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Student innovation you can bank on

Bank of the West taps ASU students for part-time think tank work


A woman uses a banking app on her smartphone.
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August 05, 2021

Over the past year and a half, the global pandemic has scrambled all sense of “business as usual,” including how we manage our money.

With mobile banking now used by 89% of adults — including 97% of millennials, according to Business Insider — savvy chief information officers like Jacob Sorensen with Bank of the West are focused on digital makeovers.

When Sorensen was looking to revolutionize Bank of the West’s mobile banking experience, he could have hired an outside consulting firm. Instead, he’s building a strong in-house team that includes Arizona State University students and alumni. 

Delivering a first-rate online customer experience is a key to success today.

“If you can’t provide customers with a great mobile experience, someone else will,” said John Fleharty, head of digital engineering and senior vice president of IT at Bank of the West.

To attract not just new customers, but digitally savvy ones who may be disgruntled by aging technology, Bank of the West taps into a roster of bright talent and innovative minds at ASU’s Luminosity Lab.

The bank recruits students for part-time work during summer, fall and spring semesters in the Bank of the West Innovation Lab in collaboration with ASU, with a potential pathway to full-time employment. The interdisciplinary research and development lab gives students an untethered environment to innovate solutions.  

Cameron Anundson, an undergraduate student earning a computer science degree in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, heads an eight-member ASU Luminosity Lab student team for Bank of the West. 

“They’ve isolated us from bureaucracy, from red tape and other business constraints, and we have the freedom to pursue these bigger picture ideas,” he said. 

Showing a great app-titude

“We’ve created a prototype mobile app that represents a reimagination of the Bank of the West digital experience,” Anundson said. “It’s unique because it delivers the most important features of the app to the customer in a natural and intuitive way, which makes the experience seamless and enjoyable.”

The app has all the standard functions you might expect — digital deposits, transfers and account balance information — plus features designed to appeal to Generation Z and millennial customers. One is a tool that helps them manage money with a log that tracks expenditures against a monthly budget. Another is an intelligent chat bot that can answer questions about finance and banking, providing customers with quick and relevant answers while reducing call center volume. 

The prototype mobile app received rave reviews during a recent presentation to the bank’s executive management team. 

"I think our leaders were completely blown away by the end results and how articulate, well-organized and driven the students are,” Sorensen said. 

“I think everyone was wowed by what’s possible when you give the right individuals the right platforms and the right opportunities, and quite frankly when you get out of their way,” Fleharty said. 

Enriching the planet through green practices

Bank of the West prides itself on having one of the strongest environmental stances of any major U.S. bank.

“When you put money in the bank, it doesn’t just sit there. It goes out into the world and finances things,” Sorensen said. “Bank of the West has policies in place that restrict financing for what we believe to be the dirtiest forms of fossil fuel extraction — such as coal, fracking, tar sands and Arctic drilling — and other activities believed to be harmful to people and the planet, like Big Tobacco. We don’t support ventures we believe to be environmentally destructive, and feel strongly that what we don’t finance is as important as what we do.” 

The bank offers a checking account built for climate action, which donates a portion of its net revenue to environmental nonprofits. The account also features a carbon tracking app that allows customers to view the carbon impact of every purchase made with account’s debit cardThe carbon tracking tool, which will appear in the Bank of the West Mobile app for 1% for the Planet account, uses the Åland Index, a cloud-based service for carbon impact calculations, to provide a measurement of the potential carbon impact of purchases made with the 1% for the Planet debit card.The Innovation Lab team has plans to incorporate additional functionality into the next iteration of their prototype app as a way for Bank of the West customers to get a sense of how their everyday spending habits impact their carbon footprint.

Gaining a 360-degree perspective

Emerging technologies make it possible for businesses like Bank of the West to capture and analyze vast amounts of data. Armed with that data, the Innovation Lab helped to create a prototype for the bank’s Customer 360 Platform that delivers advanced customer insights with a click of a computer mouse. 

Haley Harelson, a data science major with a concentration in computer science in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, was one of the team members who worked on this platform. 

“The 360 platform makes it possible for a banker to see advanced customer insights on one dashboard,” she said. “It makes their workflow a lot easier and creates really creative data visualizations to better assist bankers as they pursue opportunities and close their referrals.” 

The platform awaits beta testing, but “so far, we’ve received a lot of really positive feedback from the bank’s sales and service departments because it’s a much more efficient workflow,” Harelson said. “Bankers don’t have to search for information through a lot of different mediums — it’s all in one place.” 

Developing disruptive digital leaders

As many as 80% of large businesses are in the midst of a digital transformation, according to McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. The partnership with ASU has helped Sorensen and Fleharty find disruptive digital talent. 

“When I took on the CIO role a few years ago, it became really clear to me that we’re not going to win by outsourcing our customer experience,” said Sorensen, who has been impressed with the level of talent, critical thinking and innovation he has encountered in ASU recruits. “If you haven’t been somewhat constrained by corporate America for the last 10 to 20 years, you can bring in a different way of solving problems and question the way to do things. It’s a different way to compete.”

Fleharty says creating a great digital experience today requires recruiting the technology leaders of tomorrow.

“That’s why we’re leveraging ASU to try to attract some of the top talent to help transform our organization in the coming years, reshaping the way we interact with customers, and help to build the digital products that separate us from our competition.”

Hands-on experience in a real business setting

Innovation Lab members gain experience in a think tank environment.

“It gives students the ability to work on projects or ideas that the Bank of the West is interested in exploring, and also provides students the opportunity to recommend products or technology to us,” Fleharty said. “So it absolutely goes both ways — we give students enough freedom to bring us ideas and innovation while also asking them to test or prove sample technology solutions that we are considering for the future.”

Innovation Lab students say the experience has been a boon to their careers. 

“Leading this team has really helped me develop my ability to take product vision from leadership and stakeholders, bring it to engineering, and ultimately take that idea and turn it into a reality that’s really closely aligned with their expectations," said Anundson, whose goal is to land a job in big tech after graduation. "I know as I move into my career, bridging that gap between leadership and development is going to be a crucial part of my work.

“I’ve especially enjoyed how we, as a group of college students, have been able to deliver tangible value to the Bank of the West in the form of software products and business initiative ideas, and how they really cleared the red tape for us, giving us freedom and trust to develop new ideas and iterate on them super rapidly."

Harelson, who envisions herself working in technical product management at a company that drives social impact, said, “It’s great because they literally treat us like consultants. I think the hands-on learning is fundamental to any college student’s success because it does prepare you for real-world experiences, things you can’t replicate in a classroom environment.” 

Are you a student who is interested in joining ASU’s Luminosity Lab? Contact the lab at luminosity@asu.edu

If your organization would like to work with a team of high-performing students to innovate solutions, contact ASU’s Business Concierge at corporate@asu.edu.

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