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Synapse Team Spotlight Blog Series

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Carla McMorris
February 11, 2021

This month we’re highlighting Kathryn McDonell, an accomplished compliance officer.

What is your role at Synapse and what are some of your responsibilities? 

I am Synapse’s Head of Compliance and I oversee all of our ongoing financial regulatory compliance which includes developing and maintaining our policies and procedures. I also manage a portion of our compliance team specifically focused on third-party oversight and program design. I oversee some of the governance and more strategic policy and procedure planning and then I have direct reports who carry out some of those operations on a day to day basis.

Did you always know that you wanted to work in compliance?

No, I did not, I kind of fell into it a little bit. I started working for more traditional financial institutions when I was still in school so I was aware of our compliance obligations but a lot of the policies and procedures were written in a way that you’re just kind of naturally compliant - we didn’t really need to put a whole lot of thought into it.  So when I moved from central operations to a role with a credit union, I moved into a position focused on BSA/AML compliance and that was what really sparked my interest in financial regulatory compliance.

I worked directly with the BSA officer at the credit union. Not only was she great to work with, but she became a mentor for me, introducing me to the industry and helping support my ongoing education specific to the role. So that was a really pivotal position in my career. 

And how did you come across Synapse and what drew you to Synapse originally?

I was looking for a challenge - I think I got to a point at the credit union where I felt like my growth was a little limited so FinTechs seemed very intriguing. I could see trends and customer demand for more technology-focused products and services and felt FinTechs were meeting the demand for that. I actually came across a job posting just online; I had never heard of Synapse before but I did some research into the company, went through the website and it just seemed really interesting and also very closely related to my background. I come from a banking background and we have partner financial institutions so it seemed like a great fit. 

So I applied online and came in for an interview and I just remember being impressed with the group of people. It was when Synapse was still at the house in Twin Peaks and I felt like I was walking into a beehive, everybody was just moving around quickly, there were people having breakout sessions and meetings at tables all over the place - it felt like everybody was so excited and seemed really dedicated to whatever they were working on. That was really appealing to me, to see people who were so passionate and excited about the things they were working on. 

How has Synapse from your interview to now helped in your development as a Compliance professional?

I’ve had some really great opportunities to challenge myself here at Synapse. Before I became our Head of Compliance, I was our BSA Compliance Officer and that was a position that was a goal of mine. It was something that I thought would happen further on in my career and I got the opportunity to work in that capacity at Synapse, so it was nice and it was challenging but I was certainly supported in that role to make sure that I would be successful.

If you’re looking for a challenge you want to push yourself to try something this company really fosters that type of attitude and approach. Also, it’s just interesting working with a lot of other FinTechs that are pushing the envelope on what products and services traditional financial institutions are able to offer. They’re really focused on consumer-friendly products and making their customers feel like they’re being taken care of. Historically regulations and laws have been written with the traditional financial institution in mind so taking those obligations and then applying them to a more dynamic industry has been interesting. It’s definitely a lot - we have to make sure that the controls and requirements that we have in place make sense for the business model but that we’re also meeting our regulatory obligations. Maintaining that balance is always interesting.

What projects or initiatives are you currently working on, of course, that you’re able to share?

We’re heads down, focused on Credit Hub and getting the broker-dealer operations up and running so those are really the areas of focus. Obviously, those are highly regulated service offerings so it’s frontloading a lot of the work to make sure the infrastructure is really tight and we have the proper policies and controls in place to meet all of our obligations there. We’re super excited to launch those. 

What is your favorite part about working at Synapse and why?

It all comes back to my desire to make an impact and a more tangible contribution. It’s been challenging but it’s really rewarding because you get to see the rewards of all of the effort you’ve put into everything. Sometimes there are those late nights but it’s exciting because when you see the launch of a new project, you know what you were able to contribute to that on the backend. It’s also been super rewarding to see some of our clients go live and launch their products publicly. We have a lot of platforms that are doing really cool things and trying to disrupt the space, challenging some of the predatory products that are out there, focused on consumers and the end-users. It’s been great to see us grow and scale as a company.

What’s maybe an example of one or two platforms?

Finch is top of mind for me. They’re doing a hybrid between a brokerage investment product and a checking account. It’s meant to make investing more accessible to people who don’t feel like they have the knowledge to be able to do it on their own or go establish an investment account with a company like Charles Schwab or similar. Additionally, it enables customers to keep funds invested until they need to spend them. I’m super excited about that client right now. 

What do you find most challenging in your role?

Trying to apply antiquated, to be candid, regulations and laws that were built for larger financial institutions to more dynamic FinTechs who are really trying to disrupt the space but are also held to the same standards. So how do you strike the balance between the two where you want to have an impact and offer something new and potentially more consumer-friendly but still adhering to the same rules. 

How would you describe Synapse to your friends and family?

Yeah, that’s always a fun conversation. I start by explaining, a lot of FinTechs have financial services baked into the product but to be able to offer those, you need to either partner with financial institutions or you need to have your own banking licenses or charter. We act as the connection between a FinTech offering financial services and the financial institution. 

What do you like to do outside of Synapse?

That has changed over the past year for sure, COVID kind of put a damper on some of the things I typically like to do. My husband and I like to go hiking a lot so thankfully that is still an option. We also typically go to the beach a lot, our dog loves the water so we spend a good amount of time at the beach. I’ve also started taking horseback riding lessons so that’s been super fun and a good way to spend your time, go outdoors and spend your time with animals, so I really enjoy that. I keep telling my husband I want to sell our house here, move in the middle of nowhere, start a farm, buy a cow and a couple of dogs, I would be so happy. 

What is your favorite quote?

Oprah Winfrey “Turn your wounds into wisdom”. I like that because it’s so relevant and applicable to so many different situations - not only in personal life but professional life as well. To me, it means to remain resilient and learn from your mistakes.

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