The daughter of a steelworker and a department store worker from Bonymaen in Swansea, Anne Boden had a fairly ordinary Welsh childhood.
Now she’s part of a revolution in the financial world – and has set up her own online bank.
As a pupil at Cefn Hengoed Comprehensive, Anne was good at sciences and went on to study chemistry and computer sciences at the local university.
That interest in technology has been a key driver throughout her 35-year career, which started on the counters of Lloyds Bank in London in 1981.
A turning point was the 2008 banking crisis. She describes the period as “really horrible,” one she remembers when people would literally leave their desks in tears.
Anne became chief operating officer for Allied Irish Banks – one of Ireland’s big four – in 2012, when she had to pick up the pieces.
“I think for many, many years, we’d become invincible,” she said of the industry. “We started believing our own hype.
“After the financial crisis, I spent time out of the big banks, going around the world, figuring out what had happened and what we could do to fix it.
“When the call came to go into Allied Irish Banks, which had a huge government bail-out to try to turn it around and bring it back into profitability, we were having to reduce costs and deal with tens of thousands of Irish citizens who had really suffered from the financial crisis.
“It was a huge learning experience. And that’s what really drove me to think we should do something different.”
The germ of an idea and a “big dream” eventually resulted in 2014 in the launch of Starling – using technology to develop a new-style bank.
Starling is digital-only, with customers using the app, with data and analytics to help them keep across transactions and manage different areas of their personal finances.
There are no branches and no-one sells financial products.
“Every other industry had changed: Amazon had changed shopping, iTunes had changed music. Nobody had actually fundamentally changed banking,” she said.
“I was really worried people were putting banks back the way they were, pretending that the banking crisis hadn’t happened. I knew I had to take the opportunity to do something different, and take a risk.”
It included selling a house in Swansea, where she spent weekends, so she could hire more people.
It is still early days. There are just over 100 staff at Starling and it has more of a feel of a technology company than a traditional finance institution.
Walking through its London office, there is an informality right down to the chill-out area with table tennis and table football.
People with different skills are mixed together – engineers sit alongside bankers and marketing experts.
What’s amusing is that the office space used to belong to UBS, the giant bank Anne used to work for. But Starling is very different and is constantly changing and developing what it offers customers.
The whole organisation comes together at 4pm on Friday for “demo time” where the engineers and designers show what they’ve built – and then it is shown to customers the following week.
“We all work together, we only get something really innovative and creative if we get artists, engineers and finance people working together,” she said.
“We have no departments here, we have people working together to make things happen.”
- When do you relax and how?
I don’t really relax but when I am not working I enjoy writing.
- Where is your favourite spot in Wales – and why?
Must be Gower. When I was a child we would spend weekends in the summer at Port Eynon but now it must be Rhossili.
- What would you say to a 16-year-old girl growing up in Wales now?
I had my inspiration from the television where I saw the odd career woman. Today anything is possible – the internet gives us a window on the wider world and that woman changing the world for the better could be you.
- It’s International Women’s Day – what inspirational woman would you put on a bank note?
Madeleine Albright [US Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton] who said there was a special place in hell for woman who didn’t help other women.
- What’s the next sector that needs a technological/disruptive shake-up?
The medical and health sector.
Being a woman in a male-dominated banking culture was an advantage, Anne believes in that it “really helps you say what you really think, because you’re not fitting in”.
“There aren’t many women in finance and there aren’t many women in tech,” she said.
“I haven’t seen many women throughout my career. I don’t think I mentioned to anyone that it was strange being the only one or one of two women with a group of guys until four or five years ago. You didn’t talk about that type of thing, you pretended it didn’t happen.
Her involvement in computers so early on must have helped.
“I was very fortunate that I had a technology background and was working in the interesting bits of finance – I’ve been in the right places at the right times,” she said.
“Women have to have a core skill – something that which differentiates them, to rise throughout organisations.
She believes that in male-dominated industries, men have to deal with much more peer pressure than women do. “You know very well you never achieve fitting in – so be very good at standing out,” she said.
“I’ve always been different. I’ve always had a Welsh accent, been slightly different to everyone else, I don’t mind being different, the only woman in the room, the one who expressed a different opinion. You get used to having the confidence to change things, to innovate.”
Anne Boden does not have any children but does not think her career would have been any different if she had done.
She believes that once you get to a certain level of earning, having children is not a career problem but it is for those lower paid women who see all their caring responsibilities – for children, older people and partners – affecting their career.
Starling also includes men working part-time because of caring responsibilities.
“If women were earning more, if the percentage of women in certain professions were higher, women could overcome the fact that they are carers,” she said.
“I know of women with big jobs who face the same challenges as me [without children].
” I don’t think as a women to be successful you have to be single minded and have no personal life ”
Anne believes everyone in Starling is quite opinionated and enjoys “saying what we believe”.
“That sort of intensity of debate means people are doing the right thing,” she added.
“We have a long way to go, we are still a very small organisation with very big aspirations. For me every single hour you spend in work should be something that does something useful. Work is a big part of most people’s lives; we spend a lot of time here, you might as well enjoy it, you might as well do something to make the world a little better.”
Her own career path into banking was not planned.
“My expectation was to do something in science – in a rural town somewhere. I didn’t think of myself as a big city person. My mother told me to apply for one job in a bank and in 1981 I arrived in London to work for Lloyds Bank.”
It took her to UBS in Switzerland before a senior global role at RBS and Dutch bank ABN AMRO.
But she believes the internet’s power is in giving everyone an opportunity to learn more, compared to when she grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. And she has been impressed with some of the technology companies she has come across back in Wales.
“People growing up in this new world, being in one part of the UK shouldn’t hold you back,” she said.
“I’m proud of being Welsh, I believe in speaking out – the majority of people in Wales have access to facilities which allows them to do great things but we don’t see many role models, there are very few out there speaking up for Wales.
“But we can support each other.”