Where Are You Now?

Chris Fairs

Maria Harris

Post Graduate Certificate in Management Practice (2005)

Maria Harris is Director of Lending at Atom Bank. Atom bank is an app-based bank that does not have any physical branches, the bank's head office is based in the North East. Maria studied at the University of Sunderland in 2005 and achieved a PGCert in Management Practice.


We caught up with Maria and wanted to know what being the Director of Lending involves, Maria replied, ‘I manage the bank’s retail mortgage and business banking lending.  We were the first fully digital bank to launch in the UK and I had the honour of setting up our truly disruptive mortgage process.  In our first 2 years we’ve done over £2billion in new lending and helped more than 12,000 people either buy or remortgage their home’.

Being so auspicious, we wanted to know why Maria chose to study at Sunderland, she replied, ‘I’d never been to university before so as a mature student, I wanted to study somewhere that felt supportive and recognised the challenges of fitting study around the logistics of work. The course I studied was perfectly designed to do that and was practical in the way that it applied to my current job but also my future career aspirations.’ Maria viewed this as her biggest challenge and told us, ‘Getting my degree was really tough.  I was 30 years old when I started, working full-time as head of a contact centre and balancing being a working mum with a 6-year-old and an 11-month old baby.  My husband undoubtedly got the sharp end of the deal’.

However, that hard work paid off and Maria tells us about her greatest achievement to date, ‘Launching Atom is probably the most momentous thing I’ll ever do in my life.  To be the first digital bank and to create a bit of history here in the North-East is beyond anything I thought I’d ever get the chance to do’.

We wanted to know what was next for Atom and for Maria, ‘We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg with transforming the banking industry and rebuilding trust in banks so there’s a lot I’d still like to do to improve the customer experience, especially around mortgages.  My long-term plan is to move out to Spain and do some consultancy and non-exec work from there’.

As everyone works differently, we asked Maria where and how she works best, ‘I’m an introvert by nature so I like working best with small groups of people where you really get to know each other’s strengths and can work closely to see something through.  I usually have my best ideas at around 3am though so I have to keep a pen and paper at hand’.

As people are often shaped by their influences we wanted to know where Maria found her inspiration, ‘That’s a hard question as there are so many.  The person I quote most is Maya Angelou, the American civil rights activist and author amongst other things. She was inspirational for the fearless way she lived her life and she didn’t write her first book until she was 40.  For any new to role managers, I always recommend First Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham which was one of the first management books I ever read and I still go back to now’.

We asked Maria what she would have done differently given the opportunity, ‘I would have been much braver and more decisive in my choices. Confidence definitely comes with age and experience and hindsight is a wonderful gift, but it’s okay to fail or try something that doesn’t work out as long as you learn from it’.

We always like to try and obtain a grain of advice from each of our alumni, Maria said that the best piece of advice that she received was, ‘To be authentic. You’re the only person who can be the best version of you’. We also like to pass on a successful graduate’s advice to our recent graduates, Maria’s advice is, ‘It’s tough standing out in a competitive crowd so draw on your experiences and passions in and out of your degree – what’s the thing that makes you so uniquely, specially you and will add to the most value to the company you’re joining?  And find something that you love to do.  Life is way too short to do a job that you don’t enjoy or where the culture doesn’t fit with your values’.

Finally we asked Maria what she would want her legacy to be, she replied, ‘As part of building Atom bank, we’ve created something special with over 300 new and exciting jobs in the North-East which is a great legacy.  I’d want to be remembered as the woman who shook up the mortgage industry and blazed a trail for the very talented generation of women who will lead the banks and fintechs of our future’.

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