A kid from Haiti, former investment banker turned FinTech founder on a mission to deliver financial health.
A kid from Haiti, former investment banker turned FinTech founder on a mission to deliver financial health.
Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
I grew up in Haiti up until I was ten, and then moved to the States and attended school in South Florida. For the most part, growing up in Haiti was great—as a kid, you don’t know any different, right? It’s your reality. Then I was sort of transported into a completely different culture, different lifestyle, with infrastructure that is vastly different than what I was used to. Some simple things required major adjustments, like taking a shower—we had a well that we’d pull water from it instead of just turning a knob. I also had a very active childhood – running around outside, playing soccer with my friends, unlike the States where video games and TV shows ruled the childhood experience. The shift was somewhat of a shock but I grew to appreciate both experiences.
What was the impetus of coming to the states for you?
So my father had been going back and forth between Haiti and the States for a number of years, he had been doing business here. He didn’t actually plan for me to make the transition until I was much older, he thought I was too young and impressionable and really wanted to protect me from what he considered to be an undesirable cultural shift. I didn’t understand that then but completely appreciate it now. Things were really expedited out of circumstances, back in ’92, the President at the time, Aristide, was overthrown. At that point Haiti was very chaotic and unsafe, schools were being shut down, and there was just so much uncertainty. It was the best option then.
So at that point in your life, having internalized the culture of where you’re from, what other forms of culture shock did you experience other than video games and TV shows everywhere?
Growing up in Haiti, —the issue of race isn’t such a big aspect of life. There’s classism for sure and it’s much more economic-based. Typically the elite and economically powerful class in Haiti were lighter skinned individuals, but it was never viewed as white versus black. I didn’t grow up with that lens, but coming to the U.S. and being told by my cousins and others that collectively, we were limited because there were things that the “white man” would never let us do. Which was just reflective of the environment in the U.S. , the concept of race and its institutional impact were indoctrinated into them at such a young age. For me, it was more like—if I’m the best at what I do, I should be able to achieve whatever it is that I want to achieve. That is what’s engrained in you in Haiti. It’s all about education and rising—using education to get to the next level. The vision of success to a Haitian family and probably to most immigrants, is that their kid becomes a doctor, a lawyer, engineer, or an architect. If you ask the question, “what do you want your kids to be?” That will likely be the answer. –Business, actually interestingly enough, in Haiti wasn’t viewed as the profession to get into. They are mostly mom and pop shops focused on selling goods that were imported from the U.S. Popular, big name, well established companies and corporations were not present in Haiti, so running a business didn’t really come from a point of pride as being a businessman. The people who were viewed as the elite were your doctors, engineers, architects, and your lawyers, so everyone wanted their kids to grow up to be those professionals, because that was a point of pride.
Did you feel that pressure?
Definitely, when I came to the U.S. I was set on being a doctor and did a magnet program back in Florida at a medical magnet high school. So yeah, I was on that path, and then I woke up and thought, “Man, this is crazy—eight years of school and then residency, etc. no way.” I had always been attracted to business. Even in Haiti, my parents owned a small store, what would be considered to be a bodega-type store here in the U.S. We lived out in the suburbs, so when I’d go into the city to school, on the way back home, I was probably seven or eight, but I would buy these local patties for, let’s say, 50 cents and then go back and sell each for a dollar in my parents’ store. It was just like, that hustle—I always had it, I guess. I was always attracted to business, my mind naturally worked that way—looking for opportunities and figuring out ways to turn 50 cents into a dollar. When I came the U.S., the plan was to be a doctor. During that magnet program, I quickly realized that I really didn’t want to do that. I’d be sitting in class reading about the stock market, the companies being bought, M&As, and I had no clue what it was but I was always intrigued by it and would constantly be thinking about, “What is the strategy for this business? Buying this business, what’s going to happen here with—?” It was constantly on my mind. As well as sports, I was big into sports and still love sports. I’d be the kid in class reading the newspaper, and reading the sports and business sections cover to cover. Finally, when I got to college, I went in as a double major—I was convinced I was going to be the next Jerry Maguire. I figured, I love business, I love sports, so I’d match them together and be the next Jerry Maguire, but I knew that that industry was very hard to break into. My backup plan was a double major in finance and in engineering, because I liked math and knew landing a sports management job would be tough. Crazy, I know, but fortunately during the first week or two of school at University of Florida, I discovered that they had a sports management program. I thought, “perfect.” It was the ideal combination. I figured, I can use the sports management major to better understand the sports business and use the finance major to understand the financial aspects of things. Worst case scenario, I would simply work for a company in finance because I liked that anyway. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to experience both sides. During my summers in undergrad, I interned with a manufacturing company, and I worked in transportation logistics one summer, treasury one summer and marketing one summer, so I was able to get access and exposure to different aspects of the business. Then during my last rotation with that company, I got introduced to a sports agent. The company occasionally collaborated with a former NFL player, I met the former player’s agent and was also offered an internship opportunity with him in LA for four months. This was the dream job, right? I wanted to be a sports agent and I finally got to work with a sports agency, but I quickly realized then too, that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. Part of that was as much as I enjoyed it, I always had this tug within me to go back to Haiti and do economic development and I thought about what it would take to do that. I knew I also needed a broad set of business and management skills. So I decided to revert to my finance background and went back to work for the same company that I’d interned with for three summers. I joined their treasury group, and long story short, after two years there, I went to business school, then went to Wall Street and now Lend Street.
