#WinnersOfWealthTech Ep 16: Sunayna Tuteja, Head of Emerging Technologies at TD Ameritrade
“The delta between nascency and necessity is shrinking; a new feature can go from ‘nice to have’ to ‘need to have’ almost overnight.”
— Sunayna Tuteja
This month’s Winners of Wealthtech interview is with Sunayna Tuteja, Head of Strategic Partnerships & Emerging Technologies at TD Ameritrade, where she has worked since 2014 after spending ten years at TD Bank. At TD Ameritrade she leads a team building next-generation products, experiences and business models that can “break down barriers to investing and engage more people in their financial futures.” Tuteja is also head of strategy and commercialization for disruptive technologies like AI, blockchain, smart interfaces and virtual reality. Her team has delivered industry-first partnerships and products with Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Apple.
A designated Certified Financial Planner, Tuteja is pursuing a law degree at Stanford and works with the school’s Innovation Lab to support technology advancement.
I was inspired to start the Winners of Wealthtech series by one of my mentors, Tim Ferriss, who is a best-selling author, incredibly successful investor, entrepreneur, and podcaster. Actually, Tim doesn’t know that he’s one of my mentors, since we’ve never met. But his work and his writing have been a big influence on me, so I’m going to keep saying it until he tells me to stop. (By the way, I highly recommend Tim’s latest book, Tribe of Mentors, which you can buy online or even in a brick and mortar bookstore.)
The feedback on this series has been overwhelming! If you have a suggestion for someone you think I should interview, please send it to me at email@example.com.
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This episode of Wealth Management Today is brought to you by Ezra Group Consulting. If your firm is evaluating new technology or looking to improve your current wealth platform, you need to contact Ezra Group. Don’t spend another day using technology that doesn’t offer an elegant user experience. Your advisors and clients deserve better and you can deliver it to them with the help of Ezra Group.
Topics Covered in this Episode
- Discussing the changes Sunayna has seen at TD Ameritrade since joining five years ago [05:42]
- How the growth of technology in the industry has and will continue to change how custodians do business [11:50]
- How TD Ameritrade is breaking barriers and empowering consumers to take charge of their financial futures [15:18]
- Using a digital wallet to manage brokerage accounts [21:51]
- Thoughts on 70% of TD Ameritrade’s client base using iOS [25:07]
- Sunayna discusses the results of the roundtable TD Ameritrade held with their WeChat users [33:53]
- Statistics around the number of consumers currently using TD Ameritrade’s educational tools and content [37:57]
- How to translate the additional engagement received from educational content to advisor customers [41:59]
- What has become most important to Sunayna in her personal life [47:33]
- A business approach or strategy that others may find crazy [48:47]
- Who Sunayna thinks of when she hears the word “successful” [50:11]
- Bad advice she has heard being shared within the industry [55:56]
- The personal failure she learned the most from [58:47]
- Sunayna’s favorite book to gift and why [1:02:33]
Companies & People Mentioned:
Here are a few of my interviews with previous Winners of Wealthtech:
- Brian McLaughlin, CEO of Redtail Technologies
- Angela Pecoraro, CEO of Advicent
- Eric Clarke, CEO of Orion Advisor Services
- Cheryl Nash, president of Fiserv Investment Services
- Bill Crager, president of Envestnet
- Lori Hardwick, former president of Advisor Innovation Labs
- Aaron Klein, CEO of Riskalyze
- David Lyon, CEO or Oranj
Complete Episode Transcript:
Craig: I’d like to welcome to the Wealth Management Today podcast Sunayna Tuteja, the Head of Strategic Partnerships and Emerging Technologies at TD Ameritrade. Welcome, Sunayna!
Sunayna: Hi Craig, how are you? Thanks for having me!
Craig: I’m fantastic, I’m happy that you could make it! I know we tried a couple of times to get this going and busy schedules and such, I just wanted to relate very quickly that you’re the Head of Emerging Tech at TD Ameritrade, your life is sort of involved with technology, I run a technology consulting firm.. yet we spent the last 10 minutes fighting with the conference line technology.
Sunayna: Yes. As my awesome tech support team reminds me, how are you good with AI and not good with AV? I say, that’s why I have you guys!
Craig: I feel the same way sometimes. We have all this technology at our fingertips, everything’s in the cloud and everything’s available, we’ve never had more technology available to us quickly and easily, yet things never seem to work right.
Sunayna: Yes, the joys of technology.
Craig: Especially with video and online conferencing and such. There’s still a lot of analog phone lines and other communication in between us and our high-tech systems, with our phones and computers.
