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Robinhood’s COO, Gretchen Howard — Democratizing Finance, Navigating a Crisis, & Embracing Change

Miguel Armaza is joined by the very interesting Gretchen Howard, Chief Operating Officer at Robinhood, one of the most defining fintech companies of 2021, best known for aiming to democratize investing for everyone and popularizing commission-free trades.

Founded in 2013 by Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhat, Robinhood has grown to one of my most recognizable household fintech brands over the last few months with more than 13 million clients. However, the company’s journey has not always been easy and without criticism.

In this great episode, Gretchen shares:

  • Career trajectory, and what drove her to leave a senior role at Capital G and join Robinhood in 2019
  • What inspires her about the company and some of their exciting plans for the future
  • Gretchen’s first-hand account navigating the GameStop debacle in late January 2021 and, more importantly, some of the lessons learned from this experience and why Gretchen, Vlad, and the Robinhood team are now advocating for Real Time Trade Settlement to improve the market.
  • As well as a number of other interesting topics

Full interview → Spotify | Soundcloud | Apple

Gretchen began her career in the 1990s as a tech consultant at Andersen Consulting, crediting this job with teaching her about technology’s potential to transform and accelerate businesses. Over the following years, her career followed a mix of roles that intersected between finance and tech — first at Fidelity Investments and then Google, where she eventually joined Google’s Venture Capital arm and fell in love with empowering some of the greatest entrepreneurs of our generation. One of these investments was, in fact, Robinhood. Not only did she invest in the company, but she liked the mission and team so much that she joined them full time.

Financial Services for All

More than two years since joining the company, Gretchen seems more excited than ever about Robinhood’s mission. She’s passionate about the company’s focus on democratizing access to financial services and recognizes that there is still a lot of work to be done.

“Robinhood was founded with a belief that the financial system should work for everyone. And that sounds simple, but that hasn’t been true in the past.”

One of her personal goals from day one was to increase access to minority investors. Gretchen shared that they actually tripled(!) their female customer base in 2020, and recorded 37% of non-white customers (vs. 20% in other brokerages).

Navigating the GameStop Crisis and Lessons Learned

It’s been almost two months since Robinhood faced what was probably the most significant crisis in company history. Driven by the meme stock mania coming from the likes of r/wallstreetbets, on January 28 Robinhood imposed trading restrictions on 13 securities (notably GameStop) due to unprecedented spikes of trading that triggered significant capital requirements. The company found itself navigating the almost impossible balancing act of responding to non-negotiable regulatory requirements and continuing to deliver a great customer experience. As we all know, Robinhood took a lot of fire for their response and Gretchen describes this situation as a “great leadership test”, during which company leadership had to address short-term regulatory requirements while staying focused on the long term vision.

“It’s those moments that really challenge you — if you can get through them, learn from them, and keep going, they’re also probably the most meaningful of being a leader in business. And, hopefully, there will be better outcomes for the customers going forward.”

Now that Gretchen and the leadership team have had some time to digest what happened, they are publicly advocating for a much-needed update of industry rules. Specifically, Robinhood is calling for real-time trade settlement.

“The existing [trade-settlement] two-day period exposes both investors and the industry to unnecessary risk. And so we actually think it’s really ripe for a change… Customers are waiting for trades to clear and the clearing brokers have their proprietary cash locked up until the settlement is in, days after the trade. So it’s just very inefficient.”

In an encouraging sign that the industry might move in this direction, the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC) published a white paper just weeks after the meme stock saga proposing shortening the settlement cycle to T+1 within two years. However, Gretchen argues this is not enough and that Robinhood is ready to move to real-time settlement now, particularly since the technology to get there already exists.

The “One Finance App”

Going forward, Robinhood’s vision is to be the main finance app on your phone and serve clients with their holistic investing, saving, spending needs. To get there, Gretchen argues that continuing to have great customer focus and hearing from clients will remain at the core of the company’s DNA.

Gretchen Howard

Gretchen Howard is the Chief Operating Officer of Robinhood, a fast-growing brokerage giving millions of people access to our financial system. Before joining Robinhood, Gretchen was a Partner with CapitalG, Alphabet’s Growth Equity fund. While at Google, Gretchen was the co-site lead of the Google San Francisco office and a Managing Director in Sales & Business Operations, where she helped incubate, launch and scale Google’s advertising offerings for SMB and large advertisers. Prior to joining Google in 2006, Gretchen was VP of Market Development and Field Sales for Fidelity Investments. She started her career working in consulting, helping companies implement new technology strategies. Gretchen holds a B.A. from Williams College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. She spends her free time serving as a Trustee of Williams College, serving on the board of the YMCA of Northern California, and spending time outside with her family.

Previous Episodes You May Enjoy:

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Jackie Reses — Leadership Lessons, Fintech Innovation, & Helping Small Businesses

Y Combinator’s Michael Seibel & Dalton Caldwell — Lessons from 5000 Entrepreneurs

Unlocking Entrepreneurial Progress with Vanessa Colella, Head of Citi Ventures

Redesigning the Asset Management Experience — Brian Barnes, Founder & CEO of M1 Finance

Noah Kerner, CEO of Acorns — Leveling the Investment Playing Field

Milind Mehere, YieldStreet Founder/CEO — Transforming Digital Wealth Management

Miguel Armaza is Co-Host of the Wharton Fintech Podcast and Co-Founder of Gilgamesh Ventures, a seed-stage investment fund focused on fintech in the Americas.

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