March 01, 2022

Shano Fonseka on enabling and accelerating a digital financial revolution

Madeline Perretta

What’s your official role?
I am the Head of Risk at Plaid. 

Describe what you do in a few sentences.
I lead Plaid’s risk team, which is a team and a function that I built and have grown throughout my time at Plaid. The scope of responsibilities for this team has evolved over the years, but today we’re responsible for managing risks in our customer ecosystem, and for Plaid’s security compliance program. 

How does your work impact people’s financial lives?
My team is responsible for onboarding application developers to the Plaid API and ecosystem, and monitoring their interactions with the API once they’re onboarded. The goal of this exercise is to make certain that bad actors do not get access to the Plaid API, and that legitimate developers have an optimized experience. Additionally, we ensure that the developers who do get access meet our criteria for building an application on our API, and that their Plaid integrations do not get abused by bad actors. Our goal is to enable responsible innovation in the Plaid ecosystem. A safer, responsibly designed, digital financial services application is good for consumers.

Plaid’s mission is to unlock financial freedom for everyone. What does this mean to you?
This mission resonates with me deeply. I’m a first-generation Sri Lankan immigrant. My parents moved to the states when I was 10 years old. We grew up working class, and being new immigrants, my parents worked tremendously hard to make sure I received a good education while struggling to make ends meet. My parents didn’t have access to reliable resources that would enable them to safely navigate consumer financial services in the U.S. Things like building credit, budgeting, getting approved for a credit card, a loan, or a mortgage are not things they knew how to navigate as new immigrants. There were a lot of long-term consequences associated with the unavailability of these resources.

To me, unlocking financial freedom means that we’re enabling and accelerating a digital financial revolution that is making financial services available to those who were previously underserved, to those that did not have access to these services before. You don’t have to look too hard in the Plaid ecosystem to see some examples of these types of innovations.  

Tell us about the culture of inclusion at Plaid.
One of the things that I've consistently seen from day one at Plaid is that you can - and are encouraged - to bring your whole self to work. In my past professional experiences, this was not the case. You felt an expectation that you had to cover up or downplay parts of your identity that you felt might be stigmatized. At Plaid I have never felt the need to hide. I believe this has given people the opportunity to create really strong bonds at Plaid, regardless of the differences that exist between their lived experiences. When people feel comfortable, they share their perspectives more freely, and this works to build a pretty inclusive culture.

I understand there is still work to be done in terms of inclusion. However, I feel there are some strong variables at Plaid that really enable us to capitalize on the benefits that come with diverse perspectives.

What do you love most about working at Plaid?
The people. When I first joined Plaid, I remember being blown away during my interview process because each person I met expressed a genuine interest in getting to know me.  They were all eager to learn my story. Almost 6 years later and I feel this is still true today. There has been such consistency with hiring incredible people at Plaid. I know for a fact that I have made lifelong friends through Plaid. They're not just colleagues. These are people that will be part of my life way beyond Plaid.

Plaid is creating the future of fintech. Why should people come build with us?
Plaid has a first-row seat to the innovation that is taking place in digital financial services. If you care or are interested at all in how financial services will evolve over the next couple of decades, there is no better place to get that level of exposure than Plaid. Considering Plaid powers roughly 80% of fintechs, our work has never been more important in people's everyday lives.

Let’s rewind to life before Plaid. 

What were you like as a child? What were you passionate about or interested in?
Very curious. I have always had an inherent interest in deconstructing and understanding how things worked. When I was young, I got in trouble a lot for disassembling mechanical and electrical things. For instance, when my parents bought me a battery-operated toy car, I remember taking it apart and pulling the battery-powered motor out of it, and running power to that motor to see how it spun. I then tried to connect that tiny motor to a 220V outlet in Sri Lanka, so it would have a “reliable” power source. This is an extremely dangerous thing to do for anybody, let alone a 7-year-old, and as you can imagine the motor exploded. Regardless of my hazardous and bold adventures as a child. . . ha, my parents always supported my desire to learn.

When we moved to the United States, it was my first time on a plane and that was an incredibly exciting experience for me. Although the U.S. was a new start, being first-generation immigrants was difficult. My parents worked hard to give me an opportunity so that I could stay curious about the world around me. Growing up my dad made a huge effort to keep me in close proximity to technology and computers because he knew how much that space interested me. After many months of saving, he purchased a computer that I could call my own. To this day, I feel beyond grateful to my parents for giving me the runway to explore.

