HO, HO, HO, WTF!

‘Tis the season to be jolly (if possible) and work from home yet again. So let your gift list reflect that! For loved ones still trapped by their screens, here’s Raskin’s last-minute list of gifts to make working at home at least a better experience.

It’s beginning to look a lot like a remote Christmas.

Yes, ‘tis the season to be jolly (if possible) and work from home yet again.  For the loved ones in your life, trapped in their screens, here’s our last-minute gift list, created by the editors of the Virtual Events Group (which I founded amidst the pandemic).

Lumecube Cordless Ring Light

Perfect for live-streaming, it includes adjustable color temperature, adjustable brightness, and a cordless battery-powered option. You can mount it easily and always look great on Zoom, Teams, Webex, FaceTime, even Blue Jeans. $149  

Poly’s Work From Home Kit

Audio and video in a single kit–it includes the Voyager 5200 UC Bluetooth headset with noise-canceling and the EagleEye Mini HD video-conferencing desktop camera. Free cloud device management software for one year is included.

$279 at CDW. Poly has lots of products that make virtual meetings better.

Oculus Quest 2

Like Gillette with its razor blades, Meta (you know it still as Facebook) is practically giving these away to get you hooked on its virtual reality service. This will be the key to really immerse your remote worker in the next-gen of meetings.

$299.00 at Target (where you can see it in 3D) and Amazon, among others.

Blue Yeti

The gold standard in USB microphones, for everything from Zoom meetings to podcasting. It excels at rejecting room noise and stray sounds, and will give you much better sound quality than your laptop or webcam.

$100 from Blue, Amazon, and other retailers.

Elgato Stream Deck Mini

Run your video sessions like the big kids do! The Stream Deck Mini gives you six programmable push buttons that can lead to nested folders to enable infinite combinations of functions for a video session. The buttons light up with graphics of your choice so you can tell at a glance what each one does.

$80 at Amazon, MicroCenter, and other retailers.

Boyata Adjustable Laptop Stand

Avoid the dreaded “up your nose” webcam view with this excellent laptop stand. It raises your computer up off your desk, angles the keyboard so you can reach it, and puts the camera near eye level, where it should be.

$31 at Amazon.

CoosBonfik Chair-Back Green Screen

Virtual backgrounds like photos or graphics are cool, but they work much better if you have a green screen behind you. If you don’t have the space (or patience) for a full green screen backdrop, try one that fits onto your chair like this one. And it folds up to become an easy-to-store circle.

$44 at Amazon.

Logitech C920s PRO Webcam

For video meetings, get significantly better image quality and more camera control with an external webcam. The Logitech C920s PRO makes a visible difference for an affordable price.

$60 from Logitech or Amazon.

An NFT from Rarible

The digital equivalent of collectibles it’s sort of like buying your loved one a lotto ticket. Don’t worry if they don’t understand it. Hardly anyone else does either. But it’s certifiably cool. Rarible seems to have the best prices and an easy way of gifting, even to those that don’t have a digital wallet yet. https://rarible.com/

Gift Certificates

Every work-from-homer needs a soundtrack for life (Spotify), a way to chill (Headspace) or food deliveries (DoorDash). Let them buy exactly what they want themselves, with your money.

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Necessity, Not Passion, Drives The Creator Economy

Both entrepreneurs and immigrants, like the author’s family, are often driven to succeed by necessity— the need to earn a living, support a family, and improve their lives — and by the inability to find this opportunity elsewhere in the current economy.

I remember being 12, walking the streets of downtown Vancouver with my entrepreneurial uncle. He was pointing out prime retail spots, underused locations, overlooked gems. After two or three blocks, he stopped and quizzed me. “What businesses are missing, Shafin?” 

He was always looking for opportunities. As Ismaili refugees from Uganda, my father and his brothers had to make it on their own when they landed in Canada. Fast-forward to the present, and I work with entrepreneurs everyday as an investor and advisor, including many people in the expanding creator economy. What I’m struck by is how many parallels there are between the successful entrepreneurs I know today and the immigrants I grew up with. And the more I think about it, the more it comes down to one idea: necessity. 

They’ve been locked out

My family fled Uganda after dictator Idi Amin took control in 1971 and forced Ugandans of Asian descent out of the country.

Many of us eventually settled in Canada, with families to support and no time to waste. My father was a trained pharmacist, but didn’t have the certifications he needed to practice in Canada. While he worked on that, he and his brothers hustled at low-paying jobs and set up their own businesses in Vancouver. I don’t think they ever considered themselves to be entrepreneurs — they were just doing what they had to do.

Many of the most successful entrepreneurs I know today faced distinct but related hurdles. They turned to entrepreneurship, in large part, because they were locked out of opportunities elsewhere. They may have lacked financial resources, family connections or access to a fancy education. So they had to find their own way forward using the tools at hand. 


I don’t think it’s any coincidence the creator economy is swelling at the same time that middle class opportunities are shrinking. Older millennials graduated university with tremendous debt and found a depressed job market after the 2008 financial collapse. Gen Z carries a shocking amount of debt for the youngest generation of working age, and is facing a roller coaster job market amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of them, home ownership is a pipe dream. All these problems are magnified for young people of color. 

Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise to see this new way of working emerge — especially considering women and people of color constitute a significant and growing contingent of the creator economy, i.e. all the people creating content and building personal brands on platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, et al. As this industry takes shape, power is slowly being transferred from the platforms to the creators, giving them more options for monetization and fan interaction. This, in turn, is opening access to the industry for people all over the world.