Sunayna: Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting, I was having a debate with somebody. When I go to meetings I still have a field book that I use to make notes, and somebody commented, “For somebody so digital, I’m surprised you’re taking notes.” But the more digital my life gets, I find there are aspects of this analog experience that get even more near and dear. I was reading an article that now shows research that there’s a distinct difference when you take notes a laptop or your phone versus taking notes by writing, and the way your brain comprehends and how writing helps you remember things longer. It may seem quaint, but I think we all still get a nice dose of dopamine anytime we get a handwritten note or thank you letter. So there are some things that are analog I think that are worth saving.
Craig: I would agree. I have three daughters, and me being a techno-geek, we’re all surrounded by technology in my house. But one of my daughters is super into analog; she loves vinyl albums and Polaroid cameras, so I definitely understand the appreciation of the tactile feel of things with analog.
Sunayna: That’s so cool, good for her.
Craig: Do you listen to vinyl records?
Sunayna: I don’t, I know it is definitely coming back in style. I think sometimes what’s old is new, my dad has this saying (I’m not sure it’s his thing, but I’ve heard it from him many times so I attribute it to him) that there is nothing new under the sun; it’s the same thing, just in different iterations for different generations. And I do find it amusing and also thrilling in some ways that sometimes the old things come back, and they’re more in style and vintage and have this cachet around it. So I personally have not gotten into vinyl yet, but who knows.
Craig: Exactly. I tell my wife, don’t throw away your old clothes, they’ll be in style again soon.
Sunayna: I tell my mom all the time, “Don’t throw away those Chanel jackets, I’m sure I’m going to want them one day!” So yeah, you never know.
Craig: Your father’s saying is a good one, it leads me into my first question. Speaking about how things of old are new and how things have changed, you’ve been at a TD for almost 15 years now, is that right?
Sunayna: I’ve been at TD Ameritrade for about five years, and prior to TD Ameritrade I worked for other entities within the TD umbrella. I started my career in Canada and then worked in the US for TD at TD American North Bank, and the last five years I’ve had the pleasure of being part of the TD Ameritrade team.
Craig: So how do you see things changing since you started in the TD family of companies?
Sunayna: This kind of ties into the thesis behind why the entire team at TD Ameritrade exists and what we do. I would say two things: one is we’ve been nerding out the volume, the velocity, and the variety of new technologies coming at us. I often say it’s equal parts exhilarating and equal parts daunting. And what I mean by that is that every day, there’s a new technology to understand, learn, and probe into; there’s a new app to download, there’s a new experience to learn. But at the same time it’s also daunting, at least in our roles (whether it’s in your consulting role or us within TD Ameritrade) and in the service of our clients, what we also have to be thinking about is how are we taking these technologies and applying them in a way that are actually meaningful and adding true value, in terms of utility and delight? And listen, we could sit here and play buzzword bingo, everything from AI to VR to crypto and everything in between; while that’s exhilarating, the thing that excites me more and is the foundation of what my team does is the second part, which is the focus on consumer behaviors and expectations.
Sunayna: What continues to both delight me and surprise me is how these technologies are fundamentally and quickly changing consumer and societal norms. I like to leverage a cheeky story that I’ll share, that’s relatable and underscores this point. It was just a matter of a few years ago when parents were giving this advice or we were getting this advice from parents, which is don’t ever get into a stranger’s car – just don’t do it. If a stranger pulls up next to you, you scream, you run, you definitely don’t accept a lollipop, and you just run away. And we’ve all heard it, right? You probably give it to your kids, I know I heard it from my parents, but what did most of us do today or this week? We went to our favorite smartphone, we tapped on our rideshare app of choice, essentially summoning a stranger to come to us, and we voluntarily got in. I mean I did it this morning; there was no kicking, there was no muss or fuss, and I paid them for the privilege of it, right? What the cheeky illustration underscores is the confluence of technologies that went into creating ridesharing was everything from GPS technology to AI to machine learning and mobile technology.
Sunayna: But if you look at the outcome of it, it’s how quickly we adapted as consumers, and how society has shifted in its norms. And to us as a business, that’s important because these same consumers are current and future clients of TD Ameritrade, or current and future employees of TD Ameritrade. And their expectation of what they get at TD Ameritrade has to be congruent with what they are experiencing with technology in their general lives. So to me, that is more of a focal point. The other thing I know you’ll find amusing (since you also spend a lot of time on planes, like I do) is, you want to watch a bunch of grown adults turn into bratty toddlers, watch that in-flight wifi drop for five minutes. And you say to yourself, a couple of years ago the notion of wifi when you’re 30,000 feet in the air, jetting across at 500 miles an hour was unfathomable; now suddenly, this notion of wifi is expected and needed. How quickly did that happen? To me, it’s those behaviors and how those behaviors transpire and come to TD Ameritrade, that’s what really what excites us but is also that constant Rubik’s cube that we love to keep solving.
