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Fireside Chat with Desjardins Leaders Chadi Habib and Martin Brunelle at the Canada Fintech Forum

I sat down with Chadi Habib, Executive Vice President of Information Technology and Martin Brunelle, Head of Strategy and Innovation at Desjardins Group at the Canada Fintech Forum to understand how Desjardins is plugged into the Fintech and emerging technology ecosystem, why Fintech is important to them and their cooperative, and what they are currently doing to keep pace with this market. At this conference, Pierre Miron, Chief Operations and IT Officer at La Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec (CDPQ) announced a $75M Fintech fund to be launched by CDPQ in partnership with Desjardins Group.

Desjardins Group is the largest cooperative financial group in Canada, with an estimated $258B in total assets and more than 7 million members and clients.

Thank you for your time, gentlemen. So, to get started, for the purposes of the Canada Fintech Forum and the announcement of the $75M Fintech Fund, why is important for your company to sponsor this conference but invest in Fintechs in general?

It's an obligation for a cooperative who is a socio-economic leader to participate in and support events that improve the ecosystem. The future of our industry is about connecting ecosystems and not simply doing it alone. Unlike some of the presentations we may have seen by some of the other players in the ecosystem today, we don't see startups and Fintechs as competition, rather an opportunity to collaborate. We want to ensure that the economy is doing better and growing for the well-being of everyone, that we have a role, and that we are taking care of Desjardins. Also, the Canada Fintech Forum is one of the ingredients to build the ecosystem by putting key players together and having them showcase their offerings / insights like the Pitch competition we just judged, it will help us to learn and grow together.

What impact do you think Fintech will have on your clients and members to have this investment in the Fintech space, especially in light of the Fintech Fund announced this morning?

Our CEO, Guy Cormier relayed today that the #1 priority is not to build startups, not to create technology for the sake of technology, but rather to work in the interest of our members and clients. Having said that, we do think one of the ways with respect to what he said "it is not the destination, it is the path there" is to create an ecosystem and create capabilities with startups, and the more we attract startups and have meaningful conversations with them, Financial Institution's, Schools, Governments, and startups, the more we get to a talent pool that can eventually contribute to the betterment of the ecosystem.

How do you identify the key players in the ecosystem that you particularly want to work with?

Fintechs come to visit us directly with their creative solutions pertaining to Blockchain or AI etc., but we're not interested in that. We want Fintechs to talk to us about the issues we may be currently facing or may face in the future. It's obvious that their technology will be part of the solution, but the more effectively they can cater to what is important to us in our line of business, that is how we identify who we want to work with. We have people come to us all the time asking what our Blockchain or AI strategy is, and to them we say, as long as we are leading the efforts, there will be no strategy for this, rather we will have a member and client orientation in our business and when it does make sense to incorporate Blockchain or AI, we will do so. So, when we do our business strategy and we find there is an area for us to improve and a Fintech can improve our interaction with our members or clients, the Fintech will be included as a part of the business strategy.

[Aqsa] I definitely agree with this statement based on what i've seen in my work with Fintechs thus far, it's really difficult to develop a problem statement around a solution. These solutions aren't plug and play, contrary to popular belief. In order to successfully optimize use of them and increase operational efficiency within any organization (if that is the goal), it is imperative to first understand purpose, define a clear problem statement that exists, and then include Fintechs as part of the discussion to potentially deliver the solution in a manner that will maintain pace with the market.

How do you think you can streamline some of these partnerships with Fintechs and other startups?

There have been a lot of mechanisms that have been put in place. One of them is the Desjardins Lab to make it a little bit simpler to work with us as well as sourcing approaches that are also making it easier. Our current architecture also takes into assumption that some of the people and solutions we are working with will disappear in the next few years. That is not to say that we wish them to disappear, rather we are aware that statistically x out of y companies will not be there in 2-3 years. So, it is about us getting into that mentality rather than the safe and conservative long term mentality of working with a company for the next 10 years. We are now much more comfortable with iterating, rapidly failing, rapidly exiting, and taking that into account in the architecture whether it is IT or Business.

[Aqsa] It is certain, as Chadi and Martin relayed that most of these solutions likely won't last in the market. However, it is imperative that organizations have a perspective on these technologies and understand why they failed in order to better prepare for the future.

Do you have any final thoughts for the attendees of the Canada Fintech Forum and the larger Fintech and emerging technology industry on the importance of Fintech for Desjardins?

Very often, we see ourselves in competition with other banks, however we also come together for topics that are of benefit to the wellbeing of our members and clients and that is nature of the new world we're living in. Shifting the lens to Fintechs and entrepreneurs in the space, if you want meaningful innovation in this space, keep an eye on Montreal because as you see this year, and every year it is only going to get bigger and better and we're going to be there because it will be to the advantage of our members and customers and will allow us to play our part in the ecosystem.

Thank you for your time and insights Chadi and Martin!