Valentina is the Director of Growth & Communications at OakNorth – the next-generation credit platform that’s redefining lending to lower mid-market businesses globally. She has been working directly with its co-founders since June 2015, helping to build the OakNorth brand and community.
Valentina is a passionate advocate for improving the female talent pipeline and closing the gender pay gap in financial services, sitting on the Steering Committee for FinTECHTalents, which is working to address this.
Last year, Valentina participated in the Money 20/20 Europe Payments Race where she travelled from Istanbul to Amsterdam using only wearable payments technology – no cash or cards. This year, she participated in the round the world race where she only used cash, travelling across 13 countries in 12 days.
We sat down with Valentina who is ElevatHers first ambassador for the UK to ask a few questions.
Tell us a little about yourself? How did you decide which course you wanted to take at University?
I’m the Director of Growth & Communications at OakNorth, a fintech business focused on helping SMEs prosper by licensing its credit analysis and monitoring platform to banks around the world.
In the UK, we use the platform to lend directly off of our own balance sheet (via OakNorth Bank), and have lent over $5bn to several hundred businesses since our launch in 2015.
The business was founded by two entrepreneurs, Rishi Khosla and Joel Perlman, who were inspired to launch it following the challenges they faced in trying to secure debt finance for their previous business, Copal Amba.
My mum’s an entrepreneur so I have always had a huge amount of respect for anyone who’s brave enough to set up on their own as I’ve seen first-hand how difficult it is. Working in her business as I was growing up, I became interested in business - in particular the communications aspect of it. However, I felt that specialising in it for my degree would not only limit my options in terms of which universities I could apply for, but also which jobs once I graduated. I therefore decided to do a business degree.
What has your journey been like from uni till now? What made you take the leap and join the fintech industry? What are you most excited about in the industry?
I graduated from high school and went to uni in 2008 so it was a pretty scary (albeit very interesting) time to be studying business. As per my response above, I’d known for years that I wanted to work in communications, but it was only through this experience (i.e. studying business in London, in the midst of the worst financial crisis in modern history) that I knew I wanted to specialise in financial services. I could see the changes being made to regulation (which as we know, led to the birth of fintech) and the government mandate to increase competition in the sector, so I knew there’d be interesting times ahead and wanted to be part of that change.
My career in communications started at Lansons, a financial services consultancy in Farringdon on the fringe of the City. I was introduced to the agency by someone I met at a CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) “drinks and links” event who told me they were looking for recent grads to join their trainee programme. I had sat my final exam at university two months earlier, so was on the hunt for a job. I really liked the look of Lansons and their clients given my interest in financial services. My first client there was Metro Bank (the first new bank in the UK in 150 years) which gave me my first foray into challenger/disruptor brands and from there, I was hooked. “Fintech” as a concept wouldn’t become mainstream for a few more years, but my time at Lansons gave me exposure to a number of challenger brands across different financial services areas – wealth management, alternative lending, pensions, banking, etc. – so I was well-versed in the “fin” of “fintech” by the time I decided to move into fintech.
After a few years once I’d moved to another consultancy, I got OakNorth as a client, joining the account in June 2015. This was before OakNorth had launched, before it had secured institutional investment, before it had its first client, etc. so it was still very much a start-up. I was immediately inspired by Rishi and Joel’s vision and how they wanted to solve the problem of SME lending globally. A few months after the launch in September 2015, I was seconded and very quickly realised that I wanted to work for the business full-time. So I emailed Rishi and Joel asking to meet with them to discuss an idea I had, and two days later, I gave them the elevator pitch as to why I felt they should hire me full-time.
Granted, it was a ballsy move, but I’d have always regretted if I didn’t go for it and fortunately, both Rishi and Joel were very receptive, so it was a risk that paid off! I joined full time in July 2016 and it’s been quite a journey ever since!
What excites me about the industry now are the same things that excited me in the beginning – the competition, the collaboration, the change, the challenges, the innovation and the people behind those innovations.
Fintech is a relatively ‘new’ industry, how do you suggest people interested find out more about it? It depends on what you’re looking for…
If you’re simply looking to build up your knowledge, then there are some great podcasts out there (Fintech Insider, Rebank, Tearsheet’s Challenger Podcast, and Breaking Banks), as well as numerous publications that cover fintech exclusively or extensively.
If you want to build your network, there are numerous free fintech events throughout the year (many arranged by the 11:FS team behind the Fintech Insider podcast) where you can meet people in the industry and there are some great apps like ElevatHER 😉
If you’re looking to move into the industry or change role in it, the easiest place to start is by narrowing it down to the area/s of fintech you’re most interested in – i.e. neo/challenger banks, insurtech, pensions, savings, etc. From there, think about what kinds of businesses appeal to you the most: is it a start-up, a scale-up or an established institution? Once you’ve applied these filters, there’ll likely only be a handful of companies left that you’ll want to do some serious digging into.
What made you say yes to becoming an ambassador for ElevatHer?
I believe in the mission – to empower women in this industry one connection at a time – as I know how nerve-wrecking and difficult it can be to lean in, step up, etc. I have benefitted throughout my career from having some amazing role models and mentors (both men and women), so want to help Sheena and the rest of the ElevatHer team bring this to more women. I also think Sheena is brilliant – super hard-working, sharp as a tack, positive and inspirational – so was flattered when she asked me and am very happy to help in any way I can.
How do we get in touch with you if we want to know more?
You can message me on LinkedIn or Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about OakNorth, then you can visit www.oaknorth.com