The Women to Watch: No. 16, Santander's Maria Veltre

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Head of digital, innovation and payments strategy, Santander U.S.

Maria Veltre knows what it's like to feel disrespected. Early in her career, she was in mid-sentence when a senior executive turned her back and walked away. Veltre vowed never to make others feel the way she did in that moment, no matter what their situation or station.

That experience helped inspire her work as chief marketing officer for the U.S. unit of the Spanish Banco Santander when she was asked to build a campaign around the concept of respect. She decided to shine a spotlight on an under-respected population: the working homeless.

Santander launched "In Someone Else's Shoes," which invited people to experience a day in the life of 'Jen,' a nurse living out of her car. At a microsite or an augmented reality expo, audiences walked through some of the setbacks someone like Jen might face — for example, coming home to find a boot on her car or a smashed window. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, a quarter of homeless people in the United States are employed.

The campaign netted Santander two web-based awards: a Webby Award for its use of augmented reality and a Shorty Award for using its platform to advance a social good. It also helped the bank associate its name with the concept of respect and funneled some money to a worthy cause, raising $200,000 for Heading Home, a Boston-area nonprofit that helps homeless people secure permanent housing.

"Thinking, behaving, experiencing things like you're in someone else's shoes is a way to respect them, to understand them, and to build respect through understanding," Veltre said of the campaign. "It was our way of drawing attention to a population that's in need of respect."

Veltre joined Santander in September 2016 and was promoted last year to head of digital, innovation and payments strategy for Santander U.S. As part of that role, she is in charge of launching new products and services in Santander's U.S. markets and using digital technology to streamline operations and payment strategy, among other responsibilities.

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Shortly after she entered the banking industry, Veltre said she discovered a passion for finding insights in numbers and data and turning those into a reality. The tools to help her do so have evolved significantly over her 33 years in the industry, she said.

Augmented reality, for example, made the "In Someone Else's Shoes" campaign — which Veltre said the bank will repeat again this year — possible.

New content marketing tools have also enabled Prosper and Thrive, a web hub created to appeal to millennials with personal finance advice. Veltre said the point of the site isn't to sell more bank products, adding, "We don't think that's necessarily authentic, and we try to write in an authentic way."

Rather, it's an effort to make more millennials aware of Santander as a brand, she said. To determine whether it's working the way they want it to, the bank's marketing team looks at factors like the number of page views, time spent reading articles, and surveys of consumers before and after having visited the site. Veltre said the bank can even measure whether visitors to the site become Santander customers over a longer period of time.

To be able to reach its goals, it's critical to cultivate talent, Veltre said. Some of that means keeping up with what's going on in the industry, staying in touch with specialty firms that know the latest technology, and networking in search of new talent to bring onto the team.

But it also means making sure her employees feel supported in their work environment. In addition to mentoring and participating in women's employee resource groups, Veltre said it's important to get to know her staff and their particular needs. Some will feel more motivated by recognition for their hard work in the office, she said, while others might feel more motivated knowing they have their supervisor's support when they need to take care of familial obligations.

"It may sound a little trivial, but in some ways it's about how people feel," she said. "It's the little things that matter, it's the little things that people notice every day."

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