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Elma Saric, Raiffeisen Bank International: “Corporates like the agility mindset they obtain by working closely with startups”

Elma Saric, Strategic Partnerships and Ecosystems Manager at Raiffeisen Bank International, corporate-startup collaboration
Image credit: Elma Saric, Strategic Partnerships and Ecosystems Manager at Raiffeisen Bank International

Can you imagine that in less than 10 years, around half of the companies that are currently on the Fortune 500 list will be replaced? They will be outperformed by faster-moving companies with more innovative models and forward-thinking business approaches. It is not surprising, therefore that 80% of corporates are interested in learning more about startups and exploring opportunities for working with them. And this was not the case only five years ago.

On the topic of what it is like to develop a corporate-startup collaboration and what it feels like to be a woman working in the male-dominated industries of banking and fintech, The Recursive talked to  Elma Saric. She is Strategic Partnerships and Ecosystems Manager at Raiffeisen Bank International and working at RBI’s Elevator Lab program for scaling CEE fintech companies which has grown into the biggest partnership program with the largest fintech network in the region. 

Find out in our conversation what are the challenges and upsides that Saric has stumbled across building a career in banking and fintech, and what are the benefits and risks of developing a corporate-startup collaboration in the field. 

ESG, diversity, and equality in banking

Saric highlights that the topics of ESG, diversity, and equality are very pivotal for RBI as a bank and have influenced the structuring of the Elevator Lab Program. 

“Every ESG-related initiative that we have led was very well received by the bank and our teams. And from my perspective, as a woman who is involved in the program, I can only applaud that. When I was just starting in the industry, around nine years ago it was still uncommon for young women to be very involved, have a voice in important meetings, and so on. This gave me the feeling that excelling and growing in this industry is something hard to get. I felt that it is hard to say something, to attract attention, or get an opportunity to share your ideas,” Saric explains.

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Now, however, she sees that things have been incrementally changing, especially during the past two to three years. Saric outlines that a lot more focus is put on the female perspective, and more opportunities are given to women in the financial industry. And this is directly connected to the upsides of being a female in tech. 

“We can now see the rise of female-focused accelerators and a whole segment of the industry that is trying to improve the position of females in the startup ecosystem. And more women are gaining visibility whereas a couple of years ago it was rare to see a woman working in a fintech startup, let alone be a founder of one. Moreover, it is becoming more common for startups to seek diversity in their hiring processes because this brings them different viewpoints that enrich the offerings of their solutions,” Saric highlights.  

Are fintechs and banks friends now?

The Elevator Lab Program, which started in 2017, had one main goal since its launch – to partner up with suitable startups and fintechs and solve the current challenges of RBI’s business lines. That is why the mission of the program was to identify and foster mutually beneficial partnerships and to work together with innovative tech companies on delivering solutions for the benefit of RBI’s clients. 

“Back then, this was more of an exploratory idea. There was still a dubious narrative regarding partnerships with startups – are they our enemies, will they completely disrupt the banking industry or are they friends? In just a couple of years, this narrative has changed to a point when banks now look at fintechs as potential vendors and partners,” Saric shares. Having already completed 5 seasons, the Elevator Lab Program has so far helped its cohorts conduct over 25 PoCs (Proof of Concept) and establish more than 15 partnerships with RBI. 

When does a partnership make sense for a bank and a startup

Elma Saric shares that the main reason why banks choose to partner up with startups is that this gives them fresh and new ideas as well as an agility mindset that is characteristic for the startup community. 

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“For example, in Elevator Lab, when we define the topics that we want to run our programs on, we always seek input from the business lines and network banks of RBI. We inquire what are the specific problems they face where a startup could help and bring more benefit to the clients of the bank. Only when we define those challenges, do we then look for suitable startups to work with,” Saric shares.  

“When it comes to explicit risks, I wouldn’t say that there are any specific risks either for us, or for the startups, because our PoC programs are structured in a way that ensures the step by step onboarding for the startups into the corporate world. We look at them as vendors and partners and even the PoC that we do with them are paid.  

The corporate partnership checklist for startup founders

Here is the list of factors that banks are looking for in startups in order to choose to collaborate with them: 

  • The startup has an innovative solution that can be scaled up.

“When we are thinking about partnerships, we are not looking for startups that can work with only one of our network banks. Instead, we are seeking solutions that can work throughout the network of RBI subsidiaries,” Saric shares. 

  • The startup needs to show proactivity and willingness to commit

“Corporates want to be working with teams that are dedicated to delivering results and that are committed to following a specific timeline that we have mutually agreed upon. 



+++ RBI is currently preparing for its 2022 Elevator Lab Program and plans to open the applications process in the second half of the year. Read further about the last season of the program +++


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Elena is an Innovation Reporter at The Recursive, an online media dedicated to the emerging tech and startup ecosystems in Southeast Europe. She is keen on sharing the innovation stories that shape the regional ecosystem and has a great interest in fintech, IoT, and biotech startups. Elena is currently finishing her Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration and Political Science at the American University in Bulgaria.