Andrei Cherny is the cofounder and CEO of Aspiration which is a socially conscious fintech platform that offers a range of products oriented around conscious consumerism. The company has raised over $200 million from top tier investors which include Omidyar Network, 8VC, Allen & Company, Capricorn Investment, SuRo Capital, Renren, Alpha Edison, AGO Partners, Enabling Future, and DNS Capital to name a few.

In this episode you will learn:

  • Putting together your dream to to build a business
  • Staying ahead of scale as a CEO and leader
  • How big conscious investing is today
  • Operating in a heavily regulated industry
  • Andrei’s top advice when launching a startup

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About Andrei Cherny:

Andrei Cherny has spent nearly twenty years working to make the financial system more open and fair. Andrei Cherny combines a background as an advisor to some of America’s top companies, the co-founder and president of a media start-up, a financial fraud prosecutor, a historian, a White House aide, a Navy reserve officer, and a nationally-recognized economic policy expert.

Andrei Cherny has provided strategic counsel to companies such as Intel, Qualcomm, and Bank of America. Andrei Cherny launched and grew Democracy Journal to one of the most widely read idea journals in America.

There, Andrei Cherny helped start the successful fight for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A former Clinton White House aide, he was the youngest White House speechwriter in American history. Andrei Cherny 2000 book, The Next Deal, showed how business and government would be transformed by people’s demands for more and better choices.

Andrei Cherny is also the author of the The Candy Bombers. Andrei Cherny graduated from Harvard University and from the University of California Berkeley law school.

Connect with Andrei Cherny:

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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:

Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have an entrepreneur and his incredible journey and all the different hats and how incredible a career he has had, even before becoming an entrepreneur and launching his own thing that he has built, scaled, financed, you name it. I think we’re going to learn a lot, and you’re going to find his story really interesting. So, without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today. Andrei Cherny, welcome to the show.

Andrei Cherny: I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Alejandro: Born and raised in LA, so how was life growing up there?

Andrei Cherny: My parents were recent immigrants when I was born, so my experience was probably a lot like a lot of other recent immigrants – a family that had its share of economic struggles, but one that really valued education and instilled that in me early on, and a childhood where I dreamed about all the things that might be ahead with the opportunities that were afforded to me. 

Alejandro: Your parents came from the Czech Republic. They came here, and they had to find their own way and make it happen for themselves, and I’m sure that drive and that spirit influenced who you are today. Is that right?

Andrei Cherny: I think so. I think it’s no accident that so many great companies are led by and founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. There is that drive to achieve something, but I think also a profound sense of gratitude to America and a desire to give back and create something that is of lasting good.

Alejandro: Absolutely. In your case, I’m sure that your parents are very proud because you actually went to some of the best universities in the U.S. One thing that is interesting is that you definitely combined a little bit of everything from Harvard to Berkeley doing the JD. Why doing your JD? What got you into thinking about maybe becoming a lawyer?

Andrei Cherny: Right after Harvard, I got an amazing opportunity and went to work in the White House for President Clinton and for Vice President Gore. I got to work with them on the important initiatives being done at that point back in the 1990s. Then, I left to go help run Al Gore’s policy planning thinking as he was getting ready to run for president. But I decided that I wanted to be able to forge my own way, and I always had an interest in the law, especially in how the law could be used to advance the interest of people who needed its protections. So, I went to law school with that in mind. I did a whole bunch of other things while I wasn’t in law school as well. I was involved in some of the tech companies back in that time in the Bay Area. I wrote a book then. Then, I went back during the 2000 campaign to run Al Gore’s policy platform operation for that campaign.

Alejandro: Here, with Al Gore, you started helping him, as well, with his speeches. Also, you were alluding to it, you and Al Gore as well. So what have you learned about the power of words, the power of speech, the power of storytelling because I’m sure that has come in handy while you’re now an entrepreneur.

Andrei Cherny: I think it does. I think it really is the power of being able to make an argument that changes how people think about the world. Not to get ahead of ourselves, that’s what we’re having to do at Aspiration is to change how people think about their bank account and their financial life, and connecting the dots between how they spend money, and how they save money, and issues like climate change, and issues like inequality in our country, and their understanding of how to put those things together. That’s probably some of the skills way back in the back of my mind that I developed 20+ years ago.

Alejandro: How do you go from looking into politics and into writing to going after people that are committing fraud?