They hustle like there is no Plan B

My father spent many 16-hour days going between work and school, while my mother worked to take care of three kids. My uncle put everything he had into his video store, and willed it into success. They all exemplified the so-called “immigrant mentality.” They acted like there was no Plan B — because there wasn’t.

Scratch the surface and you’ll find the same spirit underlies the creator economy. The best creators are tireless hustlers — because they have to be. 

Ask any successful YouTuber, Twitch streamer or OnlyFans creator — it’s a grind churning out content, building audiences and finding ways to monetize. Richard Tyler Blevins, better known as Ninja to his legions of fans on Fortnite, built his massive following by streaming himself playing video games at least 12 hours a day, every day. 

It’s also no coincidence the creator economy soared during the pandemic. Behind the surge in musicians using platforms like Twitch is the reality that COVID-19 decimated their entire industry. The same goes for journalists on Substack. Long hours sunk into honing their craft is a testament not only to their work ethic, but to the fact that for many of them, there is no backup plan right now.

They are ruthlessly ‘uncomplacent’ 

Underlying all the challenges my family faced was one constant: gratitude. I saw it in all the adults in my life — an understanding that they were the lucky ones. That manifested itself in a refusal to be complacent. They went from parking cars and cleaning hotels to owning their own businesses and putting their kids through university. They could have stopped at any point and admired how far they’d made it, but they always felt compelled to work harder.

I see that same spirit in so many successful creators today. Forget the cliche of the pampered primadonna. They know perfectly well how lucky they are to be making money doing what they love. They know how many competitors are breathing down their throat. They know they have to continually learn, improve and adapt … or vanish into obscurity. 

You see that kind of ruthless uncomplacency in one of the forefathers of the creator economy — Gary Vaynerchuk, a.k.a. GaryVee. A big name today, he started off doing reviews on YouTube of wines sold in his family’s liquor store. He grew a cult following, but didn’t stop there. He went on to start multiple successful ad agencies and even has launched an NFT line that has grossed $85 million in sales.

All of this isn’t to say that passion — even joy — isn’t a part of the formula for entrepreneurial success. But I think it’s an oversimplification to reduce the creator economy to “passion-preneurs.” Like the entrepreneurs from my childhood, so many are driven by necessity — the need to earn a living, support a family, and improve their lives — and by the inability to find this opportunity elsewhere in the current economy. There’s one last thing I see in the creator economy that reminds me of my family’s story: the optimism that things can change for the better.

Shafin Diamond Tejani is the founder and CEO of Victory Square Technologies, which supports technology startups through sustainable growth.

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Fintech and the Giving Season (Year 2)

Cryptocurrency investors are more generous givers than average investors. American megafoundations have enabled crypto donation and NFTs are increasingly powering the world of charity. Plus, what the hell happened to PayPal’s stock?

FIN’s favorite post from 2020 was, hands down, Fintech and the Giving Season, in which we explored the many ways that fintech is transforming the world of charitable giving.

It’s pulse-pumping to survey the landscape in 2021 and realize how much has evolved. As with so many other aspects of financial life, the COVID pandemic accelerated digital charitable giving. Overall, charitable donations in the United States grew 2% in 2020, but online charitable donations rose 20.7% (even so, online donations still only make up 13% of all donations, and of those, 28% are made using a mobile app).

There is, naturally, much more to say this year about cryptocurrency and NFTs in the world of charitable giving. Plummeting markets in recent days may have left many crypto investors feeling Scrooge-like, but in general, according to a 2021 survey by Fidelity Charitable, cryptocurrency investors are more generous givers than average investors:

With eager donors like that, it’s not surprising that recently, American megafoundations such as American Cancer Society and Save the Children have enabled crypto donations. An organization called The Giving Block has helped hundreds of nonprofits set up a cryptodonation ecosystem.

Increasingly, NFTs are powering the world of charity. This year’s Macy’s parade, for example, gave away 9500 NFTs, and is auctioning off NFTs based on ten historic, parade-specific characters (as opposed to, say, copyrighted cartoons), with a portion of the sales going to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Bids are open until November 30; as of Sunday morning, the NFT of a spaceman balloon from the 1950s had a bid of $340,000. Similarly, in September StreetCode Academy auctioned what it called “pNFTs,” philanthropic NFTs. The nonprofit pointedly said:

The NFT was selected because it’s a great example of how tech can benefit any creator, delivering a format where folks from any background can create, claim and benefit from their content, combating a pattern of art being co-opted and monetized without credit to the original creators.

StreetCode, according to a news account, received 60 bids and raised $15,000 between Sept. 15 and Sept. 30, a record pace.

Moving beyond the blockchain, in the realm of charitable giving, fintech is especially good at least two things. The first is making charitable donations into a group activity, something that would-be donors often want—especially in the wake of disaster—but are seldom set up to do.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey devastated the city of Houston; at one point, a third of the city was underwater (nationwide the storm cost $125 billion, second only to Hurricane Katrina). The NFL defensive end J.J. Watt, then playing for the Houston Texans, organized a crowdfunding campaign for Houston that raised an unprecedented $41.6 millionJonathan Shugart, an Alabama-based “recovering tax attorney” looked at Watt’s effort—and similar crowdfunded charitable campaigns—and realized that much of what Watt raised was not in the form of a charitable donation. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) treats such transactions as a peer-to-peer gift—with no tax deduction available—and worse: if the donation is over $15,000, the donor technically has to file a gift tax return. Shugart told FIN that he had a light-bulb moment: “There’s got to be a better way if we want to do crowdfunding for charitable good.”

