Podcast

Jimmy Chen: Modernizing the Social Safety Net

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Often fintechs launch to tackle a big mission – like democratization of financial services, financial inclusion, or financial health. Get to know a fast-growing startup that’s also a for-profit company with investors and stakeholders to satisfy. In this episode, Jennifer talks to Jimmy Chen, founder and CEO of Propel, a software company that aims to fight poverty with technology. Jimmy shares the challenges his fintech faces in navigating the balancing act of growing a business, serving and earning the trust of its customers, and staying true to its financial health mission.

Jimmy Chen

Jimmy Chen

Jimmy Chen is the Founder and CEO of Propel, creator of Fresh EBT. Fresh EBT is an award-winning mobile app used by over 4 million Americans to manage their SNAP benefits (food stamps), save money, and find jobs. Founded with the idea of using Silicon Valley’s toolkit to improve the daily experience of low-income Americans, Propel helps Americans who live on or near the safety net make it through the month, every month. Propel’s investors include Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, Kevin Durant, and Serena Williams. Jimmy previously worked at LinkedIn and Facebook and studied Symbolic Systems at Stanford University.

Learn more about Propel and check out additional episodes of EMERGE Everywhere.

Episode Transcript

Jennifer Tescher:
Welcome to EMERGE Everywhere. I’m Jennifer Tescher, journalist turned financial health champion. As founder and CEO of the Financial Health Network, I’ve spent my career breaking down silos by engaging with innovators across industries, and now, I’m sharing those conversations with you. Meet the forward thinking leaders challenging the status quo and unleashing creative new ways of improving financial health by seeing their customers, employees, and communities in 3D.

My guest today traded in working for tech giants like LinkedIn and Facebook to take on the societal challenge of poverty. Jimmy Chen is the founder and CEO of Propel, a thriving fintech startup that serves low-income Americans by making the social safety net more user-friendly. Propel has the backing of some of the highest-profile venture capital firms that see the power of leveraging technology to reach those struggling most.  His success lies in recognizing the need to consistently immerse himself in the lived experience of the people he serves.

Jimmy, welcome to Emerge Everywhere.

Jimmy Chen:
Of course. Thank you for having me Jen.

Jennifer Tescher:
Absolutely. I’m so excited to have this conversation. You and I have known each other really almost from the beginning of your launching Propel. Tell us what is Propel, what does the company do?

Jimmy Chen:
Propel builds software for low-income Americans. We traditionally focused on the food stamp program officially known as the SNAP program which is used by about 42 million Americans every month to put food on the table.

And Jen, I think when you and I met, it was maybe 2015, we had just founded Propel through the Blue Ridge Labs Fellowship program, and we were trying to really figure out if we could build a business in serving very low-income Americans to navigate safety net services.

Through the course of working with you and through the Financial Health Network, we started to really learn more about the lived experiences of people who are using safety net programs like food stamps, and specifically found out that everyone on food stamps has an EBT card, which is a debit card that looks like one you’d get from the bank, except you check your balance by calling the 1-800 number on the back of the card.

And when we set out, we asked the question like, “Why doesn’t this work like what you would expect from any other financial services products? Why isn’t there a mobile banking app for this thing?” And we couldn’t find a good answer. And so, that’s what we built at Propel. The ethos of the company, even though the product has changed the ethos hasn’t really changed. This idea of how do we take the best in class in software development, in financial services, and apply those things to Americans who are really struggling financially?

Jennifer Tescher:
So, can you paint us a picture of your typical user? I think it’s particularly important to do that because I think a lot of us hold stereotypes of the typical food stamp user for example.

Jimmy Chen:
Our typical user is a young mom. So, 85% of our users are women, about 87% have a child under the age of 18 at home. Our users do predominantly live in urban environments, but also we’ve got people in the suburbs and in rural environments as well. Overall at Propel, there are more than four million people who use our app, the Fresh EBT app to manage their food stamp benefits and improve their financial health on a monthly basis.

So, you’ve got people from really all walks of life. You’ve got people who are young and old, you’ve got people in cities and outside of cities. And really the thing that they all share in common is a need for the safety net to function well, to meet their basic needs. That they use the food stamp program in order to help put food on the table and have an expectation that that program ought to function in a modern and respectful and effective way, and that’s really what Fresh EBT tries to do for people.

