Banking on Social Change – The Y Factor

If there was ever doubt that banking can be a force remarkable social change, just take a look at some recent events in India. In a way, it’s a case study in extremes; in another, its represents fundamental cultural shifts.

In October of last year, Arundhati Bhattacharya was appointed Chairperson of the State Bank of India (SBI). It’s a post that holds enormous power: The government-owned institution is the nation’s largest by assets, has 15,000-plus branches and in fact manages more than 20% of all banking assets in the country. The fact that she was the first woman in this position should not have been remarkable—she was long considered a top contender for the post, having previously served as CFO.

Portrait of a young attractive business woman.Moreover, the Indian banking industry has been far more open to women executives that most others, and there’s now a high-profile roster of women in senior positions. The thinking is that unlike industries such as manufacturing, where there’s a shop floor with more patriarchal attitudes, banking is a field where intellectual capital is prized and technology-driven change is rampant. These factors contribute to a more modern atmosphere.

But then, just a short time after the not-so-groundbreaking appointment at SBI, Bharatiya Mahila Bank launched in Mumbai and six other Indian cities.  A small startup like this would not be particularly newsworthy except for one factor: It’s for women only.

The institution, which claims 23 branches around the country and plans to open up to 60 more this year alone, is designed to offer economic empowerment to women, with special attention devoted to deprived, under-banked and unbanked areas to ensure sustainable growth. For the record, well over a third of the country is unbanked, and in many rural areas the circumstances for women are even more difficult. All of the new bank’s directors are women, as are most senior executives and employees, and the hope is that those who need loans the most will feel more comfortable asking for them in this environment.

The sad irony is that no one doubts the need for such an institution. The dichotomy is obvious: Even as a succession of high-achieving women climbing the highest rungs of the industry’s ladders, many other women find it hard to access the basic financial resources they desperately need, and a somewhat discriminatory option like this is the best and perhaps only way to help fix the imbalance.

And there’s another factor that might seem incongruous. The foundation for the bank, which is created to take on traditional problems that should no longer exist, is very 21st century. The regional subsidiaries of FIS Global is providing the bank’s technology, which includes core banking, eBanking, and debit card and ATM servicing and processing.

Under the terms of the multi-year agreement, FIS provides a fully integrated banking and payments platform through an outsourced delivery model encompassing core banking, channels, trade finance and the entire suite of payments services, which includes switching, debit card management services and ATM management. The company set up and manages data centers, deploying and managing the branch technology infrastructure. For its part, the bank is building on a strategy that incorporates satellite and ultra-small mobile branches in addition to the conventional ones being put in place.

Banking, technology and social change—it makes for a heady mix, but a good one.