A Boardroom Education

Last month, my four year tenure as a board member for Women’s World Banking came to an end. For those not familiar with the name, Women’s World Banking is a not-for-profit organisation that designs and invests in financial solutions, institutions, and policy environments in emerging markets to create greater economic stability and prosperity for women, their families and their communities.

Looking back at my time on the board, the people I met, being exposed to different ways of thinking and doing things in the sector I’ve occupied for my entire career, I’ve been reflecting on what I got from the experience.

It wasn’t a Hollywood-style board room filled with stereotypical fusty, grey-suited men with the token woman thrown in for good measure, battling it out for dominance and supremacy, with hushed passive aggressive whispers and jostling for power plays. It was an amazing group of women and men, from around the world, whose common purpose was to source new ways of bringing low income women, in every corner of the globe, into the financial system. The Board was made up of some incredible people that have worked in global organisations, ranging from academia to banking, finance, law, consultancy services and more; a genuinely diverse team.

Having access to financial services — financial inclusion — benefits everyone. That’s a given. But in reality, over 1 billion women are still outside the formal financial system today. Banking, at large, isn’t working for 1-in-7 people. Let’s consider why. The traditional banking system was primarily built by men; products, services, relationship management — even the very nature of lending, has been carved out by men, for men. WWB has worked tirelessly to try and reverse this process, initiating programs that lead on gender-diverse teams to effectively serve the women’s market, as well as using behavioral science and design to create local solutions that meet women’s needs and the businesses that serve them. They are changing the fundamentals of banking to ensure the system works for all, not simply for the XY chromosomes amongst us.

So how did me being on the board establish a new way of thinking? How did it go beyond the theory?

Other than the practical application of delivering a more diverse and equal team, across the board at Diamond Bank, fundamentally there were three key areas that I learned from my time with WWB.

Exposure — diverse thinking, people and different ways of doing things broaden everyone’s horizons and allow you to open your eyes to things that might not have been immediately obvious

Experience — understanding people’s different journeys, their challenges, what impact and returns mean to them

Education — we need to learn how to think differently and do things differently. This needs to be done through speaking to people and having empathetic skills whereby you, as a banker in a position of power, can put yourselves in other peoples’ shoes and educate yourself on how you need to modify / tailor banking for different groups.

Placing these three “E’s”, at the core of decision making at Diamond Bank, we invested time and money in changing the banking experience for women. This started with leadership, ensuring we had over 30% of key decision making roles taken by women. All the key roles in the bank [and for most organisations, really] such as HR, Comms, Business Development, Legal and Retail, were, again, filled by women. This meant that more decisions were made with women’s perspectives, and greater visibility of senior women in the organisation, allowed for more women to rise up the ranks as they had more role models that they could relate to and to follow.

We also focussed on the whole banking experience for women, reconfiguring our design thinking [by having more women in our product design team], through customer focussed groups [listening to what women have to same about banking for women] and through a more deliberate study of understanding the customer journey for women. Speaking to women focus groups, and outside of the four walls of the bank [in their homes, in their workplaces] also highlighted the need for building trust into financial solutions. Much of our intel came from dealing directly with women in marketplaces and bringing them on the financial inclusion journey by becoming early adopters. We found that their peers were more likely to trust them, rather than a bank teller, leveraging on existing levels of trust, which led to vastly improved female customer acquisition rates, longevity of customer retention and stickiness.

(Left) Michaela Walsh — Founding President of Women’s World Banking & Me

The top-down approach of driving financial inclusion for women, driving change from board level, thanks to participation and guidance from WWB, had incredible results on our ability to engage and support thousands more women at Diamond Bank. By documenting our activities and analysing our results — feeding our own learnings and experiences, my counterparts on the WWB board could learn from what worked [and what didn’t work] and apply that intel to their own banks and financial platforms.

And what we got out of it, we also ensured we put back in. Much like University, actually. At university, I learnt structure and discipline, in addition to my study focus. Being in a multi-social environment, mixing with those outside of your traditional immediate circle, gives you different perspectives and allows you to apply multiple learnings to many different scenarios. There, you are part of a bigger picture, yet you play your part. Whist reflecting on my time with WWB, I drew this parallel with my time at University — especially doing my Masters, where I got a lot of personal satisfaction as I learned to think differently and subsequently apply new learnings to my own life and early career. Twenty+ years later — the boardroom afforded me a new, different, more nuanced education.

And, much like University — you don’t want to leave, but in the end, you know it is time to move on. My four years with WWB were transformational in terms of my outlook in banking and finance, and what I learnt in those years has infiltrated my conscious decision making when it comes to the need for diversity in financial services. It’s a whole experience — different but also similar, and it is still guiding my decision making now, as I build Sparkle. More women working in customer-focussed areas such as quality control and product development will be central to how we build our company and build trust with thousands more women who want to join the financial system. In fact — the search is on for even more women to join the team and build our Sparkling presence.



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