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‘I have a visceral understanding of the underserved customer because I was one too’: The story behind Ahead Financials

  • Ahead Financials was launched back in December to provide banking services to anyone who feels financially insecure or underbanked.
  • Anu Shultes is the CEO of Ahead. Her inspiration for the challenger bank and her understanding of how to build it come from 25+ years in the banking industry, as well as her own experience as an immigrant in the US trying to make ends meet.
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‘I have a visceral understanding of the underserved customer because I was one too’: The story behind Ahead Financials

Challenger bank Ahead Financials by LendUp was launched back in December. 

Ahead is an extension of LendUp, in that it’s focusing on providing financial services and literacy to people who either have low credit or no credit and have therefore been shut out of the system. In short, the challenger bank, which is still in waiting list status, aims to be a solution to anyone who feels financially insecure or who has a history of being underbanked or unbanked.

Ahead will offer a checking account and debit card with no monthly fees. It will also include financial literacy tools to educate consumers on their budgeting, a Visa contactless debit card, no fees for withdrawing from ATMs at certain locations, and eligibility for no overdraft fees.

“The Ahead Financials platform is going to be set up in a way so that anybody who feels underserved by the bank, even if they are doing fine financially, should be able to come to Ahead and benefit,” said Anu Shultes, CEO of Ahead Financials. She’s also been the CEO of LendUp since January, 2019.

Shultes’ awareness of a gap in banking services for the underserved started in 2007, while working for AccountNow, a prepaid debit card supplier.

“50 to 70 million Americans don't even have a bank account. That's why they turned to prepaid cards,” said Shultes. “That's when I discovered that people don't even have access to basic checking accounts.” 

But her understanding, rather than just awareness of this gap, has come from her own experience. 

Shultes came to the US in 1990 as an immigrant with no money. She lived paycheck-to-paycheck and always had to think about making sure she had enough money at the end of the week even for food. So there was no option to build credit or start saving.

“I have a visceral understanding of the underserved customer because I was one, too,” said Shultes.

What Shultes discovered was that the problems she faced as an immigrant in the 90s are still alive today. And you don’t have to be an immigrant to face them. It all depends on what financial services are actually available to you.

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“It's about access,” said Shultes. “Access to financial services is not equal.”

Shultes has also had a lot of experience working in the banking world, including being the VP of card issuer Providian Financials, the VP of home equity lines of credit at National City Bank, and director of direct to consumer marketing at HSN. This has given her insight into how Ahead’s mission fits into the financial services industry. 

The gap in financial services shouldn’t be there, said Shultes, but it is. And it’s there because big banks haven’t seen a point in addressing it.

“There's no real reason other than when you have 9,000 banks catering to half of the population, and most of these banks are profitable, they're basically saying, ‘Why do I need to stretch into a population that I feel is higher risk, when I already have a profitable business,’” said Shultes.

The thing is that if financial institutions do eventually want to reach more consumers and grow their customer base, they can’t just be idle. Things like credit scores and lack of access to financial literacy have locked doors for a lot of people. To increase financial health in the US, that problem needs to be addressed, said Shultes.

“We can’t get to a level playing field across race, gender, and other things that separate us without starting with financial access combined with financial education,” said Shultes. “Access plus education creates the path to financial health.”

Ahead has partnered with a number of companies to help create an ecosystem within its app that focuses on financial health, literacy, and inclusion. This includes its partnerships with Balance, a financial counseling and education service, SpringFour, a financial inclusion app, and Financial Health Network, a resource for businesses to improve their customers’ financial health.

Earlier this month, Ahead announced it had integrated Financial Health Network’s FinHealthCheck insights and measurement platform into its app. This will allow the digital bank to measure, analyze, benchmark and advise users on their financial health.

“We’re going to constantly ask ourselves, how do we save this customer money? And how do we encourage them to seamlessly save some of the money that they're earning, so that they can still live within their means,” said Shultes.

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