Lia Cao, JPMorgan Chase
Lia Cao once dreamed of being an urban planner, balancing a complex array of factors to benefit broad groups of people. Although her career went in a completely different direction, aspects of Cao’s job today as head of wholesale payment solutions at JPMorgan Chase neatly align with her original intentions.
“It’s fun, as it’s a combination of art and engineering and it has a real impact on people’s lives,” said Cao, whose escalating achievements in payments technology over more than a decade place her among this year’s Most Influential Women in Payments.
Today, Cao leads a team that designs integrated global payments solutions for companies incorporating foreign exchange rates, merchant acquiring, commercial cards and the disciplines of trade and digital retail banking. Because each product category is unique, her role requires constant invention.
Read more: The Most Influential Women in Payments, 2020
“My favorite problems to solve are ones that challenge us to use every component from the bank’s payments franchise,” she said.
Cao began by obtaining a master’s degree in urban planning in her native China, then coming to the U.S. to earn a doctorate at M.I.T. in philosophy with concentrations in urban economics and real estate finance.
In her first post-graduate job, Cao spent five years as a consultant at McKinsey & Co. in New York, where she became hooked on applying her design discipline to solve diverse business problems.
“I learned to be an active listener, breaking down a complex, general problem into concrete pieces we call an ‘issue tree,’ and identifying a few foundational questions to focus on,” Cao said.
One critical lesson Cao learned that she applies in designing wholesale payments solutions is the 80-20 rule. “Focus on the most important, or 80% of the issue, versus spending a lot of time searching for the perfect answer.”
Arriving at JPMorgan Chase nine years ago in the corporate strategy group, Cao embraced payments technology and began working her way up through different roles with increasing levels of leadership and responsibility.
Key to her advancement were her eagerness to indulge her natural curiosity, take on new roles in unfamiliar areas and surround herself with people who are equally interested in attacking problems.
Earlier in her career, someone urged Cao to be more aggressive and make sure her voice was heard at meetings. Cao then started preparing for every internal and external meeting by developing a point of view on the proposed topics. “It really helped me break out of my shell and advance to the next level of my career,” she said.
Two years ago, Cao agreed to head up Chase’s wholesale payments operation, a big role where she would direct product development in response to corporations’ needs. “Payments was a new area for me and the role is directly client-facing, so it was a challenge,” she said.
Cao took a deep breath and found the role was the most fulfilling of her career, drawing on all her technical and strategic skills. “It goes to show that rewards come with taking risks," she said.
The payments industry is becoming the most exciting place to be in financial services, Cao believes.
“The line between wholesale and retail payments is blurring,” according to Cao. “The auto industry will soon be centered on connected cars powered by subscription services of value-added features. The retail industry will be about highly personalized experiences and all these business model changes will need a payments infrastructure as the backbone, so companies can stay relevant and keep up with consumers’ changing needs."