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Anne Boden | The Rise of Mobile Banking

BSc Computer Science and Chemistry, 1981. CEO, 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 to take 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. 

“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.” 

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. 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.  

“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.”  

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. 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.”  

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.  

“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.  

“At the heart of what I wanted to do was to help people to have an easier relationship with money. 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.”  

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. 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. We 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?”  

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.  

“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.”  

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