Craig: Yeah, the wifi story is funny. There’s a comedian (I can’t remember his name) who tells a story about sitting next to a guy on a plane and the wifi drops, and the guy was like, “Ugh, figures.” And it’s like, you’re flying through the air! You’re going from New York to San Francisco in a couple of hours. It used to take months to do that, and half of the people died on the way; and you’ll be there before lunch. And that’s how expectations are changing; people get to where they expect it and they don’t realize what they didn’t have before, it’s suddenly an imperative and they can’t live without it.
Sunayna: That’s well said. Even in our own business, I vividly recall sitting on some meetings five years ago here where the conversation du jour was still, “Hey, where is mobile technology going to go? How much are we going to lean in? Will our clients use this for trading before they will use their desktop?” That was five years ago, and today trades on mobile is one of our fastest growing product services. And that was just five years ago, so it underscores your point about how this delta between nascency and necessity is shrinking, right? Something can go from “nice to have” to “need to have” so quickly. I think that’s why it’s incumbent on us to be leaning in and learning about these technologies, experimenting with them, and start to apply them in meaningful ways, because when the iPhone moment hits and every technology goes to that, then you’re ready and prepared to serve your clients in the way that they want you to connect with them.
Craig: Exactly, and that leads me into my next question. Working for a custodian, one thing I’ve seen is custodians have very much changed from when I got into the business. When I started, custodians were all sleepy, big bank-like firms relying on big iron mainframe systems. Now they’ve got next generation technology product teams, like your team, where they’re trying to lead the way and be innovative in technology. So how do you see that changing the way the custody business works?
Sunayna: I think that’s a good observation. Specific to TD Ameritrade, one of the things that I have found in my time here very inspiring about this organization is how that disruption is inherent in our DNA. Our CEO often references how we were one of the original fintech’s, right? If you track back to 40 years ago, it was the Ameritrades and the Schwabs and the Scottrades of the world that really disrupted wealth management. The same with the RIA’s. Think of how cumbersome and opaque it was for somebody to enter the capital market just 40 years ago; that notion of bringing Wall Street to Main Street was really accomplished by these pioneers, and all of the work that the advisor community has been doing since then has yielded us to where we are today. However, it is also our belief that we can’t stop; that despite all of the technologies that we just talked about, that financial services at large still remain complex and can still feel opaque and daunting for many people.
Sunayna: And that is the thesis behind the entire team at TD Ameritrade – how do you tap into and harness the power of these technologies and the partnerships, but do it in a way that we are really breaking down barriers that still might persist in FinServ. And by breaking down those barriers, our goal is to empower more consumers in the US and in Asia to take charge of their financial futures. We want to make the access to the capital markets simpler, faster, and easier, but also in a way that the consumers enter those markets in a way that they’re confident, empowered, and educated. That really is the thesis of my team, and also tracks back to your question. Lots of amazing change and progress in our industry, but also incumbent on us to never get complacent and to keep that metabolism going, because there’s still a lot of work to do.
Craig: That’s true. My next question was about breaking down barriers, and you jumped right into it. My question around that was, how are you breaking down these barriers? You want to empower consumers to take charge of their financial futures, I get that. How are you doing that, and how do you see a custodian, from the services you provide to wealth management and to advisors, how do you see your firm breaking down these barriers?
Sunayna: That’s a very good question. I’ll predicate my answer with a little bit of the sausage-making of how my team functions within TD Ameritrade. Even though our fancy title is all about partnerships and emerging technologies, we actually focus on those things at the last. And what I mean by that is, one of the first things that my team and I will obsess about is what is the problem that we’re solving, why is this problem worth solving, and are we uniquely qualified (whether it’s TD Ameritrade or the entire team) to be solving this problem? And to our experience, what we’ve learned is an important anchor point, because it ensures that you are working towards meaningful outcomes, and it also ensures that we are delivering painkillers and not vitamins. Because you want to solve problems so that the solution is something that you always want and always want to use. If I miss taking vitamins, yeah it’s not cool, but it’s not the end of the world. But if I have a toothache, I’m going to need that painkiller, right? So find those gnarly problems, but then also think about how can we take this problem and deliver a solution by tapping into technologies or partnerships that didn’t exist before, that takes the experience to a whole another level, but do it with speed.
Sunayna: In our world we talk a lot about the “five s’s,” so what is the problem we’re solving, can we solve this problem with scale and sustainability, can we deliver it with speed, solving these problems with symbiotic partnership, and always be shipping. At some point, you have got to take your idea (if you absolutely believe in that problem statement) and take it out of the lab, put it into the wild, and really learn from actual consumers using it. That shipping part is critical. So based on that ethos of how we function, these are two ways that we have worked to break down barriers. One is we recently announced in partnership with ApplePay how we are completely changing the way that our clients are able to fund their accounts. A little bit of history, in our category the way clients fund their brokerage accounts has remained the same as it was 40 years ago, which is kind of perplexing because we live in an era of all things digital and all things on demand. And yet, when I want to fund my account I still have to write a check, do a wire transfer (which isn’t exactly the most seamless thing to do), or ACH (which is convenient, but I don’t get access to my money). And in times of volatility, when clients want to enter the capital markets directly or through their advisors, time is of the essence. And here they’re going, I put my money in and now I can’t activate on it. So that was a gnarly problem statement we were trying to solve, because it was a client irritant, it was a business irritant, and from an industry standard perspective, we felt antiquated.
