Innovation and ethics without overspending: Sangeeta Venkatesan of FairVine Super November 2019

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Super start-up FairVine has made a splash in tackling the gender balance disparity, and their chairperson, Sangeeta Venkatesan, isn't shy about calling out problems in the industry.

We spoke with Venkatesan, who herself has significant banking and finance experience about some of the ways they're approaching innovation without overspending and how to make the most of the skills of the people you've hired in your organisation.

What does innovation mean to you?

Innovation means trying to create something new, whether it’s a product, service, platform, or a single feature. It means doing things simpler, easier, faster, or cheaper, if possible. But it also needs to be meaningful. Creating something new just for the sake of doing so isn’t innovation. It has to serve a purpose, a need, a gap in the market.

You have significant experience in finance; how does that inform a venture where you’re trying to break the traditional way people engage with superannuation?

Working for nearly 25 years in the banking and finance sector, which is predominately male, has given me personal experience in the issues that women have in the workplace. I have also worked in many different countries, which gives me a better lens for comparison in how different markets address gendered outcomes, and insights into how Australia could be doing better.

There’s also the technical aspect – my experience in banking and finance has given the breadth and depth of knowledge to understand financial products more broadly, and how they can be designed to better serve the needs of women.

Thirdly, I bring a sound understanding of the regulations and structural issues in the market, which helps inform the products we design.

We sometimes view innovation as a synonym for expensive. How do you pursue different avenues of doing business without breaking the bank?

Innovation is not necessarily expensive – it comes down to who does it, and how you do it. It’s a lot easier for start-ups to innovate because they are agile and nimble. Looking at the superannuation industry in particular, I think larger funds want to innovate and create better products, but can they do it as quickly and easily as we can? No. There’s a lot more bureaucracy in larger organisations that makes it difficult to change – it’s costly, they have a lot of legacy technology and platforms that have to accommodate.

To pursue different avenues of doing business without breaking the bank, the product design and platform design needs to be agile and nimble enough to respond quickly to the changing circumstances and customer needs. You also need to look at how many tasks need to be performed by people and what can be automated. The right balance of efficiency and effectiveness ensures it doesn’t break the bank and at the same time ensures the job gets done.

Innovation is not necessarily expensive – it comes down to who does it, and how you do it.

At FairVine Super, we had a look at what we could outsource to specialists and what could be done in-house. We have ensured that the core innovation is done in the most cost-effective manner, with things like product design and platform design done internally, and other functions we have been able to outsource such as the trustee, administration, and investment management.

How do you foster a sense of innovation with the people in your organisation?

First and foremost, hire the right people, empower them with the right tools, and take them on a journey with you. It’s vital that they have bought into the company’s mission and core values.

Hiring the right people is crucial – for an emerging company like ours, it’s important that people at all levels have an entrepreneurial mindset.

From an investment perspective, what are some different ways FairVine is addressing the challenges women face with superannuation?

The products we have designed give women the option to increase their super contributions without breaking the bank. That’s one of the key things that separates FairVine Super from other funds.

Everyone talks about how it’s important to make voluntary contributions – particularly for women who have a different life cycle to men – but if the bar is too high (usually because saving a large lump sum is difficult and the complexity of the superannuation system makes it difficult to understand and engage with), then members won’t make them. We have created a product that simplifies the process and boils it down to small but regular contributions that are easier for members to make.

FairVine Super has also reduced the reliance that women have on employer contributions by simplifying voluntary contributions and also enabling them to earn super whenever they shop at certain brands. This makes saving for retirement more accessible for women who are not employed full-time, self-employed, part-time, or who are stay-at-home mums.

Lastly, we have an ethical lens in terms of all investments. This is followed across both investment strategies and allocation strategies. On the other side, we have also kept the fee structure simple and transparent.

Looking back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently?

No. I have taken risks, and some of these have not panned out. But every time I’ve been given the opportunity to choose a regular bread-and-butter job versus a more challenging and adventurous job, I have always chosen the latter.

Would I have had a more relaxed life if I had chosen the ‘regular’ jobs? Absolutely. But would that have brought me to where I am today? No. Therefore I have no regret about the career path I have followed.

What is something you’re passionate about?

I find it hard to perform conventional meditation, because trying to clear my mind and sit in one place for an extended period of time is difficult! So, I’ve coined a new phrase that I call ‘active meditation’ – which is basically running outdoors. This is how I am able to clear my mind and deal with the day’s stresses in a productive way, and I try to fit running into my week as often as I can.

The other thing that I’m passionate about is Formula One. I attend at least two races every year. I love how complex and intricate it is. While the race only shows the single driver and car, there are so many people working behind the scenes, and every millisecond counts. Combine the strategy and the speed, and you have an awesome game that relies on teamwork. It’s incredibly exciting to watch.

Are you looking forward to your own retirement someday? Or, do you see yourself ever leaving professional life?

Yes, in the sense that I would like to reduce the level of structure that I have in my life once I “retire”. For me, that’s what retirement is all about – it’s not about stopping work, but about having more flexibility. But I would want to keep doing things that add value. Having nothing to do would drive me insane.

My version of retirement would be more about having the luxury to live outside of the city, rather than not work. I would never leave a “professional life” per se, because I want to stay connected to what’s going on in the world and continue doing my part to help solve problems. I would love to do more in the philanthropy space, and food security is something that I’m particularly passionate about.

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