As you walk through the new wraparound spaces for USAA on the 19th floor of One Riverwalk Center, it is not only the 360-degree views of San Antonio that beckon from every floor-to-ceiling window. Snippets of conversations from collaborating employees capture your attention as you walk from group to group. Blockchain technology. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and biotech applications. Autonomous transportation.

Those employees are members of USAA’s innovation team. The team has joined the other USAA employees now occupying four floors of the tower with unobstructed views of the growing technology corridor. USAA acquired One Riverwalk, located at 700 N. St. Mary’s St. on the River Walk, in 2013.

Zachary Gipson, chief innovation officer at USAA, and Tim Brown, vice president of IT innovation research and development, have been busy at the new downtown space along with about 100 research and development and information technology employees from the insurance and financial services giant.

(From left) USAA's Vice President of Innovation R&D Tim Brown and USAA's Chief Innovation Officer Zack Gipson chat on the 19th floor of the USAA building.
(From left) USAA’s Vice President of Innovation R&D Tim Brown and USAA’s Chief Innovation Officer Zack Gipson chat on the 19th floor of the USAA building. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

At an open house Friday to celebrate the downtown location, TechBloc co-founder and CEO David Heard was enthusiastic about USAA’s presence in the midst of San Antonio’s downtown tech ecosystem.

“As we work to reclaim our downtown business district, we must make sure that resurgence is led by the newest part of our economy, innovative companies of the digital age,” Heard said. “As San Antonio’s largest tech employer, USAA’s considerable tech talent will add to the core of downtown with its innovative culture and strength of its worldwide brand.”

USAA has partnered with San Antonio’s tech community to help build the talent pipeline. In January, USAA announced it would underwrite 50% of membership fees for the Geekdom co-working space for military veterans, active duty military, and military spouses.

“Since announcing the partnership with Geekdom, there have been 95 veterans who have benefited from the reduced membership fees,” Brown said. “We’re giving veterans a opportunity to join the growing entrepreneurial community in San Antonio.”

USAA's Vice President of Innovation R&D Tim Brown (left) chats with USAA employees on the 19th floor of the USAA building downtown.
USAA’s Vice President of Innovation R&D Tim Brown (left) chats with USAA employees on the 19th floor of the USAA building downtown. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Gipson came to USAA in 2010 from Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management, where he was a managing director of product strategy. The Rivard Report spoke with Gipson, who is responsible for setting the vision, strategy, and long-range direction for innovation for USAA.

Rivard Report: What is the focus of the USAA team downtown and how does it complement the work of USAA Labs at the headquarters on Fredericksburg Road?

Zachary Gipson: The focus on innovation is an essential part of the company’s culture, where every employee is encouraged to be an innovator. USAA Labs, formerly called the Innovation Lab, now encompasses innovative activity both at the USAA headquarters on Fredericksburg Road and beyond the USAA main campus at locations such as our new downtown space. USAA Labs is dedicated to providing the skills, resources, and support for its employees and USAA members as they create cutting-edge technologies and new ways of getting things done.

Tim Brown moved some of his innovation team to our downtown location. They will focus on disruptive innovations that will allow us to better serve our members. There are different skills represented on the innovation team — from software developers to technology or business experts on different products and research engineers. We also have the employees who run the innovation member and employee program at USAA Lab [on the main campus] with some more innovation employees distributed across USAA’s various locations.

At the moment we have more developers in the downtown location, but we expect that to shift over time.

RR: USAA also opened an office in Austin earlier this year. How does that location fit in USAA’s overall innovation strategy?

ZG: Meriah Garrett is our chief design officer, and she directs the Austin office. We opened it as a design studio in downtown Austin to focus on designing an enhanced user experience for our customers. We think about the member first, so the design function studio in Austin focuses on design and function of the user’s experience.

Many of our members will first contact USAA using our app on their mobile device then switch over to call us or go to our website. We are always striving to seamlessly integrate this transition and improve that member experience across all possible platforms.

USAA's Chief Innovation Officer Zack Gipson stands in front of art on the 19th floor of the USAA building that brings the mission and member focus to the USAA downtown location.
USAA’s Chief Innovation Officer Zack Gipson stands in front of art on the 19th floor of the USAA building that brings the mission and member focus to the USAA downtown location. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

RR: How does innovation serve USAA’s long term vision?

ZG: Innovation is not a function on its own. We use innovation to better serve our members by looking ahead the next hundred years and setting ourselves up to serve the emerging needs of our military members.

Many companies may think of innovation as a disruption, as a way of doing things dramatically differently. I think of it as how we do things in new and compelling ways for our members during their times of need.

RR: How exactly does a financial services organization innovate to serve the military?

ZG: We start with our members and understanding what they need today and how those needs will change and evolve over time. In many cases it’s listening to them to try to figure out emerging or unmet needs.

We tap into the broadest ecosystem possible to meet these needs. USAA works with big technology firms, venture capitalists, startups, and with experts in academia to help solve problems for our members.

Last year alone we talked to more than 700 startups. USAA has worked with academic institutions from UTSA to MIT, Stanford, and others. We’re working with Google and Facebook, and with private industry such as Intel. We’re spending lots of time with car manufacturers, too.

The exciting side of innovation is interacting with firms doing cool things that we can harness for our members. Our challenge is to get past the “bright shiny objects” and figure out the benefits that will help our members the most.

RR: How does the move to One Riverwalk Center support USAA’s innovation plan?

For most of my career I’ve worked innovation functions. The new wave of innovation is in pursuing close partnerships with private industry, the community, government, and academic institutions. What better place is there for USAA than to be in the heart of that growing community of innovators downtown? From a San Antonio perspective, the ability for USAA to work with these local partners allows us to foster that innovative spirit.

RR: What recommendation would you offer to an organization or business seeking to establish a culture of innovation?

ZG: I would start by listening to your customers and employees, creating a dedicated team and focusing efforts on it, and celebrating successes as well as  failures. Innovation works best out in the open done in an inclusive manner, which helps bring everyone in the organization along in the process.

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.