8 Mar 2022
Alumna Helen Bierton on her inspiring rise to Chief Banking Officer at Starling Bank
Helen Bierton, who graduated from Loughborough University in 1997 with a BSc in Banking and Finance, is now Chief Banking Officer at Starling Bank and recently gave an inspiring masterclass to our students about how she had risen to the top.
As Chief Banking Officer at Starling, Helen is responsible for the commercial propositions within the bank including lending, SME and Retail Banking, Marketplace and Starling’s B2B Banking Services.
Top of her field
Since joining Starling Helen has led many key projects including the development of Starling Kite, a debit card for kids and the rapid launch of government backed loan schemes, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBLIS) and Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS).
- She was recognised as one of the top 50 customer experience professionals in the country in Marketing Week’s CX50 list twice (in 2019 & 2020)
- Was recognised by Women in Banking and Finance in 2017 as a shortlisted finalist in the Champion of Women category.
- In 2021 Helen was named Banker of the Year at the Women in Finance Awards.
- She was also included in Innovate Finance’s Women in Fintech Powerlist in 2019.
- Helen also represented Great Britain in Archery in the 2004 Olympic Games.
Banking is not just for bankers
Helen’s work at Starling is the first time she has not only worked on delivering financial services, but also on building a bank.
“We had to build trust” Helen says.
“With the growth of social media, one of the biggest ways we’ve been able to grow is to get customers to talk about us and socks is one example of where we’ve been able to build that networking effect.”
Her interest in banking started before she arrived at Loughborough, she spent her work experience in a bank “To marry my financial interest in numbers with my want to help people with a service. To do my banking degree at Loughborough was just incredible.” She reminisced.
“I was also very sporty which is why I chose Loughborough, and I was chosen to represent Team GB in the 2004 Athens Olympics. I then worked in NatWest, then to Alliance, and I experienced how to be a challenger bank rather than an established one.”
Helen spent seven years at Santander, during the height of the financial crisis, and from there she made the move to FinTech.
Speaking on the CEO of Starling Bank, Helen mentions that it “is so great to see women at the top of the financial services industry.”
Reflecting on the challenges that Starling Bank will face over the coming years, Helen believes that with new technologies competition will only grow “I was excited when the big banks started copying our initiatives because this means that all customers are getting a better experience, but I think the gap is going to widen and not reduce.
“The technology platforms that banks such as Starling sits on are so agile that we can move a lot more quickly. It will get harder and harder for bigger banks with their legacy systems to adapt. So, whilst I think competition will grow, I think we will see a greater divide between the challenger banks and the legacy banks.”
What glass ceiling?
The world of banking is male-dominated, and Helen has risen to the top of the sector. She mentions that she never saw any challenges in her early career, “there wasn’t ever a moment where I thought that being a women would prevent me from achieving.
“I wasn’t even aware of the concept of a glass ceiling. I started my career with 100% the belief in my own abilities and what I could bring to make a difference to the industry.”
Despite her positive attitude, she was not always seen as an equal, “For a few years it was all going swimmingly, and then I started to notice two or three things.
“I was being picked up for not having the right approach to meetings or that I don’t have enough confidence. I have never met a woman who doesn’t have enough confidence – I have only come across women who are in situations that don’t allow them to be confident, or the situation itself makes it difficult.
“To get that feedback I started to be aware that there were limitations on my ability to succeed that I wasn’t expecting. Even at the time I thought it was something that I needed to develop.”
Helen spoke about the atmosphere she wants to create at Starling and throughout Banking.
“The one thing I had from my sport is that I never questioned myself, and I never wanted any woman to not feel confident, and that’s what I set out to achieve.
“I will say this, my career stalled when I went on maternity leave. I only took 7 months because I love my job, but somebody was promoted to a role that in theory I was set up for, and so going on maternity leave certainly stalled my career.
“But what I realise now, a genuine diverse culture lets any person be accepted and if you can bring that diversity of thought, then the world is your oyster – and that is what a true inclusivity is about.
“What I’m trying to do now is create a culture where everyone is comfortable being themselves and I’m fortunate to be in an organisation that believes this too, but we’re still working on it ourselves. There is always more that can be done.”
Having been an Olympian in 2004, Helen speaks about the lessons she learnt and how they have been brought with her throughout her career, saying “the journey [to the Olympics] isn’t smooth, and things go wrong, accepting and learning from them, as well as the resilience you have when that happens, is something that has stood me in good stead.
“One of the things that I love about how Starling works, which is so different from other banks that I’ve worked in is that we’re encouraged to try new things and to make mistakes, by doing these you learn.
“The second is the ability to perform on a stage. Staying calm and having the right approach to my performance. There have been many times when I’m performing, when in meetings, regulators, or presentations.
“Both of those skills I learnt in my elite sport.”
Helen visited the School of Business and Economics as part of our Alumni Masterclass series, in which we welcome our alumni back to talk about their experiences as well as to share some wisdom about the sector they work in.
Our academics also dedicate their non-teaching time to researching and innovating in Accounting and Finance, and do so as part of the Accounting and Finance Academic Group, which focuses on Corporate Finance, the Financial Markets, Management Accounting, and Corporate Governance & Sustainability.