Innovation: How a Western Bankcard Grows Up in China

A fintech leader explores what it takes to mature as an outside competitor.

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Julie Yang, senior vice president, Core Products of China Mastercard, loves her job. “Every day, people in China wake up and say ‘Why not?’” During a recent fireside chat sponsored by the Jerome A. Chazen Institute for Global Business, she traced the Chinese “can do” enthusiasm directly to the country’s amazing growth trajectory and said the confidence translates into an irrepressible drive for innovation. “The challenge is, why not do something,” she said. “People really want to participate in the future.”

To be sure, Yang faces challenges in a country where debit and credit cards were introduced less than 20 years ago. While a portion of China remains unbanked, the number of issued bankcards had grown to a staggering 6.7 billion by the end of 2017, according to consultancy Edgar, Dunn & Co (PDF). However, many Chinese banks and merchants still accept only the government-sponsored UnionPay card, which controls more than 90 percent of the market.

Although Beijing has indicated a willingness to open its market to competing card issuers, observers say red tape and other hurdles have slowed the process. That means that most Chinese Mastercard users are travelers outside the country. Yang said her main priority is to “just help the company to grow up in China.”

The Secret Sauce of Innovation and Teamwork

Yang sees innovation as key to that maturation. No stranger to the invention mentality — in her previous post as country head for Taiwan she launched three mobile payment programs — she has some potent 21st century tools at her disposal. Yang indicated that the use of biometrics and artificial intelligence helps eliminate labor-intensive processes and focuses the targeting of customers.

R.A. Farrokhnia, an adjunct associate professor of business at Columbia Business and Engineering school and moderator of the program, asked just how well innovations travel from country to country. “Is technology China specific, or can it be exported?” he asked.

“The company has global assets, so it’s able to introduce tech transfer, but recognizes that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all,” said Yang.

Still, fintech has an inherent advantage, she observed. “Data is data. As long as you focus on the consumer, you can innovate around the world.”

That means innovators do not have to start each project from scratch. Yang said she is fortunate to rely on Mastercard’s open-minded culture that encourages employees to respond to the unexpected. The company operates five Tech Hub and Innovation Centers throughout the world with a mandate to serve as collaboration locales for Mastercard and its partners to design, build and test solutions.

In her world, teamwork is an important cog in the journey to growth and innovation. Again, Yang praised Mastercard’s inclusion culture. In addition to participating in company-sponsored programs such as “Raise Her Business Plan,” an entrepreneurship training program aimed at women and children, she encourages teambuilding with events such as a one-mile relay.

Tackling Inequality

Yang acknowledges the dual accountability that women face between work and family. She, herself, spends Monday through Friday in Shanghai and weekends with her family in Singapore, a schedule that she said keeps her “energy high” for both realms of her life.

But she praised Chinese fathers as taking an equal parenting role, participating in school programs, for example. “Poverty is still high in China, so both parents need to work.”

In some ways, Yang said, the bigger difference is not between cultures or genders, but between age groups. “The younger generation doesn’t know about the time before technology,” she said. Although technology has catalyzed enormous change for the better, it has also exacerbated a shift between “haves” and “have nots.”

“If I can become a leader, I can create collaboration not only between countries, but between generations.”

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