He launched B Charitable this year after about a year of wrangling with the IRS to get its 501c(3) status. B Charitable allows individuals or groups to set up a charitable giving fund and realize an immediate tax benefit. Once a campaign is created, others can join in and also get tax deductions for their contributions. The funds can be dispersed all at once or over time. Shugart argues that most technology enables charities to pull money in; he wants B Charitable to act as a push on donors. B Charitable itself is a nonprofit that tries to keep the overhead low; it contracts out for services and Shugart says it hopes that some donors will include B Charitable along with the target charities: “We ask for tips, we don’t require them.”

The second thing is integrating charitable giving into everyday life. The outfit once known as Pledgeling did at least two big things in 2021: it changed its name to Pledge and became a fully integrated partner with Zoom, which has become an essential part of everyday life. Now, when a nonprofit holds a Zoom call for interested parties, it can easily include a DONATE button powered by Pledge. The nonprofit raised $3 million in seed money this year for its video efforts.

Perhaps the grandest charity fintech of all is the Washington, DC-based Goodworld. New Zealand native Dale Nirvani Pfeifer told FIN that she realized a technology gap in nonprofit fundraising shortly after she moved to the US. She met her cofounder John Gossart at the DC startup incubator 1776, and by 2018 they had investments from the city of DC and Mastercard. Since COVID hit, Goodworld has focused on building out donation software for businesses and nonprofits. Increasingly, Pfeifer says, small- and medium-sized businesses want to integrate giving to social causes into their daily commerce: “What is expected of companies is changing and, you know, it’s really being demanded by consumers and by employees.” Goodworld’s next step, she says, is taking its operation global.

PayPal’s FreeFall

Through most of the first half of 2021, the following sentence was all but inconceivable: It is possible, indeed likely, that PayPal stock (PYPL) will close 2021 below its year-opening price of $231.92 a share.

As the chart below shows, PYPL has had a disastrous second half:

Aside from the obvious premise that the stock was overpriced, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what caused it to tumble. Yes, there was a sugar-high aspect to the benefits brought on by the COVID lockdown (which made contactless payments more appealing) and then stimulus payments. But that is also true for rival Square, which hasn’t been hit quite as hard. On November 17, Bernstein downgraded PayPal stock from a buy to a hold, citing increased payment competition from the likes of Amazon and Shopify: “PayPal now risks getting disrupted vs. being a disruptor.”

What’s curious, even confounding, about the Bernstein downgrade is that it could have been issued any time over the last several months. More important, the downgrade clearly didn’t cause the PYPL free fall, only accelerated it. PayPal shareholders are no doubt hoping that management has better answers than that bizarre, quickly abandoned move to buy Pinterest.

This piece originally appeared in FIN, James Ledbetter’s fintech newsletter. Ledbetter is Chief Content Officer of Clarim Media, which owns Techonomy.

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How the Pandemic Birthed the Metaverse

Forced isolation, ad fatigue, the desire to be recognized as a full-fledged citizen with rights in cyberspace, and some fantastic technology advancements are bringing us to the birth of the metaverse. It’s still just gestating.

Suddenly hundreds of brands are making more real money in the virtual world than they did in the real world…and spending a lot less on the cost of goods.  Popstar Zara Larsson offers the same kind of merch at her concerts that many entertainers do — sunglasses, baseball caps and such with her name emblazoned on them. But Lasson’s merch is all sold virtually on Robolox, to the tune of $1 million dollars worth since May.

Here are some companies that didn’t exist only several years ago but all sell NFT creatures and artwork on the blockchain:  Axie, Larva Labs/Crypto Punks, NBA Top Shot, Rariable and OpenSea. Most of them are valued in the billions of dollars. Digital replicas of everything from Hello Kitty to Taco Bell can now be bought and sold in the virtual world. Superworld.app lets you buy and sell virtual real-estate.  ChainGuardians lets you earn real money while you play virtual games.

WTF! And why now are the two questions we need to wrap our heads around. There are a couple of different answers.

The Pandemic Made Me Do It

Living in social isolation for nearly two years definitely moved many of us from physically roaming the world to virtually roaming the world.  It was, in many instances, our only escape. Locked in our households, the internet became the place for exploring, playing, creating, and socializing. “I love the fact that I get to use avatars in my conference calls, because I don’t have to worry about my makeup and hair” said Cathy Hackl, who calls herself the Chief Metaverse Officer, in an interview I did with her the other day as part of the Virtual Events Group series my company organizes.

Hackl believes we’re going to experiment with our avatars to open a new level of freedom for people to express themselves. “I might show up in my suited-up avatar for a meeting, but when I hang out with friends I may want to be more fantastical, like a unicorn with ponytails on fire.” 

We’re Sick of Looking at Ads

You’ve probably wondered how Google knew you were looking for something to do in Rome, before you’d even bought the plane ticket, right?  Well, we’re all fatigued by ads that pop up in our faces. Even the advertisers are fatigued. So while they continue to sink their ad dollars into digital, they’re thinking more about building communities and engagements. That spending will be on creating their digital identities. Instead of viewing a static ad, the brands will move towards a more seamless portrayal of themselves in the metaverse. Hackl says the “metaverse will become the brand calling card.” Warner Brothers, Gucci and HBO have already built their own metaverses.  Nike, Mac Cosmetics  and other apparel companies let you dress your avatar in their products. An added plus? You the consumer will help them iterate their products to your liking. For example, Nascar lets you design racing uniforms, which does the double duty of satisfying you while informing them about their audience’s preferences.

