Q&A with Claire Calmejane, SG Chief Innovation Officer


Claire Calmejane, Societe Generale’s Chief Innovation Officer, spoke with Bala Ayyar, Chief Data Officer, Societe Generale Americas, on International Women’s Day about her career in finance and technology as a woman and how digital and data overlap at Societe Generale.

Claire, would you be able to share with us some of your career history before you joined SG? You describe yourself as “a computer engineer who has spent a decade supporting large organizations harnessing the power of Digital”. Can you briefly take us through your journey?

I grew up in Paris and went to an IT engineering school, graduating in 2005 with a focus on AI and cognitive science. One of my first assignments was a project using AI for rerouting cars developed for the French Transportation Department, at a time when there were only three women in their IT function! After a master’s degree from the HEC, I joined Capgemini Consulting during the early days of digital transformation. In 2011, I joined MIT as a visiting scientist to study and research digital transformation. In 2012, I moved to London to work for Lloyds Banking Group, starting as a Head of Digital Delivery. I built and led an engineering team with 250 engineers in onshore/offshore set-up for Lloyds before I moved to the role of Director of Innovation and Digital Center of Excellence. In this role, I was able to push digital penetration from three million customers to 14+ million in seven years. 

In 2018, I joined SG as Chief Innovation Officer. It was an interesting proposition to come back to France - SG was a leading bank embracing digital innovation with a global vision and that intrigued me. It was not an easy decision to come back to France after 10 years in the US and London, but I have been very happy with the move. SG has the resources and willingness to commit to a deep digital transformation and innovation.

Where do you think that we in SG stand in our digital journey? What do you see as SG’s biggest challenges? Do you see us well positioned to overcome these challenges?

Digital transformation is a journey. It is not about doing things alone but about developing a collective intelligence built in an agile way. The environment driving the digital innovation in banking needs to address changes in customer habits and behaviors, partly driven by the shifting demography of users of financial services. SG’s challenge was to understand this fundamental need and to reflect it in our digital journey. Ultimately, digitalization leads to creating new business models and the development of an open ecosystem involving all the players in the market.

I believe that SG is well positioned in this regard and has the resources and willingness to embrace digital transformation. We started this journey 10 years ago. We have an open approach to innovation, and we have a clear roadmap and action plan to drive our continued evolution to digital maturity. Digital transformation is helping us create new businesses and new products in a collaborative and agile approach. We are in the advanced stages of this evolution with strong digital adoption in the Retail customer segments. To give you just a few metrics, 60% of our Retail clients worldwide are digitally active, 94% of transfers or payments are made digitally, and Rosbank, our Russian subsidiary, has seen an 18% year-over-year increase in digital sales.

What are your thoughts on fintechs, and how worried should SG be about the threat from fintechs? How do SG’s recent investments in the fintech space (acquisition of Treezor, a leading investor in TagPay) position us in this regard?

SG’s relationship with the fintech world is multidimensional. On the one hand, yes, they are our competitors, and on this axis, we continue to accelerate the transformation of our legacy platform. In SG, the digital transformation started with building the IT foundations to overcome our business model’s limitations. Businesses within SG now must embrace the transformation IT began – and they are doing it.

On the other hand, we also see fintechs as our potential partners. As a global business, we can partner with the fintechs, test their technology and innovation in one region, and then roll this out across the organization to support all our clients – and this is very much part of our overall strategy. In 2015, we were the first French bank to make a fintech acquisition with Fiducéo (online personal finance management specialists). Today, we have a diversified portfolio of five VC collaborations and consortia investments and 30 internal and industry startups, including five fintech acquisitions with more than $150M invested in line with our 2017-2020 strategic plan. They include Shine (small trader neobank), Prismea (SME neobank), Forge (digital assets) and Treezor (Bank as a Service) and many others. We have also launched the working Group #NewFrontier to prepare the strategic innovation themes towards 2025 around retail digital currencies, mobile money and digital payments, digital assets and trade, Bank-as-a-Service, data-driven financing and personalized financial coaching.

In the Innovation Department, we try to ensure that conditions for success are created, and that business is in the driver’s seat. This is strongly supported by our leadership, many of whom are actively involved in the digital transformation conversations. We are moving in the right direction, although we still have a long journey ahead of us. 

One hears a lot in the press about the culture of a data-driven company and how to promote it. How well do you think we are actually doing in this regard?

As I told you, cultural transformation is the biggest enabler of digital transformation and the making of a data-driven company. To become a data-driven company, we need to make data available, accessible and transparent. This is a cultural shift where responsibility and accountability around data are clearly identified and communicated. Everyone needs to be trained on the basic data management principles. The people who produce and consume data have bigger responsibilities, and it is each business leader’s job to make data available and accessible. We need to emphasize this principle throughout SG, just as Jeff Bezos did for Amazon in 2001, by making data accessibility mandatory. 

Today we are focusing on financial products like interest rate and equity derivatives and scarce resources like risk weighted assets (RWA) and liquidity. Tomorrow’s product and tomorrow’s scarce resource is unquestionably going to be data; I am totally convinced about this! New business models will evolve from this. That said, digitalization also has a flip side that we need to be aware of. If we continue to use the internet the way we are today, 50% of our electricity will be used to power the internet. That’s a lot of energy, and, to be honest, poses social and ethical concerns. We need to use the power of digital responsibly for the improvement of the environment and society. The current business model of the technology world is not green and not environmentally sustainable. Everyone in the technology world has a lot of work to do to optimize energy consumption and make sustainable choices.

What advice would you give women developing careers in engineering and technology in Finance? 

When I graduated from HEC, I did not have any reason to leave France, work in another country, learn a new way of life, and explore and adapt to a new culture. But the journey was very rewarding: I got to experience life as a foreigner; I realized the importance of having a diverse team; I improved my English language skills; I took risks; I moved out of my comfort zone; and I did very well professionally. After 10 years, I came back to France with a different role, and there was a risk there as well. I was not afraid of risk and accepting a challenge. I am happy to say that my journey was of wellness and diversity, and it was fascinating.

My advice to women, who are starting in their career, is to truly believe that we are all equal. Dream big - follow a job that gives you purpose and ask yourself “If I don’t do it, who will?”. Get out of your comfort zone and take risks. You will definitely be successful.