Sunayna: So we said, why not use digital wallets? It is something that consumers use every day, and it’s becoming more and more pervasive. And in partnership with ApplePay just a couple months ago, we enabled for TD Ameritrade client via two taps on ApplePay that’s connected to a debit card fund an account, and access your funds instantly. So it’s that combination of seamless and instant funding, which then empowers them to take the action that they want to take. And we’re very proud of bringing that to bear at TD Ameritrade, but also enabling our competitors to join in that journey. Because ultimately, this is the type of progress I was referring to; this is a barrier, and why is it a barrier? Maybe there was a reason for it decades ago, but now we have new technologies, and consumer’s behaviors are actually complementary to these types of experiences. So why not break down this barrier and create an entry into the capital markets that is seamless, but also delightful? The experience of two taps, watching your account get funded instantly, and then be able to access it is just amazing. And as we look at client adoption just in the couple months since we’ve launched it (and we haven’t done any big bang marketing yet), it just has been validating that hypothesis again and again. And that goes back to my earlier point – solve a painkiller, and that will drive user adoption. So that’s one, and I have another one around Amazon and how it’s helping our clients with accessibility that I’m happy to share, but I’ll pause if you have any questions.
Craig: Oh yeah, I’ve got questions. I really liked the ApplePay idea when it came out, I look at it from two different ways. One is cool, I’m all about technology and I’m also a big proponent of cryptocurrencies, which is all about digital wallets, moving everything digitally, and instantaneous transfers. But on the other hand I’m thinking, is it something that people really need? Do they want to fund a brokerage account via a digital wallet? But it looks like they do. How many clients have used it, and how much money has been transferred so far?
Sunayna: That is a good question, and we’re happy to follow up as we release some of those stats in the near future. I mean listen, we’re also learning, right? And that was my earlier point, about at some point you have to put it in the real world and get consumers to use it, and then that’s perpetual beta. But I think the adoption that we’ve seen has definitely been reaffirming of the initial thesis. And I think to your point about digital wallets, we also started with ApplePay for specific reasons, three reasons actually. One is that at TD Ameritrade, we know that over 70% of our clients are active iOS consumers, so we believe in this notion of go where your consumers are. Gone are the days where you sit at your storefront, digital or physical, and expect for the consumer to come to you. In this new world order, the consumer expects you to come into their ecosystem, whichever one they are most comfortable with. So if the majority of our clients are comfortable using Apple products and services, we’re going to start with where our consumers are.
Sunayna: Second is the adoption of ApplePay in North America is more prevalent than other wallets at the moment, so that was an important data point. And the third is it’s always great to be a pioneer I suppose, but it’s also daunting because you’re having to build a playbook. I’m a pilot, and the analogy I often use is “you’re flying the plane while you’re building the plane,” which is an adventure on steroids. So we wanted to be very purposeful about it. And what we liked about ApplePay was the sophistication of their encryption, their protocols, and the hyper-security and privacy that’s built into ApplePay, which gave us the confidence that we were doing right by our clients. So those were the reasons that we started with ApplePay, but we’re actively working with other partners, including Google Wallet and WeChat. We have a nascent but fast-growing business in Asia, and WeChat is a big player (as you may know) in that ecosystem, and we’ve been one of the first US financial services company to do some really cool and bespoke partnership announcements with WeChat just in the last year. It’s actually unfathomable, when I go to China I’m the only loser walking around with cash or a plastic card to pay for things, because everybody there is using their smartphone, everything is digital payment.
Craig: It’s interesting that 70% of your clients use iOS. Why do you think that is, and what does that say about your clients?
Sunayna: This is my personal speculation, but I think it’s the ubiquity of the brand and the product in North America. I’m sure there are many of your listeners who are Android clients, so I want to definitely assure them we pay just as much attention to Android. One of my teammates who was my lead on the ApplePay project is actually a diehard Android user, so she’s always looking out for the Android users. Part of it might be demographics of our clients, and part of it might be driven by Apple’s brand and ubiquity in North America.
Craig: I find those things interesting; I’ve got a technology background but I do a lot of reading in behavioral psychology and marketing, and we’re learning a lot more about consumer behavior and indicators that you wouldn’t expect, that indicate what the consumer’s behavior will be. For example, if you said someone’s an iOS user and asked me what broker-dealer or what I’m custodian they are most likely to custody with, I don’t know that I would guess TD. So it’s an interesting correlation. With the Android versus iOS, Android has 86% global market share, but in the US it’s much closer, it’s more like 55%/45%. So there are a lot more US iOS users than there are globally.
