Back in 2014, former financial lawyer and UBS director Henri Arslanian realised that Hong Kong’s nascent fintech sector was facing a major challenge: not enough people were willing to join the city’s start-up scene.
“Instead of just complaining about it, I resolved to do something about it,” says Arslanian, who was also teaching financial entrepreneurship part-time in the University of Hong Kong’s Masters in Finance programme.
Arslanian convinced his college to create a new course within the Masters focused on the “emergence of fintech and its impact on global finance and banking”.
“We cover most of the fintech verticals – blockchain, AI, peers-to-peer, crowdfunding, big data – and we bring in lots of guest speakers. .”
The course has already made an impact. “I often get messages from former students saying how it completely changed their career direction from traditional banking into fintech,” says Arslanian, who himself left banking in 2015 for a fintech firm.
Still, many of the old barriers preventing young Hongkongers choosing start-ups over banks remain.
Arslanian cites the example of a graduate who was offered a back-office role at a global bank and a “more exciting” job in fintech – he chose the former “under pressure from his girlfriend and his mother”.
“Hong Kong will truly become a fintech hub when these tiger moms are comfortable with the idea of their kids joining a start-up, the reality that the company is likely to fail, and the belief that this failure is a positive thing.”
“There’s a can-do attitude in the US and even in mainland China where failure is seen as a badge of honour and gives you respect because you went off the beaten path and took a risk. We need to foster the same mentality here in Hong Kong,” says Arslanian.
Fintech jobs often fail the “dim sum test”. “When your parents are having dinner with friends or family, they’d rather show them your prestigious business cards from a big international bank rather than an unknown tech firm.”
The fintech sector in Hong Kong also lacks well-known leaders. “Unlike mainland China – which has many fintech role models, from Alibaba’s Jack Ma to Tencent’s Pony Ma – the famous business people in Hong Kong are still mainly real estate tycoons,” explains Arslanian.
“But I’m convinced that as soon as we have the first Hong Kong-based fintech unicorn, young folks will have a role model to look up to – and that will make tiger moms more comfortable and help create more start-ups.”
Arslanian says it’s “unacceptable” that fintech courses are not on the curriculums of more universities.
“This generation of students will be the ones most impacted by fintech. If you’re working in trading, for example, you might not have a job in a few years,” he adds. “I believe we have a moral duty to teach them, more than anyone else, about the changes taking place in the banking industry so that they can adapt their skills accordingly.”
It’s important, though, to shift into fintech for the right reasons.
“I get at least one message a day from a banker or ex-banker looking to move. But while a year ago these were mainly from smart young people who wanted to change the world of finance, now they’re often from Hong Kong bankers who’ve lost their jobs and think fintech is the only option,” says Arslanian.
“You need to be passionate about fintech and the future of financial services if you want to work in this sector. If you’re simply looking for a ‘job’, a traditional bank is probably still better from a pay, comfort and stability perspective.”
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