When word of the growing pandemic first reached Anu Shultes in early March, the CEO of LendUp was at a conference in Seattle. Only half of the participants showed up that day and by the next, another half disappeared.
“It was sort of a early window into how serious this could be,” she told attendees at Tearsheet’s Resilience Conference in June. “It was just sort of a shock to our system. I came back home and huddled with my executive team. I said, you know, this could get bad.” The lender for underserved consumers kicked off a process to shift its workforce to their homes.
After getting her employees up and running from home, Shultes turned her attention to the business to determine how to react to COVID-19. LendUp needed to figure out how its customers, who generally earn $45,000 to $50,000 a year, would fare during lockdown and project that out into the future. These customers generally have a hard time finding $250 for a blown tire, so an extended downturn could be disastrous for their financial well-being.
“My tendency in life is to not have any jerk reactions,” she said. “So what I said was, ‘Let’s take stock of what’s happening.’ We got through shelter in place. We made sure everybody’s able to log in and our agents are able to take calls. You know, the basics.” Shultes and her team then started to look at the external factors, what’s happening outside, with employment and the widespread panic in the economy. She talked to board members and instituted daily executive meetings.
Over the next four weeks, LendUp made an assessment of its position as high risk lender. Shultes decided it was prudent to cautiously begin pulling back on the amounts LendUp lent and the durations of the loans it underwrote, going from 12 months to four months. That way, she felt that LendUp wasn’t abandoning its customers when they needed the lender the most, while buying more time to assess what’s going on outside.
Shultes’ management style favors transparency. She directed that honesty to her employees. Without a pandemic playbook, Shultes focused on getting in front of her staff with all hands meetings conducted over Zoom. “We were very clear about what we were working on and the changes that were happening,” she said.
Call center staff required retraining as LendUp changed its lending practices. Shultes communicated clearly and transparently and encouraged her managers to do so, as well. “Every step of the way, I would say, ‘Be focused on very broad and transparent communication within the team.’ And even when changes were made to cut costs or furlough employees, we got in front of the team and talked about what’s happened to the business, and walked them through the decision-making process.”
This open communication style meant that when furloughs did occur, people weren’t surprised, according to Shultes. She had been sharing the company’s thinking around cutting costs and the impact scaling back lending would have on LendUp’s revenues.
Difficult conversations were important in getting through the immediate crisis. “I think they understood that we were all struggling together, and we were going through the process. So that was a very important piece of how we managed,” she said.
Shultes has seen her fair share. A financial services veteran with 25 years experience in the industry, she’s also cancer survivor, diagnosed 12 years ago, and it’s this resilience that she brings to everything she does. Instead of panicking and reacting in anger, she has a longer-term vision.
“Life goes on. Every day the sun comes up and you have to move forward. That is my philosophy in life: when you are dealing with a challenge — cancer, losing a job, or whether it’s a pandemic — no one’s anticipating it. How do you deal with so much uncertainty? We focus on what we can control. And my philosophy is, this too shall pass,” she said.
Shultes believes that we have to let go to our attachments to outcomes and in doing so, that opens us up to new possibilities. We can move forward and find things in the new normal that we can control. That’s how she keeps strong.
Shultes kept a full multi-generational home during the pandemic, as well. Seven people, including children and parents, slept, lived, and worked together. She prioritizes mental and physical health. With gyms closed, Shultes began walking around her neighborhood. She now averages 55 miles.
She walks for two hours each day, split into two one hour sessions. “I get away from having to cook dinner or dealing with whatever crisis my children might be facing, or work issues. I find that no matter how stressed I am, I put on my shoes, I go out there. And by the time I come back an hour later, I have moved on from that stress. I have either solved for, figured out a strategy for the next thing I’m stuck on, or I have just spent 30 minutes in a form of meditation,” she said.
Shultes brought this focus on physical and mental health to her company during the pandemic. The company conducted a fitness challenge, encouraging everyone to exercise with prizes.
“Focusing on physical and mental health is paying off for me as a CEO,” Shultes shared.
“My team is much more productive than they were even before the pandemic and you feel closer together as a team. There’s a real feeling of caring about each other, and that we’re in this together.”