Banking can be so much better

May 27, 2016

A few weeks ago, Ali was asked to give a talk at The Next Web. We decided to tell our story on how bunq came to be. This is how it went!

Hello, I’m Ali, the founder of bunq. The bank renewed.

Now you might probably be wondering: what does one of the greatest speeches in history have to do with the future of banking. Hold that thought!

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to share my thoughts on this matter and my mind started wondering off. What to say since the subject is so huge. And then as I was driving back an old memory came to me. I immediately parked the car and started writing it all down. And today I’d like to share my notes with you.

This year it’s been 20 years ago that Fokker, a Dutch airplane company, went bankrupt. Back then I was about 14 years old and had already been actively trading stocks for a while. As the bankruptcy grew more and more imminent there was this interview that I remember. An old lady was asked why she had not sold her stocks yet, given that they were plummeting on a daily basis. She answered that she would hang on to her stock no matter what. At the time that struck me as very odd. For it was quite clear that getting out sooner rather than later would  be the most financially sensible point, by far. But she explained: some things are more valuable than just a return on investment. Yes I invested in the company because I believed in its future returns. But I also invested because I’m proud to be a part of Dutch history. I invested in it because I think it’s important for the Netherlands. For people to keep their jobs. For students to learn about cutting edge technology.

And I remember thinking: what is she talking about? In my then young immature and silly mind I had already judged her to be a non-rational investor, being naive and maybe even foolish. Back then I never questioned my own motives: investing in stocks was all about maximising profits. Right?

Now that I’m somewhat older I’ve started questioning those and other beliefs. The assumptions that once seemed to be cast in stone, no longer seem to be so absolute now.

I’ve been inspired by the change taking place around us. Many industries are fundamentally changing form. The food industry for instance is taking giant leaps in sustainability and animal welfare. We no longer only care about getting the maximum amount of chicken for the lowest possible price. We also care about its upbringing. Was it fed properly? What kind of life did it have?

When we look at energy sector we see the same thing happening: it’s all about sustainability. Yes digging up oil is cheap and effective. Yes putting gasoline in cars is a well proven method of transportation. But do we really want to suffocate ourselves? To suffocate our children? Luckily we see rapid and strong improvements there as well moving towards sustainability, be it solar, wind energy, or whatever. And there are many other industries that have followed suit. By reducing water wastage, carbon emissions, etc., etc., etc.

As I was looking around it occurred to me that change is happening everywhere except for banking. As we’ve seen ethics move into more and more commercial companies the banks have been lagging behind consistently. Politicians have tried to remedy this behaviour. In the Netherlands for instance they forced bankers to take an oath, which some bankers seem to do with a cynical smile. Or when laws came into effect to limit the height of bonuses a lot of bankers went around it by getting huge raises instead. We’ve seen fraud. We’ve seen greed. We’ve seen unprecedented egocentric behaviour.

Now you know it wasn’t always like this. There was a time that banking was by the people and for the people. Some peasants came together to lend each other money so they could buy equipment to farm more effectively and in doing so provide society with more food.

Which brings me back to my story about the old woman and Charlie Chaplin. Was she Right in investing in a tanking company? I still don’t know, but that’s not the point. For I think now more than ever it’s important to ask ourselves the Right questions. What kind of world are we living in? Why? How did we get here? Are the assumptions that led us here still valid?  It is Charlie Chaplin that helps us remind ourselves that it is US who create our own future. We are not simply passengers of a bus driving through the journey of life, each of us is in their own driver’s seat! And so we can start asking ourselves other questions: what kind of world do we Want to live in? How are we contributing to it? What’s missing? How can we get there?

It is these questions that lead to my fundamental belief: that what we do matters. The choices we make matter. What stuff we buy matters. Where we buy it matters. The job we do matters. The way we treat our family and friends matters. The way we treat our neighbours matters. The way we treat our guests - even if they are from abroad - matters.

In my life ’Meester Jan’, my elementary school teacher, has been a great example of how much a seemingly small choice can matter. 27 years ago I arrived here as a guest. I was placed at a horrible school across town where nobody spoke Dutch. A place where I was considered to be a below average student even before I had started. There was a moment of luck: my mother happened to walk in a school just a couple of hundred meters away from where we lived. There she met ’Meester Jan’. He stood up and questioned the then common thought, by asking: why should a child from our neighbourhood be placed across the city? To him it seemed very foolish to do so. And it was through his conviction to do something about it that I was allowed to swap schools. With his act of kindness and through his perseverance he changed the course of my life: just a few weeks later I was surrounded by people who did speak Dutch. In a school where you actually got taught. A school that I could walk to myself instead of having to be transported by car.

Today I would like to thank ‘Meester Jan’ for his grace and his courage. To me he is the embodiment of what a huge difference each and every person can make.

Some years ago I felt it was now my turn to make a difference: it was clear to me that a huge change was needed and still needs to take place in banking. And I decided to take up on that challenge. Amidst the doom & gloom of the financial crisis I founded bunq, based on a very simple idea: that banking could be so much better. Very quickly I was fortunate enough to find a group of great people that felt the same way. bunq is untainted by events of the past and is the first true alternative in banking in a very long time. In the few months that we’ve been available this has led to tens of thousands of new users. This in turn has given us the great opportunity to have a better understanding of our user’s wishes so we can tailor bunq to their desires. Slowly but surely we’re heading back to the old ways, to the days where banking is yet again in service of people.  And with the profound belief that we can go there Together.

Thank you!