Give me a little rundown of LendStreet.
Sure. AtLendStreet, we are a socially conscious lending company with a mission to deliver financial health to the more than 75 million Americans struggling with debt. We offer loans specifically designed to help our clients modify, refinance and reduce their existing debt, and lower their payments. Our clients are people who have so much debt that every month, the minimum payments required on those debt eat up most of their income. We provide solutions to help those people get out of debt, reduce their monthly payments and also be able to rebuild their credit and get back in the system quicker. Our thesis is that many of these individuals are obviously good people and people who historically had good credit because they’ve been able to access 30, 40, 50 thousand dollars of credit card debt, but something happened. A lot of times, they built up those sort of balance because they experienced a financial shock. Now, they are looking for a solution for debt relief. Typically, creditors are willing to provide relief when someone is in distress, but they usually require a short-term payment plan or a lump sum and the consumermay not have the ability to come up with either, therefore he/she can’t even take advantage of the relief. We have trusted companies that negotiate on behalf of our clients and we put up the money so they can take advantage of the discount that the banks are willing to give. We give them a lower interest rate, lower payment, and a longer time to pay. Today, the options available to them are credit counseling, debt settlement and bankruptcy. Credit counseling provide some interest and payment relief but doesn’t provide principal relief. Debt settlement requires consumers to be delinquent on their debt for a long period of time while they save up enough money to negotiate with the bank. There’s some value to that but the main problem with that model is that the consumers ruins their credit scores and there’s no mechanism to rebuild it. The other option which is the most common solution people think of when they’re in financial distress – bankruptcy, is definitely not the optimal solution and can end up resulting in an even bigger trap. Every time you complete an application, whether it’s for a job or renting a home—there’s one question consistently asked on all of those applications, and it’s, “have you ever filed for bankruptcy?” So, there’s a permanent scarlet letter that can keep families from living in the neighborhood that provides better education opportunities for their kids simply because they were looking for a solution to get out of debt; there’s a real ripple effect to bankruptcy. The LendStreet model leverages the best of the credit counseling, debt settlement and bankruptcy models, without all of the adverse impacts, and make up for all of their limitations.
What was it like going from Wall Street to Silicon Valley? What is similar? What’s different? What surprised you?
There are vast differences between Wall Street and Silicon Valley but also many similarities. Wall Street, like Silicon Valley, attracts some of the brightest minds the country has to offer. They both pride themselves on problem solving, innovation, and wealth creation. They both require a strong work ethic, ambition, and infinite amount of caffeine. Seriously though, there are quite a number of similarities, the difference is in their perspective on companies. On Wall Street, it’s not about company building it’s about monetizing companies. In Silicon Valley, it’s much more about the process of building great companies and taking the risk to get those companies to the point where Wall Street can monetize them. As a result, you see major differences in the way bankers think about companies and the way VCs and Silicon Valley think about companies.
So, I feel like Silicon Valley gets a little bit of flack for building products that are a bit self-serving—like delivering bananas to that bowl or whatever [chuckles]. What has it been like in your experience building something that’s the opposite, like building for a user case and an experience that many people in Silicon Valley can’t relate to?
I don’t know if it’s right or wrong—I think a lot of these companies in the Valley, while they may seem self-serving,—entrepreneurs solve problems they know. So I don’t look at products like people delivering bananas as a bad thing. I think there’s a demand for convenience, and potentially time and cost savings being created for consumers. Somebody is getting enough value out of that service for them to be willing to pay for it. As a capitalist, I understand the value of those companies but as a social entrepreneur, those aren’t necessarily companies that I would start, because for me, I’m excited about creating value, not only to my investors, but also for society in a way that creates systems change. How can we serve the segment of the population that need help the most in a way that exponentially improve their lives and their children’s lives? That’s the question that drives me, but I also have different life experiences that has made that a top priority for me. So I think the rap is probably not fairly deserved because there are a ton of companies in the Valley that are equally creating solutions and products that are going to fundamentally alter and improve our lives. Like entrepreneurs who build companies to solve problems they know, investors fund companies that are solving problems they know. I mean it’s normal. If you’re an investor and you can see the problem, you can empathize with the problem, you understand the market, you understand the market opportunity, it’s easier for you to say, “Yeah, I get this.” Big market? Yes. Great team? Yes. Great product? Yes. Does it solve a problem? Yes. It’s even harder when you’re selling or building a product that, the people you’re trying to pitch cannot identify with. It’s not easily understood. Also, being an outsider adds another layer of difficulty.
