Gillian Riley was named President and CEO of Tangerine, a subsidiary of Scotiabank, in December, 2018. In just a few months she’s already made her mark, focusing not only on customer growth but also spearheading an initiative to help women-led businesses in Canada thrive. Gillian shares how she rose through the ranks, what has made her a successful leader, and how The Scotiabank Women Initiative is taking a unique approach to make a real difference.
By Shelley White
Ask Gillian Riley, President and CEO of Tangerine — Canada’s leading digital bank — what is the secret to her success, and she’ll point to an attribute she’s had since she was a kid on the soccer field.
“I have a lot of passion,” says Gillian. “I grew up in a family that was very active physically, so I did a lot of sports and it was a really big part of my life. I played soccer at a very competitive level and I figured out how to work within a team, and how to lose gracefully, which is always important.”
The passion Gillian brought to her athletic pursuits growing up continued into her adult life and powered her career to great heights.
“I think passion carries you a long way. You have to love what you do and feel really good about it and feel passionate about bringing that to work every single day,” she says. “That’s been a really important part of my success — I love what I do and I bring that to the office every day.”
With an economics degree at Western University and an MBA from the University of Hartford Business School under her belt, Gillian joined Scotiabank in 1994 in the bank’s commercial banking training program. Over the years, she’s taken on diverse roles at Scotiabank, from corporate banking to human resources to mortgages to wealth management. Gillian says she relished the opportunity to step out of her comfort zone.
“It really tests your leadership to be able to go into a new environment and figure out how to lead without knowing everything, and how to ask for help,” she says. “You learn how to ask the right questions and be curious and how to be impactful without knowing every single detail.”
A question Gillian thinks all leaders need to be more open to is how to ask for feedback. “It’s absolutely critical to become a better leader, but I think a lot of people are afraid to ask for feedback,” she says. “People think they’re asking for it, but they’re not doing it in the right way.”
One good approach is to ask: “What’s one thing I could do better?” says Gillian. “It’s a question that leads to things you can work on.”
I think passion carries you a long way. You have to love what you do and feel really good about it and feel passionate about bringing that to work every single day.
In her role at Tangerine, which was acquired by Scotiabank from ING Group in 2012, Gillian is now leading the charge in growing the bank’s customer base. She’s also spearheading an initiative to help women-led businesses in Canada thrive and grow, as executive sponsor of The Scotiabank Women Initiative.
Gillian says the program was first developed about a year ago to address some of the obstacles she had seen while working with small- and medium-sized businesses in the commercial banking space.
“Only four per cent of venture capital debt in Canada is going to women-owned business,” says Gillian. “Yet 47 per cent of businesses in Canada are owned or partly-owned by women. So clearly something in the ecosystem isn’t working to support women in business.”
Gillian points out that a lot of research has been done about the unconscious bias women can face when trying to raise venture capital (VC). Research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2017 found that women and men are asked different questions by VCs and it can affect whether they get funding. When analyzing how VCs viewed male vs. female candidates, a trio of Swedish researchers found that while men were deemed “young and promising,” women were seen as “young, but inexperienced.” While a man was seen as “cautious, sensible and level-headed, women were labelled “too cautious and does not dare.”
This kind of bias can create “discouraged borrowers,” says Gillian, and keep female entrepreneurs from growing their businesses.
“We did research to understand what was causing women entrepreneurs not to have as much success and feeling that they couldn’t get the things they needed to be successful,” she says. “So we launched a comprehensive program that’s more than just providing capital. It’s also about education and mentorship to advance women-led businesses.”
The Scotiabank Women Initiative is based on three pillars, says Gillian. First, Scotiabank helps women get access to the capital they need. A team of adjudicators specially trained in unconscious bias handles credit applications received through The Scotiabank Women Initiative, and Scotiabank recently announced a partnership with Disruption Ventures, Canada’s first private female-founded venture fund for women. Secondly, an advisory board from the bank provides mentorship to women entrepreneurs by way of one-on-one and small group sessions. The third pillar provides workshops dubbed Un-Mentorships Boot Camps™ — half-day sessions to bust myths around entrepreneurship and help women develop the skills and knowledge to grow their businesses. “It’s about looking at things in new ways, whether it be around compliance or finance or technology,” she says.
There’s also a networking component to help women in business connect with both potential mentors and fellow entrepreneurs. “We all want someone to share our thoughts with and to bounce ideas off of,” Gillian says. “Sometimes it’s issues like how to manage finance, how to manage HR issues, or how to get better work/life balance.”
Throughout her own career journey, Gillian says that maintaining a good work/life balance has been a priority. She works hard, but she also makes sure to take the time to play hard.
“I have a farm near Collingwood, so I do long bike rides,” she says. “I ski up there in the winter and I play golf. I also spend a lot of time with my three kids and my husband — that’s really important for me.”
Gillian’s advice for young women hoping to emulate her success? “Be passionate about what you do, and try to make a difference every day.”