Citi Ventures is shifting from artificial intelligence to artificial enlightenment

Vanessa Colella​ is Citi's​ chief innovation officer and leads the Citi Ventures​ and Citi Productivity teams. Colella spoke to Ray Wang and Vala Afshar about innovation trends and opportunities in the next normal.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

Vanessa Colella is Citi's chief innovation officer and leads the Citi Ventures and Citi Productivity teams. Colella's goal is to accelerate and discover new sources of value by championing innovation so that Citi can compete more effectively in a world of technological, behavioral, and societal change. 

The Citi Ventures team drives innovation by exploring, incubating, and investing in new ideas and partnering with category-defining startups to help people, business and communities thrive. The Citi Productivity team works to transform the employee experience by leveraging the power of process simplification, operating model redesign, and new technologies to help Citi increase efficiency and effectiveness. 

Before assuming the role of Chief Innovation Officer, Colella led venture investing and D10X for Citi Ventures, and previously ran marketing for Citi's North American Consumer Bank. She joined Citibank in 2010 from U.S. Venture Partners (USVP), where she was an entrepreneur-in-residence. Prior to USVP, Colella was Head of NA Marketing and then SVP of Insights at Yahoo, where she was responsible for developing and executing the company's consumer data strategy. She was previously a Partner at McKinsey & Company.

Colella was recognized on the Global Corporate Venturing Power list in 2017-2019, and was named to Institutional Investor's Fintech Finance list from 2015-2018. Her work conceiving and launching CitiBike led Citi to win Advertising Age's 2013 Creativity Award and the Gold Pencil in 2014.A charter member of Teach for America, Colella is a published author and lecturer, taught courses at the Santa Fe Institute, and previously served as a research fellow at Rockefeller University. 


Vanessa Colella is Citi's chief innovation officer and leads the Citi Ventures and Citi Productivity teams

To learn more about innovation and startup investment trends in the financial industry, Ray Wang, CEO and founder of a Silicon Valley-based advisory firm Constellation Research, and I invited Venessa Colella to join our weekly show DisrupTV. Here are my takeaways from our conversation with Vanessa Colella, chief innovation officer at Citi. 

Humanity is key to managing remote teams 

What is an equitable return back to work? We talk about flexibility but Colella reminds us that it is not flexible when it is not a choice. We have to understand the impact of multiple crises -- health, economic and racial inequality -- on our stakeholders. We are all living through these difficult times, but all of us have a unique experience. The return to the next normal will feel different and unique to each of us. As we inch our way back, Colella reminds us that we must appreciate the different journeys that we are on. 

"Those poised for the greatest success in the future are those among us who are the most human, the most empathetic, and the most connected to each other. Work that cannot be replicated is work based on human-to-human contact, shared emotions and expressions of solidarity," said Colella. Colella writes: "As I think about leading a global team, here are a few of my recommendations:

  1. Be compassionate. Trust that your team will do the work they need to do, but understand that they may be juggling personal priorities and it may take time to orient themselves, and their families, to this new way of working.  
  2. Relentlessly prioritize. Especially during this adjustment period, be strategic and thoughtful about what your team is working on to reduce burnout and manage expectations.
  3. Take a project-based approach to work. Set clear deadlines, but try to reduce mandatory "work windows" as much as possible to allow your employees the space to work flexibly.
  4. Start an asynchronous group chat. Enable ways to address quick questions and encourage employees to share what they are reading, and what they are working on as needed.

Now more than ever, we have a shared responsibility to one another and an opportunity to demonstrate the trait that can't be replaced in a future market—humanity."

Innovation is a team sport 

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Necessity is the mother of invention and Colella reminds us that 2020 is an example of the need to individuals, organizations and companies to reinvent and innovate in order to adapt to massive and radical change. Citi is working hard to help their clients progress economically. In a world that is experiencing cultural and digital transformational change, we have to constantly think about what's next. Colella reminds us that innovation does not sit with one person or one group. Innovation lives in how people wake up in the morning and how they come to work. In regulated industries, you have to find ways to experiment. Financial services is like medicine. The process has to be secure, scalable, predictable, repeatable and non-volatile. The ability to innovate without introducing risk to the system has to be collaborative, inclusive, trustworthy and of the highest quality. 

