We had the pleasure of chatting with Claire Calmejane, Chief Innovation Officer at Société Générale (SocGen), one of Europe's leading financial service groups. Throughout her career, Claire has also been a fantastic advocate for women in technology, as well as providing support to the start-up community in the UK and France.

Read the full podcast transcript below and listen to the podcast here.

Topics explored include:

  • Women in AI - The Future Role Models
  • Digital Transformation
  • Innovation in FinTech
  • COVID-19 Impact
  • The Importance of Having a Diverse Workforce
  • Advice for People Starting Their Tech Career

Nikita RE•WORK [0:54]

Hi Claire, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself for those who don't know and also a bit about your background prior to becoming Chief Innovation Officer at Societe Generale.

Claire [1:06]

Hello Nikita, I am delighted to be here for the women in AI in the podcast. So my background, I'm an engineer. So I graduated in 2005 and then I went on to do a business degree and started in consulting and working for large organisations, transforming the customer experience at the time that digital transformation didn't exist. I went on to research this very topic at MIT as a teaching scientist, and then this moved me from Boston to London. As I was passionate about AI financial services in tech I thought you know, there could only be one place in the world to be and this would be London. And so I had a fantastic seven years working there, in one of the largest retail and commercial banks, which is called a Lloyds Banking Group, which has about 30 million customers across the UK.

Claire [2:06]

And about 20 months ago I had a phone call to enter what we call a super big organisation to lead the digital innovation strategy for SocGen and I've been delighted to do that. I am a mum of two kids, which are one and three, you know I have a full day as you all have on the podcast. I think I'm in the field of we can have it all and I just love it.

Nikita RE•WORK [2:38]

And so what is it like to lead innovation in your current role, and what does your job require of you to do that?

Claire [2:47]

That's a fantastic question because innovation is about everything. I think sometimes it's a very broad word and you can put pretty much everything under it. I think the first thing when you embrace this type of job is you need to define, what does it mean for your organization? What do they want to be? Because you can lead innovation in a follower, you can lead innovation in a pioneer, you can have a lot of R&D in some more industrial context, you know in banking and SocGen, we have a very strong innovation DNA, it's one of the core value for the group.

Claire [3:33]

And it's a real determination to be a pioneer in our industry, which we have always been, and the crazy thing about this position is that 20 months ago at the office, the CEO called and quickly we had two main missions. The first one was to accelerate the business transformation towards client centricity and digital transformation. And the second one was to create new businesses. So I'm in charge of all the AI responsibilities, the platform business model and how we compete with our competitors.

Claire [4:08]

The open innovation team. So how do we become more open in our mindset and the new ways of working? But also our 150 million venture funds from which is called SG ventures, and in the venture fund, as well as everything, we do two things. Of course, we do a minority investment in start-ups, and some of you could be, you know, some which as we typically invest in a lot of AI startups. But also, we create ventures, we are our own entrepreneurs.

Claire [4:44]

So within Societe Generale, we launched one of the biggest entrepreneurship programmes where some of the CEO's, we capitalised about eight of them, and some of them, you may have seen last week. We've done the first one-word convection to convert a bond into cash with Banque de France and that could transform in 10 years completely the industry of financing and doing things much more efficiently in the blockchain.

Nikita RE•WORK [5:29]

So that kind of jumps to a follow-up question I wanted to ask specifically looking at entrepreneurship and start-ups, what is it like working in the start-up nation of France?

Claire [5:46]

That's a very good question. And I was mentioning that I have lived in England for seven years in the UK and I loved it and I think it's a very vibrant ecosystem and one of the reasons I decided to come back about 20 months ago was because the French ecosystem looks like what London was 7 years ago. Which means the very beginning of a very vibrant ecosystem, where it's just sufficiently small so you can all fit into a room, even if now it has started to be very difficult because we had about five unique rooms that were done just in the last 10 months in France. But more importantly like in France, we really have a deep scientist pool. We have a reputation in the Mathematics fields. They're very natural in the pool of AI, deep tech, quantum computing and disruptive innovation

Claire [6:45]

are present and it's controlled directly by the Finance minister and the Digital minister. And we even have laws that are protecting foreign investment in this type of startup from abroad. We also have put in place a visa, which enables any foreigner to come and work in France if they are working in this field of AI and Deep Tech. And it's come directly from public bank BbiFrance, which is really supporting this sector, their ambition and we can say you know China has a very forward leading AI strategy. But I think in Europe, you will find that France is very well advanced in this form, though as I always say, it's not a competition between France, UK and Italy or Spain because the reality is we have to support the emergence of European leaders, to protect our future.

