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“Innovation is multifaceted”

To launch the plenary conference at its 2021 Research & Innovation Week, EPITA gave the stage to Claire Calmejane (class of 2005), Director of Innovation at the Société Générale group. This was an opportunity for the prestigious guest to discuss her own definition of innovation with the student attendees.For Claire Calmejane, innovation is not unique: “It is multidimensional”. This means that it can – and must – be intended for both companies and consumers, by transforming existing professions (from managers to employees) as a solution to improve the customer experience. However, this approach to innovation in the IT field, now omnipresent at all levels, was not always what it is today. “After EPITA, I started working in consulting,” she recalls.

“I then wanted to specialize in the financial services sector, at a time when companies were not yet investing heavily in IT and digital fields. For example, when I joined Air France KLM, having your boarding pass on your cell phone was not yet an option: we simply didn’t believe in it! This has now become a reality.”  Far from being insignificant, this anecdote demonstrates two barriers that traditionally stand in the way of transformation: the habit of existing uses and the lack of anticipation of change. To remove these barriers, innovation must embrace four major principles in order to unite people. These are the same principles that are driving the banking industry to constantly rethink itself with a goal to shaping the future of financial services.

Progress that is not simply technological

The first principle is to remember the societal and environmental impact of innovation. What is the goal? To combine ethics and new technologies to ensure that values coincide with these new tools. A good example is the Tech for Good movement: aware of their importance and current challenges, from the rise of nationalism to the urgent need to prevent climate change highlighted by the most recent IPCC report, large companies are increasingly moved to act. “They are not only focused on profitability, but also on making an impact. In our group, we are changing our infrastructures and the way we interact, while remaining aware that finance is essential in order to finance the real economy, such as sustainable projects, wind farms, etc. We should also not forget that today the question of “purpose” has become a major issue: we are increasingly asking ourselves “why do I go to work?”. Innovation must also be responsible!” At Societe Generale, this commitment includes “several billion euros for renewable energies” and the pledge to “stop financing coal by 2030 for companies in the EU and OECD, and by 2040 in the rest of the world“.

Do not be afraid of innovation!

The second principle of innovation is logically based on technological disruption and its acceptance. “A good example is the arrival of artificial intelligence in banking, which consumes a lot of data and drastically changes the way our businesses operate!” Understanding financial movements in real time, fighting against fraud, forecasting… artificial intelligence offers many advantages, but requires that the professionals involved redefine their processes. And this necessitates, first of all, “a cultural change in management”.


Foster agility 

The third principle stems from this cultural change, as innovation can only develop in an environment that is favorable to change. Hence, in order to innovate, it is not enough to spend large sums of money on R&D: we must also be willing to rethink the way “corporate life” is organized, which is still too “hierarchical and segmented in France“, even if “it’s far from simple!” A company that does not accept to move towards this new deal also takes on another risk: that of not being able to attract the very profiles and talents that are capable of driving innovation. “If this is the case in France, young professionals will simply go abroad!” This push for change is also strongly linked to the issue of diversity:  “In the United States, the most successful companies are the most diverse! A digital environment is also a way to bring in different people.”

Do not neglect the emergence of new players 

Finally, the fourth principle is to look for innovation where it is mainly found today: in startups ! Companies can then draw inspiration from agile tech startups – by entering the market with a prototype, iterate and learn from customer feedback, without waiting to have the perfect product – or, quite simply, by joining forces with these new players, via partnerships, specific investment funds or acquisitions. This is what the Société Générale group has done with Shine and Lumo, two  particularly promising FinTechs. The first is a “neo bank for freelance entrepreneurs allowing them to facilitate their arrival on the market”, while the second is a “crowdfunding platform dedicated to sustainable development”. And the Société Générale’s fund dedicated to startups is not necessarily aiming at immediate profitability, says the engineer: “It’s a strategic investment as these startups will help diversify the business model in the long term!”

Three more questions for the host of the 2021 edition!

In addition to your vision of innovation, the other focus of the conference was on what banking may look like in 2050. But, ultimately, will banks still exist at that point?

Claire Calmejane: Very good question! “Integrated finance” is one of the many business models we are working on. Indeed, one of our beliefs regarding innovation is that as other industries become digitalized, they will want to use banking components, without becoming banks. Take the case of a hotel abroad, for example: if you get off a plane after a 10-hour flight and then take a taxi to your hotel, you don’t necessarily want to wait in line for half an hour at the hotel to check in and provide your payment method. One of our startups, Treezor, provides an adapted, digitalized solution to this problem. It offers integrated finance and open banking, an approach that has been around for years! A good example is the financing proposals made by our subsidiary CGI directly at a dealership when you want to buy a new car. This is also part of banking! Our goal is to be able to respond to the new challenges faced by our customers, both individuals and companies.

Do FinTech startups provide you, as a large group, with certain challenges? Do you say to yourself “oh, we hadn’t thought of that yet”?

Yes, they do. And today, the founders of the startups we have acquired – Shine, Treezor, Lumo, FiduceoReezocar  and many others – enjoy a great deal of visibility and are frequently in contact with our management. They are often supervised by the management committee and promoted among the different business sectors to encourage the cultural transformation that is currently taking place!

Finally, there is a lot of talk about FinTech, often citing London as a key city. Is there another country that stands out today?

China is, historically, a pillar in the field: the biggest FinTechs in the world are clearly there today, like  WeChat and Lufax. Europe is not lagging behind; however, it should not focus on competition between German, English or French FinTechs.  Above all, we must work together. That’s why Societe Generale is present in these different ecosystems. Our goal is to create European FinTech giants. This is how Treezor, a French startup, has since been able to lay down roots in four other European countries, thanks to the support of our group.

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