Jennifer Tescher:
So, explain why the Fresh EBT experience is better than what existed before. What is it that enables a user to do that they really couldn’t do before?

Jimmy Chen:
Yeah. We really think of Fresh EBT is solving a small problem, the problem of usability of the EBT card in order to get the opportunity to solve a much larger problem. The much larger problem of economic mobility, financial health for low-income Americans at large, right?

So, that small problem really comes from the fact that like if you’re one of the 42 million Americans who gets food stamp benefits on one of these cards, it’s really inconvenient to call that 1-800 number. And having a free mobile banking app that works just like any other finTech app, is a respectful and modern and effective way to manage these government benefits.

Essentially the way that our app works, is that it is a replacement for calling that 1-800 number, instead you open up the Fresh EBT app, see your balance and transaction history, you get tools to set a budget, you get information about how and where to spend your benefits all inside the app like someone might expect from a modern financial product.

Now, when we think about the broader problem that we’re really excited to solve, it’s really using EBT and EBT balance as an on ramp towards broader financial health. How do we use this opportunity? So, the average monthly active user a Fresh EBT opens the app about 17 times per month.

Jennifer Tescher:
Wow.

Jimmy Chen:
How do we use those opportunities to engage someone in ways that they can save money, ways that they can make more money, in ways they can manage their financial assets, in ways they can manage their healthcare? How do we use it as a broader platform to help somebody who is using the social safety net to improve their overall financial health?

Jennifer Tescher:
So, before Propel you were in the Valley, you were at LinkedIn, you did a stint at Facebook. What led you to make the shift to Propel? And where did you come up with the idea for it?

Jimmy Chen:
Well, I was really fortunate to get to work at a lot of these tech companies that were building really great software. And they were building it with world class engineers and software people, to serve 10s of millions or hundreds of millions of people at the time.

But the thing that I got a little bit frustrated with, so, I was a product manager at Facebook where I led the Facebook groups team for a few years throughout the IPO and in sort of the growth period beyond that, that people at Facebook solve the problems that they understand. And the by and large technologies built by people of a certain set of demographics for those same people.

And then in 2014 when I started Propel, it was already clear that the proliferation of smartphones among every income segment in America was going to happen, and was already happening. And so, there were low income people, people using safety net programs like food stamps, who were using smartphones and apps very natively and very intuitively, but because they are much less likely to be tech entrepreneurs, there’s someone who is building software for those people.

And so, the idea for Propel came from really talking to low income folks in New York City through a great program called Blue Ridge Labs, where I got to spend a lot of time doing research and just talking to people about their lives and challenges. And learning about the food stamp program and how it is an incredibly important program, in that it is literally the thing that keeps families from starving in many cases. And in a country that has such wealth, it is a program that allows us to produce a real safety net for people to meet their basic needs.

But the kind of software user experience of the program left a lot to be desired, right? The last mile of like, “What is it actually like to apply for food stamps? What is the website that I have to go to? What is the form I have to fill out? How do I check my balance?” Those are the types of things that I thought software actually could solve. And that were not seemingly being prioritized in the administration of the program.

Jennifer Tescher:
So, if I remember correctly, I’ve heard you tell a story about putting on the shoes of somebody who’s looking to apply for or be recertified for food stamps, and that part of your ideation process was literally going to a food stamp office and standing in line, and watch what people were doing. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Jimmy Chen:
Yeah. I think there’s really no substitute for lived experience. And the next best thing is developing as much empathy as you can. And so, in the early days of the company what I did was, in addition to just talking to people about their lived experiences and learning more about the different challenges that they face being low income, I heard a few people tell me about the food stamp program.

In fact, the first time that it came up in a user interview, it was somebody who had to leave the interview early, she said, “I need to go to the food stamp office before it closes.” And so, I looked up like, “When does the food stamp office close?” Because she had said this to me at 2PM on a Tuesday, I was like, “Well, is she lying to me, what’s going on?”

