Millennials and morals: an Australian on Wall Street

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As HSBC USA’s Head of Innovation, Australian Jeremy Balkin has a critical role leading the bank toward an exciting and sustainable future. Balkin’s vision includes reshaping the culture of Wall Street and encouraging millennial leadership globally.

Article by Matthew Hall for Australia Unlimited

The global finance industry is not often known as an instrument for positive change but Australian Jeremy Balkin is out to remake Wall Street culture as a force for good.

As Head of Innovation for HSBC in New York, Balkin is responsible for the bank’s forward-thinking fintech strategy across North America, a role that has global influence.

“I love the diversity of HSBC,” says Balkin. “A British bank, with an Asian name, based in America. On a normal day I’m speaking with colleagues in Argentina or Mexico or New York. Then I speak with someone in Hong Kong who is Canadian and someone else in London who is Indian.”

Balkin’s position at the bank comes with a broad brush. His definition of innovation isn’t just about banking tech or the latest finance apps on a smartphone.

“Innovation is about doing something differently that creates value [for HSBC staff and customers],” Balkin says. “I love that being an Aussie here is an advantage. I’m an outsider and that enables me to see things from a different lens and think about things critically hopefully creating value.”

A TROPHY CABINET OF FINANCE CREDENTIALS

Originally from Sydney, Balkin earned a commerce degree in finance and economics from the University of New South Wales (UNSW). He dabbled in entrepreneurship (“That forced me out of my comfort zone,” he says) which led to a job with Australia’s Macquarie Bank. He left Macquarie in 2013 and took a course at Harvard Kennedy School of Government before being offered his current role.

Balkin is a winner of a UNSW Alumni Award for Achievement and has been recognised as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He won the 2017 Advance Global Australian Financial Services Award and was presented with the 2017 Overall Winner Award by the organisation which recognises the work of Australians overseas.

Less formal recognition has seen Balkin dubbed the “anti-Wolf of Wall Street” by one prominent media commentator. He champions the role millennials can play in a finance industry reboot a decade after the global financial crisis.

An advocate for ethics in banking, Balkin states his case for an ethical Wall Street as the award-winning author of Investing with Impact: Why Finance Is a Force for Good. Balkin claims the financial industry lost its way during the 2008 global financial crisis – a statement without controversy – but says “many good people have stood up from the wreckage”.

“The overwhelming number of people in our industry are ethical and honest and want to help people,” says Balkin. “Money is there to make the world go around. Whether you agree with that or not, it is just the way it is. Our job is to positively influence the allocation of capital. This business is not about screwing people, it isn’t about lying to people, it isn’t about the bad stuff we’ve seen in the movies.”

FINANCE INDUSTRY MUST RESET THE MORAL COMPASS

Balkin says individuals in the finance industry can impact people’s lives in the same way a doctor or teacher can. It is all about, he says, how individuals use their expertise. Used in a positive manner, he believes money really can change everything.

“We need to get back our moral compass,” says Balkin. “A doctor and teacher have a very important impact but if we can help someone achieve a financial objective so they have money left over to fund philanthropic pursuits then that creates other opportunity.”

Balkin's theory is that people working in the finance industry and benefiting from its success can have a positive impact through philanthropy or investing with impact. Rather than spend money on excess stereotype behaviour, they can be a force for good.  

“The harder you work, the more opportunities you can have and – depending on your moral compass – where you can allocate your capital.”

At 34 years old, Balkin describes himself as proudly millennial – the generation loosely defined as born between the mid-1980s and the early years of the 21st century. His second book – Millennialization of Everything: How to Win When Millennials Rule the World – is about the broadly defined (and often misunderstood) generation and offers a positive perspective on how a future in millennial hands will take shape. Millennials are a hot topic in Corporate America at the moment and the book was recently announced as a Finalist in the 2017 Best Book Awards USA in the category of Business Management and Leadership.

“What is a bank going to look like that is run by a millennial CEO?” he asks. “What is a major country going to look like with a millennial president? There already are some early examples. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand is 37 and the Chancellor of Austria is 31. There are millennial CEOs and probably the most influential company in modern history is Facebook which was started by a 19-year-old millennial. We have only just begun to see what that future looks like.”

Balkin says questioning the status quo and the evolution of technology are key ingredients for innovation. They are also key touchpoints – literally – for many millennials.

“If you have the technology tools then – bang! – you start disrupting things, transforming things, improving things through innovation,” says Balkin. “One-third of the population – one-sixth of the wealth – is millennial. In a decade we are going to have a peak millennial economic, political, social and cultural influence. We have to ask, are we going to be ready for this? I am positive.”

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