FinTech Female Fridays: Julia Huang, Managing Director, Amex Ventures
What was your career progression from management consulting into the financial services industry?
I started out my career in Management consulting at A.T. Kearney after graduating with a Master of Commerce (Finance) and a Master of International Business from the University of Sydney. I loved the variety of work this exposed me to in the two and half years I was there – I got to work with several of the largest banks in Australia, as well as projects in food processing, airplane maintenance, mining services and even once, funeral services.
While I got a lot of revenue growth / expense reduction and operational process related experience, what really interested me was doing due diligence for our private equity clients. I wanted to become an investor that worked with different companies. I felt I needed to learn more about the balance sheet and financial structuring to enable my growth to become an early / growth stage investor. I was fortunate enough to get that at Goldman Sachs.
Now at Amex Ventures I focus on investing in companies that enrich consumer’s lives, specifically consumer fintech companies as well as lifestyle services companies. In today’s environment, these two segments are increasingly intertwined. Amex has always been at the forefront of this so it’s exciting to think about what financial services really means going forward from a consumer perspective.
What is the day in the life at Amex Ventures? What are you currently working to build out?
American Express Ventures was formed in 2011 to invest in innovative startups to enhance American Express’ core capabilities and accelerate efforts in consumer commerce and B2B services. This means my day-to-day focus is on investing in companies that can help us deliver new benefits and features to our customers, like our investment in Better Mortgage, or investing in technologies that can augment and enhance existing capabilities, like we’ve done in the security space. We work with our portfolio companies to help expedite partnerships with American Express – this is a key element how we add value for both our portfolio companies and American Express.
Our team is composed of 10 investment professionals based in four offices around the globe: New York, Boston, Palo Alto and Tel Aviv. We have invested in more than 60 companies around the world since the team’s formation.
What are the core areas you are considering for investing and do you see distinctions in the domestic vs. the global market?
We are interested in both domestic and international investment opportunities in three core areas:
1. Consumer Commerce: Areas of interest include financial services, consumer payments, marketplaces, lending, loyalty and lifestyle services.
2. B2B Services: Areas of interest include business payments and lending platforms, small business services, payment processing technologies, and supply chain analytics.
3. Core Capabilities: Areas of interest include servicing, customer acquisition and engagement, cyber security and fraud detection, risk management, AI & automation and cloud.
Approximately a quarter of our portfolio companies are in markets outside of the US (Europe, Israel, India and Mexico), there are many nuances to each market – financial, regulatory, geo-political, behavioral and cultural. It is difficult to assess companies, particularly early stage companies, without presence on the ground. This is why we felt it was important for our Core Capabilities practice to have a Managing Director based in Tel Aviv.
What are the dominant trends among the start-ups you are evaluating that can be observed in the current environment?
The environment is favoring well capitalized investors right now and startups with strong business models are still attracting capital while others will fall away. I think fintech, particularly on the consumer side, is a really interesting space right now. There will be more innovation, focus and opportunity for digital models that help consumers navigate their finance security going forward.
What are the leadership skills and traits you look for when evaluating entrepreneurs? What can make or break as a company at the very early stages of development?
When we are deciding whether to make an investment, the personality of the entrepreneur is an element we always consider. We seek to invest in good people who are passionate about what they are creating, honest and reliable. We also look for founders who can build a team of experts in their industries with a track record of success.
What are the main characteristics in a start-up or an idea that you are looking for when determining whether an investment is worth making?
When we make new investments, we look for strategic benefit for both American Express and for our startups, as well as the potential for financial returns. That could be helping us learn about emerging technology, leveraging our marketing expertise and customer base to help a portfolio company scale, or the potential for partnerships that will bring value to our mutual customers.
The objective is to drive partnerships with American Express and accelerate the growth of the company. That might range from the earliest stages, where the Ventures team can make connections within American Express to help with product development and validation of use cases, to more mid-stage companies where more established commercial engagements are possible.
What are the unique values of running a VC within a large global organization like Amex?
Unlike a traditional VC, we are really focused on driving partnerships with our business units and enhancing and enabling experiences for our customers. Our portfolio companies value the assets of American Express, whether in distribution, marketing, or advice on how to navigate regulatory environments to help accelerate their business. Today, two-thirds of our portfolio companies have commercial relationships with American Express business units.
Additionally, we are able to leverage the extensive resources of our company to help identify new investment opportunities and validate addressable market potential.
Reach out to Julia on LinkedIn.