And so, I went to the food stamp office myself, and the staff member there actually laughed at me because I got there at 3:30, and close to 5:00. She said, “You want to be seen in the same day, you need to come several hours before the office closes.”

And so, that led me down this path of like, I was trying to understand exactly what’s going on here. What is it like to stand in line at the food stamp office? Why are people doing this? And found that there are hundreds of people who are waiting in line to fill out a paper form and talk to a human caseworker. Most of them were asking the same questions. And as I watched people stand in line and wait for hours on end, most people were passing the time and had a smartphone in their hands.

And it just struck me as like the exact kind of thing that software is good at solving. Like, I don’t think software can in and of itself solve poverty, but I do think that it can make forms easier to use, I think it can reduce lines, it can make you not have to go into the office, all those types of things are things that software is inherently good at. And so, Propel has gone through many evolutions, but the original ethos still holds true of, this is the promise of software, this is the promise of technology to serve low income populations to take these experiences and make them better.

Jennifer Tescher:
Right. In fact, I think your first idea was, hey, let’s automate the process of applying for food stamps, right? We can put the form on a phone essentially, right? And speed that up. And as any startup experiences you go through lots of pivots as you’re looking for the best product market fit.

Tell us a little bit about why you pivoted from there to what you’re doing now, what was not doable about the application process?

Jimmy Chen:
You’re right. We started the company to work on a different but closely related problem. The problem of how do you apply for food stamps? And as you said, it was sort of the idea of trying to digitize the food stamp office.

We had some moderate success doing that. This is 2014 through 2014 through 2015. Helped several 100 families to enroll in benefits through it. And I think we were indeed making some progress and getting some really great feedback. But I think we ran into a lot of different challenges, we thought about how is this going to really scale? And part of that was realizing that in this particular case, as we help people to submit these forms into their state governments, that a lot of that really fundamentally was a government challenge. It’s really hard to do that from the outside as a third party company. It’s just trying to build a better website.

Yes, the website is important, but there’s a whole underlying infrastructure to it that as a third party, it was not a government contract, it was not an agent of the government, we really didn’t have access to, we really couldn’t improve.

Jennifer Tescher:
I see.

Jimmy Chen:
And that prevented us from achieving a lot of the goals and getting to the scale that we wanted to get to. And so, it forced us to get a little creative. And yes, we pivoted, in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t the biggest pivot because we’re still a software company that focuses on the food stamp program. But instead of focusing on people who are newly applying, we were instead thinking about how do we serve folks that already have their benefits, and are trying to use those benefits to put food on the table? I think we had a naive idea, that like you apply for these benefits and you get them, and then all your problems are solved, when in reality using those benefits to get to their full value is a huge challenge as well.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah. So, given the customers that you serve this last year during the pandemic and the economic crisis we’ve had, it must have been really especially painful for them. Tell us what you’ve been seeing. How has last year and frankly current situation, how is this hitting your customers and how have you responded?

Jimmy Chen:
So, as the pandemic started last year in the United States, I think what we saw among our population is that people who are already financially vulnerable really bore the brunt of the economic impact.

Something like 80% of people who use Fresh EBT and were working in 2020, either lost their jobs or lost meaningful hours off their jobs. And the economic recovery has been really slow, that actually the majority of people who lost their jobs or lost wages as a result of the pandemic have not fully been able to recover as of February 2021.

We see our role in a number of ways as it comes to this, like the first of course is our core product is around getting access to the safety net, and safety net was tested in 2020 as it never has been before in terms of helping to provide basic services.

But we also see kind of a side role of Propel as helping to tell people stories. That there’s a lot of conversation in Washington about what is the right policy? How should we think about stimulus payments versus the unemployment program and so on? We would love to inject our users voices into that conversation, but the folks who are directly, who are facing lots of challenges day in and day out about what their experiences.

We actually just pulled some data recently, where we spoke to our users about what their financial situations are like as of February 2021, and found that in the last 30 days, 42% of our users said that they’ve eaten less because they haven’t had the means to fully eat.

