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Women in banking: Smashing the glass ceiling

14th June 2019

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We continue our Smashing the Glass Ceiling series with a look at female pioneers in banking, including Catherine the Great, Maggie Walker and Starling’s CEO and founder Anne Boden.


Catherine the Great: Creating Russia’s first banknotes

In her 34 years as Empress of Russia, there isn’t much that Catherine the Great didn’t do: she reorganised Russian law, expanded its territory by 200,000 square miles, championed the arts and initiated the circulation of Russia’s first paper money.

Catherine, who became Empress in 1762, ordered the creation of The Assignation Bank in 1768. A year later, the bank started to issue Russia’s first paper banknotes, divided into 100, 75, 50, and 25 roubles.

A portrait of Catherine II on a 1910 Russian banknote.
Portrait of Empress Catherine II on a 1910 Russian banknote

Before 1769, payments were made in copper coins. Paper banknotes made larger payments much simpler.

Maggie Walker: The first female founder of an American bank

Maggie Lena Draper Walker was the first woman in the United States to start a bank. She opened the St Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903. By 1924, it served more than 50,000 people. Unlike many other banks, it survived the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and went on to absorb other local banks in Virginia. In 1930, it became known as the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. It continues to operate today.

A portrait of Maggie Walker
Maggie Lena Draper Walker, founder of the St Luke Penny Savings Bank

Maggie was born in 1867 in Richmond, Virginia, two years before the end of the Civil War. Her parents were former slave Elizabeth Draper Mitchell and Irish-born writer Eccles Cuthbert. Growing up, her mother worked as a laundress and her father as a butler, as well as working as a writer for the New York Herald.

Maggie’s life work centred on the Order of St Luke, a black community organisation that provided mutual-aid for its members. In 1895, she founded a branch to encourage young African-Americans to play an active role in the community. In 1899, she was elected one of the order’s leaders. She doubled membership enabling the order to repay its $400 debt, founded the organisation’s newspaper, The St. Luke Herald, and later the St Luke Penny Savings Bank.

In 1901, she said of creating a bank: “Let us put our money together [...] We have the means, the brains; we are simply waiting for the motion to be made, seconded, and carried, and our Order will take a new lease of life.”

Maggie was a talented entrepreneur and passionate activist. She fought for rights for women and African Americans through her newspaper and served on the board of the Virginia Industrial School for Girls, National Association of Coloured Women (NACW) and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

Anne Boden: The first female founder of a British bank

When Starling Bank gained its banking licence in 2016, Anne Boden became the first woman to start a British bank. Since then, she has led her team to launch the UK’s first mobile current accounts, raised £233 million in funding and opened two offices, employing more than 500 people.

Anne smiling into the camera.
Anne Boden, CEO and founder of Starling Bank

“The vast majority of people in this industry are men in their early thirties, with beards. People don’t expect a fintech entrepreneur to be me,” said Anne, 59, in an interview with The Times. “I think it’s harder when you stand out, but I’d much rather stand out by being the only woman who’s started a bank in the UK.”

Anne has always stood out. She was one of few women at Swansea University to study Computer Science and Chemistry. When she was offered a place on the graduate scheme at Lloyds, she defied what was expected of her as young woman in 1981. “It was unusual for a girl from south Wales to get that sort of job,” she told The Times. Born near Swansea in 1960, her mother worked in a department store and her father as a steelworker.

At Lloyds, she was told she was “too ambitious”, something that drove her on rather than held her back. At 26, she headed up the engineering team for Standard Chartered’s UK business. She moved on to Price Waterhouse UBS and Aon Corporation before becoming Head of EMEA, Global Transaction Banking across 34 countries for RBS and ABN AMRO. In 2013, she was appointed Chief Operating Officer at Allied Irish Bank.

Over the years, conversations with customers taught her that people were not getting the support they deserved from banks. Anne knew that changing an existing bank would not be enough. She had to start her own. She founded Starling in 2014 and led the team to launch in app stores in May 2017. Today, Starling has 650,000 customers.

This month, Anne’s first book was published. The Money Revolution is a practical and simple guide to taking control of your money. Anne’s goal with The Money Revolution, is to share the best that digital can offer, that can help everything to do with our money be much simpler and much fairer. The book is currently topping the charts in several categories at Amazon.

To read about groundbreaking women in football, have a look at our previous post in this series Smashing the Glass Ceiling. Next time, we’ll be looking at women in technology.

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