Arkansas claims a legacy of financial technology dating back more than 50 years to the founding of Systematics Inc., then known as a data processing company that provided software and other support services for mid-sized banks. No one was talking about fintech in 1968.
Through several acquisitions and growth opportunities, Systematics operates today as FIS Inc. (Fidelity National Information Services), one of the world’s largest providers of financial services with 65,000 employees and operations in 50 countries supporting more than 20,000 customers.
To help maintain the fintech bloodline, the Little Rock Venture Center began operations seven years ago to provide mentoring and networking opportunities for entrepreneurs and startups, hoping to perhaps launch the next Systematics. The Venture Center was envisioned as a programming entity supporting the Little Rock Technology Park, which was created by state legislation in 2007.
“We saw the Venture Center as the entity to drive everything in the Technology Park,” said Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, a key business group that advocated for the park and the Venture Center. “We needed something to create programming and the entrepreneurial process because a [technology] space itself is not very productive, and most of them fail.”
Everyone is talking about fintech these days, and the Venture Center is often at the center of these conversations.
“We’ve always tried to capitalize on the beginnings of fintech in Arkansas,” said Wayne Miller, CEO of the Venture Center. “Our state has extraordinary entrepreneurial DNA, and we’ve built some of the greatest companies in the world in Arkansas.”
Next month, the Venture Center plans to capitalize on this bloodline in front of an international audience with the first VenTech Fintech Summit, a three-day event that celebrates its successful history supporting the fintech and community banking sectors and also looks ahead to future innovations.
The summit, which is planned for 15-17 August, is built to showcase the fintech startups that have been groomed by the Venture Center’s accelerators, which have included 107 startups, with 94% still in business. Nine of the companies have operations in Arkansas.
VenCent will feature national speakers who are experts in banking, technology, compliance, cybersecurity and cryptocurrency, among other topics. Around 35 speakers and 70 fintech presenters are queuing up for the event.
“This keeps Little Rock on the map,” said Kevin Tweddle, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), which has contributed financial resources and leadership support to the Venture Center since 2020. “We keep calling it the birthplace of fintech that goes back to the Systematics days, and this is another great way to continue to push that brand out there.”
ICBA is sponsoring the summit together with FIS, which started the first accelerator program with the Venture Center in 2016.
The Venture Center was an opportunity to “use Little Rock as an epicenter of innovation in a very comfortable way,” said Elaine Duff, senior vice president of FIS Impact Ventures, which oversees and assesses the value fintech brings to the company and its clients.
The Jacksonville, Fla.-based company is sending 25 executives to the summit, which Duff said is an opportunity to commit to continuing the Venture Center’s work. “This is a culmination of what the vision was … and this is a torch that will continue both from a FIS commitment, ICBA commitment and the broader fintech community,” she added.
For the state, which also provides funding to support the Venture Center’s accelerator efforts, the organization is a valuable economic development tool to attract technology companies and helps promote Arkansas as an innovative place to build a business, according to Commerce Secretary Mike Preston.
“The Venture Center is an important piece of the economic development puzzle for our state and for Central Arkansas,” he said. “It’s really outside of what most people think of when they think of economic development. But it has given us the opportunity to support an industry that has grown organically all the way back to Systematikk.”
Chesshir, who has been a key player in the Venture Center’s development since it was just an idea or concept, says the organization is an effective sales opportunity. “It’s gone so far beyond anything any of us thought it could be,” he said. “Never, never did we dream that we would use this as a basis for recruiting companies from around the world.”
The conference will be structured around key topics and offer potential solutions for discussion points, followed by breakout sessions for more practical collaborative work.
“This is very much about bankers talking to bankers,” Miller said. “We’re just trying to facilitate that effort. We want them to leave here with a better vision for the industry and the clear challenges that others face and with tools they can go back to their institutions and hopefully implement.”
VenCent, Preston said, brings more focus and attention to Arkansas as a fintech hub with an economy that fosters innovation. “This summit raises awareness of the fintech economy we have here in Arkansas,” he said. “We have an opportunity with this in Arkansas to raise our flag a little higher and promote our brand across the country.”