Merline Saintil, who moved from Haiti at the age of 5, is a top executive at one of the nation’s largest technology companies, Intuit. In her role, she leads operations for the product and technology teams, which produce Intuit’s flagship products TurboTax, QuickBooks and Mint. She’s also involved in organizations that help women in leadership roles, including the San Francisco Bay Area’s Watermark and Intuit-based programs. A member of the board of $9.77 billion asset Banner Corp. in Walla Walla, Washington, Saintil talks to Bank Director digital magazine about attracting tech talent to a board and using technology to solve problems.
Q: How did you get into computer science?
MS: It was somewhat by accident. I was lucky enough to fall in love with math at an early age, when I didn’t speak English at the time. Math was instrumental in giving me confidence, and led me to eventually graduate as valedictorian of my class. I later stumbled into computer science in college, and fell in love with the subject. What I learned that I carry with me throughout my career is to not let where you start determine where you end.
Q: How did you get connected with the Banner team?
MS: It was all through my network. A fellow Watermark board member happened to be at a conference with the nominating and governance chair [of Banner Corp.], who asked the Watermark board member if she knew a technology expert in California. From there, a connection was made and I was put in touch with Banner. If I hadn’t let my network know that I was looking for a board seat, it would have taken far longer. Typically, it takes about 280 days from an initial conversation to getting on a board, yet my experience moved much faster thanks to my network.
Q: How do boards find and attract someone like yourself with a technology background to serve on a board?
MS: It is less about attracting people with the technology, but rather, what problems they can solve with the technology. At Intuit, for example, we help to power prosperity for small businesses, consumers and the self-employed. One of the problems we try to solve with our technology is that 50 percent of small businesses go out of business in the first year. If someone is attracted to trying to solve that problem, that’s much more meaningful and impactful than learning artificial intelligence or machine learning or blockchain. Intuit is very mission driven and values based, and two of our core values are “integrity without compromise” and “we care and give back.” That was the reason why Intuit was attractive to me, and Banner had similar qualities that aligned to my values.
Q: Given your background in technology, what has surprised you about banks?
MS: There is so much opportunity to drive innovation and creativity. If you think about artificial intelligence and machine learning, you can apply those technologies to finances to make smarter products and easy-to-use customer experiences. You can automate tasks that are repetitive for your customers or find ways to delight your customers. Banner has a great team and is embracing how we can use technology.
Q: Bankers are realizing that technology is core to what they do. What opportunities do banks have in regard to technology?
MS: There are many opportunities to apply technology to banks. At Intuit, for example, we are looking at how to use human-machine interfaces to make finances faster or smarter. For banks, you could use technology to help banks fund small businesses, as an example. We worked to solve a similar problem with QuickBooks Capital, a platform owned by Intuit that allows banks to use QuickBooks data to show their customers’ creditworthiness, so the [loan] application process could go from weeks to days. By applying technology in meaningful ways that solve customer problems, we are empowering small businesses.
Maintaining a steady state of change is imperative to staying relevant in technology. Understanding [that] what worked today might not work tomorrow is part of the innovation cycle. At Intuit, for example, our CEO asked our top 400 leaders to read a book by Thomas Friedman called “Thank You for Being Late.” It describes the intersection of all these technological forces, and the acceleration of change. This is one of the reasons why Intuit has been so successful as a 35-year-old company in Silicon Valley: maintaining a steady state of constructive dissatisfaction and continuously disrupting ourselves.