UP Programme Director, Emer Coleman, is a senior Digital Leader who helps organisations to accelerate meaningful change. Here she talks about the valuable insights shared in a new book by Anne Boden, founder of Starling Bank.
I first met Anne Boden in Dublin in 2013 at an Irish Tech Festival when she was the COO of Allied Irish Banks. She had joined AIB the year before to help turn round the bank’s fortunes after the financial crisis. Back then, I thought it was pretty great to see a woman holding such a senior role in banking, given that only six FTSE 100 companies had a female chief executive and none were in the financial services sector. But the next time I looked, she’d only gone and built her very own bank.
Her new book Banking On It (How I Disrupted An Industry) is the amazing story of how Anne and her team built Starling Bank, and it’s a roller coaster ride. But apart from being a cracking read, it’s an incredibly useful resource for any start-up founder and an abject lesson in the kind of resilience you need to succeed. It’s also got some lessons around behaving ethically and how to survive if those around you don’t. And finally for tech gossips who have always wondered what happened with Tom Bloomfield (the former COO of Starling) who left and took the entire team to set up the rival bank Monzo, fret not it’s all in the book.
Very early in the book Anne calls out the elephant in the room which she was very aware could have worked strongly against her. Namely her age. She was fifty-four when starting her business. Fintech is a sector dominated by younger men and a female entrepreneur in the sector is a rarity. If 99% of investments go to men in their thirties, who would really take a risk on a woman in her mid-fifties? The answer was, of course, Harald McPike who invested £48 million in Starling Bank, the biggest seed round in London.
Everyone talks of the diversity and inclusion problems in technology, but ageism is frequently brushed over. According to research by Hired, the tech recruitment platform, when tech workers reach 45, the number of jobs they are offered drops as does their salaries. Candidates in their fifties and sixties get the same pay as millennials with just two to three years experience. In a study commissioned by venture investor First Round Capital, 529 founders of venture-backed firms were asked about their experiences. When asked what passes as “old” in terms of discrimination, the average given was 46.
It’s ground well covered by Dan Lyons in his book Disrupted: My Mis-Adventure in the Start-Up Bubble, which describes a year of his life working for HubSpot which he joined when he was fifty-two. On his first day he asked a colleague where he could sit:
“I guess you can sit there,” he says. Instead of a chair, there is a big rubber ball—orange, of course—on a rolling frame. I’m not quite sure what to do. If I ask for a chair, I risk looking like an old fart who doesn’t know how to sit on a bouncy ball or like a prima donna demanding some kind of special treatment. But if I do sit on this thing, I’m pretty sure that I will immediately fall off. I imagine myself, age fifty-two, toppling off an orange bouncy ball and onto the floor, as a bunch of young women look on trying not to laugh.”
But I think Chip Conley who joined Airbnb at the ripe old age of 52 who puts it best in a Harvard Business Review post when he describes why older people in tech must become the “modern elder”, someone who “serves and learns, as both mentor and intern, and relishes being both student and sage.” This accurately describes what it's like to be an older person working in tech because the hierarchy is reversed.
I experienced this directly working for GDS, which recruited a vast number of young developers, most of which were predictably white males. My challenge there was to accept Chip Conley’s description of mentor/intern and accept that my many, many years in government communication at a very senior and strategic level wouldn’t earn me a scintilla of respect from young male developers.
So when one of them tweeted out something vulgar about the then Prime Minister I couldn't just pull rank and call them out largely because they would be looking at me like I was their mother. The only way to fix it was to approach another more senior (male) developer who was much admired and ask him to help, sorting through influence rather than rank. So, surviving as an older person in tech means having to learn when not to say something or find new ways of approaching problems.
It’s really challenging when you have lots of experience, and you are being patronised like mad by lots of younger colleagues. I finally got my own back when everyone in GDS was asked to write something nobody would guess about them on the company wiki. I wrote, “Learned to code by reading HTML for Dummies”, hopefully sending the message contrary to what young developers believe about themselves, that you don't actually need to be a rocket scientist to learn how to code.
And then there is the huge issue of digital intelligence vs emotional intelligence something also referenced by Conley. He suggests a one-line trade-off between older and younger folk in tech: “I’ll offer you some emotional intelligence for your digital intelligence.” Not that he is suggesting that younger people lack emotions but simply that their complete reliance on their phones and computers means that their emotional intelligence skills are not as advanced. And that’s not good for their professional development; after all, good leaders need a lot of emotional intelligence.
Banking On It does not focus on the issue of age, but Anne Boden's achievements in creating Starling Bank are all the more impressive because she breaks the stereotype. It’s essential reading for Start-Up founders not only because of its great advice, tips and suggestions but because at the very least it will challenge your unconscious bias about who really succeeds in tech.
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