You need money to make money–or to bank money, even in the increasingly high-tech world.
Lower-income people, immigrants, and young people without credit histories are some of the nearly 32.6 million American households the FDIC considers “unbanked” or “underbanked,” living without adequate access to traditional financial services. Thirty-year-old Sheena Allen grew up in one such enclave, outside of Jackson, Mississippi; her hometown of Terry had cows and horses but only one small bank.
“Most people in my area cashed their checks at the grocery store” and used payday lenders and other often-predatory financial providers, Allen recalls. “We’ve lived the problem, so let’s be the solution.”
After spending most of 2016 researching the financial industry, she came up with her solution: CapWay, a social fintech app-maker that Allen wants to use to provide better financial services to the kinds of people she grew up with. Currently, CapWay can show your bank account balance and transaction information, and it also warns you if a monthly Netflix or Spotify withdrawal is about to drain your account. It’s a humble effort compared with the many banking apps available, but Allen is betting that her tech will reach the people who don’t have access to, and thus wouldn’t use, the offerings of bigger banks.
She raised an early $25,000 from Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton, a fellow Mississippi native who raves about Allen’s “grit, determination, and conviction” and has connected Allen with the investors who are leading CapWay’s next fundraising round. “She could be underestimated when she walks into the room–she’s a Southern belle–but she’s relatable, and knows what’s happening in the real world,” says Hamilton (who recently stepped down from running many of her fund’s day-to-day operations). “It’s so expensive to be poor.”
CapWay is still pretty early stage, though it’s launching a debit card this spring, with smartphone-enabled microloans coming later this year. (Don’t have enough in your account to cover this month’s Netflix charge? CapWay can spot you $25, for a fee.) Allen admits that she’s still figuring out her company’s revenue model, which so far involves a combination of payments from colleges that use CapWay’s financial educational materials, and fees from customers using its debit and loan products. This can be the trickiest part of providing non-predatory financial products to lower-income people, who often get gouged by fees, but financial industry watchers praise what Allen’s accomplished so far.
“This is a tough business, and she’s got a complicated challenge to figure out a model that works,” says John Thompson, chief program officer for the nonprofit Center for Financial Services Innovation, which focuses in part on underbanked consumers. “But what they’ve proposed feels like a substantively better option than operating in cash, or with check cashers.”
Allen, meanwhile, is undaunted by the complexity of her chosen market: “We can be profitable, have a social impact, and have a great company,” she says.