Arriving at PayPal six months ago to head its credit operations, Kathleen Pierce-Gilmore felt an immediate and refreshing change in the atmosphere, compared with the stuffier air at her previous financial services jobs.
"It's definitely not your average banking environment," Pierce-Gilmore said. "People wear jeans. I can be in a sweater or a suit, or Converse shoes, because what matters are ideas, not fitting into a certain look. I feel like I'm part of a new world here."
Pierce-Gilmore joined PayPal after spending more than four years managing credit card operations and cobranded card relationships at Capital One. Prior to that that she spent nearly six years in executive posts at American Express.
She has her work cut out for her at PayPal, where she's developing and expanding PayPal's consumer credit services based on Bill Me Later, which the company acquired under its former parent, eBay, in 2008 for about $1 billion (eBay, which bought PayPal in 2002, spun it off in mid-2015).
The credit unit is ready to spread its wings now that PayPal is flying solo, and Pierce-Gilmore is eager to lead the push to use new technology and marketing strategies to make PayPal's credit services available to a broader range of consumers than those who typically use credit.
Pierce-Gilmore also plans to extend the reach of PayPal's credit services to many new merchants, while she also revamps PayPal's own credit card operations.
"We're creating an alternative lending solution," Pierce-Gilmore said, noting that while the audience PayPal wants to reach with credit is broad, young adults that have largely eschewed credit are a clear focus.
"PayPal has a special opportunity here because our brand resonates with younger people and with those looking for new financial alternatives," she said.
What gets Pierce-Gilmore revved up is the prospect of leveraging PayPal's formidable technology to create solid, real-time credit approval systems that are simple to use and flexible enough to meet diverse needs. "Our mission is to encourage people to take control of their money and to encourage financial responsibility with credit and our other financial services," she said.
Financial discipline is especially important to Pierce-Gilmore, who learned it the hard way, growing up in a family that often got in over its head with money.
"I was born in Las Vegas and when my parents divorced, my brother and I lived with my mom below the poverty line in California, leaning too much on credit cards, which became detrimental," she said. "My parents suffered a lot from debt, and avoiding those mistakes became a passion for me."
An exceptionally eager student, Pierce-Gilmore first wanted to be a scientist, and was accepted into a unique "integrated sciences" program at Northwestern University, where she earned a B.A. that combined math, physics, chemistry and biology.
Neuroscience fascinates Gilmore to this day, but her first college summer spent in a lab quelled her passion for the minutiae of laboratory work and seeking grants to fund it.
After graduation, Gilmore was immediately recruited into business consulting, where she was swept into "a whirlwind" of business engagements, traveling and working directly with C-level executives. "I learned a lot, but I felt a lack of tangible ownership of actual outcomes, which led me to banking."
Joining American Express initially as a consultant, Gilmore did a variety of work there that fed her knowledge of financial services before she left for a job at Capital One, where she concentrated on credit cards.
When the PayPal opportunity emerged, Pierce-Gilmore was eager to explore the chance to break out of traditional financial services. "I was ready and it's really the right fit," she says.
Under Pierce-Gilmore, PayPal is enhancing its credit underwriting systems to make it easier for first-time borrowers to get instant credit. PayPal has access to different sets of data than what banks typically use when deciding whether to extend consumers credit for retail purchases, Pierce-Gilmore explained, and she sees big latitude to harness that.
"As we watch people's behavior in transacting through PayPal, we can see the funding resources they're loading to their wallets and their spending patterns, which—combined with external data—gives a pretty rich view of their financial picture," she said.
Millennials using Venmo, the P2P app PayPal acquired as part of its 2013 purchase of Braintree, also are prospects for PayPal's credit services, Pierce-Gilmore said.
On the merchant side, Pierce-Gilmore says PayPal's goal is to streamline services so merchants can quickly and easily add secure, instant-credit options to their websites and apps.
What will set PayPal's credit services apart is their versatility, Pierce-Gilmore predicts.
"We want to create more credit products that have discipline built into them, where consumers can choose how they want to repay loans and stay in front of their finances," she said. "We want to build in flexibility, so if we want to extend an individual's credit line or lower their APR, we can do that too."
The fact that she's a female executive in Silicon Valley—a zone that's often described as dominated by males—doesn't cross Pierce-Gilmore's mind often.
"It's true that I'm the only woman at this level on the credit team at PayPal, but I feel like I'm helping to raise women up here, and there are plenty of opportunities," she said. "PayPal is a big company but it still has a startup culture, and I never feel pushed aside. I feel valued for my unique perspective as a woman; it's been an amazing experience."
At home, Pierce-Gilmore is extremely busy, sharing parenting duties with her husband Peter, caring for their three children ages 10, 7 and 5. "I spend a lot of my free time cheering my people on at basketball courts and on soccer fields," she said.
An avid runner who loves California's vineyard culture, Pierce-Gilmore and her husband have found a unique way to combine vacation and fun: "We like to combine running marathons with wine-country events," she said. "It's efficient!"