When discussing innovation, Vanessa Colella compares building the right foundation to a sloppy joe. Just like the top bun of the messy sandwich, leadership support is important, but having innovation embedded throughout the organization provides an essential foundation. 

“There is no way you can eat a sloppy joe with only the top bun because it will all be in your lap,” Colella explained. “In the organization, you’ve got people at all different levels, who read your thought leadership pieces, who come to events, who integrate bits and pieces of what they learned into their business…[that] whole network of things forms the bottom bun.”  

Colella is the Chief Innovation Officer of CitiBank, and oversees a wide range of initiatives — from corporate venture to internal incubators to a division devoted to the future of banking. Takeaways from her conversation on the mainstage of Impact 2020 follow. 

Three Trends in Financial Services

When discussing trends that her team has seen in 2020, Colella focused on three areas: 

  • Banking on the edge. Similar to edge computing, banking on the edge allows banks to process and analyze data without rerouting information back to a centralized data center. For example, “what if your car could pay for its own oil change, or its own service, or its own gasoline or its own parking?” Colella postulated. “When we think about banking at the edge, we’ve always thought about embedding transactions [in processes outside of a bank location].”
  • Supply chain evolution. Financial supply chains refer to monetary transactions that relate to the flow of goods and services. This type of supply chain is also linked to the physical supply chain associated with moving goods. According to Colella, “there’s about a $1.3 [to] $1.4 trillion gap” between these supply chains. “We think that there are ways to drive more liquidity through the supply chain to help small- and medium-sized businesses and reduce that gap between the value of the goods that flow, and the financing that’s available,” she said. 
  • The role of brick-and-mortar financial services locations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many interactions between customers and their banks have shifted to the digital world. Looking to the future, Colella and her team have to predict what the role of physical banking locations will be. “As things get back to normal over time, I think we will also see a craving for in-person connectivity,” she said. “Many things, particularly anything that feels routine to a consumer, they’ll be comfortable conducting…remotely. … [But] do I want to go to a branch to discuss this complicated thing? Or would I rather do it from my living room?”

Defining Disruption at Citi

When asked about how she thinks about disruption, Colella highlighted three prongs of her team’s approach. The first is technological disruption, or how technology changes the way industry works. She also highlighted structural change and behavioral disruption. 

Structural change relates to institutions and societal shifts. Behavioral change refers to adoption and how people act. “When I was a graduate student decades ago, we were working in augmented reality, but it doesn’t mean we’re all wearing augmented reality glasses, because our behavior hasn’t changed,” she explained. 

Colella also said that the COVID-19 pandemic has “upped the ante” for innovators at Citi. “It’s become apparent to all of us that the world can shift rapidly in ways that might not have been predictable, that we need to be prepared for it,” she said. “We have to think [not just] in terms of, ‘hey, things are gonna change?’ But now that they have changed, what do we need to do?”