About a third of our users have gone to a food pantry. Half of our users tell us that they have borrowed money from family or friends or credit cards to cover their expenses. And then all of these measures were kind of steadily increasing throughout the fall, they reached a peak in December. They have dropped slightly in 2021 as federal interventions such as stimulus payments and extended resources have come out. But the reality is lots of low income families are still really struggling. It’s an unusual situation. Fairly unprecedented in terms of its scale, and that a lot of the recovery efforts haven’t directly impacted low income Americans as much as we’d like to see.

Jennifer Tescher:
And so, I think you then said, “Well, I got to take matters into my own hands here.” Right? Particularly when the stimulus ran out last year, and you entered into a really interesting partnership with GiveDirectly. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Jimmy Chen:
Yeah. So, we thought in the early days of the pandemic like, “Wow, this is such a huge challenge, what could we possibly do?” And actually, the simplest thing we could think of, is it sure looks like the biggest challenge here is money, that a lot of our users just don’t have enough money to make ends meet, to buy groceries, to buy cleaning supplies, to feed their kids, whatever it is. And we were fortunate that in 2020, there’s been an outpouring of philanthropic support from a variety of organizations very generously, who understand the types of challenges that people are going through and want a direct channel to give money, to give cash assistance to those in financial need.

So, the GiveDirectly team and Propel along with another nonprofit called Stan for Children, partnered to create a thing called Project 100. Project 100 was a partnership focused on giving cash grants to Fresh EBT users. The idea is, everyone who uses Fresh EBT is getting food stamp benefits, and is highly likely to be struggling financially, highly likely to be impacted by the pandemic, and so, let’s use Fresh EBT as a screening mechanism to distribute these $1,000 cash grants.

Thanks to the generosity of a variety of donors and partners in the program, we were able to distribute $140 million dollars worth of cash grants in 2020.

Jennifer Tescher:
Wow.

Jimmy Chen:
And all that money went directly to low income folks. So, the other part of it is we were able to do it extremely efficiently and quickly, directly to people who were seeing financial effects because of the pandemic.

Jennifer Tescher:
My goodness. And how does that compare to the dollar amount of benefits that you see run through your users cards, say in a year?

Jimmy Chen:
Well, it’s certainly lower, right? And that for the 140,000 families who received these $1,000 cash grants are surely meaningful. But the reality is, it’s ultimately up to policymakers to make public policy that’s going to really change the face of what the response to the pandemic is across the United States. And so, our program, the Project 100 program, was we anticipate the largest private cash transfer program in American history, and certainly the largest cash transfer program that was the non-governmental project in response to the pandemic.

But really, we see it as just sort of us doing what we can to contribute to this much broader challenge that no one organization can really solve on its own, of how do we help low income Americans make it through the unprecedented crisis?

Jennifer Tescher:
So, there had been an increasing interest in this idea of direct cash payments, in the form of universal basic income as an example, before the pandemic. And a number of cities are running pilots. I’m curious now, given this experience that you’ve had, what’s your take on that idea? What did you think about it before from a policy perspective if you will? And like now that you’ve had this experience, what do you think about it now?

Jimmy Chen:
Well, I think at a high level I feel positively about it. And I feel positively about it for a few reasons. One of them is that we believe that low income families, families that could use a benefit like a UBI, know best what to do with the benefits that they receive, right? And that unrestricted cash is far more valuable, and is far more flexible, and allows families to make the decision that makes the most sense for them. That our users when presented with the cash grant through our program, disproportionally used it to pay for food, to pay for rent, so they could stay in their homes. To pay for their heating bills, to buy diapers for their kids, to pay for essential goods, right? And that it was far more efficient for us to do that as a cash transfer, as opposed to an income transfer of some sort.

I will say, when I think about UBI and the implementation challenges, and the political challenges, and making something like that happen at a larger scale, I would really encourage people who are interested in that effort to learn more about how existing safety net programs work. That we already do spend 10s of billions of dollars on programs like SNAP and TANF and EITC, that have produced a lot of great blueprints. For what it might look like to produce a successful UBI program, both from a policy standpoint, as well as from an implementation standpoint, and that there’s a lot that can be learned from these listing programs that they’re not just a line item of cost to be scrapped, that they are a building block to be built on top of.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah, that’s great. So, the other thing we’ve seen with the pandemic is a rapid shift to digital use. Not just by individuals, but by government, by the private sector, by social services organizations, because we haven’t been able to be in-person with each other.

