Arkansas claims a financial technology legacy dating back more than 50 years to the founding of Systematics Inc., which was known then as a data-processing company that provided software and other support services for medium-sized banks. Nobody talked about fintech in 1968.
Through multiple acquisitions and growth opportunities, Systematics today operates as FIS Inc. (Fidelity National Information Services), one of the world's largest financial-services providers with 65,000 employees and operations in 50 countries that support more than 20,000 customers.
To help sustain 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 spark the next Systematics. The Venture Center was envisioned as a programming device 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 at the Technology Park," said Jay Chesshir, president and chief executive officer 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 by itself is not very productive and most of them fail."
Everyone talks about fintech today and the Venture Center is often at the center of those conversations.
"We've always tried to leverage the beginning of fintech in Arkansas," said Wayne Miller, executive director of the Venture Center. "Our state has extraordinary entrepreneurial DNA and we've built some of the biggest companies in the world in Arkansas."
Next month, the Venture Center plans to capitalize on that bloodline before an international audience with its inaugural VenTech Fintech Summit, a three-day event celebrating its successful history supporting the financial technology and community banking sectors and also looking ahead to future innovations.
The summit, scheduled for Aug. 15-17, 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. About 35 speakers and 70 fintech presenters are lined up for the event.
"This keeps Little Rock on the map," said Kevin Tweddle, senior vice president and chief operating officer at the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), which has contributed financial resources and executive support to the Venture Center since 2020. "We keep calling it the birthplace of fintech going back to the Systematics days and this is another great way to keep pushing that brand out there."
ICBA is sponsoring the summit along with FIS, which began 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 monitors and assesses the value fintechs contribute to the company and its customers.
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 an 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 about when they think about economic development. But it's allowed us to support an industry that has grown organically dating back all the way to Systematics."
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 promotional opportunity. "It has gone so far beyond anything any of us thought it could be," he said. "Never, ever did we dream that we would use this as the basis of 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 hands-on collaborative work.
"This is very much about bankers speaking 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, deploy."
VenCent, Preston said, brings more focus and attention to Arkansas as a fintech hub with an economy that promotes 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 bit higher and promote our brand across the land."