Learn About Financial Technology in Business School

Ilana Kowarski

Technology is an ever-present aspect of society -- including in the business world. Some graduate business schools are taking this into account and adding financial technology courses to their traditional MBA curriculum. A few are also incorporating this information into required classes.

Financial technology, often called "fintech," includes a variety of inventions that facilitate online financial transactions, such as digital currencies like Bitcoin, online payment systems such as PayPal and various mobile banking applications. Fintech also includes tech-based financial services, such as robo-investing, automated financial planning, crowdfunding platforms and peer-to-peer lending marketplaces.

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In fall 2016, New York University's Stern School of Business began offering an MBA specialization in fintech, started in part because of demand from students who wanted to join the thriving fintech industry, says David Yermack, a Stern finance professor and the finance department chair.

He says another reason for the specialization was that many major new players in the finance industry -- like Venmo and GoFundMe -- are fintech companies.

"Really students are going to have no choice but to learn this material in five or 10 years," he says, recommending they start now.

Kathleen DeRose, a clinical associate professor of finance at Stern, says this technology has a variety of profitable applications that many companies -- including both century-old Fortune 500 firms like IBM and small startup operations -- are using. Knowing how to use this technology is a highly marketable skill and could broaden a graduate's employer pool.

Matthew Scannella, a Stern MBA student who is pursuing several specializations, including financial technology, says he decided to focus on fintech "because of its potential to disrupt every vertical within the financial services industry."

For those interested in specializing in this field, experts recommend four ways to identify a b-school that will solidly prepare them.

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1. Explore technical course offerings: Experts advise looking for business schools with a mathematically rigorous, data-based curriculum and a variety of fintech courses. They say it's also valuable to attend a school where both the business and computer science faculty collaboratively teach the financial tech courses, since the computer science professors can address programming.

"The best way to learn about any course, FinTech or otherwise, is by talking to the students that have taken these courses, or the professors who teach them," Scannella said via email.

Experts say it's also wise to ask whether overview classes on broad topics like risk management and finance include case studies from the fintech industry. Zach Hamilton, managing partner of the General Crypto hedge fund, which invests solely in digital currency, adds that every MBA student should take a business analytics or applied statistics course that teaches them how to thoughtfully interpret large amounts of data.

"You have the march of technology that is removing any job that doesn't involve critical thinking," Hamilton says. "Computers are very, very good at math. They're very bad at thinking. They don't like exceptions."

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2. Look for classes that address history, psychology and behavioral economics: Hamilton says success in the fintech industry isn't only dependent on math and computer abilities. He says it's impossible to succeed in this fast-paced industry without understanding what motivates customers and making informed predictions.

"We're entering a new era of money, while the technology is wildly different, the motivating factors behind it are the same," Hamilton said via email. "The current market has bits and pieces from the tech boom, from the formation of The Dutch East India company, and even from the Tulip Bubble. If we can be experts in the human element of the past, we can better predict human actions (rational or not) in the future."

Some MBA programs, including Harvard Business School, offer multiple business history courses, and experts say these courses allow students to explore the origins of modern business institutions. And m any , like the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, offer a concentration, specialization or major that focuses on how human psychology impacts business. Hamilton says independent study opportunities and courses that involve solving real-world business problems are also desirable.

3. Determine whether faculty is interested in fintech: Rob Viglione, co-founder of the digital currency company ZenCash, says MBA applicants should see whether a school's faculty has published research about the financial technology industry or is regularly quoted in related news stories.

"That's a really good indicator that they're going to be flexible enough to accommodate your interest," says Viglione, who received his MBA from Loyola Marymount University in California and is currently pursuing a doctorate in finance at the University of South Carolina's Darla Moore School of Business.

4. Seek schools with tech-focused student clubs: Viglione says the University of South Carolina's Carolina Crypto Club offers students a chance to learn about technology, bolster their technical skills and meet potential employers. "It gives students an additional opportunity to learn about the technology," he says.

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Ilana Kowarski is an education reporter at U.S. News, covering graduate schools. You can reach her via email at ikowarski@usnews.com.