Sunayna: Oh totally. And to your point, we have to be very nimble and flexible with our product development methodology as we’re solving these problems. For example, with our WeChat partnership, we actually built more for the Android experience because we were launching WeChat to a consumer-base in Asia, and exactly to your point Craig, it’s a heavy Android market. So I think that again validates what I said earlier, which is that gone are the days when you decide what’s best for your consumer. And this is what I love about the sign of our times, is that brands are having to take direction from their consumers. Which is the way it should be, right? In everything we do, it always starts with what is that problem? And then, is this a problem worth solving? That all is predicated on what are our clients are telling us. So we spend a lot of time obsessing about what are we hearing on our calls, what are our client experience surveys telling us? We have an opinion lab where clients can give us feedback on a daily, ongoing basis, or even social platforms.
Sunayna: One of the cool things my team and I get to do (which is one of my favorite parts of the job) is we host these market drive events, which is part of our education offering. So almost every month we are in a big city, we were just in Chicago last Saturday, where our experts host these big one-day education events, and hundreds and hundreds of people come. And it’s actually inspiring, because here it is a full day Saturday and the room is jam-packed with 500+ people, who are absolutely committed to this notion of lifelong learning and becoming better investors. So my team and I try to attend every one of those, partly to share with clients the new things that we’re launching that they should and can use to make their experience better. But the other way we leverage those event is as market testing.
Sunayna: A couple of months ago we were in Anaheim for a market drive event, and we had invited a lot of our clients who are Asian and also use WeChat regularly to communicate with their families in Asia. And we sat down with them for hours and we actually invited some of our partners from WeChat from China to sit down with our clients as well, and we talked to our clients. And that to me is so important this day and age, that you can’t lock yourself in a lab somewhere and try to `concoct something and say, “Here, use it.” You have to start with, what’s the problem, and listen to that consumer on an ongoing basis. I think that’s what enables you to then deliver something that’s a balance of utility and delight. So you’re adding value, but you’re also doing it in this new, elegant, and delightful manner.
Craig: Every time you say delight, it reminds me of Kawasaki. He liked to talk about delighting your clients. It’s very rare you hear that anymore. Whenever I’m talking to my clients, we do a lot of work with advisor experience and client experience for broker-dealers and asset managers, I always try to talk about can you create an elegant or delightful experience.
Sunayna: Yes. At the end of the day, it has to have a purpose, it has to solve a problem, it has to add utility to your life. But that utility doesn’t have to be rendered in a boring way; it can be delightful. One of the examples I love to share with people is Nest and Amazon Ring. If you can take something very boring and innocuous, like a thermostat or a doorbell, and turn it into this sexy experience that people are nerding out over, then there’s a lot of room for us to add delight in financial services and investing. Especially with the education and gamification and the rich amount of information that we have to offer our clients, but do it in bespoke and elegant and delightful ways.
Craig: I couldn’t agree more.
Craig: Allow me to break in on this thought-provoking interview that I’m doing for a word from our sponsors.
Craig: I want to take a little break from this episode to talk to you about one of my favorite sponsors, the Invest in Others Foundation. Invest in Others is a non-profit, you can find them at investinothers.org. They look to raise money and give out awards to charities that are sponsored by financial advisors, so it’s financial advisor’s favorite charities and charities that they spend a lot of time supporting. Invest in Others looks to get sponsorships from the industry and funnel that money to advisor’s favorite charities. I really like this non-profit, I think you should take a look at it. Again, that’s investinothers.org. They have a couple of other programs: one is a Grants for Good program, delivering money to different needy organizations and needy groups. They’re also starting a corporate awards program, which is going to be a little bit different but still within the industry and another way for financial services and wealth management corporations to help donate money to people in need. I really like Invest in Others, I think you should take a look at them at investinothers.org.
Craig: I wanted to get back to something you just mentioned about meeting with WeChat users. Can you share any of the problems that they brought up to you about how they’re using financial services through WeChat, and how TD could make those better?
Sunayna: One of the focal areas for our WeChat experience, and maybe just a precursor for those who might be new to WeChat. I often tell people, if you could create a super app that was a combination of Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Instagram, and a little bit of YouTube all put together, that would almost render WeChat for you. Because WeChat is that central super app that consumers go to where they can connect with people, consume content, and conduct commerce, all packaged in one super app. And the scale is just amazing, I believe there are over 1 billion monthly active users on WeChat today, and an average WeChat user spends upwards of four hours a day on WeChat, which any product owner would be envious of. The other thing about WeChat that’s really cool is they’re part of Tencent, which many people don’t know is one of the world’s biggest gaming companies. They are the name behind games that are household names, like Fortnite. So one of the things that we’ve been able to do with WeChat is really bring that gamification prowess to financial education and content. So if you connect with us on WeChat, what you’ll find is that we have a rich repository of educational content in all kinds of formats, from written to video to audio. But the way people consume it and want it rendered on WeChat is really fascinating.
