Innovation has always been at the heart of BlackRock – in part because of the seamless way our teams work together to continuously deliver on our purpose: to help more and more people experience financial well-being. Embracing our culture of innovation, 120 speakers and hundreds of attendees from all over the firm recently came together to participate in our first-ever Innovation Forum, the largest knowledge-sharing event in BlackRock’s history.
The Forum celebrated the best in innovation firmwide and spanned key themes, including Sustainability, Investments, Data Science and Next Gen Technology. Over the course of three very full days, colleagues shared exciting project spotlights, senior leaders delivered compelling keynote speeches and our Tech Fellows led a panel on where innovation at the firm is headed. We caught up with members of the Forum’s organizing committee – many of whom work across various facets of our Aladdin technology business – to learn more about how the Forum came to life, why it was meaningful and what the future of innovation looks like at BlackRock.
BlackRock Innovation Forum Organizing Committee:
Hamdan Azhar (Vice President, Data Scientist in Global Marketing, NY)
Dongbo Guo (Vice President, Corporate Credit Team in the Financial Modeling Group, NY)
Linxi Chen (Vice President, Economic Scenario Generation Team in the Financial Modeling Group, NY)
Greg LaFata (Director, Software Engineer in the Alternative Digital Strategy Group, NY)
Sophia Huang (Analyst, Corporate Credit Team in the Financial Modeling Group, NY)
Hamdan Azhar (Left), Sophia Huang (Center) and Dongbo Guo (Right)
Tell us about the BlackRock Innovation Forum and how it came to fruition.
Hamdan Azhar: In 2020, [co-organizer] Dongbo Guo and I had this idea to bring together as many people as possible from across the firm and build a community centered on openness, sharing best practices and fostering the best technological and business innovation. That idea became the 2020 Natural Language Processing Symposium, a curated event of 40 speakers. We wanted to recreate that this past year, and there was appetite for something much broader around innovation – to bring together different teams across technology, data science, sustainability and investments in one forum.
Dongbo Guo: After receiving overwhelming interest, we started to reach out to potential speakers and eventually expanded our list to include more than 120 speakers across the firm.
Linxi Chen: The spirit of the Forum is that it is open to anyone and everyone, and you can contribute anywhere you want; it was a true grassroots movement.
Greg LaFata: The key word was ‘innovation.’ It seems obvious now, but we were reminded that innovation comes in many shapes and sizes. That term became an inclusive and equitable theme that went viral internally. It was powerful to have these teams of researchers and technologists in one conference, showcasing what they’re working on and uncovering what they don’t have or didn’t realize they needed before they all came together.
How did BlackRock senior leaders support your efforts in developing the Forum?
Azhar: We are grateful for the amount of support and enthusiasm we got from senior leaders from the very beginning. They made time in their calendars to come and speak with us, to ask how they could help or if they could connect us with anyone.
It’s also rare to see a small group of technologists from different parts of a firm this large and complex join forces to put together a massive three-day event during the last work week of the year and get enormous applause for it. It’s a testament to the unique culture we have at BlackRock.
What was your favorite forum session/topic, and why?
LaFata: [Global Head of Aladdin Business] Sudhir Nair’s keynote speech was among my favorites. He reminded me of how I used to hear people talk about BlackRock’s tech culture when I first joined the firm. He used the word “spark” to describe it, how an idea or conversation can catch fire and quickly become something big. Even though BlackRock is the largest asset manager in the world, it often feels like I work at a startup.
Guo: I learned a lot of things both from the keynote speeches delivered by senior leaders, whose perspective was more macro, and from the discussions led by more junior colleagues, who were focused on creative solutions to improve the efficiency of their daily work. Every speaker was in a different stage of their career, but they all shared innovative ways to solve a problem they’re currently facing.
Sophia Huang: I most enjoyed the presentations on the Sustainability track. This topic is closely related to the first project I ever worked on at BlackRock: helping to build a climate credit model. It was interesting to learn more about the upstream process that generated inputs for our own models and see how other teams are now working on similar climate models.
Azhar: [Chief Operating Officer] Rob Goldstein’s keynote speech closing out the Forum was fantastic. Rob is a critical leader at BlackRock, and he delivered a clear mandate to keep innovating, to always think about how we can do something faster, better and more efficiently. And as [Global Head of Technology] Kfir Godrich mentioned in his keynote, institutions that don’t innovate will get left behind.
Hamdan Azhar (Left) and Greg LaFata (Right)
What is a common misconception about BlackRock’s commitment to technology and innovation?
Azhar: A common – and massive – misconception is that the finance industry is not a place where top-tier technologists go to work. BlackRock has some of the best technologists in the world, with leading researchers in computer vision, natural language processing, deep learning, climate research and modeling. Their projects are critical and carry global impact.
Huang: When we say innovation, we often think of the most advanced technologies or complicated machine learning models. But innovation can happen anywhere – not only on the technology side but also on the business and investment side. That was why we had six different themes in the Forum. We wanted to highlight that we can be innovative with anything.
Chen: Yes, innovation can happen anywhere. For BlackRock, it’s not just on the investments side either; it’s also in corporate events that bring us together and in how we support our colleagues’ well-being, with things like health benefits or stress management. BlackRock’s true advantage is in all the places where we innovate.
What are you most excited about when thinking of BlackRock’s dedication to innovating?
LaFata: I’m most excited about the community we’re building through the Forum to facilitate equitable conversations about the potential of our technology and products. Any time we see an opportunity to improve the current state of things, my colleagues and I take the initiative to do just that.
Guo: To me, the most exciting part is that our senior leaders see real value in changing the status quo, even after decades in the industry. People have the courage to try new things across all functions and at all levels.
Azhar: The support, guidance and mentorship we received from senior leadership inspires me. BlackRock’s commitment to innovation is mind-boggling. No one ever asked us, “Who are you guys?” or “Why are you doing this?” They all said, “What do you need? Just call me.”
Chen: I’m constantly impressed by how seriously we take our fiduciary responsibilities to our clients. At the end of the day, we are managing a lot of money, many people’s lifetime savings and pension funds. It makes me feel good about where we’re innovating and the impact we’re having as a firm.