Your initial insight in creating Propel was that people are going somewhere physically in-person, and they’re killing time, they’re using their phone. So, I’m curious, what do you think about this shift? Do you think it’s going to stick at this shift to almost all digital? Do you think it is ultimately the most effective way for serving lower income people? And if so, what can people learn from your experience? Because again, you were doing this long before it became a pandemic trend?

Jimmy Chen:
Yeah, I think it’s here to stay. I think that in many ways, low income Americans are really just Americans. And Americans expect convenience. And they expect to be able to do things at the snap of the finger, and that’s no different from low income people to high income people. And I think when we think about things like mobile banking, or mobile financial services, that yeah, I think the pandemic has accelerated the growth of a lot of those things, but that I don’t see it going back to strictly in-person in the future.

I think there’s a good example of this in the SNAP and EBT world, which is that the pandemic resulted in the acceleration of the online purchasing pilot, which is the ability to spend your food stamp benefits online. Historically, that was not possible, it was available on a pilot basis, in a limited number of states, the pandemic really accelerated that we are starting to see people spend quite a bit of their benefits online. While I do think grocery shopping is going to change once the pandemic ends. I do expect that the genie is not going to be back in the bottle that people have discovered, the way that this works, that it can be run efficiently, that it can be cost effective. And I think that’s here to stay.

Jennifer Tescher:
Right. And just to put a finer point on that, those of us who don’t rely on food stamps, have had the opportunity depending on where we live, to order our groceries online and either have them delivered, or in my case I pick them up in the parking lot of my grocery store. But if you were a food stamps recipient you couldn’t do that, unless you had some other form of payment. Because you couldn’t use your benefits online.

And so, the very people who are disproportionately likely to get sick from COVID, or who are a frontline worker in the first place, were put at a disadvantage when it came to trying to keep themselves safe in COVID. And I think it’s just really important to point that out, because we sometimes ascribe behavior to all kinds of other nefarious or on educated reasons, when it often can be something as simple as the government benefit I have doesn’t work online.

Jimmy Chen:
That’s exactly right. And there was a really strong and concerted push during the start of the pandemic to change that. And I think that public attention to a lot of these issues really is one of the big contributing factors to change, right? That like these institutions that we work with are slow moving, almost like as a design principle. And so, in cases where it’s really that they need to kind of be pushed into the 21st century, I think that’s a really positive trend.

Jennifer Tescher:
Earlier you were talking about the fact that there are some parts of the safety net system – or process – that are very difficult for a third party to affect. Really, everything that you’re doing, one could argue the government should do. This is the government’s program, right? Why can’t the government have a website where somebody can check their balance as opposed to having to call the 1-800 number? And I know some of this has to do with old infrastructure, the ability for government to afford fancy engineers who can come in, build software of this kind. But I just can’t get past that part of it that at the end of the day this is the government we pay for.

How do you think about government’s role in all of this? This is not to say, “You don’t have an important role.” But in a perfect world, maybe it would be better even without a Propel.

Jimmy Chen:
Totally. And I think we are very supportive of the government building better user experiences for all sorts of programs, chiefly the food stamp program, right? When we think about, what is the front end for checking your balance or managing your benefits? Absolutely, we think the government should do its best to provide the best user experience that it can.

But we also think that the government’s core job here, or perhaps the core competency, really is infrastructure. It is building the pipes that allow a program like the food stamp program to run, and it does run quite well and quite efficiently at national scale, right? It helps 47 million Americans put food on the table, that is no small feat. That that is the indispensable part of what the government can provide. And that if the government can create an environment where organizations like Propel, or the States or any other type of organization, can compete to provide the best consumer experience, that actually is going to be the best for the end consumer.

The other thing that I’ll say about this is, I really see Propel’s destiny long-term as straying further and further away from the public sector. That ultimately what we’re excited about is not just the food stamp program, it is the financial health of low income Americans. And that that is not strictly a public sector problem. And the solutions are not strictly public sector solutions.

That what we really aim to do at Propel, is to bring the best resources of the public sector, programs like food stamp program, but also the adjacent programs to it, along with the best practices of the private sector, right?

