Anna Counselman, Co-Founder at Upstart, discusses her unique founder story, the use of advanced data and analytics, and Upstart's take on hybrid work.
Liz Pagel: Congratulations! You, Dave [Girouard] and Paul [Gu] founded Upstart 10 years ago, and you're all still operating it day to day. That's pretty unusual — what's your secret?
Anna: That's a great question. I think it is unusual and remarkable. I joke that we've lasted longer than most marriages. We didn't know each other that well when we started. Dave and I had worked together at Google, but we met Paul through our initial research on our first iteration of [our company’s] product. In many ways, we just got very, very lucky. But I think a big component is we're all different in every dimension: age, gender, the way our brains work, the things we're interested in. So, we've each carved out dedicated parts of the business that we care about and have participated in, and we sort of give each other leeway to do those things. As an early employee described it: Paul is always seeking the truth and is responsible for our data science and machine learning. Dave is getting us to go fast. As our CEO, he's always looking ahead to where we need to be 10, 15 years from now — or even 3 to 5 years from now, really — and how we’re going to get there faster. I’m responsible for bringing everybody along, and so kind of conceptually, we have these different areas of responsibility and really different ways of approaching problems.
Every week, we do a founder walk (which have become more virtual over the last couple years) and we just discuss everything: what's good, what's bad, what we’re worried about in the company, and how to divide and conquer to make things happen. Now is one of the most exciting times to be at Upstart because we've done a lot of hard work to get here, and we have all this unrealized opportunity in front of us. So, we're all like, “We're here. We want to do this. This is so exciting. Let's go build a top five FinTech in the next three to five years.”
Liz Pagel: What a unique story. How have you approached the evolution of the digital-first workplace?
Anna Counselman: We've come up with a slightly different take on heading back to work than other organizations. We clearly demonstrated for two years we've been able to successfully work remotely, so there's not a great case to be made that everyone needs to be back in the office 100% of the time. Yet, we still have this fundamental belief that some in-office time fosters creativity and serendipitous conversations. There are some things like problem solving or launching products that really work better if done in person, so how do you optimize to give people flexibility but also make time for those critical in-person experiences? I think the question we asked that I haven't seen other companies ask is, “Who is in the office with you?”
Many companies are in-office three days a week, but if you come three days a week and your team comes in on other days, that doesn't really help you. You're still on calls all day. To solve for this, we've broken up the company into cross-functional, vertical teams aligned to critical company efforts: products, machine learning advantage, etc. Then we put together an onsite calendar so any Upstarter can live or work from anywhere, but they're expected to come to the office a certain number of days a month for these intensive collaboration sessions with their vertical team.
So far it's working really well. I think it's giving people the right ratio of having the flexibility of working remotely — as well as coming to the office for intensive, in-person experiences that aren't necessarily choreographed offsites (where you're sitting there watching presentations) but foster more organic relationship growing.
Liz Pagel: The pandemic has caused many consumers to experience mounting financial hardship. As a result, we're seeing financial services prioritize its focus on financial inclusion. What role do FinTechs play in expanding access to credit and helping consumers weather emergencies?
Anna Counselman: Generally, FinTechs have a competitive advantage in being able to provide smaller, shorter duration unsecured loans versus more traditional lending institutions that provide larger, securitized-type lending products. In order to be able to qualify for a securitized product, you need to have a car or house versus for a personal loan, you need to have your credit history to provide some information about your background. So in a time of economic hardship, what's more important than being able to provide people with shorter-term access to credit at fair prices that doesn't need to be secured by an asset?
This is the bread and butter of what FinTechs are able to do: help consumers find great credit in every type of lending environment. During tough economic times, the need for credit is even more acute than during great economic times — and FinTechs have the cost, technology and data advantage to be able to effectively serve consumers in their times of need.
Anna Counselman is co-founder at Upstart (NASDAQ: UPST), a leading AI lending marketplace that partners with banks to improve access to affordable credit. Anna leads Upstart’s people and operations teams where she drives the customer experience and culture-strategy alignment. She helped scale Upstart from zero to more than 2,000 employees. Upstart helps millions of consumers who don’t have access to credit, pay too much for it, or take on credit they can’t ultimately afford.
Previously, Anna led Gmail Consumer Operations at Google as the business grew from 150 million to 450 million users. She also held a variety of operations roles at McMaster Carr and several other startups. Anna received a White House Champion of Change award and was recognized as one of Silicon Valley Business Journal's 40 under 40. Anna graduated Summa Cum Laude from Boston University with a BA in Finance and Entrepreneurship.