Persistent Identity

The pundit Matthew Ball, a VC who wrote the oft-cited Metaverse Primer, defines it like this: “The Metaverse is an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.”

When there’s a record of what you own in cyberspace and when your identity goes with you wherever your virtual worlds may take you, optimists say there will be more accountability and transparency. 

Ready, Player, Metaverse

If you were a fan of Maxis’ Sim City (released in 1989)  or The Sims (released in 2000) you were in the metaverse. If you played Second Life, you were there in 2002. It’s just that the technology lagged the vision. E-commerce was in its infancy, so there was no scalable business model.  There was certainly no blockchain showing the provenance of your purchases. There was no cloud storage of data.  There were no immersive VR or AR headsets, no mobile phones to take your virtual world with you and no fast chips optimized for graphical rendering. 

Today, many metaverses, like Facebook Horizon,  represent you as a disembodied torso, simply because the camera cannot detect leg motion. This week we heard about the haptic glove that Facebook is creating so that you can feel objects in the metaverse. Tomorrow we’ll probably have sensor-tracking clothing so that our entire bodies can be conveyed into the metaverse experience much as movie-makers use a green screen and body scanning today to help guide animations. Tomorrow, as Zoom’s Eric Yuan likes to say, you’ll smell the virtual coffee brewing or shake hands at your virtual meeting.

Forced isolation, ad fatigue, the desire to be recognized as a full-fledged citizen with rights in cyberspace, and some fantastic technology advancements are bringing us to the birth of the metaverse.  And trust me, it’s still just gestating.

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Where Will COVID Passports Take Flight?

The vision of a global system with standards for the sharing, storage, and verification of vaccination data has not materialized. But success in places like Singapore could help the world move towards a digitized healthcare future.

Preparing for a recent trip from the United States to my home base in Singapore, I had to document and organize records of my COVID vaccination status and required test results. I spent hours preparing numerous forms stored in separate websites or apps. I also struggled to verify if my pre-departure PCR test at San Francisco airport, issued on a piece of paper that could have easily gotten lost, met the stringent entry requirements of the Singapore government. It wasn’t exactly a nightmare, but it certainly wasn’t fun. It would have been easier if I had been able to use a universal globally-accepted digital Covid “passport.”

As the world emerged from pandemic lockdowns this year, such passports have gained attention as a potential tool for safely reopening economies and borders. The apps, which allow individuals to store their test results or vaccine records on a phone and display them to third parties, showed early promise and sparked buoyant enthusiasm in many tech circles.

But the story of COVID passports is one of only fitful progress.

Early in the pandemic, many of the most high-profile COVID passport projects were designed to help facilitate international travel. Within months of the first major lockdowns, a vibrant and global community of technologists came together to build transnational systems to allow test results and vaccine records to be recognized across borders, enabling a more seamless road to international travel recovery.

NGOs and private sector players soon rose to the challenge. Multilateral partnerships were forged; international forums were held; and pilot programs were launched along key international air travel routes. But to date, the vision of a global system with common standards for the sharing, storage, and verification of health data has not materialized. As my experience underscored, international travel in the COVID era remains cumbersome.

Given the thorny technological, political, and operational challenges to making international COVID passport apps work, one can be forgiven for questioning their feasibility. But with pressure mounting on governments around the world to reopen economies, we are seeing many COVID passport solutions focused on national-level needs. This is certainly true in the Asia Pacific region, where “zero COVID” strategies and the risk-averse pandemic management policies of many governments have led to sustained lockdowns and created an urgent need for safe reopening.

Some countries have done well developing and deploying COVID passports. In Singapore, for example, proof of vaccination has been strictly required for entry to restaurants and other venues for many months. Most Singaporeans can easily demonstrate their vaccine status with a digital health pass embedded in TraceTogether, the national contact tracing app. Having lived here through most of the pandemic, I can personally attest that rollout of the system was practically seamless—vaccine records were automatically imported directly into the app, which was intuitive to use and taken up by most of the population.

Singapore’s success with its domestic COVID passport solution can be attributed, in part, to its digitally-savvy and technocratic governance. The country is also small, making it relatively easy to operate a centrally administered database of vaccine results and test records that can easily be queried by COVID apps. This is one of the reasons that a vibrant ecosystem of COVID passport providers emerged quickly in the country. Few other countries have these same ingredients for success.

Singapore is also a place where strict regulations are the norm, people tend to follow the rules, and trust in government services is relatively high. In many other countries, however, public apathy or antipathy towards COVID passports has been a key obstacle to uptake of COVID passports. In the United States, for example, the MIT Technology Review found in August that seven states had rolled out vaccine certification apps, while 22 states have banned such systems to some degree. On my recent trip to the United States, it was downright trippy to visit cities like Tucson, Arizona where people could barely be convinced to wear masks in crowded indoor settings, much less download an app. Vaccine mandates were nonexistent anyway.

But despite social and political resistance, COVID passport apps are becoming increasingly common around the world. Compared to those designed for international travel, these local systems require less technology to implement and don’t face the interoperability challenges of global solutions. National-level systems are also less likely to be beset by fraud and misuse, since it is easier to query and verify test results or vaccine status within a single nation’s borders than across disparate systems for vaccine approval and lab accreditation.

Still, some countries have seen COVID management hampered by stop-and-go implementation of domestic solutions. Denmark was one of the first to introduce a COVID passport, in April. After 80% of its citizens had been fully vaccinated, it phased out the pass in September, but after a subsequent surge in cases, health experts called for its return. Israel, another early adopter, followed a similar pattern, dropping its Green Pass in June before reinstating it after record infections, a decision that was credited for helping to reduce the spread of COVID once again.