Andrei Cherny: After President Gore, of course, lost and then I continued to be involved in public policy and politics and government, I started a think tank in Washington D.C., a journal called Democracy Journal that’s still active on the things we did. Right off the bat is we partnered with then law professor Elizabeth Warren on the idea of what became the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. At a certain point, I started to get burned out on dealing with issues at the kind of level of public policy and abstraction that was at that 50,000-foot level and felt like I wanted to make a more direct impact. So I, as you said, went to go work as a financial fraud prosecutor, very much on the ground level in court every day, but feeling that I could help individuals who were victims of fraud, victims of malfeasance, and bring some justice to them.

Alejandro: Then, after this, you started consulting with big banks, and I think that was a really nice segue into launching your own baby, your own company. Tell us about what happened there, how you came up with the idea as well, and how you went about bringing it to life.

Andrei Cherny: I did, as you said, make another career shift and was doing strategic consulting with a big firm, and our clients were all sorts of big companies, some tech, and others. But I ended up spending most of my time doing consulting with large banks and really saw there that at the core of some of their challenges and their business issues that we were working on and trying to help them with was a fundamental mistrust that their customers had for their own financial institution. And it was really no accident. It wasn’t just a product of some bad headlines, but it was a misalignment of interests. For most people in the United States, the worst they’re doing financially, the better their bank is doing. Banks get paid on overdraft fees, late fees, and service fees. That’s how they make money early on the great majority of their customers. And also, misalignment of values. More and more people were conscious consumers were thinking about what was important to them when it came to ethics and environmental sustainability in their daily lives, in the grocery store, or coffee shop, or buying clothes, or whatever else it may be. Yet, what their money was doing to our community and to the world when it was being deposited in those big banks was often antithetical to their own values. At Aspiration, my co-founder and I and our team early on believed that we were solving for trust and that if we could create an alignment of interest and incentives, we could create alignment of values, we could have a radically transformed experience when it came to delivering all kinds of financial services to customers who are looking for something very different than they were getting from the incumbents in the space.

Alejandro: Talk to us about putting together the dream team to execute this.

Andrei Cherny: We’ve been blessed to have great people at Aspiration, and I’d say one of the lessons is, the dream team is different at different points in the company. The people who are excited about working and successful at working at a company that has five people will be different than the people who maybe are the right people for 50 people, and maybe it will be a different set of people at 150 people. I think that’s been something we’ve found along the way that we’re constantly looking to think how can we get the best talent and leadership for where the company is today? And more importantly, where it’s going to be tomorrow?

Alejandro: Absolutely. I’m glad that you mentioned this because, in many instances, the company goes from cycle to cycle, and it is either different skill sets that are needed, or in many cases as well, that the company, unfortunately, outpaces the early employees that are there.

Andrei Cherny: It’s part of a startup. As you know better than most, it’s about rapid change and rapid growth. Each person has to change and grow with that. That rapidity means that there are going to be some people who are excited about a certain set of tasks in the way of doing work that maybe are not feeling that same way when you’re just months or even years later in a very different place.

Alejandro: Talk to us about the business model of Aspiration. What ended up being the business model here? 

Andrei Cherny: At Aspiration, what we’ve done is created the category of socially conscious sustainable retail banking. We’re not going after predominantly your traditional financial optimizers, the people who are out there hunting for the highest interest rate or the lowest fees or whatnot. We are, as I said before, going after these conscious consumers who are bringing their values, their concerns with issues like sustainability into all aspects of their lives that haven’t had that in their financial life. When customers come to Aspiration, they’re coming because all of their deposits will be fossil fuel-free and firearm-free as opposed to what their deposits are doing when they’re being deposited at any of the big banks in our country. We have something called the Aspiration Impact Measurement that shows them their own sustainability score as they’re spending on their Aspiration card. They can see how they’re doing; they can see the people and finance scores of the different places they’re shopping. So they can make spending decisions with those kinds of variables in mind. Do they want to go to CVS, or Walgreens, or Duane Reade, or Rite Aid? If they have a choice, how do those different businesses do when it comes to the environment? How do they do when it comes to their employees?

Alejandro: It’s interesting because I’m wondering, you mentioned the conscious consumer. Do you think that’s someone that’s brought up to develop that type of consciousness and way of thinking, or that’s developed as you’re seeing what’s happening in the world?

