The appointment last week of a new leader at the Financial Technology Association likely caught the attention of many in the D.C. tech community, as ecosystem builder and angel investor Penny Lee was named the inaugural CEO of the national organization. For Lee, however, tech knowledge is only one part of the new leadership role.
Leading up to this position, Lee was the chief strategy officer at prominent local startup incubator 1776, chair of angel investment group K Street Capital and public affairs lead at Invariant, a D.C. government relations firm. Prior to her stints in venture capital and tech, Lee had a political background, with roles including senior adviser to former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and national finance director of former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell’s campaign.
Despite the career shift, Lee told Technical.ly that her political roles have actually come in handy in the tech and venture capital worlds. Building and growing a startup, she said, is actually fairly akin to running a campaign.
“Especially on the presidential side, you basically build and sell a $6-7 billion company in 18 months,” Lee said. You take an idea that you want to scale fast. You test and iterate. At the same time, you perfect a message and raising money.
It’s experience that will come in handy in the new role. In a Medium post announcing the change, Lee stated her intent to uphold and further develop standards that ensure fintech is inclusive and equitable. Achieving that goal, she said, will include a number of different disciplines. There will be components of policy and government relations, elements of communications and marketing and overall education and advocacy for change.
It will mean considering both the products that are being built, and the companies building them. When it comes to the startups, it’s a time when investment funding going to fintech companies has exploded. Yet there are disparities in funding that lead to women and Black founders receiving tiny percentages of venture capital raised in a year.
“[We’ll be] finding opportunities to champion these issues, and continue to champion the notion that more diversity on your boards increases actual profitability,” Lee said. “More diversity encourages diversity of thought, which can only improve how you run your company.”
When it comes to the products themselves, Lee has seen both the growth — and the necessity — of fintech over the past year. She said that in the first round of Paycheck Protection Program loans for small businesses, banks were only using internal pipelines to process and grant the loans. When opening up the program to more tech-enabled lenders helped open up access to more borrowers, there was a big boost in loans. This only emphasized the need for fintech companies to iterate at a much higher pace to help those in need, Lee said.
Going forward, Lee is keeping her eye on “buy now, pay later” companies like Afterpay, which was just acquired by Square for $29 billion this week, Locally, she noted that while the D.C. fintech market is still growing, the city is home to identity verification companies like ID.me, which is addressing a crucial component of fintech.
“It’s exciting to be part of an industry that is moving as fast as they are and really building these incredibly dynamic and enduring companies,” Lee said. “So it’s just fun to be part of this in the first stages and be the first CEO to lead this sector into the next phase.”