So, what are the mobile banking products you got to use? What are the credit products you got to use? How do we make those work in a reasonable way in light of the demographics and the income profiles that we’re dealing with under one roof? And that I think is fundamentally a private sector play that needs to partner closely with the public sector, because we believe that we share a lot of the same objectives.

Jennifer Tescher:
So, let me take the conversation in this direction. When we think about fintech or other frankly kinds of tech driven startups. They’re really only a handful of business models that have proven to be successful. And one of them is generating fees based on referrals that you make for your customers to other businesses. And if I understand that correctly, that’s largely how Propel makes money, because it’s free for somebody to sign up to get their balance, if you will, from you.

How do you ensure that the products that you’re referring, or the products that you’re building and offering on your own like this new debit card product, are positive for your end users? How do you keep the incentives in alignment?

Jimmy Chen:
We specifically screen the partners that we work with to make sure that they’re positive for our users financial health. The first way that we do that, is that we specifically organize the app under these headers of manage, save and earn. That the value prop of the Fresh EBT apps, we help you manage the resources you have, we help you save money, and we help you make more money. And if something, a third party piece of content doesn’t make sense under one of those headers, then it doesn’t really have a place in the app, because we really need to be aligned to what is the benefit that we’re giving to end consumers.

As we think about the incentives and how this ought to work, we really think about building for the long-term. Because at the end of the day, the profit maximizing move for Propel actually in the long-term, is to build deep trust. Is to build a platform that has the trust of the individuals that we serve, that is seen by the public sector as a good actor in the space, that can attract the right types of investors that are interested in supporting that for the long-term.

And building that long-term business model actually requires us to in some cases, sacrifice the short-term revenue that would actually be net harmful to consumers, but would allow us to make a quick buck, right?

Those are the incentives and pressures that we want. We want to be in a system where the incentives are to optimize for building a business that can serve people profitably over the long-term, which means building trust over a period of years.

Jennifer Tescher:
So, I agree. But the venture capital industry isn’t always known for being super long-term focus. In fact, while they are long-term investors, they generally push pretty hard for fast hockey stick like growth. And I’m curious what they think about this idea of what you said, of maybe being in a position to sometimes not make a quick buck in order to build trust. I mean, you clearly have been very successful in making this pitch, because in addition to more traditional impact investors like Flourish, or our own Financial Solutions Lab, and celebrities like Kevin Durant and Serena Williams, you’ve got Blue Chip Venture capitalists like Andreessen Horowitz behind you. So, what’s the pitch? How do you help them understand that idea?

Jimmy Chen:
Well, pitch is simple. The pitch is that there are 10s of millions of American families who use bad products, which create massive pain points, and there are basically no competitors. And presenting that, like that’s the simple truth of why I’m optimistic that what we’re building at Propel just has to exist in the long-term, if we don’t build it someone else eventually will.

We’re definitely not the only finTech that serves very low income Americans. But I’d argue that we are one of the very few that specifically intends to serve them as our core segment. So, not accidentally serving people who are low income as a side effect of serving people who are making 60 or 70K a year, but really focusing on people who make under $40,000 per year as our core customer.

And we think that’s going to yield big differentiation and a huge advantage over the long-term as vertical finTech continues to emerge, right? As we lose this idea of like, there’s a single bank or a single financial institution that’s going to serve every American, and think about what are the custom needs for a sub-segment of the population? We think that low income people, people who are using safety net programs and navigating the day to day challenges of that, are a segment that has a very specific and clear set of needs, it’s not being well served by the broader financial services ecosystem.

And so, as we build that vertical, there’s a massive opportunity for us. And that opportunity is also a business opportunity. For us to successfully execute on that is both an execution of our mission, but also of our business.

And for your point Jen, I think there are some investors who don’t get it, or who would prefer a shorter term return, we have chosen not to work with those firms, and that we’ve been really fortunate to find investors that understand the long-term vision. That understand that it’s not going to happen overnight, that it is a long journey to build a product like that, but that the returns both from a mission standpoint, and impact standpoint, and a business standpoint, are worth it. That that is a business that if we can achieve that, can be truly great.

