By @SimonCocking. Really interesting indepth interview with Natasha Kyprianides Head, Digital Banking @HellenicBank | Shapes the future of payments |

Your background briefly?

I was born and raised in Cyprus, and am the first child of three siblings. I grew up bilingual as my education was in English since the age of three. In fact, I attended an American school, and I’ve mingled with a variety of international cultures all my life. This has been instrumental in shaping my personality and helped me pin my commitments towards a larger vision of the global community. From early on, I was trained to be a citizen of the world with an international perspective.

My childhood can only be described as… perfect: full of sunshine, playing outside in nature with siblings, friends and pets, feeling carefree and overall everyday happiness. I had expressed my great interest in music, and was drawn to the creative arts from a very young age. In fact, I’m actually a trained classical pianist who transitioned to other genres such as jazz, rock, and pop. I also experimented with learning alto saxophone and electric guitar. This gradually evolved into exploring the dimension of song-writing, musical arrangements/productions and later on, during my University years in the UK, I propelled other things into the mix like coding, designing user interfaces, hardware-software interaction, sound engineering and so on.

As time progressed, I kept embracing a larger spectrum of art, design, technology and expression. I was intrigued by it all, and spent time exploring areas ranging from visual arts, graphic design to media arts, radio presenting, sound, lighting and audio-visual design, all the way through to writing storyboards and directing my own video clips!

My first experiences within the digital space were through hard-disk recording for audio and music production in the late ’90s. I even built a professional recording-studio facility that I had briefly turned into a commercial one, but it was short-lived because I didn’t feel at the time that this was what I was looking for in a career.

How did you end up doing what you do now?

I stumbled into banking 16 years ago, by accident. It was at a time when the stock market was booming in Cyprus, and I joined the banking sector as a broker. I then gradually started to unravel my resourcefulness in seeing things from a creative angle, and combined it with my passion for technology. I spent the early years of my career being more hands-on, by coding and building web interfaces of all sorts, as well as project managing in the digital space.

In 2008, I was given the opportunity to set up the Electronic Banking department (a “dated” term as these days it’s been renamed to Digital Banking) from scratch, and acted as country product owner for the Cyprus subsidiary of the biggest bank in Greece (Piraeus Bank Group). That’s how I entered the world of innovation in banking!

I was able to blend three components that I’m mostly passionate about: Creativity, Technology and Entrepreneurship. This is also how my obsession began – about putting the customer experience first. I then went on to build an impressive portfolio of cutting-edge digital banking products.

At some point, I felt things were reaching a dead-end, as in 2013 the financial crisis had hit Cyprus where the bail-in model was implemented for the first (and hopefully last) time globally, in order to recapitalize the biggest local bank. From that point onwards, business was no longer as usual.

I was starting to become rather restless, lacking motivation and enthusiasm. Before the end of 2014, I had taken massive action and embarked on a journey to “escape” from Cyprus and realize my vision of building digital products to shape the future of payments, and thereby bring about social change. I thought that this would be more achievable if I had a senior position at a Tier 1 bank in the UK, mainly due to the greater visibility and huge customer base.

I was actually offered the job that I had wished for; and then rejected it.

An unexpected family setback put me in the unfortunate position of being unable to relocate to London at that specific point in time. The new employers were actually so amazing that they gave me a number of creative options to encourage me to take the job.

That was when another job opportunity presented itself to me in Cyprus, and I decided to “settle” for it. Or at least, I thought that I was doing so, at that time. Although I had no idea what I was actually getting myself into, there were a couple of fundamentals that triggered my interest and inspired me to use my intuition to consider everything before making my final decision:

• A bank with a new forward-looking Board.
• A digital transformation that could potentially be the challenge I was seeking.
• A bank with digital as part of its strategy to achieve growth.
• A smaller bank, which means individual decisions have an effect, and all contributions really matter.

A year later, specifically 2016, Cyprus returned to growth and is considered to be a success story where the difficult reforms that were instigated are starting to pay off. The agenda has become all about moving from austerity to prosperity.

