How to build a financial services business that’s more inclusive

Deliver more sustainable and responsible products and services with our upfront advice on authentic financial inclusion.

If money makes the world go round, then so do financial services. But are they accessible to everyone? Or are there people who get in line to get into the club but get told that their name’s not on the list, so they're not coming in?

Like the 2.4 billion working-age women who struggle to access credit and financing products because they don’t have the same economic rights as men.

The 55 million people worldwide living with dementia (a number that’s predicted to rise to 152.8 million by 2050) who are significantly more likely to have financial problems or poor credit scores.

Or the 9 million people who cannot use the internet without help, rising to 11.7 million who lack the essential digital skills for everyday life - and that’s just in the UK.

The World Bank estimates that globally, around 31% of the adult population lack access to financial services. That’s a long line of people missing out on all the good financial services can do.

And so much good could be done. United Nations data indicates that better access to financial services such as bank accounts, insurance and funds would help more people out of poverty, improve health and wellbeing, education and help address gender equality.

Financial inclusion means ensuring individuals and businesses have access to useful and affordable financial products and services delivered in a responsible and sustainable way. It should be simple, yet achieving that remains a difficult and significant challenge for the industry and governments.

Luckily, there are smart people working on it. Like researcher, policy adviser and professor of fintech, Dr Karen Elliott. She joined the Upfront podcast for a frank chat about what more needs to happen to build accessible and inclusive financial services.

She wants to make sure that businesses take an authentic approach to financial inclusion. Here’s some of her advice from the episode to help you build a financial services business that’s more inclusive. You can also listen in full here or wherever you get your podcasts.


Let’s get the uncomfortable bit out of the way first. If you want to be genuinely inclusive, you need to think wider and start asking yourself awkward, responsible and ethical questions.

Leaders, Dr Karen has one for you.

“When is purpose going to get a bit higher on that balance or continuum?”

If you’re a regular listener of the Upfront podcast, you’ll know that the purpose vs profit motive gets brought up a lot.  There’s no hiding from it, particularly when it comes to the delivery of responsible, inclusive and sustainable financial services. As Karen says, “You should ask yourself that awkward question. Is it ok just dipping your proverbial toe in the ‘purpose’ bit saying, oh well, we’re green investors, so tick that box? We're doing our bit for the environment. Okay, but whose environment? The affluent few or the excluded many? And they're not nice questions for leaders to ask.”

For everyone else working in financial services, don’t think you get away that easily. Dr Karen has some advice for you too.

“Do you go into your office every day in finance and ask yourself, am I serving the broadest sector that I can in the most responsible way that I can? Most people aren't doing that. Because the first thing that comes to mind is, are they <the client> a risk to this business? Yes, we've got to be cognizant of risks, but if we want to have authentic financial inclusion, we've got to ask the awful ethical questions like, am I being as inclusive as I possibly can? And if not, why not?”

DITCH THE tick box

There’s a major bugbear Karen has with financial services, which she says is getting in the way of achieving better financial inclusion.

Tick boxes.

“The tick box mentality is really restricting how we get to inclusion”, she says. “We’re all guilty of it. We’ve got a job. What’s my job? Alright, I’ve got to do this. Tick. I’ve got to make sure it’s Know Your Customer. Tick.” 

According to Karen, it’s time to ditch the tick boxes and ask more questions from your data. 

“Banks view us as a potentially fake, fraudulent person until we’re proved otherwise by our credentials. If you’re starting from the point of mistrusting your customers, then you’ve got a problem. We need to change that dynamic around. Most of us are authentic customers, and they can use real-time data to check that. It’s there - use it.”

The same goes for the regulators if you’re listening.

“We need to think beyond tick box control compliance. You know, when the computer says ‘no’. Governance is not just a tick box exercise. It’s more about responsibility. We’ve got a responsibility. If we’ve got a great service or tech, let’s make it for everyone. I think the regulators are starting to catch up, but it’s hampered by those tick boxes.”

It’s time to ditch the tick boxes and ask more questions from your data.


Dr Karen says quite frankly on the Upfront podcast that no one person or business can solve the financial inclusion problem and called upon the industry to work more closely together.

“People have got the expertise, and we link together to make an expert experience. We can get good practice, adapt it for a cultural difference in that area and get it to work to drive inclusion. We're not quite there yet, but there are lots of people like me who are passionate about the issue. If we work collectively, we can achieve it. No one person can do it.” 

So, it’s time to set any rivalry and egos aside for the greater good and start reaching out. Particularly as you’re probably going to need some extra help along the way. Karen's keen to see more businesses and institutions sharing knowledge and skills to arrive at better solutions.

“Businesses want to know how to talk to the people working on financial inclusion, like me. We’re all out there in the ecosystem, and we’re interconnected. We're all battling against different types of systems and compliance and regulation. So if we see it as a pain point, why not collaborate and go, what did you do? Can I learn from you?”


Dr Karen is optimistic that financial inclusion can be improved. If you want to be too, it’s time to change your mindset and make a few compromises. 

“Technology can drive it. We just need to think a little bit out of the box. Will our profit margins be as big? No. Can we handle that? Yes. Can we still deliver? Yes. Let’s go. It sounds easy, but there are all sorts of factors that people just need to get a grip of and go, okay, cool. If I want to change the world, this is what I need to do.”

Identifying the ‘how’ is the hard part of doing financial inclusion, admits Karen. Her advice is to make sure you’re thinking in the right way.

“People are coming up with wonderful, ingenious innovation, but we need the ethical and responsible thinking up front to make sure that good intentions don’t result in unintended consequences and cause harm further down.”

The best approach, she says, is to keep an open mind.

“We’ve got to go beyond that closed yes/no dichotomy and ask open questions. Like open banking, which we’re already using and benefitting from.  We have an open society. Therefore we need open finance and ways of thinking about it. An open mind to open innovation.”


“If we really want financial inclusion, we have to tackle our own bias,” says Dr Karen.

“Humans have hereditary bias, we make judgements all the time, and that’s just codified back into our data sets which are then used for training and machine learning and aggregated into AI and automation. Without human oversight, you’re still going to get exclusion.”

It’s a tricky one, so what’s the answer?

“The only way we solve it is by real stakeholder engagement. To understand the lived experience where the barriers are,” says Dr Elliott. “If you start with a tech solution, you're looking for a problem to solve. Start with the human first.”

That, says Karen, means getting out of your world and into theirs.

“A lot of things, I would never have known if I hadn’t gone to the human person and said, what is your life cycle with finance across your life?” “Start with a problem that you see with the system from a human perspective, don’t just build the tech in yours or my vision. People like you and me are catered for. Look broader and say, ok, if I wasn’t me, where are the problems now?”

And if you’re struggling to do that, she suggests getting some help.

“If you haven’t got the technical knowledge, find someone who has and collaborate. Then you can say hand on heart how you’re pushing for financial inclusion by using finance for good.”  


Hopefully, one day in the not too distant future, financial inclusion won’t be an issue. Until then, there’s a lot of work to be done to make the financial system fairer and better for all. We all have a part to play in getting to that. Regulators, industry bodies, governments, financial businesses large and small, and technology companies like ours need to pull together. The industry is full of incredible talent and innovation. Solving the financial inclusion problem won’t happen overnight, but it’s entirely possible if we work together, bit by bit. As Dr Karen says, how do you eat an elephant? One chunk at a time.

Listen to the episode Alexa, help! in full here and follow Upfront wherever you get your podcasts.