Yvette Wu is on the other side of the coin
How does it feel to jump from a bank to a fintech company? “You can actually get shit done.”
5951 No. 3 Road in Richmond’s Brighouse neighbourhood is a mid-rise commercial building shadowed by the last vestiges of the Canada Line. Before Freshii or Beard Papa’s called the corner of No. 3 Road and Firbridge Way home, Unit #118 housed the hair salon where Yvette Wu was raised.
Her maternal grandfather mastered the craft in Hong Kong, to the point where he counted celebrities among his regular clients. He brought the profession with him—as if it were the luggage that contained his barbering tools—to Vancouver when he immigrated. When Wu tells me over Zoom that she practically grew up in that Vancouver hair salon surrounded by her mother’s side of the family who all took up the profession, she becomes reflective.
“My family are all entrepreneurs, but I never thought of them that way. It was more for survival. It was always, ‘We can't get jobs in organizations.’ You have to make things happen for yourself. Every day I would be [in her grandfathers’ hair salon]. I would see the whole family talking to customers. But it wasn't like they were customers. They were friends. That entrepreneurial mindset—making things happen, connecting with people, getting to know that person on a heart-to-heart level—was really ingrained in me at a young age,” she recalls.
Despite this, Wu details that, at times growing up, she felt pulled away from the world of entrepreneurship. She describes the myth of the “model minority,” her immigrant background tugging at her to pursue the longstanding, approved vocations. Put your head down and become a respectable doctor. A business titan with an MBA. Something within the constructs of what would build familial strength and wealth for the next generation in their new country.
She followed that path, pushing the entrepreneurial energy of her youth into the recesses of her mind. She completed that MBA at UBC in 2010 before diving into the large organizations she earlier referenced as difficult for her elders to enter. Best Buy. Aritzia. Vancity. Capilano University. The last two were director roles, enterprise risk management and corporate services, respectively. Those roles knocked on the door to entrepreneurship. The birth of her first child kicked it open.
“After birth, there's a huge identity crisis. It was quite the shift. I think it was because I felt so exposed after I gave birth. Honestly, in that moment, I was no longer afraid of failure. It just didn't feel like a big deal,” Wu tells me. She tried her hand at five or six different ventures. Of note, Wuchild: a clothing brand that produced graphic tees emblazoned with messages like boys will be
Birthing both children and companies coincided with a move to tech. In January, she stepped into the CEO role for fintech company Yield Exchange. When Wu describes it, she sometimes verges into self-deprecation, joking that it’s definitely not VR or Web3—fintech’s flashy younger siblings. “Ok, you might be thinking, wow that sounds really boring (yawn),” reads her LinkedIn profile. But Wu and co. are “disrupting a 50+-year-old industry and providing tangible value for users (i.e., solving real pain in the rear problems) in a $750B market (in Canada alone!). Yes, let's go Fintech!”
The hundreds of billions of dollars strong Canadian market? GIC rates. Wu boils the problem Yield Exchange solves down to this: a huge inefficiency driven by communication gaps between financial institutions and wholesale depositors. The latter are usually municipalities, universities, or large corporations, organizations that sometimes have more money than they know what to do with or need to spend. When these organizations try to find GIC rates, they actually have to call one financial institution at a time and literally log the rate into an Excel sheet.
“It's really painful,” Wu says. It certainly sounds like it. But the problem goes deeper than giving some data entry intern Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. “It’s so painful that sometimes they just go with whatever rate their existing financial institution gives them. So they're leaving a lot of money on the table—we're talking sometimes $25 million worth of GICs.” Plus, on the financial institution side, they either need to hire a person to respond to these requests or they go through a broker. A rather large cost either way.
Enter Yield Exchange—the Match.com of GICs, according to Wu. Instead of matching single people together, the company bridges the financial institutions and the wholesale depositors directly. No broker needed. The financial institutions pay a fee to have their GIC rate delivered to a depositor then easily connected if a deal is made. The depositors use the platform free of charge.
For some of her friends and colleagues, fintech seems like a departure for Wu. She has been told that it doesn't really seem to jive with her past entrepreneurial pursuits. After all, most of the endeavours she’s taken on have a social angle—including her current role as founder of DEI consultancy Subtext—and this one seems less social. A reason is, perhaps, an opportunity to disrupt the finance industry and the way banks work. She spent over seven years at Vancity. Clearly, the passion for the industry is there.
“It feels so good. I love it. You can actually get shit done. There's less bureaucracy, you can truly make things happen and test things out. In a larger organization, you just have to go through so many layers and I think this is why I'm finding myself in this entrepreneurial space. I’m able to open my own doors. I think that way in the DEI space. It's harder to make people do something when you are in an organization versus just doing the thing on your own,” she says when asked how fintech compares to her work history in financial institutions.
As she expands on the DEI side of things, Wu points out that the majority of leaders in organizations she consults are white. She acknowledges that trying to get them to understand the lens of DEI and embed it into their organizations is of high importance. But, alongside that, there is a chance for her to showcase representation. But it hasn’t necessarily been easy.
Wu details a few systemic barriers upon entry. In her experience, fintech is a ‘Who do you know’ and ‘Who's going to make your warm intro’ type of culture. Wu concedes that she has a few critical friendships—relationships with fellow tech executives that have been honed over years. On the other hand, she acknowledges that she doesn’t even know what doors aren’t open to her as a woman of colour.
Still, Wu jokes that the opportunity fell into her lap: “I was like, ‘How awesome would it be to see different representation in the leadership landscape, to actually have a CEO who understands DEI really thoroughly?’ I’m able to bake it into the company from day one. It's really, really rare. When I compare my DEI spaces that I'm in to the tech startup space, it's a stark contrast.”
Wu says it can be as simple as sharing her pronouns at the start of a pitch, or going beyond a boilerplate land acknowledgment to present her vantage point on the inhumane treatment of Indigenous people, two things she has received pushback on in the fintech world. But she hopes that these are the types of moments of reflection that she can bring to fintech. A way to humanize the space. Yield Exchange is walking the talk, too, setting goals to examine how GIC rates for Indigenous communities compare to others—an opportunity to shed light on potential injustices.
This humanity is overarching for Wu. She is raw and vulnerable yet eloquent when discussing childbirth and nursing. Her humanity is further evidenced by empathy for other founders who may not be as well-connected as she is or the Indigenous people whose lands her family (and most of our families) settled on. That LinkedIn bio that playfully describes Yield Exchange? It actually starts with a disclaimer: “Yvette is not a fan of writing ‘about’ herself—so here goes nothing! :)”
Yet, she hopped on the open mic at TechVancouver—addressing the crowd at her first in-person event since the dawn of the pandemic—only to report back to me that it felt “nerve-wracking” and “discombobulating.” (I was seated near her so I can share that it didn’t come across that way in the least). After I met Wu that evening and dove deeper over Zoom the next day, I learned that writing about her is something that I am a fan of.
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