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Gillian Riley: Leading with Empathy, Innovating for the Future

Gillian Riley, the Chief Executive Officer of Tangerine Bank, has carved an impressive path in the financial industry, marked by transformative leadership and a commitment to customer-centric innovation. With over three decades of experience at Scotiabank, Riley has been at the forefront of driving change and delivering value across various banking sectors. Currently leading Canada’s top digital bank, she is passionate about leveraging technology to enhance the banking experience for millions of Canadians. In this interview, Riley shares insights from her remarkable career, her vision for the future of digital banking, and her dedication to diversity and inclusion.

Can you describe the key milestones of your career journey that have shaped you into the leader you are today?

The key milestones in my journey include every role I’ve held during the three decades of service at Scotiabank, which focuses on driving real client benefits. My role allowed me to influence and impact how financial services provide the best value. Whether in retail, commercial, or small business banking, I’ve driven change for these customer segments. Currently, I’m leading Tangerine Bank, Canada’s leading digital bank with over 2 million customers, and it has been fascinating to pilot the digital journey for Canadians, especially since COVID-19.

What pivotal experiences or influences led you to choose a career in the financial industry, and how do you maintain your drive and resilience during challenging periods?

I started in financial services many years ago and quickly realized that banking is a core and essential societal service. Understanding the importance of making a difference for customers, and having empathy, has been crucial. Even during tough times, what kept me going was the difference we make in the lives of Canadians and our clients, ensuring that we prioritize their needs and experiences. At Tangerine, our focus on empathy has helped us continue evolving, and building better services during challenging periods.

How do you foresee the economic landscape evolving in the next few years, and which sectors do you anticipate will experience the most significant changes?

Digital banking is the future, and Tangerine has been a digital bank. In Europe, especially the Nordic countries, digital banking and sales are more advanced than in North America. Canada will see significant growth in this area, with Tangerine at the forefront, driving innovation. Artificial Intelligence (AI), incredibly generative AI, will play a critical role in adding value for clients and helping our teams. Innovation in seamless and uncomplicated banking, especially in mobile environments, will see significant growth, and I expect this trend to continue, with a focus on simplicity and client-first approaches.

Reflecting on your professional achievements, which stand out the most, and why?

The Scotiabank Women Initiative, which I envisioned over five years ago, stands out as one of my proudest moments. This type of initiative aims to strengthen equality and financial support for women entrepreneurs, addressing the issue of less than 4% of venture capital dollars going to women-led businesses in North America. We’ve deployed over $8 billion in capital towards a $10 billion commitment by 2025 and supported more than 25,000 women globally. The program has exceeded my expectations, and I’m incredibly pleased with its impact.

You recently received YWCA Toronto’s Woman of Distinction Award. How significant is this award in your professional and personal life?

I am truly honoured and humbled to receive this award, which is meaningful both professionally and personally. Women need to see themselves reflected at all levels, and this award helps inspire the next generation of leaders. It was gratifying to share the award ceremony with my mother, who has been a significant influence in my life, teaching me the importance of giving back and being a door opener.

Can you detail how this award contributes to helping women, girls, and gender-diverse people secure housing, heal, and build sustainable futures?

The Women of Distinction Awards is YWCA Toronto’s signature fundraising event, as well as an awards ceremony. This organization uses the proceeds to improve the lives of women, girls, and gender-diverse individuals fleeing violence by helping them secure housing, find jobs, and build confidence for a better life. The scope of the work is crucial, and I am pleased to support it.

Considering your involvement with YWCA Toronto, how has it influenced your views on social and economic responsibility and community engagement?

I grew up in a household that emphasized community involvement and giving back. I’ve always felt responsible for leading with purpose and creating inclusive environments. Diversity and inclusion are crucial; I’ve maintained the same concepts since then, and my involvement with YWCA Toronto enhances them.

In what ways can others contribute to YWCA Toronto’s programs?

There are many ways to get involved, such as to learning about YWCA Toronto’s programs. Participating in events, volunteering, or making financial contributions can make a significant difference. Learning about and supporting the programs and services that help our communities is also essential. You can learn more on their website www.ywcatoronto.org.

What initiatives have you undertaken to promote diversity and inclusion within your organization, and what advice would you offer to other leaders striving to achieve the same?

At Tangerine, we are purpose-driven, focusing on community involvement and giving back. We’ve implemented hiring practices and grassroots employee networks championing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our board of directors and management team are more than 50% female, reflecting our commitment to diversity. More than 50% of our employees are Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC), and several employee network groups promote allyship and equal opportunities. Leaders should focus on diversity and inclusion, ensuring everyone has a voice and is part of the conversation.

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important in the financial industry. How is Tangerine Bank addressing sustainability, and what are your goals in this area?

Tangerine Bank is committed to reducing our environmental footprint by adopting green technologies and promoting sustainable practices. Our goals include integrating sustainable finance solutions to help our clients invest in environmentally-friendly projects. Additionally, we support initiatives promoting financial literacy around sustainability, helping our customers make informed decisions that benefit their finances, and the planet. 

How do you balance the demands of leading a major financial institution, with your well-being?

I believe in setting boundaries and delegating responsibilities effectively. Encouraging a healthy work-life balance within my team is equally important, as it promotes a positive and productive work environment. We can all perform professionally and personally at our best by fostering a culture that values well-being.

As a recognized leader in the financial industry and a notable figure in community work, what legacy do you hope to leave, and what future aspirations do you have for yourself and Tangerine Bank?

I hope to see a future where equity is the standard, not a contentious issue. One of Tangerines’ ambitions is to be Canada’s most inclusive bank, ensuring everyone has equal opportunities, and removing barriers. I believe in allyship and creating environments where all people can succeed. The future will be bright if we continue to open doors for everyone and build diversity, equity, and inclusion daily. Our commitment to sustainability will also play a key role in shaping a better future for our community and the environment.

Jennifer Williams | Editor-in-Chief

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