Nav.it’s Founder, CEO Erin Papworth on Building Ethical Tech

by Parker Piscitello-Fay

As conversations about ethical tech, data privacy, and social media go into hyper-drive this week, I sat down with a startup founder and CEO to hear her thoughts on these important topics. 

Erin Papworth is the Founder and CEO of Nav.it with over 12 years of experience living and working in Africa. With a Masters of Public Health (M.P.H.) in International Health and Economics and a passion for behavioral psychology, Erin wasn’t originally drawn to start Nav.it out of her love of money. Instead, quite simply, she wanted to help people navigate a system that didn’t always have their best interests in mind. 

Now, Papworth continues her work to improve Nav.it and help users develop better money habits. She’s also Nav.it’s resident ethics expert and Big Tech skeptic. 

Read a brief excerpt from our discussion below.

To start, can you describe what “ethical tech” is?

“Ethical tech for us is really about taking a humane perspective and making sure we put humans at the center of everything we design.

At Nav.it, this is not just about the design perspective and how the product is created and our user interactions, but, instead, really about what our business goals are and making sure that our incentives align with the financial health of our consumers. We work to make sure we build in a way that is mindful of potential secondary consequences and mitigates them as much as possible. And we can’t prevent everything. But we do mitigate secondary and tertiary consequences to what our product is offering as much as possible.

That makes total sense. Why would you say that when it comes to designing FinTech especially, but just in tech in general, that it’s essential to keep ethics in mind?

I think the last 10 years have shown us what’s happened, not only to our society, but to our political situation and to us as individuals, because of how technology has impacted us in such phenomenal ways and also in such dangerous ways. From an ethical perspective, that means we keep an eye on whether we are a business that’s sustainable for right now and for society in the future. And it’s a new way of thinking. 

Businesses and the way we are incentivized to build businesses prioritizes thinking about profit and creating scalable, especially in technology, hyper-scalable, trillion dollar businesses. Now even, some of them just hit the $2 trillion mark lately. And that’s okay, and that’s a good thing. It creates a very efficient process; it allows innovation to occur in really profound ways, especially in this country. And we have benefited from that. 

But I do think there’s a second wave of technologists emerging now. While building and taking over the world was the first primary objective, now we are seeing so many consequences that the goal has changed. Technology has created a really terrible mental health crisis in our country and globally has created divisiveness. And now it’s time to kind of step back and say, “Okay, we have the prototype of how to scale technology, how technology can affect the world. Now, what do we have moving forward? How do we use that technology to create better systems and think about what our social impact is as much as our business model?”

Finally, how does building ethical tech relate to the work we are doing at Nav.it with financial well-being?

Finances are the key to people living healthy, sustainable lives. You have mental health and environmental health, but you also have financial health. And, for us, looking through this ethical lens when working with people’s finances, we’re trying to create an environment where our users approach finances in a way that isn’t just kind of the old stereotypical, you know, “do what you’re told, save for retirement, you need to make more money,” or where someone else is managing all these finance driven conversations for us. 

There’s this bigger conversation happening about why. About: How do you engage with your finances? How are you thinking about it? What are your environmental impacts? What is your money story? And how does that impact your finances? And all of that is really sensitive subject matter. So ethics have to be involved in how we build a product around those questions, because we’re trying our best to create a safe environment where people can be vulnerable, can think about their finances, can talk about it, can think about money differently, share with each other, and learn from others. So thinking about ethics is just imperative. Core to our discussions about financial health and wellness is us thinking in and taking an ethical approach. 

Thank you so much for joining me today; it was great to talk about these important issues. 

Thank you for having me.

For more on ethical tech and design processes at Nav.it, check out Erin’s post on our work on privacy and humane tech here.

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