Women in fintech: Aspire’s Head of Compliance on work, parenting and being a member of 2 industry committees at the same time

By
Writers@Aspire
Published
October 14, 2021

For Tarini Ponniah, compliance isn't just stacks of policies to devour. Nor is it a series of strict and out-of-touch checks that’s poised to block an impending deal.

Old-school compliance as you know it has evolved. In its place is an exciting sector that has got business leaders, finance professionals and regulatory officials buzzing.

Working at Aspire where non-stop innovation is a constant, Tarini’s had front-row seats to compliance’s evolution to one that helps businesses. Faced with a new wave of cutting-edge financial services, the status quo of compliance has become an ongoing discussion on how to better protect the end user while growing the business in a compliant way.

Having been in the finance industry for 17 years and counting, her career has culminated in her two most important roles yet: as a newly minted member of the Fintech FinCrime Exchange (FFE) as well as the Payments Group Sub-Committee under the Singapore FinTech Association (SFA).

As one of the representatives for her industry, she finds herself in a global community of distinguished peers who are united in the fight for a safer fintech ecosystem through quarterly meetings, seminars and regular dialogues with the country’s financial regulatory authority.

In this interview, we caught up with Tarini to find out how she masterfully juggles her career as well as being a mother of two young boys, why compliance itself has changed drastically to keep up with the financial world and what she hopes to achieve as a member of the FFE and SFA.


Please share a brief introduction about yourself.

I consider myself to be a citizen of the world. I was born and raised in India but then lived in the UK for about 15 years. Now I’ve been in Singapore for almost 10 years. Personally, I love running, it’s like my stress buster. I will run 8 to 9 km everyday一when I’m not running after my kids who drive me up the wall sometimes.

In my previous life, I was in investment banking in London for 8 years and saw that side of the financial world before flipping to compliance. Given what was happening around the world in 2008 with the financial crisis, it was a wakeup call for us to better manage regulations. I think having perspectives on the front-end and back-end of finance has given me a more holistic view on how and what people are trying to achieve.


How has compliance changed?

Previously, compliance was black and white. But financial services have become so instant. At the tap of a few buttons, you can send money across the world within seconds. Compliance has moved away from a checkbox to holistic thinking. In the last ten years, the new approach in the compliance network has been: what is the point of these regulations and what are we trying to achieve? The way the financial world is changing, we can’t all stick to one rule and expect it to suit all. Compliance has also moved away from being looked at as a no-sayer that kills businesses and blocks big deals. It’s about growing the business in a compliant way while keeping ourselves, our customers and our ecosystem safe.

As a working mother, you wear multiple hats. How do you juggle being a mother as well as Aspire’s Head of Compliance, a Fintech FinCrime Exchange (FFE) member, and a member of the Payments Group Sub-Committee under the Singapore FinTech Association (SFA)?

I drink a lot of coffee during the day and a lot of wine at night [laughs].

My day starts at 5.30 in the morning. My husband helps with the transport side so I’ll get the kids ready for school and go for my run to clear my head. If you see somebody running around Botanic Gardens at 6am in bright clothes, that’s probably me!


During the day, I do a lot of BAU stuff at work. I’ll see what’s going on in the company, what needs my immediate attention, work with the teams across the different spheres and make sure we’re on the right page. Evenings I usually keep it free for more strategic thinking once the kids are in bed at 7 o’clock and it's quiet in the house. I’ll reflect on what has happened during the day. Do we need to change the way we're approaching something? How do we make it better for us internally and how do we make it better for our customers?

With the FFE, we have formal meetings once every quarter to get together whether it’s a conference or a seminar and discuss any major issues that we found. Everyone comes from all over the world so you have members from the UK, US, Europe, Hong Kong, etc. A great thing about the FFE is that when I pose a question to the committee, I get responses from everywhere and find out what is happening in other countries. You really get a global perspective on how people look at things.

