How being an outsider can be your greatest advantage, a conversation with Fast's Director of Strategy on moving from foreign policy to fin techFeatured
I spoke with @CalanthiaMei, Director of Strategy at Fast, which is building the world’s fastest checkout experience. Despite having spent her entire professional life in the world of FinTech, she was not born a technologist.Raised in a family of journalists and intellectuals, Calanthia’s childhood dream job was far from tech: she wanted to be a diplomat and moved to the U.S. alone at the age of 17 to study international affairs. At Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, she was exposed to some of the most prominent thinkers in the diplomatic world like former secretary of state Madeleine Albright.Growing up in China in the early 90s she saw, first hand, how China first started to integrate with the world. She also witnessed how China later leapfrogged the rest of the world in building a modern financial infrastructure with mobile internet. Curious to explore whether this transformation can be translated in another context, Calanthia spent all her summers doing field research in Mexico, in Ghana, and in India. One thing became obvious to Calanthia: How access to capital, commerce, and financial systems transform individual lives and societies, especially in emerging markets with the lack of legacy infrastructure. Fueled by this realization, Calanthia was excited to explore ways to build a modern financial system. Her first foray was understanding the “old ways” by working with some of the largest financial institutions and legacy fintech companies on Wall Street. Calanthia spent three years digging into what was working, and more importantly, what didn’t in the status quo. Calanthia then explored westward and joined PayPal’s newly formed Ventures team as the 2nd full-time hire. At PayPal Ventures, Calanthia was lucky to work with the best and brightest FinTech entrepreneurs globally, who are building the frontiers in lending, personal finance, financial infrastructure, investments, banking, compliance, and more. Calanthia invested in ~20 global early-stage fintech and commerce enablement startups, such as Tala, Toss, Ellevest, and Happy Returns. Earlier this year, Calanthia joined Fast, the company that is bringing the 1-click checkout experience to the entire Internet. Two grand visions at Fast excited Calanthia: one is Fast as a portable identity passport for consumers, the other is Fast as a champion for consumers’ end-to-end shopping journey. Despite the fierce competition at the point of checkout, Calanthia believes Fast’s laser focus on consumer experience sets itself apart from traditionally merchant-oriented payments companies. Payments can be cool, too. Calanthia shares her advice on finding confidence, building resilience, and effective problem solving. Being an “Outsider” can be an advantage. In each step of her journey, instead of feeling like an “outsider” in rooms with more senior people or people who looked different from her, Calanthia has been proud and empowered to know that she was the unlikely person who always fought to be there. It is true that the tech world can feel cliquey and speak in code (no pun intended), but it is also about identifying the arbitrage opportunity. Your outside perspective can be the key to unlock these opportunities.Adopt the “host” mentality. At large gatherings where she initially felt intimidated, Calanthia played “host,” pretending she was organizing the gathering and had the obligation to speak with as many attendees as possible. Similarly, in conversations where Calanthia feels like she doesn’t fit in, she adopts the host mindset instead of self-loathing.Play the long game. The world is overwhelmed with lists and awards that idolize the young and successful. It’s easy to lose sight of the long-term view. Whenever Calanthia thinks about career transitions, she asks herself the question: “What does this job add to my basket of skills? How does it get me closer to my long-term goal?” Each experience is forming a building block.Read like a generalist, act like a specialist. Always keep child’s curious and an information rich diet. Use your diverse experiences to bring a versatile skill set and resourcefulness to problem solving. However, know your strength and build your expertise - it can be horizontal (i.e. in an industry) or vertical (i.e. in a functional area), but you have to be the smartest person in the room in your one thing. Best Advice to Young Self: Stop overthinking. There will always be something more to do: another title to chase or another award to collect. Preserve your drive but find balance and focus. Understand what is top priority and learn to say “no” to the rest to be more effective at doing what really matters. Thinking too much just produces stress, sometimes, you just don’t know the answer and that’s fine.