Arta Team Spotlight
Q&A with Betsy Cohen—Co-founder & Chairman (Cohen Circle), Angel Investor (Arta)
Arta Team Spotlight
September 13, 2023
The term 'legend' can be tossed around quite casually in the business world, but when it comes to Betsy Cohen, it's the only fitting description. With her journey from law to founding three banks, Betsy’s innovation, perseverance, and sheer brilliance have not only reshaped the financial industry but have also inspired the very core of what Arta aspires to be.
Being dubbed the "SPAC Queen" by Bloomberg is no mere flattery; it's a testament to her unmatched ability to spot potential and turn visions into thriving realities. Having her as an angel investor, founding member, and mentor isn't just a privilege; it's a transformative opportunity for us to learn, grow, and strive for excellence under the guidance of one of finance's true visionaries.
We recently sat down with Betsy for a fireside chat with our team. Here’s the abbreviated version of our conversation.
You founded your first bank, the Philadelphia-based Jefferson Bank, in 1974. What was your motivation?
My primary motivation to enter the banking industry was to transition away from practicing law! Joking aside, as a specialist in banking and the nation's leading expert on the Bank Holding Company Act of the 1970s, I had a strong background in the field. At a time when there were virtually no women CEOs, I was a rare exception, possibly the only one in 40 states. My success in acquiring a charter was due to my established professional relationships with banking regulators.
One of my life's themes is reinventing myself every five years. In 1975, I shifted from advising others to running my own business. This operational experience proved invaluable. Jefferson Bank, which I led, eventually became the largest local bank in the Philadelphia area and was sold to Hudson United in 1999.
Simultaneously, I served as CEO of State National Bank in Washington, which was sold in the 1980s. I then joined the board of Dominion Bank, a $6 billion institution located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Virginia. Alongside two or three others, we sold Dominion to First Union in the early 90s. Consequently, I gained substantial experience in the buying and selling aspects of banking, allowing me to think about the industry more strategically.
In the 1990s, I focused on the future of banking, specifically how people would access their money, investments, and relationships a decade later. This led me to establish The Bancorp, the first virtual bank, which provided a platform for non-bank fintech companies. As CEO, I helped facilitate the growth of the industry, hosting 1,600 fintech companies on our platform over 15 years. This experience enabled me to learn what worked, what didn't, and to move forward with the next phase of my career.
Then came the success of The Bancorp Bank where you were at the forefront of developing what we know today as fintech. How did the concept of “fintech” change over time?
Both technology and the adoption curve played significant roles in enabling small and medium-sized businesses, as well as consumers, to easily and comfortably access online banking and investing services. These two factors converged to drive the industry forward.
Today, we continue to witness advancements as technology progresses. Arta, for instance, is actively involved in the shift towards embedded finance, and this progress is only possible due to a user community that understands and knows how to use these services - which is precisely what people are looking for. As a “quant” by nature, I was keenly aware of these trends and enthusiastic to participate.
How does your experience help you decide what companies to invest in through Cohen Circle?
Having a platform that had so many fintech companies enabled us to identify markers of potential success, such as executive capacity, the ability to identify a differentiated product, and meeting an unmet need. This has always been one of my themes - looking for the “negative space.” I look for what isn't being done, rather than what is.
Over my 15-year relationships with many of these companies, I saw that some would benefit from being in the public market for access to capital, recognition, or other reasons. Through Special Purpose Acquisition Corporations (SPACs), I could provide capital to FinTech companies that had the infrastructure in place to be good public companies with recurring income and all the qualities that public markets seek. Sometimes, there were acquisitions or other drivers that made being a public company appropriate.
What exactly is a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC)? What makes it so attractive for later-stage companies?
A SPAC is a company that's created for the purpose of raising money through an initial public offering (IPO) in order to acquire another existing company.
It’s a legal vehicle that has been used since its creation in the mid-1990s, following the economic downturn in the US in 1992. It provides a way for companies to acquire capital when they're struggling to go public in the traditional sense, which requires them to only look at past performance.
Among other things, a SPAC, allows a company to transform from a private to a public company and access public market capital. The initial lump of capital that a SPAC provides can be helpful in continuing to build and scale a company, as well as allowing employees to participate in the company through public currency and to make acquisitions and other investments.
How are you thinking about the future of SPAC-led exits? There has been a lot of controversy lately about whether the hype surrounding technology companies, specifically fintech, is exaggerated and possibly inflated. Where do you see it all going?
When creating a SPAC and finding a company to invest in, it’s essential to adhere to the underlying principles of a "public ready" company. This includes having proper accounting, the ability to report to public markets, stable income, and a clear path to profitability. Unfortunately, when companies do not adhere to these principles, it leads to failures.
This was most evident in the electric vehicle sector, where projections were made without proper underlying statistics. Without adhering to financial principles, these ventures are doomed to fail.
That said, there may be a place for SPACs in the future, perhaps in a slightly different format for companies raising less money. The need for companies to be part of the public market will still be present, especially with the interim capital banks being talked about. SPACs were present in the 90s, and they were used to fund technology companies and real estate capital needs. They may come back for a different purpose, but the principles of financial discipline must be adhered to for success.
What are you most excited about in the future of financial services?
I believe that the current level of technology allows companies to meet the demand for seamless navigation of virtual financial services. This means that users don't have to think about their next step, as it's provided for them, stimulating their thinking and providing easy access. Arta is a great example of this shift to embedded finance.
For the next few years (2-5 years or more), this will be a significant focus.
What did you see in Arta?
At Arta, I see a platform that can help a wider range of people organize their thinking around their investments. It will give people the opportunity to have a directed thinking process about their investments. This is crucial because investing can feel daunting to many people, with so much information overload out there. Curation is a critical element in making investing more accessible and manageable for people.
More About Betsy Cohen
Betsy Cohen brings over 50 years of experience running companies, investing, building industries, and holding capital markets appointments. She started in law (she was one of the first female law professors in the US!) before transitioning to finance. Since the 1970s, Betsy founded three banks. The first was Jefferson Bank in Pennsylvania, where she served continuously as the Chairman and CEO until its sale in 1999. She then founded The Bancorp Bank, which is an FDIC-insured virtual bank, providing white-label banking and payment services to thousands of fintech companies, including a few that became household names like PayPal. Next, Betsy formed Cohen Circle, previously known as FinTech Masala, leading later-stage startups in going public. Cohen Circle has invested over 5 billion in capital across various investment vehicles while successfully bringing five companies to market via Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs). Betsy has made over 25 investments in fintech companies including Maxwell, Ocrolus, Cure and H20.ai.