Book Reviews: “Beyond Good” & “Cashless”

First up: “Beyond Good: How Technology is Leading a Purpose-driven Business Revolution” by Theodora Lau and Bradley Leimer.

This book gets a lot right. At its heart, “Beyond Good” nails that financial inclusion for all must be the bedrock from which we rebuild during & post-pandemic.

Trust was mentioned a lot throughout the book- mostly in reference to how consumers “trust” big banks (ex: the marble entranceway to Gringotts connotes trust in the same way that Dimon makes reference to the “fortress balance sheet”). The authors do a great job walking through how banks and fintech players can build trust with customers. For me, the most salient chapter on trust discussed the need for “empathy-as-a-service.” Sure, technology can help banks and fintech players drive profit, but without empathy (for customers, the planet, etc.), these profits are more likely than not short-term oriented & definitely not going “beyond good.”

A glaring missed opportunity was the omission of the power of the LGBTQ community within the many chapters devoted to “inclusion and diversity.” If Jamie Dimon can mention the impact of LGBTQ inclusion (financial, workplace inclusion, etc.) in JPMC’s annual letter, I think this book could do the same and further hit home the profit motive from inclusive banking.

[Note: since publishing this review to Linkedin, both authors have reached out and expressed their interest in including this topic in the next edition and guided me to their co-hosted podcast episode featuring Billie Simmon, co-founder of LGBTQ-led Daylight).

I also found myself questioning the excessive references to James Collins’ “Good to Great.” Sure, it’s a great book to draw contrast from, but this has been done enough over the past 2 decades. I did, however, absolutely love the insertion of quotes from lesser-known but equally admirable change-makers throughout the book. The examples of companies going “beyond good” are collectively exhaustive across industry & extremely prescient.

This book is for anyone who has read Brett King’s banking series or Rebecca Henderson’s “Reimagining Capitalism.” You don’t need to have a background in banking, investment, or social governance to appreciate and understand how firms today must break the Miltonian cycle and finally go “beyond good.”

Star Count: 4/5

Next Up: Richard Turrin’s bold new book, “Cashless: China’s Digital Currency Revolution.”

Turrin’s ‘Cashless’ is a marathon read. At close to 400 pages, each page is packed with tiny tidbits of well-researched data that, when viewed from a 300ft tall vantage point, paint a realistic and optimistic view of the future of banking, finance, and the technology that will power these industries into a new ‘cashless’ globe.

Although I lived in China for a short period in 2013, I was a little too early to have a seat to the meteoric rise of digital payments in China. Like many ex-pats, I waited in queues at CCB for hours on a Sunday to transfer money between accounts & paid for almost everything with cash (人民币). Although I was active on WeChat and purchased goods from Alibaba, these apps and digital storefronts had yet to become as powerful as digital ecosystems as we see them today in China. In less than 7 years, China has changed the banking and “techfin” (so dubbed by Jack Ma) landscape so much that any American would be left dazzled by the ease & interoperability of China’s “cashless” society (who knows- maybe that same American would come back and demand the same ease of use & low fee structure from his/her/their bank, credit card, credit union, etc.).

Turrin’s recounting of the regulatory quagmire that fed the P2P lending crisis in China was illuminating and provided a reasonable and logical rationale as to why the CCP halted the IPO of Ant Financial last year. Sure, Ma’s Basel Accord statement didn’t do much to aid his cause, but this event played little if not any role in the CCP’s shuttering of Ant’s star-studded IPO. Turrin’s juxtaposition of the P2P crisis with the US’s mortgage-backed securities crisis was genius and easily digestible. Turrin is quick to point out that banks and credit card companies will likely all still be around in the next century but that they will need to swiftly and skillfully adapt to a more consumer-centric model of banking that operates on a new paradigm without excess fees or lackluster mobile & onboarding support.

I absolutely loved Turrin’s use of example walk-throughs as he explained the many pros and far fewer cons to China’s rolling out of a CBDC. Who knew a CBDC could affect everything from the purchase of xiaolongbao from a Shanghai street vendor to the international monetary exchange between China and its BRI cohort. Things get a little more complicated as Turrin posits his own views on how DC/EP’s having a “One Coin, Two Repositories, Three Centers” would flush out in reality. This is forgiven as the end of the book focuses on the many ways a CBDC could improve financial inclusion and dramatically reduce the number of unbanked and underbanked across China (and, for that matter, across the globe).

Last, I really liked Turrin’s rationale around why China’s CBDC does not mean the complete demise of the dollar (nor is it the PBOC’s intent). Instead, China is playing the long game and seeking to innovate in a space that has been stale for the better part of two decades. China’s enlisting of support from international organizations like SWIFT and BIS is a clear indicator that it seeks to work with the existing international monetary framework and not simply blow it up. If the world can come around to cryptocurrencies, it sure can get used to a digital RMB.

This book has something for everyone. Even for those who question China’s intent with the launch of its CBDC, Turrin welcomes you aboard his Alipay-purchased ship and quickly combats and demystifies fact from fiction and, at certain turns, admits he doesn’t know all the answers (but he doesn’t use this as a cop-out). In the end, even the most pro-US reader will realize that he/she/they can benefit a whole lot from understanding the groundbreaking payment trends occurring across China.

Star Count: 5/5

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Brian Larson

Brian Larson

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All Things Future of Work. Graduate of the Fletcher School at Tufts University