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Turning the underbanked into the unstoppable — Debbie Watkins is bridging financial divides for women

Written by Emily Fang Published on 

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Lucy is a financial platform that works with female micro-entrepreneurs via banking, skills-building workshops and networking sessions, pushing them toward success.

Debbie Watkins is the co-founder and CEO of Lucy. Based out of Singapore, Lucy is a mobile financial services app designed from the ground up to provide entrepreneurial women everywhere with the tools they need to take control of their financial future, realize their potential, and to grow and thrive.

Debbie has 20+ years of experience in technology for financial inclusion, mobile-enabled products and services, in addition to business and strategy consulting and management. She has lived in Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Singapore for more than 15 years, and worked in 20+ more countries across Africa and Asia. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

KrAsia (Kr): Can you give us your elevator pitch for Lucy?

Debbie Watkins (DW): Lucy is a financial services app, designed from the ground up to help women who want to start and grow their own businesses. Firstly, we focus on recognizing the unique needs of each female micro-entrepreneur, across socio-economic divides. Next, we carefully tailor the products and services that they would need at different stages of their growth. Finally, we promote a holistic approach to business — bearing in mind that this is not just about financial services. Lucy provides additional value to micro-entrepreneurs via microtraining and networking features, pushing them toward success.

Kr: What is the story behind Lucy? Why have you chosen to develop something for women?

DW: I’ve lived and worked in Asia for 20 years now. My background is in financial inclusion, so I’ve been focused on helping financial institutions that cater to underserved markets, by developing their strategy and product delivery. My two co-founders are also experienced in the banking and financial technology sector. We all had the same view — women are really underserved. Especially in terms of access to financial services, and tools needed to succeed.

Besides that, we know that women statistically tend to be more successful than men, if given the same opportunities. Yet banks and mainstream financial institutions have not been supporting women in the ways they should. It has always been a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude.

Furthermore, research has shown that successful women tend to put more of their profits back into their business, into health, education, and the community. We see that as benefiting the economy and society as a whole. So the three of us believed that helping women to succeed helps everyone – women and men. We thought, if nobody else is doing this, but it needs to be done, then we are going to do it.

All 18 women investors had their portraits drawn by independent women artists around the world. Photo courtesy of Lucy.

Kr: Can you give us some context on what the app does?

DW: Lucy offers a fee-free current account, attached with Mastercard. This is available to all women, but our core focus, at least initially, ishome-based entrepreneurs and foreign domestic workers.

As you know, foreign domestic workers are typically underbanked. And many of them are away from home to earn a better livelihood, some with the ultimate goal of starting their own small businesses back home. Based on the challenges faced by these workers, we have designed a range of services tailored for them.

For one, the branded Mastercard allows them to buy things online, directly from Filipino websites for instance. And the goods can be delivered to their family members back home. This gives them more control over their own money, rather than just sending it home through remittance and lacking visibility of how it’s being spent.

We also enable low-cost pricing for digital remittances. Here in Singapore, most of our ‘helpers’ travel to Lucky Plaza or similar locations for the sake of sending money home. Using Lucy, they now have an app that saves their traveling time and money.

Another service we’re offering is our ‘named savings pocket’ scheme for the current account. Going back to what happens very often in developing countries — where people are in a cash economy, they literally keep separate jars, labeled specifically for each money-saving purpose. There could be one labeled ‘children’s school fees’ and others ‘fixing the roof’ or ‘daughter’s wedding’ etc. You get the idea. They save money and work towards a particular goal.

Lucy digitalizes this process, through a current account with ‘pockets’ for saving money, named personally by the user. Some examples for small business owners could be ‘paying corporation tax’ and ‘employee salary’. Essentially, Lucy aims to help these female micro-entrepreneurs, by putting aside money for different things as well as planning for their business in a more structured way.

 
Lucy offers end to end financial banking solutions. Photo courtesy of Lucy.

Kr: “Lucy doesn’t think like a bank, Lucy thinks like you.” This is a powerful statement — how did this come about?

DW: Mainstream financial institutions have been around for a very long time. But most of the services are generic and designed by the bank for customers to accept.

On the other hand, Lucy’s services are specific and customized and designed by customers — given that we narrow the target audience, focus on their needs, then build a ground-up strategy.

From our perspective, Lucy’s strategy is not necessarily to go head-on against the banks, but rather to partner with banks and fill in the gaps. Where banks find it difficult to provide tailored services, we do the job. Consumers get the best of both worlds.

Kr: You have 18 participating women investors. Where do you hope to take Lucy to?

DW: I think, anywhere that has a problem with underbanked women entrepreneurs. And actually, it’s everywhere!

Women face challenges of different forms, in different parts of the world. It’s not a developing versus developed world problem. I believe a woman running her small business from home in the UK might need one thing, while women in the Philippines or in Ethiopia might need another. So the key to Lucy is keeping it very personal and taking it out country by country. Ultimately, we hope to go global.

WRITTEN BY

Emily Fang

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