How has that impacted fundraising and building the company?
You have to pitch probably five times more people. It’s a longer process, it’s much more difficult, but you have to believe in what you’re doing. The general belief is that if they’re in financial distress, they may be dead beats and not pay back their debt. We had to prove that consumers who are dealing with financial distress, are not dishonorable people, there’s just a gap between intent and capacity. The intent is there, the capacity isn’t. We are bridging that intent-capacity gap..
On the positive side, what has been the most exciting and activating things about your work as an entrepreneur and within the subject matter that we’re working on?
You know, when you pick up the phone and you’re talking to an individual who’s going through this major life circumstance but you clearly can tell they’re looking for a solution. We had a client preparing for his wife’s kidney transplant surgery and recovery process and to hear him say that they’re on the list 18 months out, but he’s preparing now for that imminent event, knowing that his cash flow will be less, or as a household will be less in 18 months; when you are engaging with clients like that, and you are able to provide solutions that help them get relief and help them prepare, I mean, that’s incredible. Our mission internally is, deliver financial health, it’s that simple. As a company, that’s all we’re going to be focused on doing, bringing products to market that will deliver financial health. And to be able to engage someone and hear that story, and provide a solution that helps him during this critical, stressful moment—and to hear that relief when you say, “Hey, we’re going to give you the loan, and this is how much we’re going to settle for you, and this is what the loan is going to be, etc.” It’s rewarding and every day, that’s what we’re doing. So it’s exciting. It’s hard work [chuckles]. Don’t get me wrong. It’s really hard work, but it’s exciting to be able to help people and make money doing it.
This question kind of comes from my own personal experience of feeling otherness—we talked about this at coffee—and generally feeling like an outsider. You kind of touched on this with not going to Ivy League, and you’re working on a product that maybe not everyone can empathize with. I’m curious how that contributes to any feelings of otherness that you may feel, or whether or not you’ve found support networks that totally balance that out.
There’s certainly a feeling of otherness. When I moved here, I had a few friends in the Bay Area, but I wasn’t part of the network. There’s some otherness in that you’re solving a problem that is much different, and so it’s outside of the Valley’s box. You’re also an entrepreneur who looks different than in the “prototype”. If you’re saying the data says, ”if this person looks like this, and acts like this, and has this type of product, this background, there’s a strong likelihood of success,” then I get it but ”data is inherently biased.” So I think that aspect of otherness: if you can’t, again, empathize with the product, you can’t empathize with the solution and you can’t empathize with the entrepreneur bringing that product to market, it’s human nature to not be as excited about what the potential for that solution may be. The feeling of otherness is certainly there, you learn to block it out. As an entrepreneur, you’re overcoming obstacles daily. That’s your job. It’s, overcome obstacles or die. There’s no clear path to that solution. There’s no clear path to where you’re going. You’re forging that every day. I acknowledge the otherness, and certainly knowing what that entails allows you to prepare for it, but it means that you have to be open to figuring out solutions and working hard. And put your head down and get to that point where you can prove to others that this is the right solution. In terms of feeling of otherness, I think it’s just a matter of acknowledging it, like anything else prepare for it, and then just move forward. You can’t control it so there’s no point in wasting time trying to— time is your most precious resource as an entrepreneur, so you just put your head down and go to work.
What other kind of big lessons have you learned in your years as an entrepreneur? You just spat out some good ones.
Let’s see. Big lessons…
What do you wish you had known early on?
First and foremost, entrepreneurs are inherently optimists. And so the process can be—not can be, will be difficult, and for an optimist it bodes well because you always think you’ll be able to overcome it. But I don’t think you realize how much time it really will take initially, nor that you appreciate at the outset how hard it is to build a company and to build a culture and to build a product that people want and so forth. And so I think the main thing is you have to be committed to what you’re doing. You have to believe in yourself despite the many no’s you’ll get, despite the doubts you’ll hear. You have to believe in what you’re doing. You have to be consistent, and you have to get up and go to work everyday. And just be laser focused on what you’re doing and not allow the noise to get in the way—which isn’t easy—I don’t think there’s one entrepreneur who can say that they don’t allow the noise to impact them. Even some of the most successful ones, after learning that, you still do it. If you could figure out how to minimize that impact of the noise daily, then, you’re better off for it. I think also, more importantly, entrepreneurship is really a passion. It’s not something you can just do half-heartedly. It’s tough. It’s a long road, it’s a long journey and every bit of it is earned. Nothing is given to you. At least, those are the lessons that I’ve learned over the time.