Nikita [7:48]

And I think that kind of touches on the question I want to ask next, about specifically about bringing communities and people together, which is happening more so than ever now I think. What impact has the current pandemic had on your role? And has there been any?

Claire [8:09]

Yes, interestingly COVID has been everywhere, you know, we've achieved two years of our digital transformation and innovation in two months. I would love to say that the Chief Innovation Officer has led the transformation, but I think COVID has done much more for this agenda than ever. What's been super interesting in this crisis is we've made some reactive decisions to support customers, you know, retail banks in France, Russia, Czech Republic, Romania, Africa, to access all their services and to enable all the local team to support their economy especially for a SMEs to be put in place and that could only be done mostly digitally. I mean, of course, telephoning and sometimes face to face meeting where possible, but most of it, to be honest, was digital

Claire [9:09]

and it was very reactive. But at the same time, we are making some proactive decisions in terms of ways of working and sustainable ways of working, to make sure whether to take decisions closer to the client, closer to the team that is in charge. We will stay for a long time in a video conference. I mean like in less than two weeks we moved about 50,000 people working from home, it was a very difficult situation.

Claire [9:41]

And at the same time, we made some you know, forward-looking and prospective decisions, especially in the field of CBDC, central bank digital currency was entering a use case with Banque de France. You know, what we can see that it's now it's in training. This type of directives that will profoundly impact the way we work as banks in the finance business, but also potentially, you know, there's a question around the retail business and how after coins we now have e-currency and digital currency controlled by central banks and that's going to be the beginning of a very interesting story.

Nikita RE•WORK [10:28]

And that links to what I wanted to touch on, the wider workforce and also a bit about your team and how, this is a question that's very familiar with a lot of our listeners, but how important do you think it is to have a diverse workforce now and why?

Claire [10:49]

I mean when you lead an innovation team you quickly understand, at the heart of innovation, there is diversity. And if you try to recruit a team where you have the same people under you, it could be, you know, there is no way you will generate innovation. You have to find a very diverse profile and enable an environment where everyone is empowered. It's very result based.


and that's a long journey. I think anyone that has tried to do that, it's a long journey. Diversity is definitely an enabler of these new ways of working because it will bring different perspectives and it will bring a freshness and energy to the team to do things differently. And I think as humans we are not very keen to change we're very resistant to change and I think when you are French you are double resistant to change.

Claire [12:00]

But you know, diversity brings you that. I think when you look at some of the studies from McKinsey which are really well done, you can see that diversity is a driver of performance and basically the more diverse board, more diverse innovative team, it brings a better financial performance by a boost in per cent and yeah, I am not just talking about gender diversity. I am talking about backgrounds, where do you come from etc. And I think at the heart of it I should say, I think if you are a woman, it is the century for women so we should go for it and we should grab it and have everything and my choice was to have it all. In France, very specifically, there will be a law for board equality.

Claire [13:00]

So in boards, you have to be 50/50. But now there will be a law for the Executive Committee. So there is going to be a vote, maybe with a delay because of COVID but that's part of the strategic agenda of the President.

Claire [13:15]

And I'm really looking forward to it, and contests are sometimes difficult to lead but I think at some point, it could pave the way to make the machine move and I think there is no reason that the executive teams don't reflect their customer base. And as women, we represent more than 50% generally of the customer base of banking.

Nikita RE•WORK [13:42]

And in terms of the qualities of people and individuals. Is there anything that you always look for as one key quality when you're hiring somebody?

Claire [13:56]

That's an interesting question. I think for me there is one key trait, one key specificity in innovation which is obviously curiosity. I think the qualities of an entrepreneur mindset and entrepreneur background that being keen to fail, to test, to try, to learn in our environment is critical I also think the key skills of the future where

Claire [14:29]

very successful leaders in the past I've been around, having quite a fixed mindset where they can explain very clearly how things are doing. I mean, the world is changing, this crisis is putting more emphasis on this change, and they are leaders of tomorrow, they are leaders that have that mindset, they can see things differently. We see the trend, that

Claire [15:00]

companies and people are not driven anymore by just financial revenue, they are driven by their impact. We face a century where climate change and social responsibility are going to be growing and here is the rule of data and AI is critical because during the crisis there are a lot of opinions, and how do we get out of it? We can do everything through the data but that's just about mindset to be very data-driven, very analytical, and that's not incoherent, we've been creative.

