"We know that access to funding is the number one barrier for female entrepreneurs, and we want to make it clear that we’re here to help."
In response to the rise of fintech new entrants such as Revolut, Monzo and N26, NatWest has launched ‘innovation cells’ – small, agile teams within the bank that focus on developing and trialling innovative new products at speed, independently of the wider organisation.
One of the most successful innovations borne from this approach to date is Esme Loans, a standalone digital lending platform that aims to provide fast unsecured loans to businesses of between £10,000 to £150,000. Whilst Esme is owned and funded by NatWest, it is operated as a separate legal entity with its own branding, enabling it to be tested and run in a separate environment to the wider bank.
Beyond the promising numbers that Esme has reported to date – it is approaching £50m of lending since launch with high customer satisfaction scores – it’s a focus on gender balance throughout the startup that stands out. Its unusually young board has a 50/50 split, a ratio which is also mirrored across all teams – from marketing to operations - amongst its 40 strong staff.
Esme’s parent company NatWest is well placed to comment on gender disparity, after its deputy CEO Alison Rose was enlisted by HM Treasury to co-author an independent review into Female Entrepreneurship, dubbed the Rose Review. The review found some startling (if unsurprising) statistics, notably that the UK economy would benefit from a £250bn boost if women entrepreneurs were given the opportunity to develop new businesses on the same scale as men.
One of Esme’s management team, chief marketing officer Veronika Lovett, has been at the bank for 14 years, joining the bank after graduation. Initially starting her career at the bank in the structured finance team, Lovett was drafted in to lead the design, development and launch of Esme Loans alongside CEO Richard Kerton and COO Lucy Hasson.
Lovett recognises the importance of addressing the imbalance identified in the Rose Review, saying: “We know that access to funding is the number one barrier for female entrepreneurs, and we want to make it clear that we’re here to help. We also understand that women in particular who run their own business typically have less time to spend on admin, which is why our instant personalised quote and 10 minute application process are ideal for helping women get on with growing and running their business."
Brighton based female entrepreneur Joanna Hunter can testify to that; in 2017, she needed to borrow money to purchase equipment and scale up her bakery business Piglets Pantry, and took a loan from Esme. Two years later following a period of exceptional growth, Joanna now counts Chelsea, Leicester City, Royal Ascot and Twickenham stadium amongst her clients, and cites the speed and ease of Esme Loans as being crucial, recalling: “From being recommended Esme to having the money in my bank account, ready to spend, was within about 48 hours, which is quite incredible really.”
And whilst Esme lends to all customers regardless of their gender, Lovett and her management team are determined to make sure gender parity remains front and centre, saying: “We’ve made some good progress but there’s a long way to go. Following the Rose Review it’s clearer than ever where the barriers lie; now we have a duty as an industry to remove them, whether that’s through building products and services that are designed to meet the needs of SMEs of all ages and genders, or through making fundamental changes to how we structure businesses at all levels to ensure a greater balance. In Esme Loans we’ve made a conscious effort to do both from the start and we’ll be working hard to make sure that remains the case."