“Allowing women to hold the position they deserve will guarantee high performance”
Director of Innovation for the Société Générale Group, Claire Calmejane (EPITA class of 2005) was recently named the most influential French tech personality by the PR agency TytoPR. Her brilliant career path and her stance in favor of diversity have made her one of the most listened-to voices of the “new French tech generation”. This ambitious and enthusiastic 30-some year old fully embraces her “role model” status. She sees the current crisis as an opportunity to speed up changes in organizations that were already taking place before the health crisis began. Of course, her vision also applies to banks, whose employees must now reflect the diversity and aspirations of their clients – a source of richness in her eyes. Here we meet with an Alumni who is on the front line of the major challenges to come, whether economic, technological, societal or ecological.
Claire Calmejane, an engineer from EPITA who became Director of Innovation for the Société Générale Group
What are the main challenges regarding innovation facing banks, particularly the Société Générale?
Claire Calmejane: Today’s banking and financial sector is facing four headwinds: increasing regulatory pressure, low or even negative rates in Europe, new technologies that have transformed the customer experience (which require digital investments) and the arrival of new market entrants (GAFA and fintech). Innovation is thus the only way to meet these major challenges. In addition to this, banks have a key role to play with regard to major environmental and climate issues, as they are the driving force behind these changes through the financing, or non-financing, of projects that will lead to key choices. We also have a role as a responsible employer.
What does this role involve?
It is obvious that digital technology has totally transformed the company and changed the way employees interact with each other. This revolution started about 15 years ago and has accelerated, due to the Covid crisis. Work is no longer an end in itself, and employees aspire to find meaning in what they do. Younger workers have very different aspirations from the older generations. Last year, Société Générale redefined its raison d’être: to build a better and sustainable future together with our customers, by providing responsible and innovative financial solutions. Our challenge is to use this approach daily in all aspects of our work. Although this approach already exists, we have chosen to reinforce it even more. In particular, this means successfully implementing our digital transformation and high-impact projects, in the rather restrictive environment I mentioned.
Hence, company life and the work environment will never be the same again?
Yes, but this divide already existed before the current health crisis. We often hear that the crisis has enabled companies to speed up their digital transformation. However, we have not observed this with our individual clients, in spite of the fact that we are pushing for a digital shift (60% of the Group’s clients are active on a digital level). Nonetheless, this is true for professional clients such as SMEs and private banks, although they have gotten off to a slower start. The geographical context also plays an important role. At Société Générale, we have banks in France as well as in Russia and Africa, which do not have the same dynamics! More generally, this crisis has totally changed the way we work, all over the world, and especially in France. In the United States and the English-speaking countries where I worked, teleworking has already been quite common for years… When I came back to France, I was surprised to see how we are lagging behind, even if Société Générale was a precursor in teleworking. But overall, there will be a “before and after crisis” way of working. And this will force us to leave behind our individualistic habits and behaviors, by putting the notion of community back at the center of our values.
How do you create innovation?
The word “innovation” means different things to different entities, whether for the innovation departments or our innovation teams. Our innovation department works on rather broad strategic issues, from measuring the performance and standardizing the e-commerce platforms of our different businesses to rapidly implementing
artificial intelligence projects, creating new business models known as “platforms”, digital currency and joint ventures with startups. Innovation is therefore highly versatile. At Société Générale, innovation supports the Group’s strategy to meet real growth needs. My mission is to ensure that we work together to create optimal conditions allowing for the success of new businesses, for example, Treezor with its electronic money and payment services. And if things don’t work out, to understand why. Because sometimes innovation also means failing.
You were recently named the most influential French tech personality. What does this distinction mean to you?
It’s always nice to receive this kind of distinction. This award is, above all, a recognition of the work carried out by the teams for which I am the spokesperson. I wouldn’t be here without them and the collective work we do every day. What is great is that this distinction was given to a woman! It’s important to highlight that and for me to be a role model who can inspire other young girls and women. In England, quotas have been in place for years. Today, they have been imposed on boards of directors in France, thanks to the Copé-Zimmerman law. Société Générale is committed to having over 30% of women in senior management positions by 2023. Even if the quota policy is debatable, it allows women to hold top positions, which they are happy to do! And they are just as effective as men! Recent McKinsey studies show that companies that have adopted a diverse management style boast a difference of up to 46%. Once the acculturation period is over, it becomes an economic reality. This is what I experienced and observed in more mature ecosystems, such as in England or the United States, where it is perfectly normal to see that management and employees in the financial sector reflect the diversity of their clientele, with 50% women. It would be unthinkable that cosmetic products are designed exclusively by men!
