Fintech, once the nerdy interest of a small circle of enthusiasts, is inspiring MBA students to form university clubs dedicated to a sector that is now flush with venture capital.
Wharton FinTech, at the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT FinTech Club are among the existing university groups, while several other graduate schools are in talks with the professional clubs to launch something similar on their campuses. What the clubs have in common is a mission to learn the landscape — who is disrupting what and why — while deciding their next career moves.
The university initiatives come as more banks and tech startups introduce fintech-themed events to network and to inspire ideas for an industry seeking a new identity in a digital age. Among the examples are: Citigroup hosting a fintech gathering series and worldwide coding challenges, First National Bank of Omaha hosting hackathons, and NYPAY organizing a forum Manhattan to discuss fintech while SF Fintech does the same in San Francisco.
Not only do such events bring passionate people together in their spare time, but they also open opportunities for financial services companies to recruit their next employees.
Wharton Fintech, thought to be the first fintech professional club at a university, is gearing up for year two. The club has regular meetings with fintech startups and networking events. Already, the club that claims 400 students as email subscribers has helped young academics score jobs or internships from everything from Personal Capital to spots working on MasterCard's innovation team and Apple Pay.
"We have had more job offers than people can take," says Steve Weiner, co-founder of Wharton FinTech at a university well-known for finance. "We have a tough time meeting the demand of industry right now."
The club said more students accepted summer offers at fintech startups, a category not explicitly tracked until Wharton FinTech was founded, than in any other subindustry this year.
DISRUPTING FORMER EMPLOYERS
Many of the club's members are MBA students, but it is open to participants from other fields of study. And strikingly, some of the Wharton FinTech members are former employees of traditional financial services firms who seek to disrupt their former employers' wealth management, lending, payments and other businesses.
The professional groups are expected to continue to pop up across the country. Other universities are reaching out to Wharton FinTech to discuss ways to partner and start similar clubs at their campuses. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is even launching a course on Fintech Ventures this year.
To be sure, fintech university clubs are playing catch up to the times.
"Business schools follow the market rather than lead," says Chris Alexander, former co-head of MIT FinTech, which launched last semester.
Alexander, who spearheaded a fintech conference at MIT, interned at marketplace lender Social Finance and recently accepted a job at Morgan Stanley to work on its digital-strategy team, said the growing attention at the university level is a reflection of the sector: the rise of the smartphone, the delay in banks adopting modern technologies and the venture capital money dedicated to improving financial services are among the reasons dedicated initiatives are coming to campuses.
He expects a growing number of universities to focus on fintech.
"Over the next three to five years, you will see a fintech club in every single school," he says. "The size of the pie to disrupt is just massive."
Some of the university enthusiasts will go on to work for startups, but others could also go on to work for banks.
"Not everyone will want to go to a startup," says Stessa Cohen, research director at Gartner.
Cohen believes banks should target such clubs for individuals who want to bring new thinking to wealth management and banking and hire them on in roles within, say, their digital groups.
"People want to know there are new ways of doing things and they can be a part of it," she says.
Inside Wharton Fintech
Wharton FinTech's Weiner, who spent six years in the U.S. Navy's submarine force, was not always geeking out about finance. But after studying Bitcoin and other subjects as an intern for Goldman Sachs, he says he "really caught the bug for fintech."
So when he arrived at Wharton, he wanted to continue to focus on his passion.
But he could not find what he was looking for. Sure, there were professional clubs at Wharton for startups and finance but nothing that focused on fintech.So he connected with fellow student Daniel McAuley and launched a group in 2014.
In addition to helping students find their next employers, Wharton FinTech has also done research for Innotribe, SWIFT's innovation arm.
There are no other research papers in the works other than regularly blogging, but Weiner says he is personally focused on Bitcoin and its distributed-ledger technology while finishing up his MBA program. His ambition is to land a career in the genre of distributed ledgers and mobile payments — an area he still considers a modern-day Wild West.
"I think we've barely imagined the untold amount of use cases for a decentralized, immutable ledger system," Weiner said. "Many really smart people are saying that this 'feels like the early days of the Internet.' But most of us didn't even have the Internet in those days, let alone connected almost continuously on our smartphones and devices. So I truly think this can be bigger than the Internet."
Regardless of whether digital currencies go mainstream, Wharton FinTech has observed a palpable change in how students and potential students interact with the club. McAuley calls the change nothing short of "night and day."
Instead of asking, "What is fintech?" — a common question in the club's early days and the topic of the Wharton FinTech's first blog post — McAuley says it is receiving queries for introductions to people in the business.
Up next, Wharton FinTech is trying to build up its presence in its sister San Francisco campus and experimenting with launching a podcast. And one day, the club expects the distinction between finance and fintech to vanish.
"At some point fintech will just be finance," says McAuley, who has accepted an offer at Wealthfront. "Banks will all be technology companies."
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