Fintech Cadence's Layial El-Hadi On Creating An Inclusive Ecosystem For Startups

Complex Canada caught up with Fintech Cadence Executive Director Layial El-Hadi to talk about the importance of creating an inclusive and accessible ecosystem for fintech startups.

Woman in a black shirt sitting on a couch, smiling to the side
Mathieu B Morin
Woman in a black shirt sitting on a couch, smiling to the side

The fintech startup ecosystem in Canada is a small one, but that doesn’t always mean it’s an easy community to get into.

Fintech Cadence is a Canadian non-profit organization that provides support to our country’s close-knit and incredibly innovative fintech sector with the goal of creating world-class Canadian fintechs we can all be proud of.

The group, which started in Montreal in 2017, has since expanded to other parts of Canada, and it doesn’t plan on stopping that growth anytime soon. They offer support to early-stage fintech startups, connect them with financial institutions, and work to solve the challenges the burgeoning industry is facing. And they don’t charge startups for access to tools like Fintech Hub, thanks to government and corporate supporters such as TD through the TD Ready Commitment.

They're an organization that lives by example—Fintech Cadence is 100 per cent female-led, has 66 per cent women on the team, 55 per cent BIPOC members of the team, and a 66 per cent female board. 

Complex Canada caught up with Fintech Cadence Executive Director Layial El-Hadi to talk about the importance of creating an inclusive and accessible ecosystem for fintech startups.

How did you get into fintech?
I’ve always been really excited about entrepreneurship from when I was a kid. It all started with a friendship bracelet business. Although my education was rooted in urban studies and social sciences, I worked in the business field for quite some time. So I went a bit later on in my career and did an MBA because I really wanted to understand the financial aspects of business operations. And so I came to do my MBA and at that time I met the eventual founder of Fintech Cadence, Jan Arp, and he was really incredibly passionate about fintech. Previous to that, I was more into sustainability in the nonprofit sector.

Why did Fintech Cadence start in Montreal and how did it expand to other parts of Canada?
I think it just made a lot of sense to have Montreal for our first focus area. We realized at the time that it had a lot of the key factors that the fintech space needed to thrive. We had a strong financial sector in Montreal. Second to Toronto, but still very strong in its own right. At the time, Montreal had the second largest student body in all of North America, second only to Boston. We had the talent and entrepreneurial spirit at the time. Montreal was also really buzzing with entrepreneurial organizations. We were really starting to see entrepreneurial incubation support get done. 

That's how we started in Montreal. We were able to mobilize and identify the key stakeholders in the sector and bring them together to support entrepreneurs. And we also started to realize Canada is very small when it comes to a market for fintech. We could have startups from different cities across the country take our programs virtually. Then we acquired an organization out of Toronto, which gave us an office and employees based out of Toronto. We expanded our Atlantic reach through partnerships and just hired an employee out of Calgary last year. We've seen the demand throughout the country.

Does being in a smaller market like Canada have its advantages?
I don't know if it's similar to other sectors, but we often say build first in Canada then build fast in the States. And the idea is to build first in Canada because you understand the population, whether you're building a product for a business, or you're building a product for consumers, just by default being Canadian and understanding that culture. There's an advantage to that. The other thing is obviously this ecosystem is very small and through time people start to get to know each other. I can't think of anything more important in the entrepreneurial sector than access to a network. That access gives you access to hiring, gives you access to capital, gives you access to funding. The fact that we're a small community means that now if you're really engaged and leveraging organizations like us as an entrepreneur, you're able to meet the network quickly and that's going to help you.

What are the big challenges for making fintech more inclusive?
If you want to look at the big picture, I think it’s a tough industry to get into because we're highly regulated, and this is not a criticism of it. It’s the reality of looking at it. At large, we're a tough industry to crack because it's really suited for those who have the ability to navigate regulations, which means you have to have access to lawyers. Which means you need money to be able to access lawyers. You have to build your products in a specific way, which means you have to have money to do that. That's one component of it. Recently we’ve seen access to capital has been difficult to navigate. Canada's investors are very conservative, especially in comparison to what's in the States. I think by creating those avenues for collaboration between entrepreneurs and potential investors, we're making the sector more inclusive as a whole.

How is Fintech Cadence helping to make the fintech sector in Canada more inclusive and accessible to all? 
We are committed to promoting a fintech space where everyone feels welcome and inspired. Fintech Cadence firmly believes in fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in the fintech community. We understand that a diverse ecosystem is a thriving one and it is part of our core values as a community organization. At Fintech Cadence, we are fortunate to have a broad reach in the ecosystem and be able to connect with people from their very first interest in fintech. With this in mind, we work directly to ensure that founders who enter our program and who enter the fintech space are reflective of our country's makeup. 

Where we see gaps, we partner with specific communities and collaborate with organizations that prioritize working with marginalized or overlooked communities in this field. Our collaboration with these organizations is aimed at introducing the fintech industry and promoting entrepreneurship as a means of career advancement. Above all, we work with these organizations and communities so that they are encouraged and empowered to build solutions for their communities and their realities.

Furthermore, we work hard to leverage our network and provide visibility to founders who don't normally get visibility or access to the industry. Highlighting these founders on our social media pages, providing introductions to investors, and profiling them at our events (such as FinSpotlight) ensures they are not overlooked and that they have access to a network that may not be accessible to them in other cases.

What is Fintech Hub?
Fintech Hub was a brainchild of one of my colleagues, Gege Holliday. We started realizing that incubators were about building these 3-4 month programs, with start dates and application processes, and we would take between 6-15 startups a year within those programs. But not everyone fits that box. There are hundreds of startups that need on-demand services that don’t fit a program and still need support. Sometimes people just have questions that need to be answered. We built these on-demand services for founders to be able to access any service they might need at the time. That could be peer-to-peer support, industry guidance, or more specific coaching. If you’re trying to understand how to partner with a financial institution, we have experts from financial institutions who do that exact work. It's another way we've tried to make the sector more open for everyone.

How has TD provided support for Fintech Hub?
We currently have 226 startups that are active in our program, so it’s great to have visibility with what’s happening across the country on the ground. That’s the vision of Fintech Hub. The way we’re about to grow is really exciting, especially with our geographic reach. Through the TD Ready Commitment, TD saw this early on and has provided incredible support. We take everybody from the startup world and we don’t charge our startups anything, so we really lean on corporate support from organizations like TD. TD saw the opportunity and the potential, and we aligned really well with their commitment to supporting and improving financial security. It’s been a great fit.

Entrepreneurs often feel like they have to do everything by themselves. In your experience, do Canadian entrepreneurs know what’s available to them in terms of support?
I think it's really case by case. For the most part, I think startups know that there are entities that help them, but they might not know how to access them. They might not know where to go, especially if they're not from that ecosystem. I think what Canada is really great at is that it has a lot of organizations that support startups and entrepreneurs. So there’s support if you need it.

And for fintech, one of the key things for us to note is that entrepreneurship and small businesses are really the backbone of Canada in general, and the financial service sector is really strong in Canada, but Canadians deserve to have the best products that are relevant to their needs today, and not products that were built in the past. So it’s really important that as a country, we really get behind our entrepreneurs, because it's a very difficult journey. In the end, we all benefit from an environment that supports innovation.

For more information on Fintech Cadence, click here. TD is proud to support inclusive organizations like Fintech Cadence through the TD Ready Commitment and leaders like Layial El-Hadi. To learn more about TD's commitment to helping create a more inclusive tomorrow, click here.

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