With the SFA payment sub-committee, we sit in with the MAS. After gathering industry thoughts and questions, we will then take that to the MAS and see their response to the industry. The MAS also looks  to us to give them an industry perspective on new trends and risks. This will help them make regulations and policies on an informed basis. They want to make rules that make sense and impact the industry in the right way.


How would you describe FFE and SFA and your contributions to these committees?

The underlying crux of both committees is to bring compliance professionals together and understand how businesses and business models are changing. What are we trying to achieve and how do we help businesses with new innovations that they are coming up with at such a fast pace? How do we help them bring out these products in a controlled, compliant manner? This makes sure that they do not cross the boundaries with the right checks and balances in place.

With the FFE, you get a really holistic view on how people are thinking and doing. They invite their own members to come and present at seminars to the FFE community. I’ve been asked to present my thoughts on what I’m thinking about - whether it’s onboarding, transaction monitoring, or any flags and any trends I’m seeing.

On the SFA side, it’s more on communicating with the regulator (MAS), especially on the Payment side as the Payment sector is so new here in the region. We are all grappling with what it actually means, what are the dangers of providing these services and how do we control it. The aim with the SFA is to get more clarity on how we want to build this ecosystem of Payment providers in Singapore and make sure we’re on the same page in terms of the services that can and can’t be provided, how we interpret the regulations,  and how these regulations impact us. We have these regular dialogues with the regulator.

What has the experience been like? Any key takeaways or highlights to share?

One of the main things I’ve learnt  is that whatever I used to think about compliance is old school now. The biggest change, especially coming from a traditional financial background, is coming into this world of fintech where things are done at a much faster pace and are changing so quickly. It has definitely changed my thinking on compliance and what that actually means for businesses.

One of the best things I've seen from talking to people in the community is that businesses are looking at compliance differently as well. They are moving away from “let's not talk to the compliance person as it’s always going to be a no” to “let’s have a chat and see how we can make it work”. It has become more of a discussion between businesses and that has been a fantastic thing to see.

You can tell that compliance is in my blood at the moment :)


What does being appointed as a member of the FFE and SFA mean to you?

Wow, it’s huge to be honest. From the SFA side, it’s such a privilege to be in this group of 15 really qualified, esteemed people that’s representing the industry to the regulators. It’s a big responsibility and I’m totally in awe of actually being there. With so many applications, I thought I’ll be on a waitlist so to find out that I was selected was such a privilege. I am so excited about being a part of this committee because it’s actually going to help build a foundation for the Payments sector in Singapore and how this ecosystem of payment service providers will look like in the next 10 to 20 years.


I feel the same about joining the FFE and being a part of this global network that shares ideas and helps each other to keep the bad players out. At the end of the day, what we do in compliance is to keep out the bad players and protect everyone.


Where does your passion for compliance come from?

The reason I love compliance is because while I’m in this massive ecosystem of compliance networks, if I can keep my own little ecosystem safe by keeping out the bad players, then I am doing my job right, and that’s what makes me happy. That’s what I’m here to do.

My favourite analogy when explaining compliance to my son is to say that similar to how there’s a police force to protect  people from violent criminals, we have a “police” force for the money so I’m the money police. We try to protect people’s hard earned monies.


What does a safer fintech ecosystem look like? How will Compliance get us there?

A safer fintech is where transactions can be done in an environment where we know the risks and what we want to mitigate. Once there’s an understanding, compliance is able to get in there and put in rules to keep the end customer safe.

Again, what are we here for? We’re here to protect the customer who’s making payments, receiving payments, and keeping their money safe. If we're able to come up with a raw set of controls and checks in place which will cater to the businesses to grow and allow the customers to be safe, that’s the end game.

But unfortunately, the goal post keeps moving so I don’t think at any one point we can say “yes, we are now safe” because we have achieved everything. The moment you solve  one problem, a new one comes up because a new innovation comes up.Somefolks out there will find new ways to work around the system. In my mind, as long as we keep up with what’s going on and do our best to put our controls in place, that’s all I can really hope for. So we need more people fighting the good fight, and working with businesses and regulators around the globe to keep the bad actors as far out of our ecosystem as possible!

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