Sunayna: An example is within WeChat, there’s a function called “shake.” And what that means is you shake your phone, Android or iOS, and WeChat helps you discover people that are around you or content that’s relevant at that point. It’s a mechanism for discovery, but it’s done in a cool way of shaking your phone, versus tapping around. So when consumers come to TD Ameritrade’s education mini-program within WeChat, and let’s say Craig comes in and because we don’t know him yet we initially show him a video about futures, and you shake your phone. Okay, you don’t want to watch that, so now we’ll give you a video about ETF’s. You shake your phone – okay, you don’t want to watch that. Then we give you a video about volatility and you watch it, then we’ll give you another video about volatility, and you watch it as well. Now we are starting to learn personalization and patterns that are important to Craig that would be different than what might be important to Sunayna, but we’re doing it in a way that’s fun and delightful, and a little bit different. And it has that gamification characteristic built into it, so that would be an example of how we’re really harnessing the power of our partnership and leaning into their strengths, to make something that we are good at even better.
Craig: I love that, that’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that. Speaking of financial education, do you have any statistics on how many of your end consumers are using your educational tools and educational content?
Sunayna: Yeah, education is the crown jewel of what TD Ameritrade brings to the marketplace. That was one of the reasons why around this time last year we made a huge strategic decision to take our education that was often behind paywalls and truly democratize it. Because as an organization, we also believe in that thesis we talked about of breaking down barriers, and education is the silver bullet. So why hide it? Let’s just put it out there, for any and every consumer to use it, whether a TDA client or not. But do it in a way that’s also modernized and more digestible. Like, my 22-year-old brother who just graduated and got his first job is now hearing from my parents about retirement savings accounts, and he’s like whatever.
Sunayna: But here’s the thing – he’s not going to sit down and read a pamphlet or a 22 page PDF. He wants a snackable video he can consume on his ecosystem of choice, whether that’s WeChat or Apple or an Alexa device. He wants that same information, that same level quality, but in more snackable packages. So that’s been our focal point, is really taking education. And we’ve found the adoption from our clients in Asia and in the US to be very validating. Now in Asia, what we’re learning is the content that they really crave is some of the basic content, right? But what we’re also learning is they’re very fast learners, and they go from learning about the basics of the stock market, then wanting to learn about futures and forecasts. The other thing we’re also seeing is, an educated client is a more engaged and confident client. So we are able to see patterns that the more they consume our education, the more active and engaged they are in their accounts. So that’s a good correlation.
Craig: That’s an excellent correlation. If you can find ways to get your customers more engaged and more active, especially in a brokerage account where it’s transaction-based, that’s always a good thing.
Sunayna: I think it’s again that point about breaking down barriers, right? People want to take charge of their financial futures; nobody that you talk to is going to say no, I don’t want a better, more secure financial future. Everybody does! It’s this inherent or perceived lack of knowledge or assumption that it’s too complicated. I live in the Valley, I’m surrounded by some of the smartest minds and I’m talking to some of the smartest engineers, who are probably building something that will change our lives in a few years. But you talk to them about investing in the capital markets and they say no, that’s too complicated. Like you are working on technologies that are barely fathomable to most people, but the capital markets are daunting to you?! But then you put something like education in front of them, in a format that is appealing and accessible and relevant to them, and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I can do this.” And that’s one of my favorite things, even when I go to market drive events, is watching clients go from, I don’t know if I can do this to yeah, I can do this. They feel confident and informed, and that is the moment of delight for us.
Craig: With this increasing engagement in your client’s accounts, how do you transfer this type of educational content and this type of engagement to your advisor customers?
Sunayna: When we look at those problem statements, we make sure that we are solving problems that are pain killers, but also ones that extend to create as much of a big tent affect as you can. ApplePay is a great example, right? Some of these pieces are also near and dear to me from an accessibility perspective. We forget that the decade of phenomenal technological advances that we have enjoyed in our lives has also left a lot of people behind. You think of people with visual impairments or dexterity issues, and as the US demographics gets older, we will see more of that. With chronic illness or dexterity issues, the way people use their phone is not going to be perpetual, and they’re going to want new ecosystems to maintain that lifestyle, access to information, and communication. And to me, voice is very inspiring. I’ve had a client and even some of our associates who’ve written to me or come to me and shared how accessing market information every day, they have to take many extra steps to get access to the same information that you and I would, but now they’re like Sunayna, I get it in a split second. All I have to do is say, Alexa give me the market update from TD Ameritrade network, or tell me what earnings will be coming out today. Listening to those stories reminds you again about breaking down barriers, not just for the segments we often think of, but also helping us bring along people that technology may have left behind along the way, and really democratizing the access and that experience.
