The Bottom Line For These Digital Personal Finance Professionals? Making an Impact.
Where do you take your career after spending more than a decade at one of the biggest names in financial services?
In Sabina Yoon’s case, after spending 15 years at industry heavyweight Wells Fargo — where she ultimately rose to SVP of digital product management — she channeled her expertise into a new role: VP of digital transformation at Achieve. Going from a company of mammoth scale to a smaller, younger organization (the company was founded in 2002) is quite the shift in scenery — but for Yoon, the early 2022 move allowed her to parlay her knowledge into a new challenge at Achieve, where she also serves as head of product for Achieve’s home loan business.
Yoon’s background in working with consumer business units and multiple product lines gets poured into what she described as a ripe-for-impact space where team members are driven by a quest to innovate within the home loan space. And for Yoon, being at an organization the size of Achieve’s allows her to have an outsized impact.
“We have an opportunity to have a direct conversation about the direction of the company and changing strategies. While the team that I’m working with is smaller in size, the depth and the breadth of the work that we do is far greater. We’re looking at the entire loan origination process and the technologies that are involved to power that experience. I’m making an impact and it’s also been a tremendous growth opportunity for me,” Yoon said.
In coming aboard, Yoon actually followed the trajectory of her former Wells Fargo colleague, Ed Park, who joined the company in 2021 as a director, then was promoted to VP of product management 7 months later. Like Yoon, Park was drawn to the company in part by what he saw as considerable professional upside.
“The opportunity here was immense: to build and launch new financial products and apps that would help struggling-to-striving consumers improve and manage their finances,” Park said. “Having worked for startups as small as one person to very large corporations, I believe Achieve is uniquely positioned in terms of having enough traction and profitability as a company to invest in significant product expansion, with a lot yet to be figured out, supported by executives who are passionate in transforming consumer finance.”
The opportunity here was immense: to build and launch new financial products and apps that would help struggling-to-striving consumers improve and manage their finances.”
Rob Carpenter, who serves as Chief Technology Officer of Achieve home loans while also leading the platform engineering team, said that the company strives to reach an ignored group of consumers: individuals who tend to be “struggling to strive.”
“For me, I would describe the mission as helping consumers, particularly these specific consumers, achieve their goals. They want to be in a particular place but don’t know how to get there. We provide them a whole range of products and services that, over time, will move them from where they are to where they want to be,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter echoed Yoon’s belief that incoming talent can leave their mark.
“We have a great culture. We’re of the right size where you can make a difference. And you can get up and work on projects every day knowing you’re making a real difference, which is really hard to find,” Carpenter said.
Built In SF recently caught up with Yoon, Carpenter and Park to learn what brought them to the San Mateo, California-headquartered startup, why digital transformation and innovation is at the crux of their teams’ respective work and why the company’s consumer-focused mission resonates with them.
What drew you to Achieve?
VP of Digital Transformation Sabina Yoon: The fact that it is a mission-driven organization. A colleague of mine, Ed, joined last year. And after I had a conversation with Kyle Enright, the head of our home loans business, and Rob, I was quickly convinced that this company truly cared about improving consumers’ financial situation. I also got the sense during my interview process that the company is poised for massive growth and the leaders are committed to investing in pivoting the company to be innovative and digital focused.
Home Loans CTO Rob Carpenter: The company was making this move from being product-centric to being relationship-centric — building a long relationship with our members, not just putting them into a product. There was a lot of complexity in what needed to get done and it was a real challenge. I thought that’d be fun.
Additionally, I thought it was interesting that we’re really working with an underserved group — people whom financial services generally hadn’t focused on or worked for. There is a shared mission across the company. We’re providing real value to people who need it.
We’re really working with an underserved group. There is a shared mission across the company. We’re providing real value to people who need it.”
VP of Product Management Ed Park: I was looking for a company with a mission that resonates with me and that offers compelling products that solves real consumer problems; a company with really sharp people who I’d be excited to work with; and a role that would be meaningfully challenging in terms of driving product vision, discovery, strategy and delivery.
What really struck me about Achieve is that the company is genuinely mission-oriented. Every company has a stated mission and core values, but it’s often not woven into the DNA of the company. The mission here is. On top of that, the interviewers were a refreshing blend of talent with humility — that’s rare in Silicon Valley.
How does Achieve define innovation? What does that look like in the work you and your teams produce?
Yoon: It happens at every level. As we build and refine the consumer experience related to our products, we think about what would make it easier for people to engage with us and how we can move more things in the hands of the consumers so that they have more control. We have amazing talent in our engineering team, so we’re working with them to build that in-house. We’re also not shy about identifying great solutions to integrate with.
