Meet the 2022 Exchange grantee partnerships improving finhealth through access to public and private benefits. Learn More
Blog Post

EARN’s CEO: “Driving Impact and Meaning” in Fintech

Monday, March 19, 2018

Below is an interview with Leigh Phillips, CEO of nonprofit EARN, a national, award-winning nonprofit working at the intersection of financial technology and economic inclusion to empower low-income Americans to take charge of their financial lives. EARN’s savings technology and programs support working families in setting aside the savings they need to achieve financial security. EARN was selected for the 2016 Financial Solutions Lab class.


What brought you to fintech? Why do you care about this space?

I joined EARN because I saw a powerful opportunity to apply emerging technologies to deep-rooted problems we were trying to solve in the social sector–in our case, the widespread financial instability that is preventing too many Americans from experiencing economic mobility.  I also recognized that as new tech-driven financial products and services emerged, the communities we care about were once again at risk of being excluded and left behind. I wanted a way to bring the financial needs–and the financial power–of low-income people into the fintech conversation. The best way I can see to do that is to get more nonprofits involved in the fintech sector and make sure we are playing a role in shaping the future of financial services in this country, not just as advocates but also as service providers.


What changes in America are you seeing right now that point to the need for the work you’re doing?

The issues EARN address are front and center in the public discourse right now–growing wealth and income inequality, the inability for too many families to get ahead and stay ahead, and the persistent challenge of low-to-moderate income Americans being poorly served by mainstream financial products and services. Our SaverLife Members experience all of these challenges and more, yet they join our program because they want better for themselves and their kids.

At the same time, I am seeing increasing energy around giving voice back to the people and making sure that a much wider range of perspectives are represented in the direction we are taking in the United States. One of the most exciting aspects of technology is that–when used well–it can influence both individual behavior and spark collective action. We need to build our capacity to do both if we are going to see the change we need to build a more equitable economy in this country.


What about your nonprofit fintech group–what are you focused on doing there?

EARN joined forces with five other nonprofit fintech providers and, with the support of the Aspen Institute, we created Nonprofit Leaders in Financial Technology, a coalition focused on strengthening the nonprofit fintech sector. We have three main goals–to work together to become better, stronger organizations that can continue to provide well-designed products and services that meet the needs of underserved communities; to define and advocate for the important role nonprofits can play in this space; and, most importantly, to amplify the voices of the consumers we serve and represent their interests as we push for systemic change throughout the financial sector.


Are there areas aside from the one you’re in, that you feel are ripe for innovation?

I think we need to focus our measure of innovation on producing better results for consumers, not on our ability to “disrupt” industries. The industries we are talking about already miss the mark on serving low-income people, so finding new ways to serve those who are already relatively well-served doesn’t strike me as particularly innovative.  If we can’t make life better for consumers, particularly low-to-moderate income consumers, then we aren’t living up to the promise of technology. So I would say genuinely measuring impact, defined as improving household financial stability across all income-levels, is where I see room for innovation.


What inspires you right now?

When we talk about technology we mostly focus on tech’s ability to rapidly drive scale. Those two elements–speed and scalability–have come to dominate the conversation, but speed and scale aren’t worth much without meaning and impact.

While I’m inspired by the opportunity to scale out to reach large numbers of consumers, I believe we must also scale deep and ensure that the products and services we deliver are providing real benefits to the people who use them. In addition, we must maintain our focus on systemic change and take the opportunities technology provides to build a more inclusive financial system that genuinely serves everyone. This is where I hope to take EARN.


Leigh Phillips is the CEO and President of EARN, the nation’s leading microsavings provider. Prior to joining EARN in September 2015, Leigh was the Director of the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment (SFOFE), playing an instrumental role in the emergence of municipal government as a strong leader in national efforts to build a safe and inclusive financial system for all consumers. Under Phillips’ leadership, the SFOFE spearheaded several “first in the nation” programs to reduce financial exclusion, including Bank on San Francisco, the first municipally led effort to bank the unbanked, and Kindergarten to College, the first universal and automatic college savings program for public school children. On the national level, Phillips was instrumental in the creation of the Cities for Financial Empowerment Coalition.


Stay Connected

Sign up to receive updates on the Financial Solutions Lab, companies, and more.