The chief executive of Australia’s peak fintech advocacy and policy body Danielle Szetho has announced she will be stepping down and moving to Asia to champion further collaboration between Australia and the rest of the Asia Pacific region.
Szetho has spent nearly two years as the head of Fintech Australia, having worked in the media industry before becoming the industry body’s first ever chief executive in mid-2016. In that time, she has seen the organisation grow from an early-stage idea to an influential policy-making powerhouse and mainstay of the Australian startup ecosystem.
Szetho’s official last day is next Monday, and she tells StartupSmart after that she’ll be taking some well-deserved time off before setting up base somewhere in the APAC region (Hong Kong or Singapore are on the shortlist for now). Her mission will then be to start driving more connection and collaboration between the Asian and Australian startup scenes.
“My partner and I have both spent a lot of time travelling through Asia, and we’ve been incredibly impressed, but a little disappointed in some respects with how little engagement and interest the Australian community has in Asia,” Szetho says.
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“The opportunity is too big to ignore — I was looking at some data on the top 20 countries looking to invest in business globally and six of the top ten were in the APAC region. It’s amazing to me that we don’t see more Australian businesses build partnerships there.
“There are so many rich and dynamic markets, like in South Korea, their KakaoTalk has something like 93% penetration, which is a dynamic we can’t even fathom in Australia.”
The intention is to come back to Australia, but until then Szetho wants to use her skills and connections in the Australian business world to drive the “next stage” of engagement for Australian startups wanting to expand into Asia. She believes the focus for founders has been on the US and UK markets but she wants to change the dynamic to be more in line with the rest of Australia’s interaction with Asia, saying there’s a “disconnect” in the tech sector.
While founders need to appreciate the Asian markets are not homogenous and can be highly complex and time-intensive to understand fully, the “tremendous opportunity” can’t be ignored by Aussie startups, says Szetho, who believes more and more Asian countries will look to build stronger ties with Australia as concerns grow over China’s increasing influence.
“Without some strong people in the market looking to build connections Australia is going to be left behind,” she says.
“I think local startups have been discouraged from moving into Asia firstly because of the language barrier, and secondly because of how different to Australia many of the APAC markets are.
“In some Asian markets defaulting on your loan doesn’t mean just a black mark on your credit history, it means someone’s coming to your house with sticks to beat you up.”
Szetho also revealed she will be looking at investing in various startups, although she says this will likely be through someone else’s fund rather than going down the angel investment route.
Two years and plenty to show for it
Looking back at her tenure as the fintech body’s chief executive, Szetho points to a number of policy successes she’s proud to call her legacy. At the top of that list is the establishment of the open banking regime, which Szetho says she has written “so many submissions” for but believes will be a world-leading regime.
More recently, she mentions the small business lending terms report released alongside the Australian Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell.
“That project involved a lot of different stakeholders and a lot of complexity,” she says.
“I’m also proud of our work in legitimising the digital currency industry in Australia, which has led us to become well regarded in that space, and both industry and regulators came together to provide a united front in how we approach innovation.”
One of the catalysts for Szetho leaving her role at Fintech Australia is her partner’s study visa expiring. The pair were left with few options, given the ongoing issues with 457 visas and the sluggish pace with which the temporary short skills visa list is updated, as Szetho’s partner works in the blockchain space.
She highlights this as one of the areas Australia desperately needs to work on, along with encouraging younger people into entrepreneurial pathways and reducing the company tax rate.
“The area of migration policy and long-term development of skills is one of the areas where a tremendous amount needs to be done. We also need to educate younger generations that not all careers these days will be your traditional lawyer or doctor jobs,” she says.
“STEM education is extremely valuable and we need to embrace that from the ground up with strong and flexible policy frameworks.
“Australia also needs to look hard at reducing the company tax rate. I can already see the number of great high-growth startups we are losing to countries like Singapore, and tax is the number one reason.”