So clearly, in some contexts, COVID passport apps are feasible and helpful for managing the pandemic. But many solutions will almost certainly fail. And what will happen when the pandemic wanes?

The good news is that all such efforts may ultimately have lasting and positive impact. They helped raise awareness and drive investment in the underlying technologies that power COVID passports, which could be useful in other settings where vaccine records or test results are mandatory for accessing facilities, such as the requirement in some countries for surgeons to be vaccinated against hepatitis B virus. They are helping the world move towards an urgently-needed more digitized healthcare future. And they may also come in handy for the next pandemic. It could be right around the corner.

Will Greene is a Singapore-based healthcare writer and strategy professional. He currently serves as Healthcare Engagement Manager for Roche Diagnostics Asia Pacific, where he drives thought leadership for Lab Insights, a data hub and educational content platform for the clinical lab community. All views are his own.

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Hey, Little Spender: Fintech Stalks 20 Million American Teens

Fintech companies around the globe are hatching more ways to capture cash from teens. Even nonparents should be concerned. Plus, why small businesses now love their banks.

This week while climate teen sensation Greta Thunberg delivered a blistering speech in Glasgow demanding “immediate and drastic” cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, fintech companies around the globe were hatching more ways to capture cash from her peer group. In an earnings call on Thursday, Square cofounder Jack Dorsey boasted about reaching a large, coveted new population:

We reached a major milestone this quarter in expanding our offerings to families by serving teens, an entirely new demographic for Cash App. With this launch, customers in the U.S. between the ages of 13 and 17 get access to Cash App’s massive P2P network, the Cash Card, Direct Deposit and Boost, all with parental or guardian approval.

By lowering the age barrier, we hope to expand access to the financial system to 20 million teens in the U.S. and equip them with the tools they need to participate in the cashless economy, which is especially important now as transacting with physical cash becomes less relevant in the increasingly digital world. With Cash App, families can help their teens learn about how to manage the money they earn from their allowance, jobs and chores with the appropriate protections in place.

In a later response to an analyst’s question, Dorsey again enthused over the fact that 20 million American teens will be “able to receive money from your friend, send money to your friends or from your parents, [be] able to get a Cash Card, design the Cash Card, even the Cash Card that glows in the dark — my parents can send me my allowance or I can go to Workforce and actually use the Direct Deposit functionality.” Piper Sandler’s extensive study Taking Stock With Teens corroborates Dorsey’s rosy view; between the spring and fall of this year, no payment app grew more with teens than Square’s Cash App (see chart):

Between this development and its (to FIN’s thinking, overpriced $30 billion) acquisition of Afterpay—second only to PayPal in US teenage Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL) usage—Square has had a stellar year in extending its reach to teenage spenders.

Also this week, in Thunberg’s native Sweden, the BNPL titan Klarna continued to roll out new products and services that seem at least implicitly designed to appeal to teens. It also announced a partnership with Stripe, to allow its merchants to offer BNPL through Klarna. It could be argued that all these giant players are behind Apple, which back in April began allowing teenagers to obtain Apple Cards.

And all of this teen-hunting is on top of the various fintech products aimed specifically at children and teens: Greenlight, Step, gohenry and many others. The money being poured into that sector is, well, having a growth spurt:

Even nonparents should be concerned about all these forays into the teen wallet. Of course, it’s hard to take a stance against teaching teens “financial literacy,” even though repeated studies have found that it doesn’t actually change anyone’s behavior. It’s also hard to fault fintech startups for trying to design financial products that will appeal to a population that is almost universally ignored by banks.

Still, anyone who has watched a teenager use a smartphone will know that this emphasis on financial activity is going to lead some teens to spend more money than they have, especially as we enter the holiday season. Indeed, that seems to be the point of BNPL; UK regulators report that some BNPL providers tell merchants their service will increase sales by as much as 30%.

Some members of Congress are calling for greater scrutiny of the sector. In testimony before a House committee this week, Marisabel Torres of the Center for Responsible Lending said of BNPL: “there is concern that the entire business model rests on driving borrowers to purchase items they would not otherwise buy, which is concerning in and of itself and even more so when coupled with lack of underwriting for affordability.”

The UK has already announced that the Financial Control Authority will regulate BNPL, although that won’t take effect until 2022 at the earliest. Biden’s Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has a genuine opportunity to help America’s youngest consumers keep from amassing more debt than they already have.

Score One for the Banks

Government stimulus can have some interesting side effects on the companies and people that actually handle the funds. FIN has noted in the past, for example, that Square customers brought about 55% more funds into the Cash App ecosystem in March of this year than they did in February, which was largely attributable to stimulus money.

This week, evidence surfaced that Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans actually made American small businesses feel better about their banks. J.D. Power released its 2021 survey of small business satisfaction, and found that “overall customer satisfaction scores for small businesses that applied for PPP loans with their primary bank are 853 (on a 1,000-point scale), which is 32 points higher than customers that did not apply for a PPP loan.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, satisfaction was even higher—869—among small businesses that completed the process of PPP loan forgiveness.

It remains a bit of a mystery why fintech lenders—whether for PPP or other loans—don’t receive the same halo effect. This chart from the Federal Reserve Banks shows basically failing grades for online lenders and fintechs:

One reason may be that a large number of would-be borrowers turn to online lenders only after being turned down by more traditional lenders. If those are in fact high-risk candidates, it stands to reason that they would encounter trouble in the process. Another factor suggested by the J.D. Power study is that dedicated account managers make a difference in customer satisfaction; fintech lenders are unlikely to assign those to small businesses.