Describe your journey into risk. How did you choose that career?
I didn't actually choose this career intentionally. At first, I was in finance. Based on my upbringing where money was very tight and financial instability was the norm, I was determined to understand financial markets and economics on a much deeper level so that I could learn how to build financial stability for my own life. I first worked at a large investment management firm and was responsible for settling trades for various asset classes like mortgage-backed securities, corporate bonds, treasuries, and others. Through this experience, I learned that there were significant opportunities to apply technology to business processes. To solve for this, I'd write little scripts and build macros that made those processes efficient. Suddenly, people on my team and even on other teams started using what I was writing. I was doing this stuff almost at a little bit of a side gig, which was really cool. 

When it was time to look for my next role, I found a security job at Kaiser. Kaiser was looking to set up their HIPAA security program and they were hiring people who were willing to learn and build, regardless of having no direct experience. The job seemed like it could be interesting, so I jumped at the chance. At Kaiser, I gained a deeper understanding of data security, compliance, risk management, how large organizations operated to build applications and run data centers, and risks that come with running technology at-scale. I feel that this experience gave me a strong foundation for thinking about technology risks and how a business can be enabled by managing these risks effectively. 

What made you want to work at Plaid, and how did you make it a reality?
Prior to Plaid, I had very limited exposure to startups. However, when I talked to our CEO, Zach Perret, and his Co-Founder, William Hockey, for the first time, it was very clear that there was a huge opportunity in front of Plaid. The excitement to tackle the problems Plaid was solving and the impact I could have in accelerating Plaid’s mission sold me. I was also excited about the potential of being the first security hire.

When I came onsite for my interview, my desire to join Plaid heightened. I felt an immediate connection to everyone I met and an energy that was infectious. I never felt that the team was trying to sell me on Plaid. Every conversation was centered on connection and getting to know me as a person. I look back and remember thinking I have to be part of this company, I want this to be my work. I was excited to understand the business and to help build something great. Plaid was an environment where I can bring my whole self and do impactful work all while being surrounded by incredibly talented human beings. I talked to my wife after my interviews and said, “Wow.. I've never felt this way about a job before, there's no way that they're going to hire me. They're so much smarter than I am." My imposter syndrome was kicking into high gear…ha. She was incredibly supportive, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. The next day, I got a call from the team and they made an offer. 

What has your experience been like since joining Plaid?
Back when I joined it was just myself and now we have risk team members throughout our global offices. It has been a really amazing experience to get to build the function through the years!

Early Plaid was extremely challenging and extremely rewarding. I was constantly operating beyond what I thought were the boundaries of my capabilities, which was at times uncomfortable. I learned very quickly that everything I did in my role was critical to enabling Plaid's business and protecting the consumers we ultimately serve. This meant enabling customer acquisition, building the product, expanding the product portfolio, hardening the product so it's resilient against the radiation of the web, and so forth. To do all of these things successfully, you had to deeply understand the needs of the business. You had to not only be prepared to tailor your work to meet those needs, but constantly iterate your solutions as the business evolved rapidly. Through these experiences, I’ve learned that the discomfort I was feeling was a natural byproduct of personal and professional growth that was happening at lightspeed.

Today, I could not be more proud to see how the risk team has evolved. The team is made up of such talented and motivated people who are dedicated to making an impact at Plaid. I truly care about empowering my team to do meaningful work and to feel that they have a path to grow at Plaid. I feel privileged to work beside them each day. 

What’s your single greatest passion?
I feel that my life is too nuanced to have a single greatest passion; I don’t necessarily have a thing that has consistently occupied all of my attention. What usually occupies my headspace tends to evolve over time, however, a few things come to mind. Right now what is most important to me is my wife, Natalie. We lived apart when she was in medical school, but now we are living together again in our new home. I love the fact that we are finally in one place. Our eight-month-old puppy, Twyla, is also a focus and has been a special addition to our family. Lastly, is my job and team at Plaid. Plaid is without a doubt the highlight of my career thus far. I deeply care about the work I am doing. I’ve also been exceptionally lucky to hire some truly great people. I have somehow managed to convince these exceptionally talented folks to join my team…ha. I take great pride in seeing their individual growth both personally and professionally. I also feel very fortunate to have built trust as their leader. This is something I never take for granted.