BSc Computer Science. Class of 1981. Entrepreneur. Founder of Starling Bank.
Anne is on a mission to revolutionise the banking sector in a way that delivers a better experience for customers. Leading an established UK bank, Anne is also a powerful advocate for more women taking up leading roles in business.
What led you to the decision to study Computer Science and Chemistry at Swansea?
One of the earliest childhood photos I have is of me clasped in my father’s arms as he stood outside the Swansea University campus. I was born and brought up in the city and everyone there was very proud of the university. There had been a large-scale development programme in the early Sixties and we’d obviously been down there to look at the campus in its magnificent setting in Swansea Bay. Most universities were in city centres, but here we had the best of both worlds, you could study and go surfing.
While at sixth form, I used to do physics and chemistry workshops at the university, where I would often be the only one there. I didn’t have any expectation of studying there in the long term though. I had decided to study medicine and was planning on travelling further afield for my degree. My A’ Level results didn’t turn out as good as I hoped, so I spent a long morning on the phone speaking to various universities to see what was on offer. Eventually, I spoke to someone at Swansea who mentioned a Computer Science degree and as soon as they said it, I thought, that is what I wanted to do. It brought together everything I was interested in and would introduce me to some new skills too.
At that time, computing was in its infancy, so it was not possible to do an entire degree in computer sciences, because there wasn’t enough to put it on a par with other academic subjects. I had to add another subject to beef up the course and chose chemistry.
"I was very lucky that I chose to do computer science, even though at the time no one really imagined we’d be as focused on computers as we now are."
What are your favourite memories of your time at Swansea?
I’m afraid anyone wanting any stories of wild days at uni are going to be very disappointed when they talk to me. Most of my days were spent in the library. Universities are all about getting on with it and thinking for yourself. I loved that. It was what I had been doing since as long as I could remember. I had spent most of my childhood in bookshops, or the library, or with my head in the second-hand Encyclopaedia Britannica that my father had bought me during a teachers’ strike. Now I had an opportunity to sit in a library studying all day long. It was bliss.
I found the computer science part of my course incredibly interesting. I’ve always gravitated towards organising data. As a small child I used to organise brochures, books and even kitchen equipment into alphabetical order. However, I found the chemistry part incredibly dull. It also didn’t help that I was extremely accident prone in the chemistry labs. The poor lab technicians who signed out the equipment to me had to turn a blind eye when I smashed yet another piece of complicated glassware. I could never get excited about mixing all these wet ingredients together either. I suspect this is the same reason why I also have a lifelong disinterest in anything to do with cooking
Computing was still quite basic in those days. We had a PDP 11 Unix computer that allowed us to key in data on cards. There was a very exhausting system, where you’d write your programme, then take the punch card and dash off downstairs to another room beside the cafeteria to run it. There would always be a bit of a queue and then an hour long wait to see if it worked. Then you’d have to go back up to the computer sciences room and make any adjustments necessary to the programme, before going through the whole process again. I got very fit in those days, with all the running up and down the stairs.
We learned a lot about Artificial Intelligence, databases and algorithm analysis, which sounded fantastic at the time, but here we are, 40-years later and these things have really taken off. I was very lucky that I chose to do computer science, even though at the time no one really imagined we’d be as focused on computers as we now are.
What did you do after graduating from Swansea?
I took getting a job very seriously and started planning what I would do from my second year at Swansea and spent a lot of time in the Careers office. I found out quite quickly that a lot of the jobs on offer that wanted computer science degrees sounded quite boring. British Rail, as it was then, were recruiting people with this qualification to design train timetables, for example. It wasn’t exactly inspiring. After a lot of looking around, I applied for a job doing computer analysis of paint in Zurich, another working for the defence industry and another at GCHQ. As a bit of a wildcard, and at the suggestion from my mother who opined that white lab coats were ‘a bit draining’, I also applied for a job at Lloyds Bank. Given that there were 1000 applicants going for a single graduate trainee position, I hadn’t held out much hope, but I was offered the job. I loved working in the Lloyds Bank computer department and often marvelled that I was getting paid to do something which not only came easily to me but was really enjoyable too. Not everything was plain sailing though. At one stage, I decided to introduce what I had learned in one of my Swansea University modules, which was using algorithms to sort data. After watching the then somewhat laborious and time-consuming way cheques were processed by hand, I was convinced I had the perfect solution. I spent a long time convincing my colleagues to at least try my ‘bubble sorting’ concept and, eventually, they gave into my enthusiasm and got into a line to follow the process I described. It was chaos. Cheques were flying everywhere like confetti. Lesson learned. I hadn’t really worked out how bubble sorting would work in the environment and it didn’t.
"At the heart of what I wanted to do was to help people to have an easier relationship with money."
You’ve worked for several banks. What made you think the sector needed changing?
I first started thinking seriously about a new way of banking in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. At that time, it had been the worst financial meltdown in living memory, yet, after all the fuss had died down, banks had pretty much gone back to business as usual. They were operating in pretty much the same way as they had been doing for decades, despite the digital advances that seemed to be changing everything else at a fantastic pace with businesses such as Uber, Netflix and Amazon.