Claire [15:51]

I think the people that can combine these two skills are going to be the winner of the future, but we must remember, it's about living our life and just really being driven by the way that we do. I think the notion even to have a job is progressively going to disappear. And for me, it's about 5-7 years now that I've never considered I go to a job every day. But more importantly, I do several things in its position of influence that lead you to do what you think is right.

Nikita RE•WORK [16:25]

I think that's good advice for anybody. And for those listening, that are looking to get into a tech career, is there any advice that you think would be useful for them?

Claire [16:40]

Yes, I think we've touched on that a little bit. What I will say, maybe is to build very early on, your network of influencers and stakeholders and start by putting yourself out there on Twitter, only LinkedIn, and you can follow me if you want on Twitter and on LinkedIn. I'm not saying I am perfect as I don't have all the time to do that. I think it is important to think about also your profile being a CEO of your company as much as working on a technical profile and that's very important because a broad network will enable you to meet you know some leaders, influencers.

Claire [17:23]

But also people that will be your sponsors, your mentors. I met someone at one point and it didn't go through then, but five years later we did business together. And that's the way life goes in the digital world, so really get yourself out there take care of you, follow people you like, get in touch with them, like I love when people just say oh, I have this idea, what do you think? I cannot answer everything but I really try because I think that way you meet people and have a very interesting in-depth conversation.

Claire [18:06]

The second thing is if you are in technology, it is quickly to specialize because AI is a really broad field as well as technology and even me, I made this choice about 10 years ago to specialize in financial services and technology. And now that's really rewarding in my career because you have two masters of two pieces. If you just evolve in a technology field, the risk is going to be a little bit generalist, though we should never worry because even if it's specialization the reality today is the digital area is so broad, like from banking, I can still learn different things and I'm feeling very confident about it. But I think when you're still in the early years, it's important to not be too generalist if you really want to progress your career in an executive position.

Nikita RE•WORK [19:01]

That's a great piece of advice. I think especially for the listeners that we have that really do have a broad kind of look at AI and from a range of different aspects from data scientists to engineers to research scientists, to professors, to students. So that's brilliant to hear. So just to close up, do you have any role models within your industry and your career so far that you really looked up to? And has there been anyone piece of advice that you've been given that you've really taken on board and that has had an impact on your career?

Claire [19:41]

Yes, so unfortunately for us, we work in a field where there are not a lot of role models. When I was at IT school I was the only girl in my class and so I think it is very challenging. But we're lucky now that role models have emerged. Of course, we have the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer. But I'm just looking forward to seeing more women CEO's because it's the beginning of this journey.

Claire [20:23]

I'm very committed to a company called 15 techs and you can go on their website because it's really good to network and find jobs and they have a series of podcasts of role models. Junior and fresh people inspire me because technology is growing so fast that you always have to learn new things and catch up. It's about, for me, having a bunch of women around me that just inspire me and that you can find in a 15 tech and that would my advice.

Nikita RE•WORK [21:13]

Thank you, Claire. It's been fantastic to hear a bit more about the work that you've been doing a bit about your background, what's brought you to where you are today and some really great advice for people that are listening to that are looking for different ways that they can advance in their career. So if anybody is listening, is the best way to keep up with your work, by following you on Twitter and messaging you on LinkedIn. Is that the best couple of ways to contact you?

Claire [21:41]


Nikita RE•WORK [21:42]

Okay, fantastic. Well, thank you again, it's great to speak with you. And hope to see you at an event, hopefully in the future sometime soon Claire.

Claire [21:53]

Yes well, thank you very much.

Nikita RE•WORK [21:56]

Thank you. Thanks very much.

Nikita RE•WORK [22:06]

That was a really fascinating discussion. Really interesting to hear how the financial services industry is being impacted by COVID-19 and longer-term effect and digital transformation. We're continuing our AI for good webinar series this month, with the next session focusing on AI for crisis prediction and management. So do be sure to sign up for access to the discussion. Until then, take care.

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