I chose to work at Hellenic Bank at a turning point in my career.

I joined the bank with an exceptional vision and passion for making an impact through fintech innovation – and was actually given a creative stage to set, and implement, the digital strategy.

Your current role sounds exciting and interesting. What projects are you working on?

Excitement is an understatement in this role!

Upon joining the bank, I had put together a mandate document towards the digital transformation roadmap. I created the bank’s digital vision that would then become instrumental for the subsequent digital strategy. This vision aimed to take the legacy bank in an omnichannel direction through a mobile-first approach.

Customer engagement is the Holy Grail to growth, and as we are living in a smartphone society, a winning app is key.

We have successfully managed to build and launch a groundbreaking mobile banking app in just six months on a frugal budget. My greatest focus is on the seamless user experience and the aesthetics of the interface.

For this reason, the current project that we’re working on is a clean up of the web-banking UX/UI (user experience/user interface). Another race against time!

Further to this, we are revamping the bank’s company website to make it customer-centric, needs-based, with emphasis on seamless customer journeys, as well as simplicity, beautiful photography and aesthetics to make it engaging.

I consider the design element as a business priority.

The focus on the user experience extends to how other upcoming innovative payments-related features in the pipeline will be delivered, but I’m not in a hurry to tell the competition too much about these just yet 🙂

The key to adoption and engagement is in the “first user experience”.

Going from obscurity to download is a problem that can potentially be solved with a big marketing budget. However, going from download to repeat and active usage, can be solved only by catering to the right design considerations.

In the wider banking / innovation / fintech world, what are you excited about?

At last, the banking industry is starting to embrace and acknowledge the revolutionary change that fintech can bring about, not only to financial services but also to people’s lifestyles.
The prospective breadth of the impact by financial innovation is the most exciting part, and I strongly believe that the next wave of consumer financial services will deliver more compelling experiences through efficiency, fairness and value for people.

I’m extremely delighted to be working in this sector and to be using fintech innovation as a tool to leave my mark.

One specific disruptive technology that I am watching closely is blockchain. Through this, there is enormous potential to redefine banking and enable new business models. Having said that, it’s still quite new and needs to mature so that its success lies within the uptake.
Blockchain has the supremacy to transform the way business transactions are conducted around the world.

Can traditional banks successfully innovate to deal with the rise of fintech banking disrupters?

Absolutely!

As Guy Kawasaki said, “The biggest challenges beget the biggest accomplishments”.

I am experiencing this first-hand in my efforts to foster innovation at a legacy bank. Innovation is all about solving problems and tackling challenges.

Legacy banks have several constraints in terms of infrastructure and culture. It is therefore important to inspire staff to want change.

It all starts with the vision and being driven by passion to make it happen. That’s the most important tool.

A vital method that we are using to inspire teams is by painting the big picture of our vision, so that what we are trying to achieve becomes clear. This motivates the teams to want to be part of this mission. It is also important to keep repeating the vision every now and then because teams tend to get caught up in their daily tasks and routines, and can easily lose sight of the big picture.

Organising away-days for strategy meetings and co-creation are key methods to invigorating strong enthusiasm.

Senior management should delegate almost all authority to the core digital team members. Each decision should be made at the level where people have the most knowledge, thus eliminating the need for long “approval trails.”

We are also trying to create an addictive culture via the use of the whiteboard across the bank. It’s the most effective way to brainstorm, exchange ideas and take collective decisions.

Business partnerships with fintech start-ups can help accelerate innovation at a traditional bank. Such an ecosystem succeeds because energy is directed towards understanding how each partner can help the other achieve their goals.

Most importantly, without risk there can be no innovation. Acceptance of failure until you get it right is important within the organization. It’s part of the success of innovation and the necessary culture has to be created to allow that.

No risk, no innovation. No guts, no glory.

If you could make everyone in Banking do what you told them, what would you command them to do?

I wish I did have such a super-power!