Craig: That is awesome, I love that. So I want to shift gears as we’re getting towards the end of our time together and go into some questions more about you, your personality, and how you see the world. In the past few years, what’s become more important to you in your personal life?
Sunayna: “Me time.” Sometimes people find it hard to believe, but inherently I am a very deep introvert and shy person; I put on a good game face for 18 hours a day, but I have learned with discipline that I need a set of hours every day to myself. It’s almost like I’m like a device and I have to recharge myself. And I have found that when I don’t intentionally and with discipline give myself that time each day, it kind of messes up the equilibrium. And it can happen in different ways, it could just be those two hours I’m sitting on a flight where I’ve got my headphones and I’m listening to music or a book, but it’s just something where you just need more introspective reflection and time for yourself. And I’ve found that I’ve become much more intentional, but also much more protective, of that time.
Craig: What is something that you personally believe in, that other people might think is crazy?
Sunayna: The one that I’ll share because we’ve been talking about innovation and how you bring these things to life is advice I actually got from a good friend and mentor of mine, who is a serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. If you are not getting laughed out or yelled out of the room, then your idea or the problem statement that you’re solving isn’t big enough. It kind of just enforces that thinking of chase after the most gnarly problem statement. Because often nobody else is doing it, so you have a green field, and therein lies that ability to maximize utility and delight, because it’s been left alone and people have been ignoring it. We’ve seen a lot of startups use that thesis and build unicorns out of it. It seems a little contrarian because oftentimes in the world of innovation the focus is on low-hanging fruit, which I get, but I think this notion of… And trust me, I get laughed out or yelled out of many rooms, many a time. Now I take it as a badge of honor versus sulking in it.
Craig: As you should take that as a badge of honor. Who do you think of when you hear the word “successful”?
Sunayna: I think there used to be this punch list of what success meant, and one of the things I like about the recent generational shift is everybody feels empowered to define their version of success almost. I would say my earliest memories and the person I continue to look up to to this day as somebody that I want to be and regard as being successful, would be my grandad and my father. They were both immigrants; my grandfather immigrated multiple times, either because of choice or circumstances that required him to take him, his family, and his entire life and uproot and move to somewhere safe and secure. And each time, the stories I’ve heard and the success I’ve seen him build leaves me awestruck. It reminds me on my toughest days that all of the adversity they went through and the life that he created for his kids and subsequently my dad and his siblings for us, that the adversity I face is an iota of what they faced. But it also reinforces in me this very strong desire of making sure that you’re living your life in a way that you’re making a dent, and that you’re paying it forward.
Craig: Talking about how people had it harder earlier, it’s hard for kids to understand. I know I used to tell my three daughters how tough things were when they were little, I would tell them (I would exaggerate a little), grandma and grandpa made me work in a factory in the morning before school and I had to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow, and you think they kind of appreciate it. But they’re a little sneaky, they called my mother and said, “Grandma, why did you make daddy work in the factory in the morning?” And she said, what? What are you talking about? So they busted me. “Why didn’t he have shoes?” So you’ve got to be careful when your kids get old enough to call you out on that stuff.
Sunayna: I think there’s something special about the immigrant journey; we can all trace back, at some point. For me it’s just more recent, and I consider myself an immigrant in my own right because I chose to move from Canada where I grew up now to the United States, but I think there’s something to be said about that immigrant journey and how it defines and shapes you. I was watching an interesting Twitter debate just yesterday about the level of comfort and excess that’s in our lives today, like how do we find a way to almost deprive ourselves a little, to remind us that this abundance is not normal? And it was this debate going on about cold showers and intermittent fasting – it was a very Silicon Valley debate, but I thought there was something interesting in that thesis. Do we ever deprive ourselves of anything? Do we try to put ourselves through any pain anymore, or is everything just expected to be abundance and comfort? I thought that was an interesting Twitter debate.
Craig: It is interesting, and some of it actually has some substance. Especially when it comes to fasting, which is something I had to do recently for a test, I had to fast for 24 hours. And I actually felt great the next day, I thought this is something that has benefit. And you do some reading and realize that there are some medical benefits to intermittent fasting. I listen to some other podcast about that, and some people get a little extreme about it, they fast for three days (that’s a little much for me), but there are some benefits to these things. And another thing related to children and getting them to understand, I find sports and other activities that can install a bit of discipline in them can help them understand and get over parts of your life when time’s a little tough; if you have that discipline in your life, it helps you.
Sunayna: Totally. And yes I’m a proponent of fasting, I’ve been intermittent fasting for a couple of years now. I usually do the 16-18 hours. I started because I would forget to eat or I would get so caught up in what I was doing, but then I realized there was a methodology I could apply to it. And I find the same benefits that you have; it’s hard when you get started, but it’s actually really helped with focus and discipline. I also find it fascinating how many hours we spend as humans thinking about food – preparing food, consuming food, talking about food. I just find this to be efficient and there are other apparent benefits to it, so I’ll own it.