This piece originally appeared in FIN, James Ledbetter’s fintech newsletter. Ledbetter is Chief Content Officer of Clarim Media, which owns Techonomy.

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To Make a More Resilient Society, Build Community

As global policymakers wrap up the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, organizers in a struggling town just a few miles away are showing the power of community action.

On Tuesday morning, a couple dozen residents of Alloa, Scotland, wandered through the ruins of two buildings on the outskirts of town. The 150-year-old structures had their windows boarded and metal fencing lined the road to prevent vandals from breaking in. All around were rubble-strewn fields where once a sprawling whiskey distillery had stood.

The group was sizing up the property as a potential new home for Resonate Together, a local non-profit dedicated to helping local people recover from trauma—including the COVID-19 pandemic—and begin to live more hopeful lives. The buildings and the wasteland around them were symbolic of the fate of Alloa itself. Once a thriving industrial center, it’s now a symbol of decline.

The potential new home for Resonate Together in Alloa, Scotland. (Image credit: Dan Hamm)

As global policymakers wrap up the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, a small town just a few miles away illustrates the challenges we face in making society more resilient as well as a potential path to do so.

Alloa, with 20,000 residents, was once a thriving center for innovation in shipping, wool weaving, and glass making. Now, most of its industries have shut down, old buildings are shuttered and jobs are scarce. The town is racked by poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and hopelessness. Yet a social enterprise named Resonate Together has gradually gained ground there, with arts and crafts programs designed to help individuals recover from trauma and rebuild community together.

“Resonate Together is a whole-system approach that’s led by the community,” says Angela Watt, a sculptor and former Cobol programmer who established the organization a decade ago. “We start with the principle that people want to be approached as human beings and not with their typical labels.” The goals, she says, are to improve employability, address inequality, and improve mental health.

Resonate Together’s programs tend to be more freeform than is typical in social services. People come together there, drawn by the opportunity to work on an art project or learn a new skill. They get out of the house, talk to one another, compare notes on life, and create art. In the process, they strengthen the community.

The newest program, called Potentia Collective, is intended to help individuals and the community recover from the COVID-19 crisis. Each week, the group addresses a different aspect of recovery. A few weeks ago, they wove sculptures using ivy gathered in a local park—which took them out into nature. Alloa resident Mary Banks says the experience has helped her deal with depression and gain confidence to resume university studies. “This is about sharing positivity,” she says. “We can start something that makes us proud of our community and maybe it can be done in other small communities that are struggling.”

The UN has set a goal for the world to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 to avoid climate-change calamity, but it also recognizes that potentially devastating changes are surely coming and we need to make communities more resilient to deal with them.

In the United States, national, state, and local governments have spent untold billions of dollars on programs aimed at revitalizing towns and small cities left behind as industries faded away. In most places, all that investment has not reversed the tide of economic decline. The money does little more than hospice communities as they slowly die. But the Resonate Together experiment in Alloa, which depends on volunteerism and small dollops of government and grant funding, shows that grassroots efforts at regeneration can give people hope, unleash creativity, and, perhaps, lead to economic revitalization. Not every town can be reborn as a mini Silicon Valley, but, by healing individuals and reviving hope, communities can lay the groundwork for discovering new purpose.

Recovery is a first step, and that’s what Angela Watt was focused on when she launched  Resonate Together. She had moved to Clackmannanshire, where Alloa is located, because she had taken a job that required her to live in central Scotland. Over time, she came to understand the complex forces that mire a place in poverty, and she wanted to do something about it. She had trained in university as a sculptor, and, when the opportunity arose, she led the arts component of a government-funded project aimed at helping revitalize the downtown. Afterwards, she proposed to the town council that they fund an ongoing arts program, but was turned down. Then, with financial help from her mother, she went ahead and launched Resonate Together anyway.

Resonate Together founder Angela Watt (Image credit: Dann Hamm)

When she first approached local residents about the program, they reacted negatively. People said they were tired of being drawn into programs where outsiders came in, got them excited, and then left when funding ran out. So Watt saw that for her project to succeed, it had to be run on a shoestring budget, and designed by and for local people. Around that time she attended a workshop on quantum physics. She learned about systems theory, and how we can find patterns in nature even within apparent chaos. Applying this thinking to local communities, she saw that as long as individuals are isolated from one another, they would likely struggle. By bringing people together to share their stories and learn—to create resonance—both individuals and communities could recover, she thought.

From the start, Watt and her group of volunteers had environmental sustainability and community resilience in their minds. A number of the crafts programs involved restoring furniture, reusing clothing, and fixing broken tools and devices. “We encouraged people not to horde. We’ll recycle or upcycle,” she says. “We had workshops. We taught people how to repair things and build things.”

In addition, in the fine arts programs they encouraged people to sell their creations—and staged exhibitions to help them do so. It built confidence and participants made a little money.

One of Watt’s volunteers, Jamie Coe-Welch, first became involved in Resonate Together six years ago. At the time he was depressed and suicidal. Participating in the arts programs brought him back from the brink. He specializes in pyrography—creating illustrations by burning lines in wood.  “Doing art made me feel better. You can do wonderful things,” he says. Now, Coe-Welch volunteers as  a peer counselor helping other people deal with mental health issues.

