“Scared money don’t make no money” isn’t just a popular hip-hop colloquialism used by the likes of Jeezy, Lil Wayne, and Meek Mill, but for financier Nicole Reyes, it’s a way of life. Walking into a dismal job market at the height of one of the worst recessions in modern history obviously wasn’t part of her post-graduation plans, but nevertheless, she took a few risks, believed that she could and she did. Inspired by her parents and their longstanding careers in finance, she followed in their footsteps and began a journey that would ultimately allow for her to empower others to become smarter and savvier with their financial decisions.
As co-founder and Head of Product and Strategy for GRAND, a financial wellness tool that encourages people to start saving by making it easy, Nicole is not only responsible for implementing and executing the company’s overall business strategy, but she works with her team to design how the end user will interact with their product.
Her Agenda caught up with Nicole to learn more about how GRAND is empowering the average American to save more, what millennials need to know about preparing for retirement, and why making an impact will forever be her motivation.
Her Agenda: As co-founder and head of product and strategy for Grand, what does a typical day look like for you? What are some of your responsibilities, and how do you ensure that current and future Grand users are kept up-to-date on the latest news on money management?
Nicole Reyes: Every day is different. As a small team that is moving quickly, my responsibilities are broad. I’m involved in both the strategic business side as well as on the product and execution side. On the business side it’s everything from market analysis, new feature assessment, identification and negotiation of partnerships, performance measurement (team and product) and fundraising. On the product side, it’s scoping new features, designing functionality and managing implementation to completion with my product team. I love building with my team. We’ve been together for so long that we benefit from a super streamlined communication and execution.
For us, Grand is not necessarily about keeping people up to date on money management and the latest news, it’s geared toward empowering them when it comes to their own money. We’re challenging existing consumer constructs that reward you for compulsive spending (think one-click purchasing, and spending rewards) by adding short term benefit and rewards to saving and other smart money actions.
We took a look at realities of the personal finance space and the statistics are staggering. 70% of Americans have less than $1,000 saved. Additionally, people are throwing the “hope long bomb” and spending$75 billion a year on the lottery. We thought we could harness these insights by providing cash rewards to our savers. Ever dollar our members save provides an entry into our weekly jackpot drawings. The more you save, the better your chances to win.
With our product design, GRAND aims to weave in teachings on personal finance basics and reinforce those teachings with a points program. The goal is to get our users average savings values above the national averages.
Her Agenda: What inspired you to pursue a career in finance? Were you faced with any challenges breaking into the industry? Who are some people that you look up to and have served as your mentors?
Nicole Reyes: Honestly, I didn’t pursue a career in finance because it was my first choice. The job market was challenging when I came out of school and both of my parents led by example with lifelong careers in finance. I had the most exposure and understanding to the space and understood the path. From there, I honestly assessed the things that I really cared about and where I wanted to have an impact. What I care most about is building products and services for people who have traditionally been ignored and underestimated. I had the traditional finance background, and GRAND gave me the opportunity to build upon that by creating a product that has the ability to create significant impact for the lives of millions of Americans not best served by the banking system.
As far as mentors, it’s probably a bit chiché, but it’s 100 percent my mom. She’s been in the financial services industry for her entire career and she’s managed to attain levels of success that, if it weren’t for her, I would otherwise not know it were possible. I think she’s been brilliant at navigating a complicated infrastructure that has been traditionally male-dominated. She has made a place for herself by always being prepared, outperforming expectations and maintaining her integrity.
Additionally, I’ve been watching the spaces that interest me and I’ve been inspired my many of my colleagues and friends. We’re starting to see more and more women leading funds and start up studios. I’m inspired by Heather Hartnett who I had the pleasure of working with before she started Human Capital and like Jenny Abramson for her team’s bold mission at Rethink Capital. I see companies like Blavity and applaud their expert strategic maneuvering. I’m inspired by their co-founder Jon Jackson and the team they’ve been able to build. I’m inspired by people who are thinking about the capital stack challenges for underestimated entrepreneurs like Donrey Von at Currency and Kesha Cash and Stefanie Thomas with the Impact America Fund. I’m encouraged by shift of these issues and challenges into the mainstream. I lean on and learn from all of them and their work.
Her Agenda: Millennials are often ridiculed for not saving for retirement, investing early, or even for a rainy day, but there are many factors that point to our inability to save consistently. How does Grand aim to help everyday people save money and prepare for life’s unexpected moments?
Nicole Reyes: The good news is, it’s not just millennials. Grand’s approach is to make saving feel more like winning. We want to teach our members how to level up financially by making savings both fun and incredibly easy. We created an application that is easy to set up, allows members to set a recurring savings amount and rewards them for everything they do. It’s sort of a “no-lose” lottery. Even when members don’t win, they’re saving and making progress toward their financial goals. As savers level-up they can invest with us as well as leverage us for a number of other financial services products.
Her Agenda: When faced with the challenges in your career, how have you been able to overcome them? What keeps you inspired and motivated to move forward?
Nicole Reyes: I made the choice to work in a complicated environment that is high intensity, high stress and in turn, high reward. I think in watching my mom’s career I kind of go into it knowing the rules. I think this framing is helpful because when met with adversity and challenges, I sort of expect them. That awareness means there is not a total shock. It doesn’t make it feel any better while I’m working through it but in some ways, I’ve been preparing for it all along.
I often lean on my community. I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with people who are expert navigators all in their own careers and lived. They help me identify the best path forward. Honestly, without them this would be impossible.
As far as motivations, it’s always been about the impact for me. Before my work with GRAND, I had the opportunity to spend a concentrated amount of time thinking through who I wanted to be when I grew up. What would I be proud to tell my future children I committed my life and career to? That time helped me figure out my life mission. I’m committed to building product and services that create access and opportunity for folks that have been overlooked and underestimated. To some degree I found my north star and as long as the work I’m doing moves me further in that direction, the challenges are all worth it.
Her Agenda: What is the best career advice you have ever received?
Nicole Reyes: Do what you love. Time and time again I’ve learned this one the hard way. I think these days, people are so caught up in what other people are thinking of them and of their career. There are plenty of people out there that will give you their take on what you should or shouldn’t do with your career. But I think it’s important to know yourself well enough to be able to take their advice to heart but make it your own. At the end of the day, the only one that has to live with it is you. It makes it a whole lot easier to like yourself when you love what you do.
[Editor’s note: This interview was published on February 19th, 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.]