This story is part of the first annual Solutions Issue, sponsored by Atlanta International School. With this special report and the inaugural ATL Solutions Summit, Global Atlanta is spotlighting innovators solving global problems with market-oriented solutions emanating from Atlanta.
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When disaster strikes, waiting for cash to be delivered can become a bottleneck that hinders a quick global response.
Addressing that problem for nonprofits working internationally is just one way Atlanta-based payments company Brightwell foresees applying the expertise built in the cruise ship industry into new verticals as it grows.
“We’ve been doing a lot of research on this,” said Chief Innovation Officer Robert Berris. “We’ve heard multiple stories about people strapping cash to their body, physically duct-taping cash and moving between borders. We’ve heard stories about armored cars that are protected by mercenaries when moving money into areas like Ukraine.”
Mr. Berris, whose role itself is a testimony to Brightwell’s commitment to creating new solutions in cross-border payments, sees payments as electricity — a fundamental utility that, when withheld, can severely hamper a society’s ability to function.
It can also be the difference between an organization fulfilling its mission or seeing its promise to the community derailed.
“Moving money seems like a pretty basic function yet is probably the biggest opportunity for their brand to be successful or take a hit,” Mr. Berris told Global Atlanta.
Beyond nonprofits, Brightwell is also looking at sectors like consumer refunds and B2C payouts, travel and tourism and credit unions as it moves from being a payroll and payments provider for ship operators and their employees to an enabler for other enterprises seeking similar capabilities.
Brightwell’s ReadyRemit product is the first iteration of this shift, a product of introspection during the pandemic about ways the company could diversify when the entire cruise industry was shut down, said Jessica Starobinets, product manager for ReadyRemit.
With ReadyRemit, Brightwell marries its integrations with remittance partners with its “compliance-as-a-service” offering, enabling companies to stand up what amounts to a new cross-border payments department relatively quickly.
“It’s a white-labeled product, so they can put it right into their platform within 30 to 90 days,” Ms. Starobinets said Nov. 9 during the inaugural ATL Solutions Summit, organized by Global Atlanta in partnership with Atlanta International School.
That contrasts with nine to 12 months for integrations with money-transfer providers like Western Union and MoneyGram if they go it alone, not to mention the costs of building technical capabilities in house, she said.
The pain point ReadyRemit solves for enterprise users mirrors the way Brightwell grew to help cruise ship lines and their workers through its legacy Navigator product.
Navigator includes a digital app and connected debit card that acts like a bank for workers receiving their wages on the ship. It enables them to get paid digitally, then to send money instantly using their preferred remittance method, including some partners that allow cash pickup at local retail outlets back home, wherever that is in the world. Last year, Brightwell enabled the movement of money to 140 countries, with the bulk of cruise ship workers coming from India, Indonesia and the Philippines. Brightwell also provides ATMs on ships, both for workers and for guests, and offers this function as a service to cruise lines.
With Brightwell emerging out of a bank 15 years ago, Navigator was developed as an antidote to the cash-based payroll system, which was expensive, risky and inconvenient for workers who spend six to nine months away from home for the sole purpose of sending vital income back to support their families.
“They would have armored trucks come to port every week for every two weeks, wherever that ship was in the world. They would load up millions of dollars in cash, and then the payroll department on that ship would sit there with envelopes and divvy up everyone’s salary,” Ms. Starobinets said.
Many had to entrust their wages to a third-party to deliver home or send through expensive intermediaries days after their payment was received.
Beyond the ship, remittances are a huge opportunity globally, she added.
“There are billions and billions of dollars being sent all around the world, and there are also a lot of neo-banks and, interestingly enough, smaller banks that are targeted to very specific communities that are being spun up,” Ms. Starobinets said, pointing to a new client that will use Brightwell’s solution for moving money between users in the U.S. and Latin America. “We’re going to be able to better support them.”
As it scales from Atlanta, with plans to double headcount from 75 to 150 in the next few months, Brightwell continues to to keep its mission — and the people it helps — front of mind, Mr. Berris added.
“We literally have personas around the office, physical cardboard cutouts of our cruise workers, to remind ourselves who we are really designing for and what we’re doing.”
Connecting employees’ work to the real world helps motivate Brightwell’s own staff through tough cycles of product development, he said.
“Making payments easy, accessible and simpler for everyone is really what we’re trying to do as a company, and our values shape behavior, conversations and expectations, yet we still have to obviously turn a profit as a company and find that balance in our business model.”
With old methods like checks and wire transfers still being “shockingly expensive,” finding margin within the mission hasn’t been all that difficult thus far.
In this new phase of growth beyond the ship, Brightwell hopes to help other companies do the same.