Ellevest’s brand has something no other digital investment startup has: Sallie Krawcheck.
If you’re a customer of Ellevest, you get targeted Instagram advice in the form of short “Ask Sallie” questions, answers and video clips, interspersed with quotes from iconic women. You’re also receiving weekly newsletters from Krawcheck called “What the Elle,” in which she provides her thoughts and advice. And sometimes you’re getting emails from Krawcheck with quick reactions to current events to let clients know where Ellevest stands. The company has been developing its brand without a big marketing or creative team, Krawcheck said. It launched in May 2016. Last month it hired its first chief marketing officer.
Ellevest has 24,300 followers on Instagram, whereas Betterment’s following stops at 2,419. Wealthfront’s account isn’t active. Krawcheck, once a Wall Street heavy hitter and now Ellevest CEO, said she’s used her own brand to get Ellevest going.
“You do it from a standing start at Ellevest, with one Twitter follower, and it’s hard to make a lot of impact there. But given that I’ve got a substantial following, beginning the conversation there and also bringing it to Ellevest made a lot of sense.”
“It’s really important to get this message out,” Krawcheck said. “We talk a lot about equality and empowerment and the positive impact of women moving ahead, but the truth is money is at the bottom of so much power in a capitalist society. But it’s sort of viewed as tacky to talk about.”
But Krawcheck has been building her own personal brand since before the launch. If you’ve seen her in the news for the past two years, you’ve probably seen her talk about how women’s careers are different from men’s — so their retirement planning should be too; how women control over $5 trillion in investable assets; or why men and women won’t be equal until they’re financially equal.
The timing couldn’t be better. Krawcheck’s vision for Ellevest extends back long before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but she said the business began seeing significant momentum this spring — shortly after Donald Trump moved into the White House, inciting the Year of the Woman and the movement to make women’s voices heard better now than ever. It’s a very good time for Krawcheck, who’s already so outspoken, well known and politically “on,” to tie her own brand into Ellevest’s.
Krawcheck does not hesitate to talk about her own experiences — failures, specifically.
“On the messaging branding side it really came from putting our heads together,” Krawcheck said. “From spending time with and understanding Elle.” “Elle” is the name Ellevest employees use to personify their typical customer.
But there’s a level of Inception-like marketing-speak. “But it came from us too because we are, to some extent, Elle.”
Today, 40 percent of Ellevest engineers are female; women comprise 47 percent of its product engineering organizations. Its executive leadership is 70 percent female.
Again and again Krawcheck tells stories during media appearances of the two times she was publicly fired when she was at the top of her game (in her last career) first as CFO of Citigroup and then as president of Bank of America’s global wealth and investment management division; about how much the timing of her outings sucked since her children were hospitalized shortly after that; why she thinks she was fired because she was a woman (since women tend to be more focused on client relationships and long-term outcomes than men); or when she learned of her ex-husband’s affair with a friend.
And she makes fun of herself, noting how “after drinking all the wine” she picked herself up, or quipping: “I’ve got nothing against middle-age white guys. I’ve been married to a couple of them.” Of course, she’s always selling Ellevest to readers and viewers. But Krawcheck’s cult of personality is so strong, maybe the ones that can tell don’t mind.
“We are looking to build a company for the long term,” Krawcheck said. “That said, what we hear from Elle is she wants to know us, know who’s behind the company and she wants to take her measure of them. Naturally that means it’s me.”
It’s not just the fintech companies whose products are starting to look the same. Just as they’re adding human advice, legacy firms whose value proposition have always centered around human advice are adding the digital feature. The growing competition doesn’t phase Krawcheck, who believes multiple firms can meet the array of different client needs. It’s harder for legacy firms though, who may not fully understand their clients, she said.
“Everybody is kind of borderline offering the same thing,” she said. “I will argue until the end of today with you that ours is better in X number of ways, that there are a number of things we do that are technologically more advanced than others and I expect that people will catch up with that at some point… but I think the truly great, iconic companies are ones that had great brands and really understand their client base.”
Last week Ellevest raised $34.6 million in fresh funding. Its lead investors — Rethink Impact, a new U.S. venture capital impact fund with a gender lens, and PSP Growth and Salesforce Ventures — are pretty on-brand for Ellevest. At the head of PSP Capital is Penny Pritzker, the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
“I went to sleep one night and thought to myself, if I could have any investor who would it be? And I woke up at 3:30 in the morning and thought: Penny Pritzker. Because of the work she had done at the Commerce Department for advancing women and because of their reputation for building long-term successful companies.”
Krawcheck maintains that despite how well her own brand has translated to the Ellevest brand, there’s an important distinction between the two, noting that Ellevest isn’t about “just Sallie’s view for what women want.” The company has clients in the office frequently to hear about their needs and what they want to see in the service.
“Everybody told me not to [start Ellevest]. ‘Women don’t wanna invest, their husbands do it for them, they’re risk averse’ — I’ve heard it all. But so be it… if I want to make an impact in this life, in this world, and given my background, this is really the way to do it.”
Photo: Getty Images