Watt says it’s hard to measure the impact of Resonate Together, since so much of it is aimed at boosting individuals’ attitudes and confidence rather than delivering more concrete results, such as degrees and jobs. Still, it’s clear that the programs have improved participants’ mental states. For instance, one survey showed that 36 participants actually said they had avoided suicide because the programs gave them hope.

As the impacts of climate change spread and intensify across the globe, even the healthiest communities will be challenged to respond—and the weakest will be sorely tested. Economic shifts already underway will likely be accelerated. Regenerative programs such as Resonate Together aren’t generally seen as related, but they need to become key elements in society’s response to climate change. New technologies may help blunt the sharpest blows, but fostering hope and strengthening community is just as essential.

Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, CT, USA. His new book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, was published by Columbia University Press in October. This is the last in a series of dispatches connected to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

Read more from Steve Hamm’s COP26 Dispatches

October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

November 1: SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

November 3: How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

November 5: Glasgow Dispatch: Startup Funding Encourages Sustainability

November 8: Can Better Town-Gown Relations Help Save the Planet?

November 8: Young People Are Watching, and They’re Pissed Off

November 9: Piloting Big Technologies On a Tiny Scottish Island

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As global policymakers wrap up the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, organizers in a struggling town just a few miles away are showing the power of community action.

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As global policymakers wrap up the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, organizers in a struggling town just a few miles away are showing the power of community action.

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As global policymakers wrap up the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, organizers in a struggling town just a few miles away are showing the power of community action.

Piloting Big Technologies On a Tiny Scottish Island

The Orkney Islands may seem like the end of the earth, but hydrogen power projects launched there could help usher in a new era for marine transportation.

The Orkney Islands, just above mainland Scotland, may seem like the end of the earth, but hydrogen power projects launched there could help usher in a new era for marine transportation. A consortium of government, business, and community organizations is developing programs to test hydrogen as fuel for a ferry that runs between the Orkney mainland and the tiny island of Shapinsay. This could be the beginning of a massive global shift from diesel power to renewable energy for short- and medium-haul ships.

The UN Climate Champions have designated “transport” as a theme for the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Much of the attention is on efforts of national leaders to address climate change, but in fact, much of the innovating that could eventually lead to massive shifts in energy use is happening in small, out-of-the-way places.

Orkney is an archipelago of 70 islands with a population of just 22,000, but it has an abundance of wind, waves, and tides—all of which are being tapped to produce energy. Alternative-energy sources on the islands produce more than 120% of the electricity consumed there. A number of municipalities there have created community-owned businesses that provide energy locally and to the UK national grid.

One such place is Shapinsay. With a population of just 315 people, it’s a micro community, but one that looms large as a model for how local authorities can produce their own energy on behalf of citizens. If many other communities followed suit around the world, it could have macro impact. “It’s a dream that communities can generate their own energy to run their own transport. You don’t have to be dependent on fossil fuels and the multinational energy suppliers,” says David Hibbert, a technical superintendent for the Orkney Harbour Authority, which runs nine ferries between the islands.

Shapinsay Turbine (Credit: Adrian Bird)

The all-volunteer Shapinsay Development Trust decided in 2006 to erect a wind turbine on the island. The plan was to make the island more self-sufficient energy-wise and to sell excess energy to the grid—using the profits to pay for local services. “They wanted to use the money to improve the quality of life for people on the island, to make it more attractive to live here, and to help repopulate the island,” says Adrian Bird, the manager for Shapinsay Renewables, which runs the turbine and sells the energy it produces.

The plan worked, but perhaps too well. The electricity that Shapinsay and other Orkney communities supplied to the grid soon overwhelmed the capacity of the two distribution cables connecting the islands with the Scottish mainland. Frustrated, those involved began exploring other ways of using their resources. Quickly, with the help of technology and maritime experts, they spotted hydrogen power for ships as a potentially lucrative market. Their electricity could be harnessed using electrolizers to produce hydrogen, which would power ships when they’re tied up on shore, and, potentially, move them across the water.

The ferry projects date back to 2014, when Orkney Harbours Authority and the Orkney Council teamed up to commission a study to discover how the ferries could rely less on fossil fuels. The report suggested they switch to hydrogen power. As a first step, in 2019 the Authority began powering the ferries with hydrogen when they were tied up. Then they began exploring approaches for powering the ferries with hydrogen at sea, using the Shapinsay ferry as the pilot site.

That project has stalled, due primarily to the fact that government safety regulations have not yet been revised to accommodate hydrogen as a fuel—mainly over safety concerns. This is frustrating to the people involved. “We talk about an energy revolution but by definition the rules will have to change, and that’s a slow process,” says Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre, based in Orkney, which is a leader in testing marine energy systems.

Supporters of the ferry projects are hopeful that eventually, if they persevere, the Shapinsay ferry will be the first or one of the first ferries in the world to run on hydrogen. Chris Dunn, the principal naval architect for Malin Group, a Glasgow-based marine engineering firm, was involved in earlier stages of the project. He hopes to eventually help bring it to fruition. Hydrogen takes up a lot of space, so it’s unlikely to be viable for long-haul shipping, but he sees hydrogen as a potentially important alternative to diesel for powering short- and medium-haul boats and ships. “It’s an important step along the path of leaving fossil fuels, and a step we have to take,” he says.

In addition to the regulatory hurdles, another issue facing alternative energy champions is the high cost of producing hydrogen as a power source in places where electricity is less abundant than Shapinsay. To help deal with that, the United States Department of Energy last June launched Hydrogen Shot, which seeks to reduce the cost of hydrogen energy production by 80 percent to $1 per kilogram within the next decade. 