Andrei Cherny: It’s a little bit of both. I think that there’s, of course, the nature and nurture in some of us in our families are brought up to look at it that way, and some people are brought up with very different values and later in their life change. I think what we’ve seen is a generational shift. So, certainly, when you look at the attitudes, Baby Boomers are more in this than the Greatest Generation, GenXers more than Baby Boomers, Millennials more than Gen X, Gen Z more than Millennials – each new cohort coming in is building more and more of these kinds of concerns into their daily lives as consumers across the board. So there’s part of that generational shift, and I think we also, wherever we are, more and more of us are thinking about those things as the world changes in front of our eyes. You see that with all kinds of dimensions. You see that with ESG investing. ESG investing in sustainability, strategies around environmental, social, and governance practices of the companies. You’ve seen that explode. It went from very, very little ten years ago to over 6 to 8 billion dollars a year of inflows over the past few years. Last year, 2019, it grew to 21 billion of inflows. This year, 2020, in the first six months of the year, there were over 21 billion of inflows. There’s an enormous shift there. You’re seeing that with plant-based meats, Beyond Meat, and others. You’re seeing that with companies like Tesla and others in the electric vehicle space. You’re seeing that in fashion. You’re seeing that in people moving from plastic straws to paper straws or metal straws. All across our lives, we’re seeing this different kind of approach, and yet, other than Aspiration, financial services – daily financial services, banking, checking, savings, those kinds of daily core accounts have not responded to that. Fundamentally, I can talk about all the different features we operate at Aspiration, but fundamentally, that’s why customers are coming to Aspiration to get.

Alejandro: I’m sure that to finance an operation like this, you need some money. So how much capital have you guys raised to date?

Andrei Cherny: We’ve raised to date over 200 million dollars. With that, we’ve built a large customer following and a team and the infrastructure to be able to have our own independent operation. We became the first neobank in the United States to break off of a third-party bank sponsor and go independent in 2018, 2019. A real investment of time and money and resources for us, but it means that we, in a relatively unique way, own our customers’ accounts from a legal and regulatory standpoint, and we own the economics around those accounts. That really mattered as we look toward the future and are scaling this into something that we think can be one of the preeminent consumer financial institutions in our country.

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Alejandro: Obviously, over 200 million is quite a bit of money. Where would you say are the biggest needs in a business like this from a capital perspective?

Andrei Cherny: For us, the chief areas have been around acquisition, and that’s been number one, and then number two has been around our team and building out our employee base.

Alejandro: Absolutely. Just out of curiosity, how many employees do you guys have now?

Andrei Cherny: We have about 175 currently.

Alejandro: Obviously, this is your first rodeo, but how would you say, Andrei, you’ve been able to develop yourself too? We were talking about how companies go from cycle to cycle, so how were you able, yourself, to jump from cycle to cycle as a leader and be able to keep up with the growth of the business as well?

Andrei Cherny: I think I’ve had to change in how I do things, and I think I’ve sometimes been more or less successful in the moment about keeping pace. Sometimes, I’m lagging behind where things need to be, but then sometimes, I feel like I’m keeping up with that. But you’re absolutely right. As I was saying before in talking about our entire team, it is rapid change, and so just it’s true for anybody on our team, it’s true for the CEO, as well. Either you keep pace of that change, and you grow in your skill set and in your way of doing things, or you’re holding back the company.

Alejandro: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s say you were to go to sleep tonight, and you wake up in a world, Andrei, five years later. I mean, a tremendous snooze. You wake up in a world where the vision of Aspiration is fully realized. What does that world look like?

Andrei Cherny: I’ll answer it a couple of ways. I think for Aspiration itself, it means we’re – we have about 200 customers now. We’re many, many times larger than that and offering, not just banking and those core products, investing, retirement, and insurance as we do now, but being a full-scale financial home for our customers and allowing them to match their money with their morals. And even beyond those financial products, being a platform for sustainable spending across the board and being that home for people that roughly the third of the U.S. population who are conscious consumers being a home for many, many of them as they look out at the world. That’s a big part of Aspiration’s future. And, of course, that translates into a company of enormous enterprise value. But frankly, when I think about that future, I judge our success not as much by all these factors I laid out, but a couple of other factors. One is, has our success reached that level that we’ve exerted a gravitational pull on the rest of the financial industry and force them to change the way that they do business? Because people’s expectations of what they look for in their bank account in terms of the behavior of their financial partner, in terms of the kinds of products that they are getting from their bank account has changed that dramatically. And two, because of what we’ve done, as well as this larger change, we have had a dramatic impact on our environment, on our planet, on many of the challenges facing our community. With Aspiration, as I said, you get your deposits fossil fuel free. We help you make all of your driving carbon neutral. We allow you to plant a tree with every purchase that you make by rounding your purchases to the nearest dollar. Collectively, just by moving their money in Aspiration, our customers have done the equivalent of taking 5 billion miles of cars off of the roads in the United States of America. When you look at something like our tree planting initiative, Plant Your Change, we just launched it earlier this year. Within the first few weeks, we planted over a million trees. That has the carbon impact of taking one car off the road for every household in Atlanta or Kansas City. That was just in the first few weeks. We’re now into many millions of trees and growing dramatically. We’re going to be planting hundreds of millions into the billions of trees as we continue to grow and scale, and that has a dramatic impact on our climate as well. So, fundamentally, what we want to do at Aspiration is to be true to our mission. That is, do well and do good. Doing well means we’ve improved the financial lives of millions of customers and do good is by helping them automate their impact. We have made the world a fundamentally better place and move the needle on challenges like climate change or many of the other challenges we face in our country and around the globe.

