When Tony Aguilar pitches his company to potential investors, they’ll often say, “This is brilliant but — what’s the catch? Why hasn’t anyone tried this before?
Tony is the founder of StudentLoanGenius, which helps companies manage their employees’ student loan debt like a 401(k). The answer to the investors’ question is at once complex and incredibly simple: Tony’s idea was remarkable and innovative because it was inspired by his own lived experience.
Too many investors, blinded by the shortcuts of “pattern recognition”, stick to a narrow range of ideas shaped by their own echo chamber — rather than a real understanding of customer needs. In the sarcastic words of one investor we know, “It’s amazing how smart you become overnight when you represent capital.”
The best way to fix this problem is to make entrepreneurship more inclusive. Instead of focusing primarily on pedigree, investors should actively search for entrepreneurs who are solving real-world problems that they experience or are intimately familiar with. This not only results in more impactful investments, it also offers a competitive advantage to forward-thinking investors. After all, from a customer’s perspective, it doesn’t matter where a company’s founder went to school — only whether they make a great product.
Our organizations, Village Capital and GroundWork, are committed to lifting up entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds and experiences. We’ve compiled a few examples of entrepreneurs we know or have invested in — many of them in the FinTech sector — who embody the powerful potential that occurs when entrepreneurial thinking is supported, enlightened and enhanced by lived experience.
In 2007, when Frederick Hutson was in his early 20’s, he was sentenced to 51 months in federal prison on marijuana charges.
A serial entrepreneur who sold his first business at age 19, he spent his time behind bars writing business plans. One of those plans was for a company that would solve a problem he saw firsthand: the outrageous price of phone calls for prisoners. For years, sweetheart contracts between prison officials and phone companies led to high phone rates — up to $70 for 300 minutes.
Upon his release, Frederick founded Pigeon.ly to offer an alternative. His company uses Google Voice-like technology to cut the cost of calls home up to 80 percent. Pigeonly also offers a photo sharing service that allows people to easily send printed photos from their cell phone or computer. Though still young, they’ve shipped over 1 million photos and processed over 8 million phone minutes since Pigeonly launched.
Frederick leads a growing team of over 20 people from their Las Vegas headquarters and has raised nearly $5MM in funding from investors including Erik Moore and Mitch Kapor.
PYT Funds, Inc.
Stacie Whisonant is the CEO and Founder of PYT Funds Inc. PYT stands for “pay your tuition”, which can be a stressful challenge for over 12 million students every year who lack resources, credit or a co-signer with credit, and need to borrow at high rates to help cover tuition costs. Student debt nearly tripled between 2004 and 2012 — part of the reason that just over half of students who enter America’s colleges and universities graduate within six years.
Stacie was one of those students. A Virginia native, she attended Longwood University, and struggled to keep up with tuition payments. She covered costs by signing up to serve in the US Army Reserves while completing college. In 2003, her senior year of college, America went to war, and the disruption nearly led her to leave school.
Stacie ended up graduating, and after ten years in banking and finance she founded PYT Funds to offer an alternative solution for students in her situation. The company offers the only private secured student loan, and employs an alternative data-driven scoring model that treats students as more than a traditional FICO score.
Luis and Francisco Cervera
Luis and Francisco Cervera founded eMoneyPool, which today manages informal lending circles for millions of Americans each year.
What’s a money pool? For 30 million people in the U.S., mostly all of them immigrants, it’s your primary point of access to financial services: a group funded pool of money where group members take turns borrowing from the common fund to pay for emergencies or large-planned expenses. No interest is exchanged between group members because the system is based solely on reciprocity. For Filipinos in LA, or Ethiopians in Washington, D.C., your money pool might be an envelope of cash kept in the most respected woman in your network’s kitchen, which you can access with group consent. Money pools are turning over millions of dollars — yet there’s no cash security for participants, and unlike traditional financial services, they don’t help build credit.
Luis and Francisco didn’t discover a 30-million-person, billion-dollar market in a vacuum — they grew up with money pools. Their mother, an immigrant, used money pools to put them through school, and their early customers included people in their extended network who were familiar with the practice. Their company is now thriving business, and, for many, an alternative to predatory lending practices.
Student Loan Genius
As the son of two immigrant parents, Tony graduated from college with large student loan debt and a dream to be a business owner. But his lack of financial savings and personal bandwidth made it hard for him to start his entrepreneurial journey.
His corporate career started with American Airlines, where he was hopeful that the company could help him with his student debt. But even though the airline could offer him a 401k plan and a gym membership, loan reimbursement was not on the table. Tony pitched his idea of a corporate-sponsored loan forgiveness plan, but was turned away.
Tony soon left his job at the airline and, with help from the Capital Factory in Austin, founded StudentLoanGenius. Within his first year, he secured contracts with John Hancock and Prudential. To date, he has reached over a million employees who are eligible to have their employer sponsor student loan repayment.
In the summer 2015, President Barack Obama took Kenya by storm in a homecoming visit. In a keynote address to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and an arena full of Kenyan citizens, he highlighted the importance of investing in startup founders from diverse backgrounds. “If you’re playing a game, and only half your team is on the field, you’re not going to win,” he said. The next day he said that not involving women in the economy “is stupid,” to thunderous applause.
The embarrassing truth is that here in the United States, we are also playing shorthanded. Entrepreneurs who are women, people of color, and individuals from underserved communities are too often left on the sidelines, either unable to attract serious attention from investors or unable to get a great idea off the ground to begin with. Building inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems — fueled by the power of lived experience — is the right thing to do if we’re going to fully leverage the strengths and genius of our entrepreneurial community.
This article was adapted from “Lived Experience: The X Factor in Finding Great Companies”, from MIT’s Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization journal.