Banks had, by that point, put some very basic services online, but what was on offer was a pale imitation of what you’d get in a branch. Most importantly, they hadn’t really looked at what the customer wanted. The success of tech companies told me that it always begins with the customer and the reason that Apple, Amazon and all the others are so successful is they have perfected the delivery of products and services. A shining example of how banks were getting it wrong was account opening. It was a horribly long and frustrating process, involving a visit to a branch, a lengthy interview, a great deal of paperwork and then a long wait until the end goal was achieved. Yes, there needed to be rules to prevent fraud, but banks were making it needlessly complicated. Once I began thinking like this, I wondered how many other processes could be greatly simplified to help bank customers manage their money more easily.
At the heart of what I wanted to do was to help people to have an easier relationship with money. People often get themselves into debt because they have no real idea of what they are spending, or what they’ve got left. Once it goes wrong, it really goes wrong, and things can quickly spiral out of control. My vision was for a digital banking service that can be run from a mobile, a device we all have with us, all of the time, where everything is open, transparent and easily accessible to the account holder.
Setting up a company to disrupt a sector like banking couldn’t have been easy. What were the biggest challenges?
One of the biggest challenges was the same one that faces anyone trying to start a business: money. In my case, I needed a lot of money, possibly as much as £300 million by my early estimates. The cash was not just needed to build the bank itself and get all the tech in place, I also needed to have enough to cover the day-to-day fluctuations of money coming in and out of the bank. As you can imagine, it is not easy to attract investors, particularly for anyone who has no track record as an entrepreneur. Early on, a colleague in banking told me that I would probably do more than 300 pitches before I even got close to raising any investment. I didn’t believe him at the time but later discovered that this was not far off the mark.
The other big hurdle that I faced was the regulatory system. Not surprisingly, the rules about who can start a bank have to be quite stringent. Fortunately, in March 2013, the then Chancellor George Osborne had introduced a number of reforms to pave the way for new banks after declaring the UK banking system ‘too concentrated’. The Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) and the newly opened Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) were revamping the new bank application process, reducing the licensing process from two years to just one year. Even so, it was no small feat to satisfy all their criteria and get through each stage. It required some very detailed planning and documentation indeed.
At the time of writing, the nation is in lockdown due to COVID-19. Has the lockdown enabled Starling to show its strengths?
The pandemic changed everything for households and businesses in the UK and wider world. From the start, we were very aware that people would be very worried indeed about their finances and that many faced an uncertain future. This was the time that Starling’s philosophy of banking putting its customers’ needs first, rather than the other way around, was really put to the test in the most extreme circumstances.
Our first challenge was to get the entire team set up to run the bank from their homes. Fortunately, as our chief information officer John Mountain said, we’d started working on this back in 2015. We’d always said Starling could be run from laptops and within a matter of days we proved this was the case. Then we turned our minds to what was it that our customers most needed. One of the initiatives we launched within weeks of the lockdown was the Starling Connected card, to help people who were self isolating and relying on friends and neighbours to buy them supplies. Here, personal account customers can request a second card that is connected to their account via the Spaces section of their app. They can give this card and PIN to a trusted shopper who will be authorised to spend the money that has been added there. We also introduced the Starling Coronavirus Support Scheme to help hard pressed individuals with a three-month interest holiday on the first £500 of an arranged overdraft. For our business customers, we worked hard to ensure that we were accredited by the British Business Bank as a lender under the government-backed Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). This means we can provide loans of £5,000 to £250,000 to SMEs that are struggling financially as a result of the emergency. Five weeks after the lockdown, the government announced more financial support for SMEs via emergency Bounce Back loans of between £2,000 and £50,000 and we were able to get this scheme up and running at Starling within a matter of days. The process is quick too. SMEs reported applying for loans and receiving money in their account within two hours. That’s quite impressive, even by Starling’s efficient standards.
Starling now has more than 1 million customers and people are becoming more comfortable managing their money from their phones. Will Starling continue to innovate in this market?
It’s always been very important to me that once we moved on from being a start-up to an established (not establishment!) business, we didn’t stop innovating. However large we become, I don’t want to become a lumbering beast that never moves on or progresses. We tweak the app every single day and everyone on the team is encouraged to come up with new ideas all the time. We listen to customers too. If they say ‘why don’t you try this’, or ‘have you thought about that’, we’re onto it. Why wouldn’t we be? They are the most fantastic market research resource we have. We still hold a daily review of who are customers are, how they are using the app and prioritise introducing new features that answer any obvious preferences.
"My advice to any woman reading this piece is to fight hard, demand the same treatment, go for the top positions and never give up."
You are one of the few female banking and tech leaders. Is enough being done to reduce the gender imbalance?
The short answer is: no. I still find it hugely depressing when I attend industry events and am invariably one of just a handful of senior women in a group of 100 men or more. In the early days of Starling, I was frequently asked what I ‘did’ at the bank. To many in fintech it appeared utterly incomprehensible that I could possibly be the boss. And this is supposed to be a forward-thinking sector.
I’ve got used to the fact that there is unconscious bias everywhere, but that doesn’t mean I accept it. I am a passionate advocate of women and do everything I can to support them so more join the ranks of female entrepreneurs and business owners. My advice to any woman reading this piece is to fight hard, demand the same treatment, go for the top positions and never give up. If enough of us do this, hopefully the message will eventually get through.
What advice would you have for anyone considering Swansea as a place to study?
It’s easy to forget yourself at Swansea. People enjoy themselves so much there, taking advantage of all the leisure facilities in Swansea and the wonderful location, which means they never go elsewhere. For me though, it was a real opportunity. It was the first time where studying, academia and long hours in the library was the norm. Everything was so accessible. I was surrounded by every type of facility to study and it was great. I did a lot in my three years there and it transformed me.