The latest challenge community energy producers on Orkney face is that the winds have been less intense over the past couple of years.  So now they produce less energy. “It’s shocking. Something’s going on here,” says Shapinsay’s Adrian Bird. Officials are hoping this is a short-term blip rather than a long-term shift caused by climate change.

Steve Hamm is a writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, CT, USA. His book about Pivot Projects, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, has been published in the US and UK by Columbia University Press. This is one in a series of dispatches from the COP26 conference.

Read more from Steve Hamm’s COP26 Dispatches

October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

November 1: SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

November 3: How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

November 5: Glasgow Dispatch: Startup Funding Encourages Sustainability

November 8: Can Better Town-Gown Relations Help Save the Planet?

November 8: Young People Are Watching, and They’re Pissed Off

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The Orkney Islands may seem like the end of the earth, but hydrogen power projects launched there could help usher in a new era for marine transportation.

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The Orkney Islands may seem like the end of the earth, but hydrogen power projects launched there could help usher in a new era for marine transportation.

SustainChain: a Collaboration Platform for Do-Gooders

At COP26, representatives from small island nations will discuss becoming producers of ocean thermal energy. This important development became possible in part through a new collaboration tech platform, SustainChain.

The world’s 50-plus Small Island Developing States (SIDS), as the UN calls them, are on the front lines of climate change. Because of sea level rise, some will see large swaths of their land submerged, perhaps this century. Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, one of the world’s lowest-lying countries, recently warned on Twitter that “We are on the edge of extinction.” At the same time, most island nations are almost completely reliant on fossil fuels for energy. They are cooking their own geese.

What’s a low-lying nation to do?

Some useful answers may come on Nov. 4 at a live workshop in Glasgow, Scotland, during the UN’s COP26 climate conference. The workshop is aimed at developing a blueprint for deploying ocean thermal energy, which capitalizes on water temperature differences to produce electricity. It is being hosted by the US Coalition on Sustainability (USCS) with assistance from the Stimson Center’s Alliance for Climate Resilient Earth (ACRE), Pivot Projects, and the tech company SparkBeyond, which provides AI-assisted research capabilities. At the workshop, representatives of small island nations will discuss with scientists and energy experts the potential for them to become major producers of ocean thermal energy for their own use and for export. Participating organizations are expected to include representatives from SIDS, Lockheed Martin, Siemens, and the Global Ocean Resource and Energy Association.

This potentially-needle-moving interchange is being made possible in part by a new collaboration technology platform, SustainChain, which was developed to help unite businesses and other organizations committed to climate action. The technology platform, available online, including on mobile devices, provides an AI-based recommendation engine, search, and joint space for taking action. In little more than a year, more than 1000 organizations have joined.

SustainChain interface (Credit: SustainChain)

SustainChain was developed by USCS in response to the urgings of UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed to help accelerate progress in addressing climate change and meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. Jeffrey Sachs, an economics professor at Columbia University and thought leader in sustainable development, praised the platform at a Sept. 30 launch event for the latest version. SustainChain provides a platform for rapid exchange of information, new connections, new business models, and new solutions, and that kind of networking of the solutions space can enable very rapid and alert movements and, frankly, first-mover advantages, for companies that understand this,” he said.

One of the goals of USCS was to bring together a diverse array of organizations that don’t usually encounter each other, including large corporations, climate activists, investors, research outfits, social enterprises, and technology-based startups. The aim is to prompt the private sector to move faster on climate change. The roster of corporate participants so far includes giant brands such as Danone, as well as plenty of small startups like Ananas-Anam, a London-based company that turns pineapple harvest waste into leather-like fabrics. “The private sector has to work in a systemic way,” says Jacqueline Corbelli, founder of USCS and SustainChain. “There was a need to bring some order, some visibility, and some automated capabilities to increase the velocity of how we take what we know and put it to work.”

Here’s how the platform works: via the smartphone app or website, people register and fill out a detailed profile—not just about themselves and their organizations but about their areas of expertise and interest. The form is the basis for an AI-based matching service that suggests other people and organizations they might want to work with. In addition, participants can create or join existing calls to action. Each of the projects is linked also to the relevant SDGs. “It’s a recommendation engine on top of a knowledge base. Everything is classified, mapped, and connected,” says Joanna Hall, executive director and head of product for USCS.

One of the first action tracks, which came together in late summer, was called Deploying Ocean Energy for Developing a Blue Economy. The goal of the group was to set up an ocean energy network to connect government planners, academics, engineers, and investors so they could share research and launch new initiatives. It quickly focused on harnessing thermal ocean energy for island nations, and the ocean workshop at COP26 grew out of that. One of the leaders of the initiative is Stan Bronson, director of partnerships for ACRE, which convenes research organizations and corporations to take on climate challenges. “No single organization or company or government can make a dent in climate change. But together we can create this giant partnership with super lift, and get critical mass so the things we do are scalable,” he says.

While the people behind SustainChain are busy adding participants and features, they are also launching a sister project, CitizenChain, during COP26 in Glasgow. CitizenChain is a civil society platform that will enable individuals and citizen groups to influence and support projects that are underway on SustainChain. It’s giving ordinary citizens a seat at the table to help decide what happens next.

Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. His new book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, about the journey of Pivot Projects, was published in October by Columbia University Press. This is one of a series of dispatches from COP26.

Read more from Hamm’s COP26 Series:

October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet

November 3: How Oil-Rich Aberdeen is Pivoting Away from Fossil Fuels

November 5: Glasgow Dispatch: Startup Funding Encourages Sustainability

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