Carpenter: We start with a consumer and take the consumer in view, rather than a Achieve view out. The second thing we do is focus on speed, at least within my team. We’ve built processes and a mindset around rapid turnaround times and being very agile. That’s where innovation can come from — because you can be more aggressive knowing your ability to react to change is on a short cycle.
Park: Innovation really boils down to finding novel ways of solving pain points and problems for consumers. Most companies over-focus on their competitors — if one does this, the likely outcome is an incrementally better product that doesn’t address the switching cost hurdle for consumers. Instead, I think real innovation only happens when a company meaningfully puts the consumer at the center and invests the time and energy to solve problems that matter to them in intuitive and helpful ways.
What are some current projects your teams are working on that underscore an emphasis on digital transformation and innovation? How does this work benefit consumers?
Carpenter: Our platform team is working with the business units in the product teams to understand how they interact with their consumers. Then, we’ll be able to pull into the center of the company a technology platform that has the customer at the center. We’re building out a view of the consumer on the platform, and then we’re building out services around them that support the way the product lines need to interact with that consumer. When the next product line interacts with them we understand how they are already engaged and we’re not interfering with each other.
Yoon: We’re taking a much more of an omnichannel view in terms of how we engage with our members If they want to engage with us digitally, we are building that experience as effectively and seamlessly as possible. Should they need to talk to somebody, we’re making it super easy for that. We have both strong digital capabilities as well as incredible consumer-facing teams that are working with mortgage advisors. We are showcasing both of our assets to help members get what they need.
Park: I’m in the very fortunate position to be overseeing the launch of our fourth business unit, banking, and the launch of mobile apps that make it effortless and easy for consumers to tell how they’re doing with their finances. Today, the vast majority of apps only show you what you’ve done. We help you understand where you’re going and how to adopt healthy financial habits. It’s a huge responsibility and privilege.
What about your culture allows you to experiment and fail fast?
Carpenter: The management team has a very data-driven, incrementalist approach. There’s no issue at all with trying something and having it not work. It’s all built into the model. We have a hypothesis, put the hypothesis test into production with expected outcomes, then report on it. If it doesn’t work, we adjust. We do lots and lots of moderate-to-small size experimentation that push the envelope just a little bit farther out. That cuts everybody loose to go do interesting things.
We do lots and lots of small-to-moderate size experimentation that pushes the envelope just a little bit farther out. That cuts everybody loose to go do interesting things.”
Yoon: In terms of technology and features, we have both the infrastructure as well as the support needed to stay nimble, and it’s OK to fail as long as that leads to improvement. We are empowered to make mistakes and be OK with it as long as we learn from it. That culture is very strong here. Obviously, since we operate in the financial services industry, there are things that we need to be more thoughtful about in terms of what can be launched and iterated on, as opposed to what things must be super tight in terms of compliance.
Park: I was hired specifically to bring innovative product practices to Achieve. I have the benefit here of having senior leadership that is incredibly supportive and a context where we have successful products that are both profitable and greatly valued by our members. I’m defining and driving our digital strategy with respect to our mobile apps and tools, so that we can reshape the landscape of consumer finance.
The app market has been very stagnant for years. Consumer finance is fragmented and hard for consumers. That’s a big problem to go after, and I’m excited about the opportunity.
Achieve aims to help people alleviate the burden of their debt. How does that mission make for fulfilling work?
Yoon: I know for a fact that other traditional banks do not serve the core segment that we are serving. That means there is this huge white space. You have millions of consumers who have no place to go and then they fall prey to predatory lenders and their practices. The fact that we’re able to help consumers in need is what helps me wake up every day feeling really good about the work that we do.
Millions of consumers have no place to go and fall prey to predatory lenders. The fact that we’re able to help those customers in need is what helps me wake up every day.”
Carpenter: For Achieve home loans, we won’t do a loan unless there’s a specific threshold of benefit to the consumer. If that consumer is not seeing their cash flow improved by a certain amount, we will not do that loan. We report every week in our team meetings what our average benefit to the consumer has been.
Also, when we hear from our members which is pretty frequently, we make sure to share that with everybody. It’s unlike any company I’ve ever been at with the really sincere, heartfelt messages we get. We make sure everybody gets to see those. I can get up and go to work and feel good about what I’m doing.
Park: We’re here to help everyday people. Plenty of digital finance, fintechs and traditional financial institutions focus on the wealthy, affluent and near-affluent. Those people already get plenty of attention. We’re trying to raise up the masses who need help the most. Finances are hard. Financial literacy is not taught as part of our education system, and there is a lack of apps in the space that make finances relatable, motivating and — dare I say it? — fun.