This is so good. Okay. How do you think the coordination of background and life experiences impact the way you approach your work?
Yeah. I mean. The combination of my life experiences. It’s being myself, living with parents who were working two jobs to make ends meet and to make sure you had a roof over your head, have food, and was focused on your education— but also, dealing with financial problems, right? And— coming from a country that’s the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, but the one thing you learn if you ever visit Haiti is the people, regardless of how poor they may be, are proud, and there’s a strong sense of happiness. There’s also a strong sense of resourcefulness in those individuals that every day, as hard as it may be, they don’t whine and they don’t complain. They wake up every day with a smile. They wake up every day and do whatever it takes to see the next day and to survive and work through it. And so I think that’s inherent. I mean, I would say if there was a DNA model for an entrepreneur; that is it, resourcefulness and every day waking up regardless of the circumstances, and trying to figure out a solution to a problem. And so all of that I sort of attribute to my upbringing, both here in the States, as well as in Haiti, and to my parents. And I think it’s also a culmination of the professional experiences that I’ve had. It’s working in corporate finance, and then working on Wall Street, helping big businesses restructure and refinance, and taking some of those lessons and saying, how do we apply that to the consumer space and give consumers the same solutions that we’re giving the major companies? Yeah, so I think I’ve been lucky. I’ve been on both sides. I grew up in a country that is very poor, and I’ve been on the other side where I’ve worked on Wall Street, where you’re dealing with billions and billions of dollars every day. And so being able to see both sides is to me, a uniquely competitive advantage, because it allows me to empathize but also understand the mechanics to be able to deliver a solution—a complex solution, simplified into a product that can serve the people who need it the most.
I can’t stop thinking about that concept that we first talked about of VCs what they can relate to. And I’m just so curious to hear your thoughts, based on your experiences or just what you’ve observed overall in the industry, of how cognitive diversity or socioeconomic diversity—or just whatever in VC—would impact what companies are funded and what products are funded.
I think we’re starting to see a bit more of that, the VCs are acknowledging that diversity is important in the room when the decisions are being made. I mean, there are a lot of companies that, like us, that had difficulty raising capital but have managed to raise some capital, and have proven that there’s a market—there’s a big business—to be had in that space. If there’s a voice in the room who understands the market, who’s had that experience, who can see the opportunity, who can understand the complexity of the problem and whether or not that solution truly solves it—I think it’s easier as an entrepreneur to walk in and say, “here’s the problem and here’s the solution.” All of us can put up charts, and show numbers, but if the VC sitting in the room just can’t get the solution, and can’t understand the problem, no matter how great your product is it’d go on deaf ears. I think it’s important that the VC ranks and the VC firms certainly have diverse individuals of various backgrounds: socioeconomic backgrounds, race, and gender. As a company, we are incredibly focused on having a diverse workforce because I truly believe all of us are unique—our experiences are the lenses through which we see the world. It’s what we’ve seen, what we’ve experienced, what we’ve done that allows us to comprehend and empathize and make decisions. The more shades of lenses that you have in the room, the better to be able to really see the light, I guess.
Okay. My last question would be, what advice would you have for kids who come from where you’re from or come from similar backgrounds, who are just hoping to get into tech?
Yeah. Exposure is everything, right? I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t been exposed to what we were doing on Wall Street. Exposure is everything. So I think the earlier you can get exposure to what it is that you aspire to do— so for me it was, “Oh, I’m going to be a doctor. So I’m going to enroll in this magnet program.” Then through that exposure I realized, “Oh, I don’t want to do this.” Then I thought, “Oh, I’m going to be an agent.” I got some exposure to that and realized, “Ugh, I don’t want to do this.” I think exposure is incredibly important. Experience is crucial to really understand what it is that you want to do. We all may think this is what we want to do, but only because it’s what we’ve been exposed to. We have a narrow view of what the opportunities are in the world and what it is we really want to do. And I think for people coming from my background or young people who are trying to break in, it’s all about finding a way to get an opportunity and not giving up. Be resourceful, talk to people, and find mentors. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have the mentors who guided me along the way. And I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our first investor who I met in Haiti through a friend while visiting and kept in touch with and became friends with—we would sit down and have lunch and he became a mentor, and he just said, “Look, I really believe in you; I really believe in what you’re doing, and I’m going to write a check.” And that was it. He provided the spark for us to eventually get here. But without him, I don’t think we would have ever gotten off the ground, quite frankly. So the key is to network, find people who can provide you with different experiences; different exposure, be resourceful—don’t wait. Take initiative. Research what it is that you’re interested in. Really become an expert and learn about it—be able to think through it and talk about it intelligently. And, most importantly, believe in yourself—have the confidence to go for what you want. No one can stop you. No one will stop you. Just believe you can do it, and just take the leap.
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