Building a Program’s International Brand in an Emerging Field

10/14 I/O Magazine

Thoughtfully filling scholarly gaps in the FinTech industry’s global events calendar is building Duke’s reputation in the growing field.

Composition by Lacey Chylack
Building a Program’s International Brand in an Emerging Field

BEFORE THE GREAT RECESSION upended the American housing market—along with the rest of its economy—in 2008, the top 10 list of mortgage lenders in the country was filled with longtime financial stalwarts. Think names like JPMorgan Chase, Charles Schwab, Wells Fargo or Goldman Sachs. In short, the entire list was filled with banks.

Fast forward 15 years, and that is no longer the case. While there are still a handful of banks cracking the list, it is now dominated by Rocket Mortgage—which originates more than three times the mortgage capital than any other on the list ranked third or lower—and includes names like United Shore Financial, LoanDepot.com and Fairway Independent.

This shift is emblematic of the quickly expanding field of financial technology (FinTech). Stretching much further than the cryptocurrencies that dominate news headlines, the industry is enabling a revolution in the way money is moved, offering opportunities for new companies to develop faster, cheaper, easier and more secure platforms to conduct business.

While the FinTech industry as a whole is quickly spreading its wings and maturing, however, the gatherings where leaders in the field come together to talk shop are not.

“If you go to the largest FinTech conferences in the country, such as Bitcoin Miami in 2023, it’s filled with thousands of people who are there to sell you something,” said Jimmie Lenz, director of Duke’s Master of Engineering in FinTech program.

Where others might see such a gathering as either a great sales opportunity or a headache waiting to happen, Lenz saw an opportunity. By building a global network of events designed to ditch the disingenuous sales pitches and focus on meaningful conversations between stakeholders, he could help move the industry forward in a meaningful way. And build the reputation of the program in the process.

Launched in the summer of 2020, students in the program take classes in business and FinTech, are required to take a capstone course, and have an industry internship. Along with the core curriculum, students take three electives of their choosing that are tailored to fit their future goals. At its beginning, the program was supposed to have only 15 students. But demand far exceeded expectations, and the current class has 92 students, over half of whom are women.

We recognized that there was a gap when it came to conferences and gatherings related to digital assets or cryptocurrencies, and that gap was really around providing a forum for unbiased serious conversation around all aspects of the digital assets sector. A lot of crypto conferences are just all about hype, promoting various cryptocurrencies and selling things.

Lee Reiners Lecturing Fellow, Duke Financial Economics Center and Duke Law

To further build the program, and Duke’s reputation in FinTech, Lenz is putting together a worldwide series of discussion—and solutions— based FinTech workshops. These events are designed to facilitate effective conversation and provide a space for those in the digital assets industry to collaborate and address growing trends and problems in the industry.

“We’re holding these events in neutral venues and emphasizing discussion at all sessions rather than hearing people talk,” Lenz said. “It’s proving to be very popular and something people are looking forward to now.”

Lee Reiners, a lecturing fellow at the Duke Financial Economics Center and at Duke Law, had long noted a lack of conferences of this type in the digital assets and cryptocurrency spaces.

“We recognized that there was a gap when it came to conferences and gatherings related to digital assets or cryptocurrencies, and that gap was really around providing a forum for unbiased serious conversation around all aspects of the digital assets sector,” Reiners said. “A lot of crypto conferences are just all about hype, promoting various cryptocurrencies and selling things.”

The latest installment of this conference series was held in Washington, D.C. last winter. Before that, “Digital Assets at Duke,” was held at the university in January. The next conference will be held in Abu Dhabi this winter with another scheduled for Singapore in the summer of 2024.

Every aspect of these FinTech conferences, regardless of their location, is designed to facilitate productive and academic conversation. The conferences are smaller, capped at around 230 to 240 people, and the discussion agenda is tailored to fit the different interests and needs of the region in which the conference is being held. In the United States, for example, conferences focused on builders, centralized exchanges and an emphasis on regulators. In Abu Dhabi, however, most investors are some permutation of sovereign wealth funds, so the programming will cater to their needs and interests.

“Everybody pointed out that that was the number one thing that made the conference so unique, the fact that everybody was able to interact with speakers on every topic that was
presented,” Lenz said.

Digital Assets @ Duke Conference

Join key industry players in the digital assets space, regulatory experts, and select researchers for rigorous debate, discussion and education.

The conferences are open to a wide variety of industry players to diversify conversation and resources. Participants include companies involved in digital asset trading and tokenization, centralized exchanges, analytics servicing companies, and lots of investors. Speakers at Digital Assets at Duke in January included U.S. Securities & Exchange Commissioner Hester Peirce and U.S. Commodity and Futures Trading Commission Commissioner Kristin Johnson.

Panels covered an assortment of topics, including technology, policy and regulation, business, and investing. The diversity of subjects discussed is intentional, aiming to bring together key players in the digital assets space in a neutral academic platform in hopes that they will leave with new perspectives they might not have interacted with otherwise.

We’re definitely trying to build a brand in the digital assets space. When you think of digital assets. Duke is what I want you to think about.

Jimmie Lenz Executive in Residence and Director, Financial Technology Program

The need for Lenz’s global series of workshops is clear. Even as the field expands and becomes more widely accepted and adopted, there is still much work to be done to integrate its opportunities into the existing political and regulatory landscape.

“There are significant regulatory challenges in multiple countries, and it’s not entirely clear how digital assets fit within existing regulatory frameworks,” Reiners said. “That can be a real impediment to firms, if they don’t know what the rules of the road are, or maybe the rules of the road don’t allow them to operate the business that they want to operate.”

The workshops that Lenz and Reiners are planning aim to address some of these roadblocks to development that financial technology is facing and, ultimately, provide a space for growth, problem-solving and collaboration for the emerging digital assets
industry.

“We’re definitely trying to build a brand in the digital assets space. When you think of digital assets, Duke is what I want you to think about,” Lenz said. “At the end of the day, we want to see the industry grow in a responsible way. We want to see access to good products by more people around the world, and we want to see continued development in the digital
assets space.”

Key Takeaways

  • Identify unmet needs in a field’s community.
  • Plan smaller events where attendees can engage in lively discussions in every session.
  • Tailor each conference’s agenda to the needs of its host city’s region.
  • Target regions around the world with a high concentration of existing expertise.
  • Invite speakers and attendees from a wide range of stakeholders within the field.

Financial Technology

Technologies like machine learning and blockchain are driving advances across the financial sector. The Duke Master of Engineering in Financial Technology (FinTech) will prepare you with the technical, financial and management skills to lead the next generation of financial innovation.

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