Gemma Godfrey, the fintech entrepreneur who founded online money management service Moola in 2015, talks about digital opportunities, talent retention and the merits of being Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sidekick
I’ve always been a problem-solver. When I was young, you’d have found me working out how to communicate with my sister with a handmade ‘telephone’ dangled between our bedroom windows. I’m a geek.
I started saving early. As a kid, I squirrelled chocolates away until they turned white. This investing streak was probably inherited from my father, who built businesses in asset management. He would always talk about finance to me as if I were an adult. He never dumbed it down.
I have a BSc in quantum physics. Science is all about applying technology to solve age-old problems. It’s something I’ve returned to at Moola by providing a service that enables people to start an investment portfolio on their smartphones with as little as £50. This helps to remove barriers to entry. You used to have to speak to an adviser and the smallest amount you could invest was tens of thousands of pounds.
My scientific background forces me to challenge preconceptions. Studying seemingly illogical theories – eg, that of Schrödinger’s cat, which could be dead and alive at the same time – forces you to open your mind to things that don’t make sense in order to find the solution. It’s something that I do today in business.
I keep asking ‘why?’ until I get to the root of an issue. It’s the earliest lesson I learnt in business, while interning at Goldman Sachs. Things are rarely what they appear to be on the surface. Having an inquisitive nature, along with effective networking skills, can help you to find the right answers.
Money gets personal when you have somebody’s life savings in your hands. At the age of 22, I was a fund manager at GAM – part of a small team handling $1bn. It made me realise how much we were responsible for people’s lives.
When people underestimate you, work harder. In the Square Mile there were two things that stood against me: in most meetings I was the only woman and I was usually also far younger than anyone else present. This simply meant that I needed to prepare harder. If you knew your stuff, you earned the respect you deserved. The best way to quieten critics is to be good at your job.
The UK is the world’s fintech leader. The industry here [which is worth £6.6bn] is a real melting pot – unlike its equivalent in the US, where Washington DC does regulation, Wall Street does finance and Silicon Valley does tech.
The language of finance can be daunting and condescending. London might be the world’s financial capital, but it struggles to make finance relatable and accessible to those outside the industry – and even many within it. You could be a law firm partner but still not necessarily understand the stock market. We don’t teach it in school or, indeed, anywhere.
I want to help bring money matters into the mainstream. When people are empowered with information about where their money is going, it’s really transformative. This summer I was a finance expert on ITV’s Eat, Shop, Save. I helped one family with a three-year-old toddler by showing them that, if they were to make all their lunches at home, they could save more than £27,000 over the next 15 years – enough to fund that child’s university education at current prices.
I’d also love to help improve financial literacy in schools, perhaps making the subject part of the national curriculum. It wouldn’t need to be a whole GCSE; one class a week would do. It’s the career ambition I’d most like to achieve. But my first goal is to help the ‘lost generation’ of people in their twenties and thirties who can’t just leave their money in a savings account and watch it accrue interest, like their parents did. Today you need to have some exposure to the stock markets to see your money grow.
Keep it brief. Presenting on TV has taught me to communicate more concisely. Before my first appearance, I spent weeks preparing notes, but I still ended up spewing out City jargon because I was so nervous. No one understood what I was saying – it was so confusing and complicated. I realised I’d have far more impact if I made things simpler for the audience to understand instead of trying to make myself look smart.
Analogies are useful. The night before I was due to deliver a TED talk, I appeared on [US business channel] CNBC and used an analogy about driving a car to explain what was happening in the financial markets. By the time I walked off the set, people were tweeting about it.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a leader who listens. I found this out while acting as one of his advisers when he was the boss on The New Celebrity Apprentice in the US. He ensures that he gathers the right knowledge and, once equipped with this information, makes the right decision. I found that really inspirational.
Boy George has real commercial acumen. Although he finished second in the competition, he was really on the ball and focused on winning the tasks. We were both flying the British flag on the show. I was born when Karma Chameleon was number one, so it felt unreal when he’d enter the boardroom, saying: ‘Hello, Gemma.”
Financial wellbeing is crucial. Worries about money affect people’s mental and physical health. Financial services and the media need to get better at providing help. In finance, the assumption is often that people want to talk about pensions only.
Helping employees to achieve a savings goal aids talent retention. If my company were supporting me in, say, saving for a house purchase, that would be a compelling reason for me to stay with it. This is why Moola is now working with employers.
There’s a real disconnect between the boardroom and customers. To improve the situation, business leaders should try to help customers and engage them by improving their wellbeing rather than simply selling to them. The best business ideas have come about because they’ve solved people’s problems. The old method of thinking up a new financial product and flogging it to people who won’t understand it doesn’t work any more.
I admire Vitality, the health insurance firm. It has turned something prosaic into a service that uses a number of incentives to encourage its clients to look after themselves better. That’s the sort of model we’re trying to replicate.
Account aggregation apps are the future. These are available in the US only at the moment. They connect all your bank accounts and enable you to see all your data in real time on one screen.
Blockchain technology is making finance more secure. If people wanted to transfer money, they’d previously have to do it via a bank. The more parties it goes through, the greater the risk that it will be hacked. Blockchain cuts out the middleman and makes things simpler and more secure.
Start-ups are generally better at data protection. They rely less on insecure legacy technology than large institutions do. Newer ventures have been able to establish stringent cyber security procedures from the beginning, unlike many other companies that have tried to crowbar it into their existing infrastructure.
I welcome the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. People are understandably protective of their own information – and it’s vital for businesses to maintain their trust.
When things go wrong, I see it as an opportunity. I always summon up my grandma’s words during setbacks. I remember phoning her when I didn’t make it on to a course I’d applied for. She said: ‘Gemma, if you haven’t got on it, it was never meant to be. You’ll be thankful eventually – something better always comes along.’ Six months later I was offered an exciting new role. Had I made it on to that course, I wouldn’t have been able to take the job and would have missed the better opportunity.
Gemma Godfrey is speaking at IoD Open House on Tuesday 13 March, 11.05am.
Gemma Godfrey CV
Education First-class degree in physics and philosophy from the University of Leeds
2003 and 2005 Trainee investment manager on graduate programmes run by Goldman Sachs and UBS
2005 Fund manager at Swiss asset anagement firm GAM
2008 Chairman of the investment committee at Credo Group UK
2012 Head of investment strategy at Brooks Macdonald
2015 Founder and CEO of Moola
Television work Boardroom adviser to Arnold Schwarzenegger on NBC’s The New Celebrity Apprentice; presenter of Eat, Shop, Save (ITV); consumer and money expert for BBC Breakfast, ITV’s Good Morning Britain and Sky News