Cecilia Tamez is the Chief Strategy Officer for the Money Transfer Segment for Euronet Worldwide, Dandelion Payments, Ria Money Transfer, and Xe.com. A results-oriented leader who is fascinated by how technology can improve business relationships while also recognizing the double-edged sword that technology provides as businesses become more reliant on digital platforms and processes.
Cecilia spoke to Relevant Founders Podcast and shared her experience of working in the money transfer segment, solving cross-border payments challenges, and new projects such as Dandelion—the largest real-time cross-border payments system in the world. We also talked about how competition has transformed into coopetition, why legacy bank structures don’t need to rip and replace, and how if you want to build a successful business you need to follow the mantra “Respect. Simplify. Resolve”. Read on and follow Cecilia’s advice.
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There is a pressing need for the industry to address several major issues right now. Although Cecilia and her team are well aware of their enormous impact on the industry and the lives of their customers, they didn’t realise just how unique their product was until they really started digging deeper into solving these problems. Building a bank network in emerging markets was their primary goal, wanting to push further and penetrate those regions where others have so far and continue to struggle. As a result, the primary motivation for establishing the XE network was to develop their product and drive a competitive advantage.
Cecilia tells how more and more central banks are making efforts to promote real-time domestic payments due to the movement gaining traction. The problem is that there aren’t a lot of people who are focused on bringing all of the domestic real-time payment networks together on a global scale.
“We already had 1000s of contacts with these correspondent banks, and so we aimed to establish this virtual network of real-time payments so that we could bridge all of the real-time payment networks that were domestic and bring them together into this international network. It allows us to drive the world’s largest real-time cross-border payment network. In addition, you recognise that emerging markets depend on alternative channels because many of their populations are underbanked or unbanked.”
“We’ve got 1.7 billion people and more than 200 million businesses worldwide which are underbanked. And we also propose the idea that many banks in emerging markets are underbanked, as well. That means they’re not enabling those connections with established banks or banks and established markets. So our real focus is to bridge that gap between established and emerging markets to build those opportunities.”
“It’s critical because, as we transition out of COVID, people realise the value of remote work. And, with great resignation, individuals are searching for work worldwide. But, it’s difficult to do so when you don’t have healthy payment rails.”
Cecilia told how having these payment rails and enabling individuals to build their businesses and push connections into new areas, which are growing at substantially faster rates than specific established markets, opens up many opportunities.
“Banks are waking up to this and seeing it as an opportunity. What’s more, a significant number of the enterprises polled use third-party money transfer providers to conduct their cross-border transactions there.”
“Cross-border payments transfers recognise that they are losing market share and realise that this is a service that they must develop to retain business and consumer customers, as well as to maintain the competitive advantage that they are losing to fintech that is currently providing those services.”
Cecilia observes growing interest from banks of all kinds, not just community or small banks, but global banks who see the need to drive connection and admit that they are not serving their consumers. They are aware that they must accomplish it, and there is a sense of urgency for them to act, tells Cecilia.
“Dealing with legacy infrastructure is one of the challenges that banks encounter. As a result, they find it incredibly difficult to drive technical projects. They have a large number of legacy systems, some of which an obsolete code, meaning they are unable to find software specialists who are familiar with those languages. As a result, financial institutions are severely limited in terms of IT technology.”
Cecilia acknowledges that it can be difficult to prioritise the time and effort required to build these networks over more pressing matters. However, one of their primary goals and Dandelion is to make integration as simple as possible. Therefore, companies don’t have to rip up and replace their systems, Cecilia highlights.
“To avoid disrupting their careers and businesses, they need only augment their existing platform and services and the cross-border payment services they already provide. This will enhance and drive a better level of customer service.”
Collaboration with people from all over the world is now easier than ever before, thanks to the rapidly evolving technology industry. Distributed teams have grown in popularity since Covid and appear to be here to stay. Cecilia tells how she believes managing a globally distributed team would have been more challenging before COVID, when businesses were not as established and could have conversations digitally however post-COVID has shown us that remote and digital work environments are very productive and give us access to talent we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“A lot of terrible things have happened because of COVID. But it has forced an incredible amount of innovation and pushed our comfort levels to prove to ourselves that remote work, digital engagement, technology, and infrastructure enable that kind of digital collaboration and can be very successful.”
However successful may be remote work, Cecilia insists that it is still essential for managers and those leading the company’s mission to get on a plane and see the team. It’s a crucial part of building culture and then that kind of camaraderie can translate into a digital environment as well, Cecilia says.
Being one of the first dynamic websites in the world and therefore having used XE’s website for many years, Cecilia was already familiar with the company before working for XE.
When she arrived for her job interview, back in the early days of her career, there sat just three men. In an instant, she realised that this was it. XE’s entire body was that; a team of three.
Cecilia joined XE as part of a small but mighty team of five, which grew exponentially, eventually being acquired in 2015. She tells of her experience and the challenges they faced…
“It was an incredibly exciting and satisfying experience to take this company from five people and grow it to where it is today. When we were five people sitting around the table, we had those conversations, knew the opportunities, and just had to pick them. Because there are always so many opportunities.”
“You have to roll up your sleeves and be prepared to do a little bit of everything. You answer the telephones; you talk to customers; you code; you translate; you write content. You don’t have that luxury of people who can do that for you. You do it all. It’s really easy to communicate and work well because it’s a small team. And you all have this common goal.”
