business is, well, old. It used to be: Identify a problem that people have, look at what the competitors are doing, find a hole in the market and then solve that problem by offering a better solution.

The new model of business is: Identify a problem, look at what the competitors are doing and then zoom out and look at the bigger picture. From there, zoom in again, and then solve the problem by offering a better solution.

It’s that zooming out that makes all the difference. Like a painter taking a step back to get a full understanding of what they have created.

Through Studio, Citi Ventures is making a conscious decision to develop solutions that are grounded in the larger societal impact.

A recent example of this is City Builder by Citi, which is a data-driven platform that is free to use and was designed to give investment professionals and community representatives the data they need to easily visualize and explore investments that are focused on making communities more inclusive and equitable. To help future leaders, Studio runs the Citi® University Partnerships in Innovation & Discovery or CUPID program. Through this program, students from top universities, many of whom are women, people of color, and/or come from non-traditional backgrounds, are embedded within Citi and are given the chance to work on and solve complex real world problems during their time as interns.

Valla said to me: “For most of my career, the business I was working on and this idea of the greater good, were two separate things. Finally, they are coming together.”

This is not only happening at Citi Ventures. As part of my career, I have been interviewing heads of innovation in large companies for over 25 years, and it’s clear that an additional layer of perspective has been added for many companies in the last couple of years. Let’s call it the philanthropic layer.

I asked Valla: “What does it mean to innovate when the primary driver is societal?” He paused for a minute and then reflected: “It starts with redefining which problem you are really solving. We still need to ask ourselves ‘What problems are people having?’, but we also need to ask ourselves ‘What problem does society have?’”

And then he added one thing that really resonated with me, he said: “It’s not about scaling the business, it’s about scaling the scope—about scaling the problem.”

Not “How do we grow more food?”, but “How do we grow more food by not ruining the ecosystem?”

Not “How do we get more women into the workforce?” but “How do we enable families to make enough money without losing the connection to their young children?”

Not “How do we get soft drinks to as many people as possible?” but “How do we quench the thirst of as many people as possible in a healthy way both for them and for the planet?”

Scale out. And yet the end solution needs to solve the actual problem of the end user. So scale out, and then zoom in again.

So how has Citi Ventures worked with this bigger societal innovation approach? Valla told me that one way was how the Studio team realised that for many people the big problem was not how to take care of their money, but it was much more fundamental than that: Their problem was “How do I MAKE enough money?” and so the team developed Worthi by Citi, a free, online platform that provides market insights and resources for workers to improve their skills to earn more in today’s evolving job market.

While it may seem surprising that Citi is behind a tool like this, it’s simply a product of the company’s commitment to innovating and finding ways to support the modern bank customer. Traditionally, banks have been used for large life milestones: checking and savings accounts, mortgages, loans, and other more “obvious” aspects of financial support. But the bank of the future isn’t just one where individuals go to manage their money; they’ll also be a place where the everyday person can find ways to earn more as well.

What problem is your product or service solving? For who? Now scale the problem: What bigger problem are you solving? From a societal perspective? A country perspective? A global perspective? A planetary perspective? A multi generational perspective?

Scaling out to define a bigger problem will give you a bigger picture, a broader perspective, a deeper understanding and a wider point of view.




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