It was a dead frog that scuppered Anju Patwardhan’s career as a doctor. Medicine’s loss is banking’s gain.
“I grew up in a professional, middle-class family in India,” she says. “In those days, if you were good at academics you became a doctor or an engineer. The first time we had to dissect a frog I fainted. I figured that medicine was not for me.”
Patwardhan, who is now Standard Chartered’s first-ever Group Chief Innovation Officer and one of the bank’s highest-ranking female employees, was recently ranked as one of 400 global Power Women in Fintech by Innotribe [PDF], the innovation arm of SWIFT. While applauding the accomplishments of these women the report notes that there is still a serious lack of gender diversity in financial services. That is nothing new for Patwardhan.
With the frog ruling out medicine, the only suitable career left for the young Patwardhan, graduating 23rd in all India in her final year of high school, appeared to be engineering.
The Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, is one of the country’s leading universities. In the face of fierce competition she won a place, only to discover that she was one of seven women in a class of 250. Not only that, but as a woman, her career options appeared to be severely curtailed.
No Women On The Shop Floor
“I did my internship in an oil refinery,” she says. “There were no women on the shop floor. That gave me a flavor of what it would be like to be a female engineer in India. Pretty much if you were a female engineer you ended up doing R&D.”
A lifetime in research had little appeal. She opted for an MBA at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, a school proud to proclaim it has “the most competitive test used for admissions to B-schools anywhere in the world.” Its sister school in Ahmedabad accepted just 0.25% of applicants. Even there, the gender imbalance was still marked. “I was one of 12 women in the class of 120.”
Patwardhan was snapped up by Citibank and was exposed early on to the Internet. In 2000 banks were taking their first steps with online banking. “We had nothing in Asia in digital banking when I took the job,” she says. But Citi had been an early adopter in the U.S. and Patwardhan was able to use the experience and lessons from America.
Even then, she says, banks were not blind to the opportunity, nor to the threat. “All banks realize that technology is a key enabler for digitization and innovation.”
The Oncoming Storm
Jumping ship to Standard at the end of 2007 to become the bank’s global head of risk appetite may look like a risky roll of the career dice. The first rumblings of what was to be the worst financial crisis since the Wall Street Crash were being heard — and as was to be discovered, a large proportion of the blame was put on banks’ attitude to risk. So was it a great time to take a job in risk?
“What you have to remember is that Asia didn’t have the same experience as the West,” she says. “The difference between the Western world and Asia was that the clients in Asia were not as leveraged as the ones in the U.S. Most countries in Asia did not allow things like mortgage-backed securitization.”
Patwardhan credits regulators in Singapore, not only for helping to mitigate the worst of the financial crisis.
“Most of the regulators in Asia, after the Asian financial crisis, had all introduced some forms of macro-prudential regulation and credit bureaus that made sure that consumers did not get over-leveraged. That helped ensure debt was at an acceptable level.”
Patwardhan progressed through the upper ranks of the bank to her current role today, one that was carved out specially for her earlier this year. She is charged with navigating the bank through the fintech storm threatening traditional banking.
Born in New Delhi, India.
Completed high school at the N C Jindal Public School.
Graduated with a Bachelor of Technology (B Tech) at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.
Earned her post-graduate degree in management (MBA) in Finance and Marketing from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Joined Citigroup as a Management Associate and commenced her career in India moving through roles including credit operations and policy, collections, internal audit and re-engineering for consumer portfolios in India.
Moved to Singapore to take up her appointment in the internal audit and risk review team for Asia-Pacific at Citibank.
Became the first Asia-Pacific Digital Banking Director at Citigroup, Singapore. Managed Internet and mobile banking programs across Asia-Pacific.
Moved to a new role as Asia-Pacific Credit Risk Head for Consumer Finance at Citigroup.
Named as a Distinguished Fellow by the Institute of Banking and Finance (IBF) Singapore. Appointed as Non-Executive Director on the Board of Standard Chartered Bank, Thailand.
Approached by Standard Chartered to join the bank’s risk function, where she held several senior leadership roles.
Appointed as Group Head of Risk Innovation and becomes a member of the bank’s global risk function management team. This role focused on the identification and implementation of emerging technologies and use of big data for risk management.
Announced as Standard Chartered’s first Group Chief Innovation Officer. Appointed as a Fellow of Singapore Management University’s Sim Kee Boon Institute for Financial Economics while being named as a Power Woman in Fintech by Innotribe.
But at a time of great threat, Patwardhan is critical of how some banks have responded. “Most banks — facing increasing pressures on returns, while challenged by regulators to simplify their business models, and hampered by legacy systems — are relative bystanders in this arena,” she wrote in a recent article. What is she doing differently?
“Being innovative does not mean being aggressive or crazy,” she says. “I think of innovation as doing something that is different and has a big impact.” But Patwardhan shies away from innovation for the sake of it, suggesting that while it may be eye-catching, it isn’t what customers necessarily want.
“Disruptive innovation, in most organizations, forms less than 10% of what they do. If it works then it can have great rewards, but 90% of the innovation work happens essentially in providing a better customer experience, solving business problems, risk mitigation, higher productivity — those are the areas that we are currently focused on.”
She cites examples such as a centralized KYC [Know Your Customer] registry for retail clients in Singapore. “Today what happens is if you have curent or savings accounts with five different banks, you have to keep submitting the same information to five banks.” Now they will only have to do it once. It’s not going to change the world, she admits, but it makes life easier for customers.
As for the threat from fintech start-ups, Patwardhan says that while that may be an issue in some countries, in Asia few have the clout to take on the big banks.
“I think the markets like the U.S., China, and maybe a couple of other countries offer scale for them [start-ups] to compete with the banks, but in most of the emerging markets there is a greater understanding and recognition that they lack scale, they are fragmented, they have varying quality of infrastructures in terms of having credit bureaus or not.
“What I am seeing is more of a symbiotic relationship between banks and technology companies. Each benefits the other and together they benefit the consumer. I do not think it is going to be a winner takes all where either banking wins, or technology wins.”
She is certainly aware of the risks, not just to the high-value services that banks offer, but even to fundamental operations like loans. “There are pieces of banking that are being picked up by technology companies such as peer-to-peer lending. That is certainly happening, [but] we are not seeing much of that in the emerging markets yet.”
Looking to the future, she is optimistic. “We are seeing very progressive mindsets from many of our regulators in different countries,” she says.“If you look at the regulators in the UK, the government published a paper a few months ago which was about how to make the UK into the global fintech hub by 2025.”
And in Singapore, 225 million Singaporean dollars is available from the regulator to financial institutions to set up innovation labs.
“Who would have thought a few years ago that a regulator would announce a funding scheme for banks to do innovation? There is a tremendous shift in the space. This is very positive.”