Co-founder and CEO
Nothing bad happens when women have more money is the mantra of Wall Street powerhouse turned fintech CEO Sallie Krawcheck.
Those words have driven the success of Ellevest, an innovative digital investment platform designed to help women reach their financial goals that sparked a movement of women taking ownership of their financial freedom. The concept has also attracted nearly $1 billion in assets.
The robo-adviser built by women for women and launched in November 2016 is the brainchild of Krawcheck, its co-founder and CEO. After holding glass-ceiling-breaking positions as CEO of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and CFO of Citigroup, Krawcheck refocused her power on Wall Street and used it to get more money in the hands of women.
Ellevest was born with a mission to rewrite preconceived stories — that women don’t understand money and women are more risk averse than men — that society continues to tell women, skewing them away from financial independence.
“It’s been a journey of questioning some of the stories and building a business that threw away the old stories, and really worked to build something for her,” Krawcheck said. “In an industry that has not had much diversity, I would argue our industry was built for him.”
In the white-male dominated financial services arena, Ellevest is the first of its kind — garnering investments from female powerhouses such as Venus Williams, Mellody Hobson, Melinda Gates and Penny Pritzker.
“Sallie not only has the vision to see a need that so many missed for years, but has the experience, ability to attract top talent and investors, and grit to build Ellevest in a way that is fundamentally changing fintech and the financial security of women for years to come,” said Jenny Abramson, founder and managing partner of Rethink Impact and an Ellevest board member.
Four years, 90,000 customers and $900 million in assets under management later, Ellevest ranks in the top 10 performing robo-advisers, leapfrogging Wells Fargo, SoFi, Wealthfront, Merrill Edge and Charles Schwab.
It’s one of a handful of independent digital advisers remaining, as many startups were acquired by larger firms or closed, said David Goldstone, head of research for Backend Benchmarking.
But Ellevest goes beyond investment management and traditional financial planning to help its female clients be strategic about career paths, salary negotiations, budgeting and other topics that provide real value to the fintech’s growth trajectory, Goldstone said.
Krawcheck embodies a mix of drive and humility as she explains that she doesn’t think of Ellevest as being successful — yet. “I think of us as having cleared several high hurdles,” she said.
What makes her feel successful instead are unexpected words of gratitude from Ellevest users. “The moment for me was when I was standing in line to vote early during the 2020 election here in New York City,” she said. “The woman standing behind me saw my Ellevest bag and told me we changed her life.”
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
Starting a women-led, women-focused digital financial services company had its challenges. While Krawcheck, 56, had the status on Wall Street to get her in the door for meetings with venture capitalists, it wasn’t enough for them to see beyond her gender and age.
Clearly, this is a problem across the board. Less than 3% of venture capital is invested in women-founded companies in the U.S., according to a 2020 Crunchbase report. And Krawcheck has faced plenty of industry skepticism about the Ellevest concept. “People have said, ‘Women don’t invest, why do they need their own thing?’” she said.
Despite her tenacity, blocking the naysayers was hard. “I really forced myself to put aside my own inherent expectations, biases, beliefs and decided to dig into the research and let it speak for us,” she said. “The first big hurdle was me.”
The data revealed the need for a financial services firm designed to funnel more money to women given the many factors leading to the gender wealth gap.
Women make 32 cents to a white man’s dollar. For Black and Latin women, it’s just a penny. And Ellevest notes the retirement savings crisis in the U.S. is a women’s crisis, because women live longer than men. Working men report median retirement savings of $120,000, which compares to $60,000 for working women, according to a Wells Fargo study.
What the industry tends to forget, Krawcheck notes, is that money is the top source of stress for women.
“Taking action, like saving and investing, is the No. 1 driver of our confidence in achieving our goals,” she said. “Money is more than just money — it’s our future, our ability to quit the job we hate, our dreams for our children, the positive way we can impact the world around us.”
Ellevest helped build a banking and investing product, alongside a community of women, that looks and feels as if it was built and made for them. Since Ellevest is operated by a staff that’s 75% women and 50% people of color, its culture represents its client base.
That doesn’t mean Ellevest offers products that are dumbed down or presented with pink flowers. Instead, it aims to deconstruct a system built by and for men with a sophisticated digital-first investment platform operated with a women-first and inclusive lens.
Ellevest is not only a robo-adviser. It provides banking services and financial literacy content and has career coaches on staff. “When we ask women what they want out of a financial services company, the first thing they’ll say is ‘I want to make more money at work,’” Krawcheck said. “Most financial services companies ignore that answer and say, ‘Would you like a high-interest-rate savings account?’”
Ellevest doesn’t define its business model based on the traditional business lines of financial services firms. Instead, it pays attention to the resources its customers need to improve their finances.
“The sky’s the limit for us because we have defined ourselves by our mission, which is to get more money in the hands of women — so everything under that umbrella is fair game for us,” Krawcheck said.
Ultimately, Krawcheck’s persistence to make Ellevest a success stems from her passion to ensure the next generation of female CEOs have footsteps to follow. “That’s the responsibility I feel to be successful,” she said. “For the next woman who’s the founder of the next company.”
— Nicole Casperson