Northeastern University launches a student group to pursue startup ideas in the field of financial technology

Julia McCarthy, who co-founded Disrupt – The FinTech Initiative, is hoping that the student group will serve as a collaborative space for students to investigate and pursue startup ideas in the emerging field of financial technology. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Julia McCarthy had been searching for a line of work that could make her happy. Then one of her Northeastern professors, Mark Bernfeld, offered an alternative.

Why not help start a creative venture all her own?

Bernfeld introduced her to the emerging field of financial technology, known as fintech, which covers a wide range of high-tech innovations that include Bitcoin, Venmo, and the credit-card processor Square. This past year, while McCarthy was enrolled in Bernfeld’s inaugural fintech course at Northeastern, he mentioned his goal of helping students launch a club to explore new technologies and opportunities for business and financial services.

“I was telling [Bernfeld] what it was like to be a female in a male-dominated field,” says McCarthy, who originally was majoring in marketing, but is now pursuing a degree in finance and communications. “He said, ‘I need to get you involved.’”

McCarthy, in her fourth year at Northeastern, became president and co-founder of Disrupt – The FinTech Initiative. In addition to creating partnerships between students and employers, Disrupt will serve as a collaborative space for students to investigate and pursue startup ideas. Its initial event, a panel discussion of industry leaders, drew an audience of almost 200 people in March.

Disrupt represents one plank of Dean Raj Echambadi’s initiative to bring fintech to the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, which includes ongoing plans to add a fintech concentration to the 2019-20 curriculum.

“We are definitely at the frontier,” Echambadi says of Northeastern’s investment in fintech. “It’s not just the work our students are doing in the classroom; our co-op students get immediate feedback, and they come back and tell us about the practical applications. It’s the curricular and the extracurricular that makes us unique in the field.”

Bernfeld, who in his other life is an entrepreneur who has invested in 15 companies that mitigate climate change, views fintech as a vehicle for collaborating with students on their terms.

“It’s the intersection of a massive financial services industry with two major forces,” Bernfeld says of fintech. “The first of those forces is technology, and it is moving forward at an incredible pace that is going to change the way financial services are delivered. The other major force is buying patterns. The younger generation doesn’t buy like my generation buys—their interaction with the world comes online with mobile devices.”

Northeastern can be a leader in fintech, Bernfeld insists.

“We have the right talent, and there’s incredible student and employer interest,” he says. “So it has the potential to really explode. We need to develop partnerships with employers, we need to train students, we need to help everyone understand what it is we’re doing.”

McCarthy’s goal is to help build Disrupt into a “welcoming place” for entrepreneurial students, regardless of their fields of study.

“I’m not a techie, I actually don’t know much about blockchain, and I don’t know how to code—though I would like to,” she says. “I don’t think you have to know that much about financial services or technology. It’s just seeing that this is a market that really is untapped, and that you can tap into it.”

Disrupt’s leadership team of 13 students features seven women. McCarthy says this amounts to a mission statement for the organization.

Financial services and technology companies have a huge problem with diversity,” McCarthy says. “Fintech is about solving problems, and diversity is one of those problems. That is one of the missions of Disrupt, because you don’t see a lot of females in finance.”

Bernfeld is counting on students to help drive the emerging fintech curriculum at Northeastern. By “helping us old people figure out what content they want us to deliver,” he says, McCarthy and other members of Disrupt will be contributing to a reinvention of the financial services industry.

“These are Fortune 500 companies, they have tens or hundreds of billions of dollars at their disposal, and they have all come to the conclusion that they need to innovate better,” Bernfeld says. “Our students are the ones who are going to help them bridge the gap if financial institutions are going to survive.”

As McCarthy looks forward to her final year at Northeastern, she is hoping to encourage more women to join her at Disrupt—which, in turn, may help her continue to find her own way.

“I’ve gone back and forth: What do I care about?” she says. “And I’ve realized it’s not about the money for me. It’s about creating purpose and change, and I see a big opportunity within financial services.”

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