Craig: In your travels throughout your career, what bad advice do you hear being given out most often?
Sunayna: I think the notion of, what is your five-year plan for your career? It’s carryover from the old school management which I don’t think is appropriate for this day and age. I was tracking this back and doing some self-reflection recently, and I would say over the last 12-14 years or so, of the 15 assignments I’ve had, 12 of them I was the first person to have it. I vividly remember writing 12 of my own job descriptions, because it was a brand-new job (including the one I’m in right now). To me, that is the sign that you don’t really know; the jobs of the future and what I’m going to be doing in five years doesn’t necessarily exist yet. So I find that that question that people force upon either young graduates or career professionals sends people down a rabbit hole that’s not productive. Instead, the guidance I have found most helpful from my mentors is chase competencies and chase experiences, because those things you can apply to whatever that job might end up being, or wherever your career might take you. Also, that way it shelters you from this notion of ego and chasing titles and status, which can disappear in an instant; but the experiences and the competencies, no one can ever take away. So I try to guide people more that way. The last piece of advice I like to give is to do the thing you’re uniquely qualified to do; understand where and how you can maximize your impact, and do the things you are the most qualified to do. And the rest, find a way to hire other people who are better than you to take it on or delegate, but stick to the ways that you can maximize your value to your team and your organization.
Craig: We all have successes and failures, and they say that you learn more from your failures than your successes. So what failure have you had in your career that you learned the most from?
Sunayna: First of all, I humbly attest that I have had lots of failures. I also completely attest to your point that I have grown and learned most from my failures. Sometimes you don’t even remember your successes, isn’t that the funny thing? We are all so obsessed with succeeding and acing. As I shared earlier, inherently I am a very shy, introverted person. Those who know me may sometimes go, what?! I definitely do put on a really good game face, but that has been a very hard journey for me. As a kid, I was not very social, and one of the best things my dad and my grandfather did for me was put me in debate. It felt like being thrown in the deep end. I remember my first few debates, I was part of a team, so it was my first experience with this forced sense of belonging and being part of something greater than you. But at the same time, I was not able to contribute. They would put me on stage and I would just stand there frozen, maybe saying one or two words. But they kept putting me back on the team, and I don’t say this lightly, but it has defined who I am; it changed my life. It taught me how to think on your feet, how to articulate your thoughts, how to communicate your thoughts, but also how to harness that nervous energy and lack of confidence into a confident person, who can relay their message.
Craig: You remind me of Ann Miura-Ko. She was called the most powerful woman in startups, and she also started out on the debate team in high school. And that was sort of defining experience for her as well, coming out of her shell.
Sunayna: Yes, I’ve heard her share that and I find that very relatable. And I think there are many other people who’ve had those same benefits. And while I know debate might not be the same level of sport as other varsity sports, I do put it at that level because I think it teaches you so many real lessons that you can use through life.
Sunayna: I am a biography buff, so I recently have been gifting the book “Shoe Dog,” which is the biography of Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. When I started school at Stanford I got that book and was like, ehhh, I’m not really a sports person. I literally made the mistake of judging a book by its cover, and I put it aside. Then one weekend I found it on my table, I started reading it and I just could not put it down. Then I scolded myself for putting it aside and not reading it sooner, but there are just so many things that are relevant to the work we do. The thing I tell people is that our team isn’t about this notion of innovation or chasing shiny objects; it’s a mindset, it’s muscle memory. The thing I take away from this book is a very eloquent quote about solving problems. It’s about making a dent, it’s about making people’s lives just a little bit better.
Sunayna: And Phil Knight’s line is, “If that makes me a businessman, so be it. If that’s innovation, so be it.” But the inherent purpose is not innovation for innovation, it’s about making that dent and having a purpose. “When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier or healthier or safer or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently and smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you’re helping others to live more fully. And if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman.” Every time I read it, it still gives me goosebumps. The book is just filled with so much relevant wisdom, I encourage your readers to definitely check it out if they haven’t read it.
Craig: And on that note, you’ve created the perfect ending for this podcast.
Sunayna: Thank you so much for this opportunity. I feel you’re right, we could nerd out for hours. And I also thank you for your patience. As you and your listeners can tell, I like my job just a bit! I’m a little bit obsessed with what I do, so hopefully my exuberance comes across in the right way.
Craig: It absolutely does. We’ll have to schedule another call to go into some of these other topics, and I’m looking forward to seeing all of the great new things that TD is going to be building at the next LINK.
Sunayna: Excellent, thank you Craig! All the best to you and your podcast.
Craig: Thank you, Sunayna. I really appreciate it.