Dont miss our awards deadlines
Feature

From foster care to fintech comms: Revolut’s Chad West on turning his life around

With nominations for this year's Future 50 currently open, we profile last year's inductees. We catch up with Revolut’s global marketing and comms director Chad West who talks us through the personal and professional problems he has overcome on his journey so far.

From his modern apartment in a sought-after part of East London, Chad West is recalling the moment when, aged 16 and after a childhood spent shuffling between a succession of Aberdeen foster carers, he found out he was being made homeless. “In Scotland, you’re treated as an adult at 16, which basically means the social work department wipe their hands of you and say, ‘now go find help elsewhere’. So there was me, just about to sit my exams, and I was told, ‘the homeless department of the city council building is round the street, go speak to them’.”

When he got there, directions to a local B&B were waiting for him. “A part of me thought, ‘bed and breakfast – brilliant’.” What the innocent teenager hadn’t banked on, however, was that his neighbors in the emergency accommodation would be significantly more streetwise than he was. “So there I am, 16 years old and with spots on my face, rocking up to this B&B to find every neighbor had scars down their face, no teeth. There was always a police car outside every night pulling someone away.”

Nominations for this year’s Future 50 are currently open. If you’d like to nominate yourself, or a colleague, for our list of the best rising stars and emerging marketers in the world, follow this link.

Despite the unsparing introduction to adult life, West says he “loved” his newfound independence. A space of his own in the city, no matter how humble, represented a giant leap forward for a youngster who had shared a mattress on the floor with his sister as one of six siblings growing up to a single mother in Torry, one of the most deprived areas of Aberdeen. But no stranger to cruel fortune, West’s relative comfort was short-lived.

After six weeks in the B&B, he was abruptly shunted into a council-owned bedsit. “That’s when it hit me that I had to do my own cooking, clean my own clothes. I had to wash my uniform for school in the morning. And at that point, I wasn’t getting any benefits. I was literally living on handouts from the social work department, which was like a £20 voucher every couple of days to go and get milk and eggs and some washing detergent. Even when you’re in foster care or a B&B, there’s still a little sense of a security net there. You don’t have to worry about paying bills. And suddenly now I was, and you know, for a 16-year-old, all that is pretty mental.”

West’s story is made more remarkable because of what comes next. 12 years on from having nothing but a voucher in his pocket, he is today the head of communications and brand at Revolut, a $1.7bn fintech startup. “When you’re younger, you’re embarrassed by it, right? If you come from a foster care background or whatever it may be, you’re hiding it because you know you’ll get picked on for it. And then I think, when you get older, you start to appreciate that that upbringing has molded you and shaped you. And that, arguably, you wouldn’t be where you are today without it.”

As West acknowledges, “most people don’t get into senior positions at big tech companies unless they come from first class honors degree at London School of Economics”. He got there through sheer force of will. “I remember being about 12 or 13 and at this new school. I kept thinking to myself, ‘fuck’s sake, everyone keeps pointing out the fact I don’t have Rockport shoes or a Puma bag, that I’m wearing a cheap shirt’. And I just thought, only I can fix it. No one’s gonna give me a handout. No one’s gonna give me money.”

Business was West’s escape. At school, he showed an early aptitude for entrepreneurialism by saving up his lunch money to buy toffee from the local wholesaler, which he then sold door-to-door in middle class suburbs. “No one could turn away a young blond-haired, blue-eyed boy at their doorstep selling toffee, making up some bullshit that it was for my school trip to Spain or some nonsense when I didn’t even have a passport.”

After school came a stint in the RAF cadets (“massive in terms of discipline and routine”) and a college course in computing in business, which helped West make the connections that would ultimately lead to a job working for a PR agency in the south of England. In one of life’s little ironies, the lad who had so recently been homeless now found himself working on public affairs for house builders.

West was quickly realising, however, that his real passion lay in the startup scene. He “took a punt” and applied for a role with Rocket Internet, the massive Berlin tech fund that has grown brands including Zoolando and Hello Fresh, and was hired to work on marketing and PR for Helpling, an online cleaner-booking platform. Then, in 2017, a LinkedIn message reached his inbox out of the blue from a man called Nikolay, the Russian owner of then little-known banking startup Revolut.

“As soon as I met Nikolay and the other members of the founding team, I just knew this is the environment for me. It was a three-hour interview with six people. 20 minutes after leaving it, Nikolay called me and said, ‘so, do you want the job?’ I’d barely got to the Tube station. In my mind, I was like, if I try and stall this guy and say, ‘I need to speak to my partner’, or ‘I need to think about it’, he’s probably gonna lose interest or be like, ‘nope, wrong answer’. So I just accepted it on the phone.”

Four years on with a company that can count 10 million customers around the world, West is in no doubt that he made the right decision – even allowing for Revolut’s goal of becoming the first major fintech company to reach profitability being somewhat slowed by the pandemic. “Coronavirus obviously resulted in a dip in customer activity. Fewer people were making day-to-day domestic payments, card spending and traveling went down. But trading of stocks and cryptocurrencies went up. So there was good and bad, but the reality was, you know, that will take a hit on your revenues.”

The company hasn’t cut its marketing department, like many do in a recession, but he admits it is being more “conservative” with its spend. “It’s about us being comfortable that, OK, growth might slightly slow down, but we’re not spending loads of money.” That means, for instance, not running outdoor ads of the provocative kind the brand once did when it was striving to get noticed. “I know it’s a lovely thing to do, and you can snap a picture of it and send it to The Drum and it looks nice and it’s good for building brand. But does it actually work for acquisition? Not really.”

Because Revolut relies on referrals, West considers community marketing is its most important vehicle. His big focus right now is influencer marketing is in the US, where foreign nationals typically find opening a bank account an exercise in jumping through hoops that can drag on for months. Enter Revolut, which can reduce the ordeal to a matter of minutes. “I’m working with really good Mexican-American influencers in Texas and California and Florida. And a lot of these people come from hard backgrounds, so we’re working with them on genuine, empathetic stories.”

From Torry to Texas, West now finds himself inhabiting a world in which he’s completely at home.

Nominations for this year’s Future 50 are currently open. If you’d like to nominate yourself, or a colleague, for our list of the best rising stars and emerging marketers in the world, follow this link.

By continuing to use The Drum, I accept the use of cookies as per The Drum's privacy policy