As imperfect as quotas or affirmative action may be, they are a way to trigger virtuous dynamics.
Indeed, already acclaimed by international companies (21% of graduates from the class 2019 work abroad), EPITA students enjoy two major advantages. The first is related to the school’s reputation for innovation and mastery of digital technologies, combined with the international and intercultural dimension promoted by the school (notably symbolized by the traditional 2nd year semester abroad).
How can we encourage young women to enter the tech industry?
It has to start at school. One of our employees created the IT4Girls start-up through our intrapreneurship program, to teach girls aged 12 to 17 how to code and encourage them to go into IT. Parents also play a key role by speaking with their children and explaining what they do on a daily basis. That’s what I do with my two kids. It starts there!
Will this allow for girls to stop restricting themselves and understand that they can pursue the same careers as men?
Yes, because women are in much more vulnerable positions than men in their careers. We need to talk about this, so that when other women go through difficult times, they can overcome them, knowing that they are not alone. Women are also less active in networks because they have more responsibilities, with children and their homes. It is crucial that they have supportive networks, which is becoming more and more the case. Mentors are also very important. I have had three key turning points in my career, and behind each one, there have always been mentors and sponsors. The first was when I moved to the United States. I was encouraged by a mentor: I learned English there, did research at MIT and acquired specific expertise… Then, I moved to London, again on the advice of a mentor, to specialize in fintech. It was a great opportunity in the heart of this sector’s capital. Finally, the third time was when I joined Société Générale. I was pregnant and had a great job at Lloyds. I was also a member of the UK government’s Fintech Delivery Panel and part of a very important women’s network… I loved my life. Again, I left this comfortable and interesting situation for a fascinating challenge on the advice of my mentors and… my husband! At Société Générale, my mentor is Diony Lebot, the Group’s Chief Operating Officer and one of the most powerful women in the banking industry in Europe. She helped me a great deal as I started out in the company. Her career path is very inspiring, filled with diversity, motivation and desire. She showed me unfailing support during my second pregnancy. Our careers demonstrate that there are many opportunities for women in these professions. Yet, there is still a lot to do!
What do you want to tell both male AND female students?
Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today, whether this involves your struggles or your passions. I have always made choices that made me happy and in which I found meaning. And, I have always worked on projects that make me want to get up in the morning. I endeavor to learn and cultivate my curiosity in order to nourish this desire. During my years at EPITA, I really enjoyed the school’s entrepreneurial and autodidact spirit and, in general, I have always preferred situations where there were challenges and things to learn. This motivation is fundamental to me and is what pushed me to use my voice for women in technology. Today, I see how much of a difference it makes and how many times I could have given up. We have to use what we have built and what we are given: we have a responsibility. That’s why my career in fintech and banking must serve diversity in our society on a daily basis. These are the life choices that have given me professional and personal fulfillment. A final key point is to work on the differentiators that matter to you: your career is a marketplace that you must create to set yourself apart. Because it gives you the possibility of doing what you want to do. And the more choice you have, the happier you are, because your path is not imposed on you.
How do you learn to be a manager?
At EPITA, I was responsible for the student tutoring program. And, at 20, I was already managing teams of 40 people. This learning process took place at school and felt quite natural. But I had to learn to adapt, like when I went abroad. I had to be able to both communicate and be understood. This teaches you humility because it forces you to think out of the box. Then at age 32, when I held my first executive position, it was made clear to me that everything that had brought me this far would no longer serve me. I had to develop other management methods, which has served me well up until now. I am still learning about leadership, and I am delighted to work together with my teams in a climate of trust!
What makes you happy?
The people I live with and the people I work with. What makes me the proudest are my children. I also adore seeing projects that have an impact come to fruition. We just finalized the Female Fintech for Good challenge, dedicated to European startups, whose winner is planA, software that allows companies to calculate their carbon impact. If we succeed in using this solution in our company and several subsidiaries, it will make me very happy.
What are your thoughts about the years ahead?
The climate movement is forcing people to become aware of this major challenge for our future. Younger generations are looking for meaning and organizations are rapidly changing. This implies generational changes in leadership and management. I am a perfect example! At 38, I work in the general management department of a large French group that views innovation and responsibility as clear strategic issues.
What books would you recommend?
I loved Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock, the former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google. Another book that made a major impression on me was The first 90 days by Michael Watkins: it’s a very useful guide to starting a new job. I also enjoyed Banking on it by Anne Boden, the head of Starling Bank, and Becoming by Michelle Obama which takes us behind the scenes of power. In addition, I highly recommend Sheryl Sandberg’s books. More and more powerful women are publishing books, which is great!
Article originally published in IONIS Mag #49