I would promote a collaborative environment: urge everyone to redirect the competitive spirit towards external targets, encourage open communication and ensure the breakdown of organizational silos.
Rewarding the right people is key to supporting commitment and hard work, rather than just playing the game.

I would like everyone to act more like a community joining forces and cooperating for a common cause. This is what I like about the fintech industry, people’s general willingness to help each other.

Wouldn’t it be great if banks would undergo a cultural shift in the way they think about what it means to do business?

FemTech, how would you explain what it means, and what needs to happen?

It’s safe to say that the technology industry has been predominantly comprised of men for the past few decades.

FemTech is a movement to get more women involved in roles related to technology.

Diversity is critical to innovation.

Women make most household decisions on spending; therefore their involvement in financial technology provides key insights when innovating for products in the sector of financial services. So it’s clear that a large percentage of fintech users are female.

Moreover, research now proves that gender-diverse teams and leadership make better products, companies, organisations, families, communities and countries.

It’s therefore economically valuable to have gender-inclusive and balanced teams, but unconscious bias is operating everywhere to block progress.

All of us have inherited from history great gifts, innovations, wonderful culture, and sadly, extraordinary biases — both conscious and unconscious. Today, the vast majority of gender bias is unconscious. It requires immense personal strength and maturity for women to learn the skills they need to succeed as entrepreneurs, and to fight bias as they form their own companies.

We need to change the mind-set of families and communities. Therefore, it cannot be just women that speak up for gender equality. It should start from schools and advising girls on potential careers from early on. Girls with dreams become women with vision.

It’s also essential to connect with other similar-minded people and seek smart partnering.

Most importantly, women need to be mentored ideally by people they consider role models. In our connected world, this is becoming increasingly easier and more feasible.

I live by the motto: help others pave their own paths so that they can impact the world in their own positive ways.

Which thought leaders do you like to read / follow?

Quite a few actually!

I’m a big fan of David Brear, Sam Maule (the man who runs FemTech Leaders), Chris Skinner, Jim Marous, Brett King, Matteo Rizzi, Jason Bates, Spiros Margaris, Chris Gledhill, Roberto Ferrari, Leda Glyptis, Ghela Boskovich (the woman behind the FemTech meet-ups), Duena Blomstrom, Claire Calmejane, Andrea Sonea and several other FemTech Leaders (too many great names to list here).

I consider them all true global experts and great sources for insights on the really big things happening in the fintech world.

How do you manage online / offline, work / life challenges?

Not very well I must admit. I do believe in work-life integration in the domain I’m in, as I consider myself lucky to have found my passion. At the end of the day, you don’t call something “work” when you love what you do.

For me, it’s important not to get into a painful grind: work, eat, sleep – repeat. So I like to harness the powers and passions of the various parts of my life and bring them together. I act with creativity even in this domain, by experimenting with how things can get done in ways that are good for me personally, as well as the people around me.

I don’t always get it right and I seem to be predisposed to making personal sacrifices in order to focus on completing a work goal successfully. So, let’s just say that this is still work-in-progress 🙂

At the end of the day, your own way is the only way that will work for you.

Having said this, it’s probably one of the reasons why I chose to be based in Cyprus. I get to combine my obsession for fintech at a setting that offers great weather, beaches, water sports, scenic road trips, good food, family, friends and community involvement. When I need to have face-to-face interactions with peers or attend summits, conferences, exhibitions and think tanks, then I travel. So I’ve turned it into a lifestyle.

I believe Stewart Friedman said it best:

“It’s a life in which disparate pieces fall into place, not every single day—that’s the impossible myth of ‘work-life balance’—but over the course of a lifetime.”

Anything else you’d like to add / we should have asked you?

There is one question that defines my motivation.

“What makes you leap out of bed in the morning?”

My answer is:
The prospect of preparing for the future by seeing daily opportunities in the larger picture, keeps me on my toes. What a way to start a day… every day!


If you would like to have your company featured in the Irish Tech News Business Showcase, get in contact with us at [email protected] or on Twitter: @SimonCocking

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