Jennifer Tescher:
Why are there more Propels? And what I mean by that is not direct competitors, but why aren’t there more tech startups that are intentionally focused on low income customers?

Jimmy Chen:
I think it’s because people solve the problems that they understand. And that most people who have the means and the background and the network to start a tech company, don’t really understand the problems of low income Americans.

Jennifer Tescher:
And is the solution to that more empathy building among those who are going to start companies, or is it more efforts to empower low income consumers themselves to ultimately get involved in startup land?

Jimmy Chen:
It’s got to be both, it just has to be both, right? I think it is incumbent on entrepreneurs who are looking to start organizations to think about challenges outside of their own, and to consider the market opportunity and the impact opportunity of serving people who are unlike them.

And also, I mean, one of the reasons that I’m really excited about the push for whether it’s banking as a service, or various other platform tools like the AWS certification of the startup stack, I’m bullish about that because I am hopeful that it will open up entrepreneurship, make it more accessible to a set of people who maybe historically haven’t had the means to solve their own problems. And so, I think it just has to be both.

Jennifer Tescher:
So, I want to come back to you, because at the very beginning you’ve said people build what they know, right? And there’s no substitute for lived experience. And you have done everything in your power to substitute for that, right? To really immerse yourself to talk to actual people, and to witness it for yourself. But you still at some point made the decision to be intentional about focusing on these big problems, as opposed to say building the next feature for Facebook. What drove you to make that change? Not everyone makes that change. If they did, we might not have be having this conversation. So, what drove you to make that change Jimmy?

Jimmy Chen:
Well, from my own personal story. I grew up in a loving household that also had its share of financial challenges. I think like most families we had our ups and downs. I was fortunate to go to college on a full financial needs scholarship, and that led to my career in the Valley working at these tech firms.

I mean, I realized from working at those firms that there’s… I have a core belief that one of the most important choices you make when you start a company is who you want to serve. And that that drives a lot of things about what the company becomes, like what are your values? What’s the market? What does success look like? What does your development process look like? Who do you need to hire? And that’s really what we started with at Propel. We weren’t even sure if we wanted to build, or how we wanted to solve it. We weren’t sure if we wanted to be a for profit or nonprofit in the early days, we weren’t sure what the business model was going to be.

We started with, hey, I think there’s an opportunity to better serve people who are very low income in United States. And I think that has really like all the other stuff has sort of fallen into place behind that as we’ve used that as the organizing principle.

And for your point about the time and money that we’ve invested in continuing to talk to our users, I’d say about maybe a quarter or so a Propel employees right now have been on food stamps at some point in their life, and so they have that lived experience to fall back on. But even for someone who’s been on food stamps at some point, every day that they work with the company takes them further and further from that experience, right?

Certainly that’s the case for me as an entrepreneur, that like every day that I am the CEO of a company and paying myself a wage, I’m taken further and further from the lived experience. And so, we just have to continue to be humble, to listen to our users as they tell us about what challenges they face and how we might address them. And I think it is specifically incumbent on us as an organization where we find the definition of who we serve and what we build, no one who works at Propel is the end user of our product. And that is a tax on us in the sense that it requires us to invest more in research in, in defining who our audiences and really learning about them and listening to them. But then we’ve tried to build that into the DNA of the company.

Jennifer Tescher:
That’s such a powerful idea, the notion that getting proximate and being influenced by lived experience isn’t a one time activity. It’s not something you do at the beginning, that you have to do it consistently throughout. And this podcast is really all about seeing people in 3D, really understanding them and their full complexity. And I really can’t think of better advice for folks who are trying to build organizations or companies that really live up to that ideal. So Jimmy, thank you so much for being on Emerge Everywhere.

Jimmy Chen:
I appreciate that so much Jen, thank you for having me on, and thank you for all of your support over the years.

Jennifer Tescher:
This has been EMERGE Everywhere, a Financial Health Network production. I’m Jennifer Tescher, and I’d love to hear your ideas for future guests and your reactions to the show. You can connect with me on Twitter @JenTescher. If you liked this episode, please review the show and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. To learn more about the work and research we do, please visit emerge.finhealthnetwork.org. See you next time.

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