08/10/2019 1:07 PM IST | Updated 17/10/2019 4:43 PM IST

She Didn't Like The Way Banks Work; So She Started Her Own

Starling Bank founder Anne Boden talks about sexism in the tech and banking industry, and never giving up.

Anne Boden of Starling Bank

Banking as an industry remains an old boy’s club, but there’s been a rise in women in the C-suite thanks to a growing fintech industry. But even there, according to a study, less than 30% of the UK’s FinTech workforce was female. So to Anne Boden, a 30-year banker who has worked with some of the biggest banks, it was clear that the industry needed a makeover.

It will take another 108 years to close the overall gender gap in our global workplace and almost double that to bring about parity in the workplace, concluded the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2018 in December, after reviewing 149 countries.

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Just about 34% of global managers are women and one of the factors catering to this low figure is the fact that “in the workplace, women still encounter significant obstacles in taking on managerial or senior official roles.” 

Boden told HuffPost she wanted to bring in a new approach when she started Starling, an app-based bank that exists only on customers’ smartphones. 

Starling has no brick and mortar branch. Customers use an app to manage their individual, joint, and business accounts, receive instant updates on income and payment activities, insights, savings and mortgage targets, and more. 

“At Starling, we operate at the axis of two traditionally male-dominated professions, banking and technology,” Boden said. “Banking has long been dominated by men, but this wasn’t always the case with technology. From the Second World War to the 1960s, women represented an important engine of growth in tech. We have a lot of senior women at Starling - 41% in senior management and a 50/50 split on our executive committee. We’re hoping this will help change people’s perceptions.” 

Interestingly, the bank offers services to the homeless and migrant customers, and has a special gambling block that can be initiated on the accounts of customers that have a history of gambling.

Starting Starling

Boden started her career with the Lloyds Bank soon after graduating in computer science and chemistry from the University of Swansea. At Lloyds, she said, the particularly mechanical, repetitive tasks were meant for the women to do and all things that needed decision making would go to the men.

“All the junior positions were filled by women and all the bosses were men,” she said, explaining that most of the gender discrimination actually happened at the lower rungs. 

She starting grabbing higher responsibilities, only to be told in her first appraisal that she was overly ambitious. “The man who did my first appraisal told me I was too ambitious and suggested that I tone it down, otherwise I may become frustrated in my career,” she said. “His words only made me more determined to succeed.” 

“The only way to improve things is to relentlessly work towards a better, more positive situation,” she added.

Boden talked about how her experience in the banking industry also showed how complicated and unfriendly to new customers the experience was. But when she spoke about this with her colleagues to inspire change, she was told, “that’s not going to happen.”

“Although the Irish bank was returned to profitability, the experience had a big impact on me,” she said. “Radically cutting costs while tens of thousands of Irish citizens suffered the ongoing effects of the financial crisis made me question whether we were approaching things in the right way at all.”

Anne Boden of Starling Bank

That’s when Boden realised it was time to start her own bank, and make new processes without the same kind of resistance. Except, she came across a new problem.

Raising funding while outside the pattern

Studies have also noted that female entrepreneurs and borrowers in Europe are treated less favorably than men. They are less likely to get a loan from banks, notes the IPPR report, “Women and banks: Are female customers facing discrimination?”

Boden was at the receiving end when she was founding her fintech start-up in 2014. “When I was looking for the initial backing for Starling, I soon realised that Silicon Valley investors tend to invest in people who look like the people they have already invested in,” she said. “As a 50-year-old woman, I did not fit that mould.” 

Eventually, Starling took flight with a quarter million pounds of Boden’s own money, and it’s continued to grow through her personal involvement. Today, the bank is growing across Europe, and continues to focus on diversity, in its offerings and hiring.

“We’ve still got some way to go to eliminate the gap entirely. That’s what we’re aiming for — after all, we know that diverse teams perform better,” she said, urging women to keep moving forward despite hurdles.