While it has its advantages, Cecilia explains how you have to work with letting things go when a firm grows, which is a challenge in itself. “You need to learn how to delegate and allow others to handle the task, which you know how to do with your eyes closed, which can cause emotional struggle,” tells Cecilia.
“But it’s a growth opportunity to trust people. You grow to learn that what works in communication with five people doesn’t always work when you’re 400 people. So there’s an evolution there in terms of how to operate.”
There are numerous lessons about building a successful team, setting the right foundations, developing the right level of trust, and upholding integrity. Additionally, Cecilia speaks of the importance of maintaining certain fundamental principles from when you are a team of 5 to when you are 100 people or 7000 people.
“I think that that building dandelion as we launch it, it is a new brand. But we are a small team who’s who is bringing to market this new product, the slight differences, that it’s already a core product that was built and has a history of many people that contributed to creating this service.”
“So it’s kind of like bringing the startup out of this established business and bridging that sense of startup and that freshness and possibility. There is that initial small group of people who are communicating effectively, and it’s incredibly exciting because it brings me back to the early days of XE and how exciting it was. We all believe in it.”
Cecilia and her team must also apply the lessons learned from XE, highlighting several processes that must not be overlooked when forming the larger team, starting with communication.
“The challenge is that you have a mixture of people who create the product from the ground up and the compliance teams who know how to operate it globally.”
“It’s a combination, but it’s a wonderful experience to bring both worlds together because it’s an amazing platform with a strong foundation. We haven’t got that sense of ‘what’s next; because we have a much more solid plan.”
Cecilia and the original 5 XE employees built a strong brand by believing in what they do and working hard by having the passion for their effort come to reality. But it’s easier to be passionate about your work when the company is smaller, and you’re more invested. So I asked Cecilia how they make sure all employees at Dandelion share that passion.
Cecilia told how it all starts with understanding the vision; knowing exactly what you’re trying to achieve and what you are doing helps to articulate the goal. One of the easiest ways to motivate your team is to show them that the product they’re building matters and has a meaningful role in the world.
“Our product is meaningful in that it drives financial inclusion, which brings about really powerful change in the world, and I believe it excites people. It’s an exciting business not only because of the growth potential but also because of the potential for real success. It’s also a product that you feel really good about delivering to the world because you know it will help people bridge the gap between established and emerging markets while also solving some meaty problems that the world hasn’t had a chance to solve. Showing them this and how wonderful it is to work with such a wonderful team excites people.”
Cecilia describes a new trend sweeping the fintech industry and how fintech has built much of its success on the ‘lone soldier’ approach of solving hot-to-be-had issues in isolation. This trend is coopetition. To move faster and create real change, fintechs must embrace coopetition and work together.
“There is a new type of competition, which I believe has been dubbed coopetition. As a result, there are numerous new entrants into the industry. Some of the entrants have realised that they don’t have to build everything themselves to be nimble. And in the early days of money transfer, particularly digital money transfer businesses, you had to build everything from scratch because there was no regtech, no compliance out-of-the-box programs, and no such companies that focused on these areas of the value chain.”
Cecilia sees a positive shift in how fintechs approaches problem-solving and believes that everyone has begun a new wave of collaboration. All Fintechs are working together in the background to create a better product for customers, even if they present it to them differently; each company has different use cases, focuses, and/or verticals– including fintech and banks together.
“There are new entrants who are much more willing to work together and cooperate to make products that take almost like recipes and ingredients from different providers to create a new company that can create a customer service.”
“With a lot more collaboration and coopetition, I think we’re headed into some interesting times. We have a lot of fintechs that are beginning to mature and have grown their businesses. Historically, return on investment was not as much as the focus because they were in the growth stages. But I think that the market is maturing, they’re turning into teenagers of business, and they’re facing the realities that they’re going to have to drive that return on investment, and they need to drive that growth.”
A few years ago, some people were concerned, thinking we would have to rip and replace, or we would have to do everything all at once. Cecilia thinks the real opportunity is to look at alternative ways in which Legacy Banks can drive incremental improvement without having to rip and replace.
“That is, leveraging APIs and new technologies to develop methods to push that middle layer of connectivity to the world new innovation without impacting and risking ripping up the cor. That is the primary source of your business. So it’s incremental innovation, and it’s critical to drive that evolution.”
“I think it’s going to be both together. I think it’s a sandbox. Big international banks are already smart. They’re already really smart, especially considering their challenges or legacy infrastructure risk management. But by working with fintechs and smart banks, they overcome some barriers. I think it’s now about them working with each other and finding there is the opportunity for both in the industry to collaborate and drive growth for each other. Providing a better service for their customers. “
Cecilia describes her background and how she was fortunate enough to be mentored by an excellent boss. Steven Dengler, the creator of XE, and his words of wisdom have become a mantra for Cecilia, which state the importance of ‘solving’. If your company is not solving problems, you are not providing value to anyone.
“In order to be successful, you need to be solving a problem for somebody; if you’re not, you are just creating a problem that doesn’t exist.”
“He used to say ‘respect, simplify, solve.’ We must be respectful to our customers, coworkers, and competitors. Nobody wants to deal with complexity. Therefore you must simplify the situation. We have way too much complexity in the world. You need to be solving these problems. That is how people conduct business. You must make someone else’s life easier.”