Conversation with Vanessa Colella, Head of Innovation and Partnerships

Community Manager

After teaching for over six years and working with underserved communities during her time at Teach for America, Vanessa Colella became interested in how to think about and tackle large systemic challenges. This curiosity brought her to the MIT Media lab, where she earned a PhD and developed new ways of thinking about the technology and the world, which she was able to bring to many of her later roles. Now Visa’s head of Innovation and Digital Partnerships, Vanessa has been able to bring her unique background to examining problems within the payments industry. I had the opportunity to ask Vanessa some questions about her experiences and thoughts on the payments industry’s latest trends.


What was the MIT media lab like?

The media lab was probably one of the first places that taught me a lot about the principles of the world in many ways has ceased to be a place where understanding just one discipline is enough to solve a problem. The media lab has always been both interdisciplinary and looking at that ‘white space’ where there are problems that fall between the cracks, because they don’t fit neatly into a preexisting framework or ‘box,’ and are therefore unseen. What I really enjoy is figuring out how to find and see those unseen opportunities.”


Do you have any favorite sources for spotting new trends, such as podcasts or tech news websites?

In my view, what really matters is looking at a multitude of sources. I try to pay attention to when I am hearing something in a payments newsletter that I’m also hearing about on NPR, or at a cocktail party, or when meeting with the thousands of startups we meet with every year. It’s very difficult to spot trends off a single data point, but when you are seeing something show up over and over again, that’s when you know what’s important to pay attention to. I try to have a wide variety of inputs both within the industry, as well as outside of it, and that helps me pick out what’s the signal and what’s the noise.


What are some trends that have stood out to you?

Embedded finance is one of the trends that I have found particularly interesting, because of its implications for payments. In trade finance, there is a huge gap between the goods that are going around the world at any given time and the financing for those goods. That kind of gap has lots of economic implications for the economy, as well as for individual suppliers. I am especially interested in companies that are looking at ways to bridge that gap. I have also been keeping an eye on trends involving the proliferation of wallets and ways to pay, in terms of interoperability. Despite the economy taking a hit during the pandemic, there did not seem to have been a slow-down in innovation, and people have continued to push different boundaries.


After joining Visa, you introduced a new strategic lens to the Visa Innovation center involving insights. Can you provide some background on what industry insights are and share how you made this decision?


Innovation is not a thing that one person or one group at any company does. It’s about how everyone shows up to work every day and thinks about what can be done better or differently. Giving people a common framework to think within allows people to make individual decisions that are accretive to what the overall company is offering. I think of insights, in general, as different ways to frame changes we are seeing in the world. Insights reorient our thinking towards a new type of solution and give people a structure with which to make individual decisions, which is really how things get moved forward on a day-to-day basis.


How do you think insights inform business strategy and innovation culture, specifically for Visa and other companies in the payments/financial services industry?


The most important ingredient for us at Visa is determining how this will impact our clients. What can we do, because we exist to make sure that all of our clients are able to participate seamlessly and safely in the financial ecosystem. Tech companies and fintech companies are oriented differently than incumbent companies. They come at things focused on the client problem or what the client wants to achieve, and what can we build or create that will make that easier. They don’t feel limited by their industry in their thinking and think very expansively to solve those needs. And that open minded, curious, building orientation is one that I find both really interesting to witness and also very powerful if you start to view problems in that way. At Visa, our job is to not only understand the space deeply and explore it, but also find the intersection between these new emerging spaces and where we can add value for clients.


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