In 2012, she was drafted into Allied Irish Bank (AIB) as chief operating officer to help return the debt-stricken Irish bank to profitability. Her experience at the bank, which had been taken over by the Irish government, helped spur her into action.
“What I found in Ireland was pretty horrible. The banks had taken big bailouts, the people had been really bruised by a financial system that had gone wrong and everyone was desperately trying to put it back together again,” she says. “We returned the bank to profitability, but I knew very well that I had to go further.”
Her idea to launch a new digital bank that would be an alternative to the big established players was initially met with scepticism from her peers. Now, Starling, which has no physical branches and offers an app-only current account, has more than 100,000 customers and was recently voted Best British Bank at customer review site Smart Money People’s British Bank Awards. In March this year, Starling launched mobile-only current accounts for businesses.
“Most people thought [launching a new bank] couldn’t be done, but I had to do it. I experienced the crisis, the legacy systems and bureaucracy of the big banks. I’d experienced people trying to replace the existing system and it taking too long and costing too much. I wanted to start from scratch.”
Challenger banks such as Starling are giving customers some much-needed choice, in her view. “If you look at the big banks, the only difference between them is the colour of the carpet in the branches,” she says.
Boden, who studied computer sciences at university, started her career at Lloyds Bank on a graduate programme, working in the tech department as well as on the counter. At the time, the gender divide was stark. “The branch was very much divided into people who made decisions and managed things – the men – and the people who looked after the detail were women.”
It was unusual for a woman to rise through the ranks, but Boden succeeded and went on to become one of the creators of Chaps, the same-day payments system. Following executive positions at Standard Chartered Bank and UBS, she headed up global transaction banking across 34 countries for ABN Amro and RBS.
Despite the work done to get more women on boards by organisations such as the 30% Club, Boden believes gender diversity hasn’t really improved in the 35 years she’s been in finance and technology. She puts this down to the system being harder on women.
“Women have to achieve more, work harder, and be much more perfect to get the job compared with a man. As long as we have the majority of promotions and appointments being made by men, it’s going to be harder for women to get through,” she says. Boden, who does not have children, also points to the pressure professional women with kids are put under. “It’s not the children holding them back, it’s the perception of other people and the standards they’re held to,” she says.
Starling was the first UK mobile-only current account when it launched. While challenger banks are more common now, only a few provide current accounts, including Metro and online bank Monzo. Starling received £48m in investment in 2016 and aims to raise another £40m this year to fund a launch into Europe, starting with the Irish Republic. It’s a move Boden is bullish about, even with the uncertainties presented by Brexit. “We’re very ambitious,” she says. She has also forecast that the bank will reach profitability by 2019.
Starling has 180 employees, all based at the bank’s London office, and Boden says she takes pride in creating a diverse and creative working environment. The ratio of men to women on the senior team is currently 60:40. “I’d love it to be 50:50, but we’re not there yet.”
Diversity in banking is crucial to avoid another financial crisis, in her view. “The financial crisis was caused by people thinking the same. It was people not really being challenged,” she says. “I think that diversity of thought and diversity of people, who reflect the overall population of the customers they serve, can only do good things for business.”