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Women in Funds: a conversation on innovation, technology and diversity

Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH) co-hosted our third annual Women in Funds event at FundForum International 2019 in Copenhagen along with SEB. The event was attended by business leaders from across the asset management and fund services industry. Learn more about the insights shared below.

BBH’s Ainun Ayub stepped out of her normal role as Alternative Fund Servicing Product Manager for Europe and Asia to sit down with keynote speaker futurologist Christiane Vejlø. As advisor to the Danish Government, Christiane helps the disruption council to power their potential. They discussed how businesses are adapting quickly to change their relationship with technology and the key roles that diversity and inclusion play in future success across all industries.

Ainun: You say true innovation only happens in cross sections. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Christiane: If you want to be truly inspired and create something new, you need to step away from the circles you normally move in. Some of the biggest inventions throughout history have occurred as a result of serendipitous moments. Penicillin is one example – Alexander Fleming, who was experimenting with the influenza virus, returned from a trip to discover a mold had formed in an open petri dish and killed off all the surrounding bacteria. This led to the invention of penicillin.

The modern business world is very different to this example, but let's say you work in a role where you're always around people who move in the same circles and go to the same conferences as you. It's unlikely this will provide you with the inspiration you need to do something unique.

If you want to be truly disruptive, you need to match yourself up with people who think differently from you. By that I don't mean an individual working in another area in the same organization, but someone who is in a completely different line of business.

As an example, a pediatric heart surgeon wanted to speed up his operations, so he could improve his patients' outcomes. He didn't look at what other doctors were doing – instead, he went to a Formula One team to learn how they could change tires and oil in seconds. Another example would be a city planner talking to a biologist who is an expert on ants to find out how ants build their homes.

Moving in different circles is even more important in today's digital world, in which technology presents us with things we might like based on what we've liked in the past. It can be difficult to discover things that are completely different from our norm.

Another way to find true innovation is to build a team that isn't simply based on the ranking of your colleagues. Include people such as the administrative assistant and ensure there is diversity in terms of gender, age, location, ranking, ethnicity, and religion. We can be blind and biased if we don't have that type of diversity.

We talk a lot about disruption in the financial services space and you're working with the former Danish Prime Minister on the “digital future.” What do you see as the digital future?

The future is certainly digital and more things are being digitized all the time. There are many advantages to that but there are also some important challenges.

"If you want to be truly inspired and create something new, you need to step away from the circles you normally move in."

We are trying to be efficient and spend money the right way, but we have to be very careful because a lot of efficiency innovations are based on citizen data, which is personal and sensitive. On the one hand we are being innovative and moving forward, but on the other hand it is important to take a break and ask ourselves, “Why are we doing this? What sort of world do we want to live in?”

Which areas are ripe for disruption?

We had the Industrial Revolution which was about machines coming in to take over hard physical labor. Now we have machines that are beginning to take over what some people might describe as the more mechanical, or even “boring,” labor. It is the calculations and spreadsheets – all the things we outsource to people who have expertise in that area.

Insurance, accounting, and banking have several components that could be taken over by artificial intelligence (AI). However, in all of this it is important that we keep the “human factor.” I don't want an accountant who can't speak my language as a human. They might be the best at the numbers, but if he or she can't relate those numbers to my company there is no use for that person anymore.

Therefore, if you want to prepare yourself for disruption you might need to become even more human than you are now. If the way you talk to, email, and meet your customers becomes too mechanical, then you cannot compete against the machines.

What is the “upgrade trend” and how does that relate to diversity and innovation in today's companies?

Software is being continuously upgraded and my suggestion is you try to be inspired by this. In today's world you don't just create a product or service and that's it – there should always be version 2.0 or 3.0. Similarly, you can't expect to create a business today which carries on as it is for 100 years.

"I don't want an accountant who can't speak my language as a human. They might be the best at the numbers, but if he or she can't relate those numbers to my company there is no use for that person anymore."

You have to continuously reinvent yourself and ask, “How can I upgrade this product, this situation, this part of my communication?” If you introduce a culture into your organization whereby you're always thinking about how things can upgrade in six months' time, you'll be prepared to deal with the current state of flux that we are in.

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