25 Aug 2020
Forty Under 40 Award winner, Solon Angel, talks about why this is a great time for change agents
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Solon Angel is a successful entrepreneur and the founder of global fintech company, MindBridge – the world’s first AI-powered financial auditing solution. Before founding MindBridge, he worked in F500s as well as start-ups in San Francisco, UK and France. He is a Top 100 Influencer in Accounting, as well as an active member of FreshFounders, a non-profit organization that supports entrepreneurs. We asked Solon to share his thoughts on leading through COVID 19 and beyond.
You recently won the Forty Under 40 Award. How does it feel to be recognized by your peers in Ottawa?
We have won three awards in the last year, including being awarded a Technology Pioneer by World Economic Forum and the largest Fintech Festival in Asia. These are all significant for a Canadian-based technology company. You might think that a local award isn’t as big a deal, but this one was very personal for me. I can’t tell you how many congratulatory calls and emails I have received, including from competitors. It is what I love about the Ottawa business community – it supports its own and wants everyone to win.
This has been a challenging time for businesses and the people running them. What has COVID taught you about leading in a crisis?
I am very familiar with being in crisis situations. When I was eight years old and lived in the West Indies, there was a very bad hurricane and we were cut off from the world for months, including our food supply. So, I have learned that the first thing you have to do in a crisis is embrace your discomfort. You can’t wait for things to unfold; you need to adapt quickly. It’s not that you don’t acknowledge what’s happening – you do – but you must immediately look for ways to stabilize things at the same time. We didn’t assume that we could wait for conveniences to come back, so we quickly redeployed budget to automation tools that would help us meet our targets. And we changed how and to whom we were communicating. It’s still a work in progress.
How did your organization adapt quickly to the new reality?
We were fortunate as we were born in the cloud and always changing our team composition as any start-up does. That made it easy for us to pivot. Having a flatter hierarchy and smaller teams that are more or less independent and professionally managed has been key. It allowed us to be flexible and “bend with the wind” and not make any knee jerk decisions. It’s about building resiliency from the inside out. So, if you consistently ask questions where you assume weakness, people will see through that. You have to trust your people.
There has been so much fear and uncertainty. How have you kept your people motivated and moving forward?
One of my favourite books is The Three Laws of Performance, in which the author stresses the importance of the language you use and how it shapes behaviour. I believe this to be true. What you say during a crisis and how you say it will determine how employees respond and perform. We found that being truthful and showing vulnerability was helpful in instilling the right mindset. For example, our CTO said to the company, and we echoed it, “assume that no help is coming.” This was a great way to catalyze a feeling we all wanted to express. We needed to stand on our own with what we had.
As a result, many managers, including myself, went to work (virtually) shoulder to shoulder very quickly. It showed employees that we were all in this together. We also had to use tough love with those resisting change or not representing our values, telling them on the spot if they were not aligning. When asked if all jobs were safe, we were honest about the fact that the company was not an island. Instead, we focused on using language that reinforces the possibility for a new and different kind of future to help people look ahead, beyond the crisis.
As a Fintech entrepreneur, it must be exciting to see so many organizations adopting technology more quickly than ever before. What changes can we expect to see in the next 12-18 months?
We just made a warp jump into the future. Every business resisting doing business online is now being forced to. Banks that were dragging their feet at digitizing their customer channels had no choice. Regulators that were thinking some things were not urgent are facing allegations of fraud and having to change their standards and/or regulations. It’s a beautiful time for a change agent like me. It’s as if everyone has stepped into my world.
What has surprised you most about the last few months?
I have been amazed at how easily we have all shed the superficial in our lives. We are all asking ourselves questions like: “Do we need to eat out that often to be happy? What is essential to having a healthy mind and body? How much does my family matter to me?” I think we have become more humane. We’ve always had a rule at MindBridge – no jerks allowed. But this experience has made us even more ruthless about ensuring that we are hiring people who are caring and respectful with each other.
Last question, what do you feel is a leader’s role in this new normal?
Help people thrive and cope with the changes beyond their control.