Citi Ventures is also actively working with entrepreneurs and startups during the pandemic. Colella talked to us about investing with founders without ever meeting in person -- only virtual collaboration scenarios. Colella talked about banking at the edge and working with companies to create a seamless banking experiences of the future. More than 127 devices are added to the Internet every second, according to Colella. In a hyper connected, knowledge sharing economy, many companies are looking to develop a frictionless, and digital only, banking experience. Colella spoke about several digital payments companies in their portfolio. At Salesforce, we see successful trailblazer companies that are able to create value at the speed of need. Citi is a digital trailblazer, using technology to continuously improve, speed, scale and personalization at scale. 

A shift from artificial intelligence to artificial enlightenment

Colella believes the tools of artificial intelligence can be used to analyze granular data in real-time in order to help provide people and organizations with personalized, in situ insights to inform and improve their daily lives and work. She believes this is artificial enlightenment (AE). According to Colella, the shift from intelligence to enlightenment is made possible by today's computational tools and vast quantities of data are making this new paradigm possible. Colella writes about three driving factors behind AE: 

  • Ubiquitous Data: Mobile technology and Internet of Things (IoT) devices are spurring a data explosion, with the World Economic Forum predicting that the digital universe will reach 44 zettabytes of data this year -- 40 times more bytes than the number of stars in the observable universe. This constant stream of data can increasingly be captured and processed on "edge" devices such as smartphones, enabling more precise decisioning in the moment.
  • Next-Gen Processors: Modern processors such as Nvidia's Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) leverage parallel processing methods to break complex problems into myriad separate tasks and accomplish them simultaneously. This has empowered breakthroughs in deep learning, computer vision, and other AI tools that can be put to use for AE purposes such as real-time recommendations as well.
  • The Cloud: Cloud computing enables people and organizations to access and use more compute power, storage, infrastructure software, data, and applications than ever before -- in real time. And there is more still to come: Gartner projects that cloud services will grow at nearly three times the rate of the IT services industry through 2022.

One example of artificial enlightenment (AE) is helping people find better jobs based on their existing skills. At Citi, Colella and her team are building and working with new tools that leverage AE to address emerging technological and societal needs. One example is career advancement. As the working world evolves from linear careers to a patchwork of opportunities, Citi Ventures Studio has developed Worthi by Citi, a data-driven tool that hyper-personalizes the job-seeking experience for individuals, providing the right data and information people need to make smart decisions about how to advance based on their needs and preferences. Colella also spoke about relevance of data. We talk about GDP as an economic measure of success, but for individuals, the only question that matters is 'Do I have a job?' The purpose of Worthi project is connect clients with specific skills to job opportunities that exists near their them based on said skills. 


Citi Ventures Studio develops new products and services that drive economic vitality for people and communities.

Colella also talked to us about how AE can be used to help us better combat the COVID-19 pandemic. "By analyzing Big Data on a hyper-local level, AE technology could provide insights and risk analysis personalized to the individual and their particular situation in that moment. An AE-based smartphone app, for example, could leverage real-time data on local infection and transmission rates, mask usage, social distancing policies, population density, mobility/walkability, and more to create a place-specific risk score," Colella writes in this article

Venessa Colella and her team at Citi Ventures Studio are working on several purposeful projects, aimed at improving the world. Business is the greatest platform for change. And values create value. Citi Ventures is the perfect example of how a bank is using innovation to improve stakeholder -- employees, customers, partners and communities -- success. Banks historically and in today's mission are there to enable economic progress and vitality. Colella asks: why do banks only help with the money we already have? 

Colella and Citi believe that banks should also guide their clients towards optimizing the most important asset we all have: our human capital and skills. Banks can maximize the human capital, helping us earn more income by finding us better job opportunities based on our skills. Banks can also guide our learning paths by pointing us to new learning opportunities, pointing us to affordable (often free) and accessible (online) courses. Worthi by Citi is a brilliant example of reinventing banking at a time that is needed most. 

I highly encourage you to watch the entire video conversation with Venessa Colella, chief innovation officer at Citi. 

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