By leveraging innovation and technology, Sigga Sigurdardottir ’92 is revolutionizing the way the world banks.
by Jerry Rashid
The power of love is irresistible
Earning a marketing degree was not the primary reason Sigga Sigurdardottir ’92 left her native Iceland to enroll at Coastal Carolina University. Her main motivation was to join her then-boyfriend Ludvik Bragason ’92, one of many stellar Icelandic soccer players who crossed the North Atlantic on Coastal athletic scholarships in the 1980s. Soon, however, Sigurdardottir found her own field of achievement as a business student.
“Going from Iceland to Coastal was an incredible, eye-opening experience,” said Sigurdardottir, CCU’s first female Icelandic graduate. “It was a small school at the time that had a real community feel to it. It had quite an international body, too.
“I made connections with people from around the world. What I also loved about Coastal was that I could take so many different classes. My passion is art, so I had the opportunity to mix in some art classes with my marketing classes.”
An honors course taught by the late Col. Bill Baxley Jr. would have a major impact on Sigurdardottir’s future life. One of the highlights of the class was a field trip to visit the Atlanta headquarters of such businesses as Coca-Cola, Chick-fil-A and Lockheed.
“That trip inspired me to think about what my career could look like and opened my eyes to international companies,” Sigurdardottir said. “Coastal provided a really good platform to launch my international career.”
Digital Change Agent
The career trajectory for the magna cum laude graduate began when she returned to Reykjavik and served for six years as the head of marketing, sales and new business development at Independent Media Inc. Sigurdardottir spent 14 years climbing the corporate ladder at American Express International. She began as a regional senior manager of online customer experience and rose to the position of vice president/general manager in charge of e-commerce and digital distribution. Naturally curious with a keen interest in consumer technology, she was soon recognized as a trailblazing digital change agent as a result of her work in such places as Australia, Singapore, London and New York City.
“I started in American Express’ global digital division,” said Sigurdardottir, “building websites and communicating with customers using various digital channels. In my last role in New York, I worked in the emerging payments division. We were looking at the next generation of payment products, such as mobile wallets and other card-less ideas. It was an innovation unit charged with developing what would be the next generation of products and services.”
Coastal’s Icelandic Pioneers: Coastal Icelandic students are recognized with a plaque in the early 1990s. (From left to right) Ulfar Helgason ’92, Arnar Arnarsson, Stefan Palsson ’92, Sigga Sigurdardottir ’92, former Coastal chancellor Ronald Eaglin, Ludvig Bragason ’92, Sveinn Palsson ’92 and Steve Nagle, distinguished emeritus professor of English.
Since 2015, Sigurdardottir has lived in London, where she is the chief customer and innovation officer at Santander U.K., a financial services provider with approximately 14 million active customers in the U.K. and 125 million customers globally. She sits on the company’s executive committee and is charged with designing a customer-centric bank of the future. She leads a team of innovators who focus on delivering new solutions that solve real needs for customers throughout the U.K. The group also looks at how the bank can develop more speed and agility, reducing the amount of time it takes to launch new products.
“We work closely with startups and financial technology firms that might have better solutions for a specific customer problem that we have.” For example, in the small-business world it can take four weeks to get a working capital loan approved through the traditional bank processes.
“That is way too long to wait to get a decision on a loan,” she said. “It could mean death to a small business. We have a venture capitalist fund within Santander, called Innoventures, and I worked closely with that group to scan the world to find the best solution for this problem.”
Their search led them to an Atlanta-based company called Kabbage, which she touts as one of the big success stories in financial technology. “They launched this phenomenal solution in the U.S. where customers get loan decisions instantly and receive the funds into their accounts within seven minutes. From our first meeting to getting a live solution for a closed customer group took seven months. Two months later, we had a full launch in the market, which is phenomenal speed for a bank.”
Sigurdardottir and her team are also partnering with next generation robo-advisory technology firms that leverage technology to transform the way people invest money. This technology has the potential to make investing more accessible to a much broader audience base, helping more people save for the future.
In addition, her team is collaborating with social media platforms on a pilot project to enable customers to access their bank account information directly from their social media feed.
“There is a big trend around social banking,” Sigurdardottir said. “Look at what’s happening in China with companies such as Alibaba that are revolutionizing banking on social media platforms. We also just launched a service called voice-driven banking. I believe voice features will be much more prevalent in the future. Think about Alexa, Amazon Echo’s virtual assistant, and how many things you can do through that platform already. Because you can use your voice instead of typing, our new mobile app allows you to get your account balance or to make a payment.
“A lot of things are happening with artificial intelligence and big data that will help deliver better solutions for customers, who are always at the center of what we do. You can launch the most amazing technology, but if your customers don’t like it or are not adapting to it, you have to figure out a way to marry the two things together.”
Chanticleers Abroad: During the Wall Fellows’ Maymester 2017 study abroad trip, the group learned about various banking strategies and innovations during an exclusive presentation by Sigga Sigurdardottir ’92 (center)at Santander U.K. (From left) Peter Gasca, director of the Wall College’s CoBE Institute, Wall Fellows Ross Kunmann, Mickayla Smith, Kaylea Gassaway-Rea, Joshua Stilley, Sigurdardottir, Emilie-Katherine Tavernier, Sean Edwards, Myles Anderson, Wall Fellows Program director Gina Cummings, and Juan Guerra of the Santander U.K. innovation team.
Coastal Couple: Ludvik Bragason ’92 and Sigga Sigurdardottir ’92 with their children, Alexander and Diana.
Sigurdardottir and Bragason, who developed into an All-Big South Conference midfielder for the Chanticleers, are proud members of the Icelandic Whales Alumni Association, CCU’s only international alumni organization. The association has more than 80 members and funds a scholarship for Icelanders to attend CCU. The couple is committed to helping keep the Coastal-Iceland connection going strong, in the hope that their compatriots will discover and benefit from the Coastal Carolina University experience as they did.
“My entire time at Coastal was absolutely wonderful,” said Sigurdardottir. “It was a fantastic, life-changing cultural and educational experience.”
“We have been living in London for about two years, but the kids still have a bit of a Brooklyn accent,” said Sigurdardottir, who is now pursuing a doctorate in business administration from Alliance Manchester Business School in the U.K. “Because they were there during their formative years, they have very strong ties to New York and the U.S. But London is a good base for us since we go back to visit our families in Iceland once or twice a year. We are still very connected to Iceland.”Sigurdardottir’s decision to follow Bragason to Coastal turned out to be one of the best decisions of her life, both professionally and personally. The two CCU graduates married in November 1997. Thirteen years later, the couple’s lives became even more international when they adopted siblings, Alexander, now 10, and Diana, 9, from Russia.