How Even has pursued its mission of evening the playing field for creating a better life
In 2014, we started Even with a basic premise: Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not, and someone should do something about that.
We didn’t set out to build a financial services company, or an enterprise sales company, or honestly any kind of company at all.
But there was no debate about the problem we wanted to solve. We immediately committed to addressing the inequality of opportunity, because it clearly fulfilled our dream: to spend our lives working on something important enough that, old and gray and evaluating how we’d spent our limited time, would leave us with no regrets.
Upon digging in, we found there isn’t one problem to solve, but many. That there were economic issues, and below them a foundation of psychological ones.
Over the last 30 years, while wages have stagnated for the bottom 90%, the cost of many things has exploded—most notably the things that are core to achieving a better life: having a home, good health, and an education. Meanwhile, those three decades have seen our economy produce millions more things to buy, and following that growth, the explosion of two new industries: targeted advertising (making it much harder to resist buying the things), and short term credit (making it much easier to buy them with money you don’t have).
These economic changes have made it easier to live a physically comfortable life day to day, but at the cost of making it much harder to progress towards our dreams, because progress is now insanely expensive, and we spend more of our money buying things other than progress. Feeling stuck—that you’re working hard, but not making any progress towards the life you want—is stressful. And that constant stress, as the Science article “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” details, changes the chemistry in your brain, impairing its ability to make sound decisions. Try making a budget when you’re being mugged at gunpoint. At the chemical level, that’s how difficult it is to make good decisions when you’re struggling, and this impediment to sound decision making has created a vicious cycle that is slowly but surely causing the majority of Americans to fall further behind, and further still from their dreams.
There’s good money to be made when stress causes people to make unsound decisions. Compared to 30 years ago, there are now thousands and thousands more financial service providers available to help you with your economic problems (a hint in and of itself). Fervent competition, paired with differentiation limited by government regulation, has led to providers not caring if a financial service is healthy for you to use, and only how they can make the most profit when you use it. Consider, for example, that the only significant attempt these institutions make to understand your situation—building your credit score—requires that you use their credit products, whether or not it’s healthy for you to do so.
As a result of understanding their customer’s situation only the tiniest bit, most financial services are inefficiently priced blunt instruments that, cruelly, are both expensive and frequently cause more harm than good. In the worst cases, these institutions that are supposed to help you with money problems instead prey on the fact that you have no accessible alternatives, and no cognitive energy to recognize—let alone do anything about—how much harm they’re causing you. So Americans lose $240 billion every year making ends meet, often losing up to 14% of their income to predatory credit products. It’s institutional wage theft—and we just accept this as normal.
But we shouldn’t. Because it hurts us all.
Take, for example, an extremely bright young woman we’ve had the pleasure of meeting in our journey: Samantha. Samantha has always been great with kids. She’s the babysitter in town with a six-month waitlist. She has dreams of being the first in her family to go to college, so she can study biology and become a pediatrician. Samantha’s dad was disabled in a construction accident when she was 12, so her mom works two jobs to provide for Samantha and her two younger brothers—as a housekeeper at the luxury hotel downtown, and in the evenings as a seamstress at the tailor’s shop. When work at the tailor was slow last year, she put more than $5,000 in bills on a preapproved credit card she randomly got in the mail. Only later, when the first bill came due, did she notice the 29% interest rate. She now owes more than $10,000, which at 29% interest would require spending close to half of her income each month to pay it back.
Samantha does well enough in school, but she’s had to babysit almost every night to help her mom make ends meet. She can study some while babysitting, but never with the focus she’d like, so she doesn’t have the grades for a scholarship. Turns out, if Samantha wants to go to college and be a doctor, mom first has to pay a $35 application fee for each school. She doesn’t have the money, but that’s not the real problem—after all, what’s $35 to a $10,000 credit card balance? Because of their stressful situation, Samantha and her mom have no energy left after their long days to put Samantha’s best foot forward in her applications, let alone do the research and realize she needs to apply to ten colleges if she wants to get into a good pre-med program. Samantha could have been the pediatrician you rave about and feel blessed to have on speed dial when your kid’s fever jumps into “oh shit” territory. But instead, her dream of becoming a pediatrician may be over before it even begins, simply because of how much money her family has.
Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not, because to seize opportunity, you need both money and cognitive energy—and struggling financially deprives you of both. And as a result of depriving so many people of opportunity, our society wastes millions of talented people who could have been our next great doctors, scientists, leaders, artists, inventors, and entrepreneurs.
The irony of Even, and of our founding story, should be lost on no one. Together, having financial security and headspace gave us the opportunity to optimize our lives around our dream to work on a big, important problem. In some ways, the story of our company is simple: We seek to ensure anyone can have the opportunity we had. Because now, more than ever, our world is full of important problems. And we need all the help we can get.