An email landed early in 2015 from my superior at the daily newswire where I worked. It read: ‘It looks like your agenda is unravelling’ and linked to a news article. I was putting together a FinTech event and had booked both veteran banker, Anne Boden, and FinTech entrepreneur, Tom Blomfield, as speakers. Their topic? The new digital, challenger bank they had both been building and developing. However, that week the partnership unravelled, and Anne and Tom parted ways.
What I did next was call up both parties. Both spoke to me with very similar statements, along the lines of: ‘We have decided to part ways. I’m not discussing the details. I wish [Anne/Tom] the best of luck in the future… And yes, I will still speak at your event.’ We ended up with Anne speaking on Day 1 and Tom speaking on Day 2 – if I remember.
I am sure you can guess why I am re-telling this rather mundane story about the founders of Monzo and Starling over five years later. This weekend our little – at times – insular world of FinTech ended up in the pages of a national newspaper, with the serialization of Anne Boden’s memoir Banking on it – How I disrupted an industry. It began with the clickbait-y headline, Starling Bank boss Anne Boden: how Monzo’s Tom Blomfield tried to oust me.
That there was no love lost between the two former business partners has been an open secret in the industry for the past few years. But that story was secondary to the launch, growth and development of two high profile UK challenger banks.
Tom handed me an early pink ‘Mondo’ card at a reception at Number 11 in 2016 (which I had to offer to my boss because it only worked with Apple OS at the time). Anne started again and began to build Starling. Monzo’s signature ‘hot coral’ cards were spotted on buses and coffee shops – far away from the FinTech bubble. Starling’s sleek teal card slid from wallets in City wine bars when splitting the final bill.
Starling branched into business banking and was in a position to take part in the UK Government’s business loan scheme to support SMEs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Monzo suffered a series of public relations missteps over the handling of customer accounts and the redundancy of its high-profile diversity and inclusion chief. Tom, himself, stepped aside as CEO this Spring, making room for the US head TS Anil to move into the role.
Over the past five years Monzo and Starling have been a big part of what made FinTech cool and the UK the centre of everything in this space. They are now established members of the financial services ecosystem.
Then Anne decided to tell her story. And many of you asked on the Twittersphere: Why? And Why now?
First, let me say that I have no personal knowledge of either Anne’s or Tom’s inner monologue. I am not, nor have I ever been called on as an intimate confident for either party. Both have been kind and professional with me in all our dealings within the FinTech universe. But I think I know why Anne has chosen to tell her story now.
Because it’s hers.
At the end of the day, your story is your story – and you have a right to own it. There are those who will argue it is *your* side of the story, but that doesn’t make it any less valid or true. As I read from the excerpt in The Sunday Times many questions came to mind..
- Why did Tom Blomfield think a single roast chicken would feed 10 people?
- Was it because, in some stereotypical way, a young single man just didn’t realise how much food a dinner party for 10 needed?
- Did he realise his mistake, and was it through either insecurity or arrogance that he would not admit to it?
- Was he just a light eater?
- Why didn’t Anne pull him aside and say ‘Honey, this was a great idea, but I’m going to order up a whole bunch of Chinese takeout’? Or did she choose not to because that act would have humiliated him?
Tom’s telling of that ill-fated dinner party may be radically different. But that is the point. Two people can experience the same environment in very different ways. They only way to make sense of it all – at the end of the day – is to tell your side of it.
And women – so very often – get gaslighted out of telling their own story.
I have often said that I have lived a life of privilege. There have been very few barriers in my life as a white, university-educated, able bodied, heterosexual, middle-class woman who grew up in a first world country in a stable household (did I check every box? 😉). The first time I experienced a real barrier – the ‘did that really just happen?’ type of barrier – was when I started moving to positions of authority. That one box of privilege you need to ‘uncheck’ when spearheading a project, running a department, or starting a company is ‘woman’.
Don’t start a debate with me now – because I am not here for that anymore.
Women are not automatically welcomed into positions of authority the way men are. Their leadership, their decisions, their approval lack status. Which is why you will find yourself dumbstruck at a female member of your team – one who would swear up and down the aisle that they are feminist and pro-women – who ignore guidance and direction from you but offer a sigh of relief when the exact same guidance and advice (often using the same, exact words) is offered from a male higher up.
We, as a society, are conditioned to seek comfort and approval from male authority figures – no matter what your politics or how progressive you think you are. When up against it – leadership from a man feels safe and definite. That same leadership from a woman is questioned. Every woman in a position of any type of power has experienced this.
If you don’t believe me – ask them. (I have too many DMs and WhatsApp messages stored on my phone from women who tell me ‘thank you for writing what you did’, ‘I thought I was going mad’, ‘I thought it was only me’ to tell me my own experiences are not exclusive.)
If you’re ever interested in discovering, and magnifying, each and every one of your personal and professional flaws, get yourself named in charge of something. If you are a woman, there will be people on your team collecting, exploiting and storing every weakness you have, every mistake you make, every judgement you hand down that might not be 100% unimpeachable. All those flaws – which we all have in various forms – will be used to justify why you are not fit for the position you have. (Then spend a week in Singapore and leave ample room for the stage to be set and the nails in your coffin to be hammered home.)
I don’t care if Anne Boden’s memoir is ‘her side of the story’ (whose side of the story should she be telling, exactly?) or how much of it is true or not true to make it ‘non-fiction’. The excerpt I read felt true. It felt true to me. And I have a feeling that the book – once it is out on Bonfire Night – will feel true to many women.
Founder stories are only useful if you hear about the difficult stuff as well as the successes. No-one wants to read a book about, ‘How I conquered the world, while remaining a size 8, raising three children and running four marathons’. 😐 We need to hear about the roast chicken for 10, the confessions of relationship issues in the back of a cab, the time you disappeared for a weekend because it was all getting a bit too much – and realising, too late, that was the paper cut that allowed forces around you to create an open wound.
We need to tell these stories and we need to listen to these stories. We, as women, need to own our own narratives. That is why (I think) Anne is doing this now.
*I played no part in the breakup of Anne Boden and Tom Blomfield’s partnership. I’m just a big Spike Milligan fan.