"What are you doing here?" a young engineering student asked Vipin Mayar, the head of artificial intelligence initiatives at Fidelity Investments, at a MIT conference in San Francisco.
As Mayar recalled, "They were all just… surprised."
Fidelity executives are getting used to the confused looks and double-takes their company booth draws at Silicon Valley job fairs.
Although the 72-year-old, family-controlled firm is known for managing retirement plans and mutual funds, by many measures, Fidelity is a tech company. The firm is spending billions of dollars to compete in new technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. According to executives, Fidelity wants to measure itself against tech firms like Nvidia, not its more traditional Wall Street rivals like Charles Schwab.
Fidelity was doing fintech before fintech was cool, as CEO Abigail Johnson explained it during a panel presentation at the company's headquarters this month. Her grandfather, Edward C. Johnson, founded the company in 1946 and is still quoted as saying it's better to "take intelligent risks rather than follow the crowd."
Fidelity has notched a few industry firsts that could probably fall under Johnson's "intelligent risk" category.
In the 1960s, the firm bought its first mainframe computer, which took up the entire floor of an office building. In the 1970s, Fidelity was the first to sell retail mutual funds directly through a toll-free telephone line and had the first voice-activated computer response system for stock prices and yield quotes. In the 1980s, it rolled out Fidelity Money Line, the first nationwide electronic funds transfer for money market funds, and a voice-activated computer answering system.