With its mix of powerful banks and a strong technology startup culture, North Carolina is a natural beneficiary as billions of dollars flow into projects aimed at disrupting traditional finance. Not long ago, it was believed that startups would drive the changes that are revolutionizing how bank customers deposit checks, pay bills, borrow money and conduct coundess other transactions. But the banks aren't sitting still: The four U.S. megabanks spent nearly $40 billion on technology projects last year, including Charlotte-based Bank of America, which says it allocated $10 billion. BB&T and SunTrust Banks officials pointed to the need for $100 million in increased tech spending as a key factor for their pending merger.
Still, enterprising entrepreneurs are carving niches. At the end of 2018, there were 39 startup fintech companies valued by investors at more than $1 billion, with a cumulative value of more than $147 billion, according to the CB Insights research firm. Charlotte's AvidXchange, which helps automate accounts payable, is one of those so-called billion-dollar unicorns with a valuation of $1.4 billion as of 2017. The company now employs more than 1,200, up from 300 in 2014.
To reflect North Carolina's increasing profile in financial technology, Business North Carolina interviewed five company founders and CEOs and two big-bank executives about their industry experiences.
Alexandra Villarreal O'Rourke is assistant general counsel and senior vice president of digital banking and advanced solutions at Bank of America. O'Rourke advises on Bank of America's digital payments projects, as well as the bank's app and website. She began her new role in January after working as a partner at the Womble Bond Dickinson and McGuire-Woods law firms. She previously was a senior counsel for the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Office of Law and Policy.
EDUCATION: bachelor's from the University of Texas, J.D. from Harvard Law School
HOMETOWN: Mexico City
FUN FACT: O'Rourke spoke only Spanish until she was a teenager, learning English largely by watching sitcoms. Not surprisingly, her early vocabulary was heavy on '90s TV catchphrases.
* What do you do at Bank of America?
I advise on projects related to digital payments, our app, our website and other services. We work very closely with the business teams to innovate responsibly on products and services that leverage technology to help us better serve our customers.
* What are your proudest career accomplishments?
I feel very fortunate that I have had a front-row seat to the growth of modem fintech. When I started working on these issues back in the government, "fintech law" was not something people really talked about. Over the last few years, those of us who have chosen to focus on this area have basically had to figure out from scratch how to apply our existing framework of laws and regulations to new, cutting-edge products and services.
It has been such a fantastic feeling to see that some of the regulatory interpretations and approaches that my colleagues and I developed have now become the agreed-upon law in this area. I feel like I have gotten to be directly involved in some of the most exciting changes in our industry.
* What are some of your current projects or partnerships?
I am really enjoying advising the bank's team that works on Zelle, which is a peer-to-peer payments solution. Zelle has top-notch technology--really, as sophisticated as it gets--but it also has a focus on simplicity and ease of use. As a lawyer, those are two of my favorite things. To me, the bank's offering of products like Zelle is really democratizing access to these new technologies by integrating them seamlessly into the traditional banking experience and bringing them within easy reach for every customer. I have even seen some of my own family members and friends go from being skeptical of any apps dealing with money to becoming Zelle devotees.
* What are your impressions of the local fintech community?
I think die vibrancy and depth of North Carolina's fintech community would surprise many. What is special about North Carolina is that we have a strong presence of sophisticated financial-services companies that are truly committed to technology innovation, and that tends to attract some really interesting technology companies. A big catalyst for that collaboration has been the [Charlotte-based] Carolina Fintech Hub, a nonprofit that focuses on building and promoting the fintech ecosystem in the state. I decided to join their operating committee in 2017 because I saw the pivotal role they play in facilitating connections among existing players and community members who are interested in entering this space.
Justin Benson is the CEO of Durham-based fintech startup Spreedly, which offers a technology to enable companies to make global transactions...