Alejandro: Where do you think that your space as a whole is heading?

Andrei Cherny: I think it’s a fascinating space if you think of our space. We think of our space in two ways. One is, it’s this world of sustainable spending, and two, it’s this world of neobanks and financial services. When you talk about neobanks and financial services, we’re in a dramatically different world. Different technology allows you to do different things. FinTech, ultimately, I believe the promise there is not just about faster payments or lower fees or anything else like that, all of which are important. It’s really about, in some ways, personalization. If you started a bank – let’s say you wanted to start Aspiration 20-25 years ago; you’d build a branch in one neighborhood. Then if you were successful, you’d build a branch in the next neighborhood over, and maybe as you grew the next city over, and maybe eventually the next state, or you acquired a bank in another part of your state or the next state, and that’s how you built out a branch network. Right now, on your phone, you can open an account just as easily at Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase, Aspiration, Revolut, N26, Chime, or whoever else. That means people aren’t picking their bank based just on what branch is down the street. They’re picking based on what brand is closest to them and what resonates with them in terms of its offerings around what they’re concerned about and how they look at the world. That means that we can be able to focus in on a set of concerns and on a set of customers that is a very, very large number of customers and build something special for them in a way that is very different than what financial institutions had to do a generation ago.

Alejandro: Talking about financial institutions and the financial service space, it’s definitely a double beast because not only you’re faced with the challenges of building and scaling, but then you’re also facing the challenges of innovating in a heavily regulated market. So how do you go about that?

Andrei Cherny: I think different companies approach it different ways. There are some who are of the “move fast and break things” mentality. I don’t think that works in financial services. I think, number one, it’s not the same as if you’re social media app goes down, though we’ve seen even the power of social media apps to change the direction of people’s lives. But when you have somebody’s money, when you have their ability to pay their bills and their future and their family’s future, you have to have a different standard of care. And to your point, it is also a highly regulated space. So I don’t think you can see regulation as the extent to which you’re going to adopt it, or work with it, or so on. It’s the reality. There’s an old joke about a fish swimming by and somebody calls down to him and say, “What do you think of the water?” The fish says, “What’s water?” That’s the world that fish is living in. When you’re a financial service, the world you’re living in is regulation, and that’s just the nature of everything around you, and you need to build in a way that understands that while also helping the regulatory process advance and change as technology is changing the terms of the debate.

Alejandro: Very cool. One of the questions that I ask the guests that come on the show is – now you’ve been at it for a while. You guys got started with Aspiration in 2013, so I’m sure that you’ve been able to learn a lot, a lot of successes, a lot of learnings along the way, but if you had the chance to go back in time and give that younger Andrei a piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be, and why knowing what you know now? 

Andrei Cherny: I think it would be to think bigger. We started Aspiration thinking we were going to start off by offering people ancillary products of what they already had, bank accounts, but a separate account they could use for savings that was fossil fuel free, investment products, but maybe other core investment product but something that would be an added set of strategies that they may not otherwise have access to. What we found is our customers were asking us basically, “That’s great. I want to do everything with Aspiration.” I think going back, we could have been more prepared in those early days to say, “This is actually going to be what our vision is now of Aspiration, that financial home for Americans who care about their values and care about doing good while they’re doing well. That probably would be the advice I’d give.

Alejandro: Amazing. For the folks that are listening, Andrei, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?

Andrei Cherny: I would love it if they did. First of all, on social media, I’m @andreicherny on Twitter or Instagram. And I would encourage them to go to Aspiration.com and sign up for an account and move their money. They’ll be getting a much better financial product, and they’ll be doing a lot of good in the world with every dollar that they deposit with Aspiration and spend with Aspiration and making a real positive impact. And we’d love to know what they think.

Alejandro: Amazing. Well, Andrei, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.

Andrei Cherny: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

 

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