Careers don't happen in a vacuum, but rather unfold in the context of our lives. Anu Shultes' career journey has included setbacks, hard landings and serious illness. In spite of it all she persisted, found her voice, and earlier this year was named CEO of LendUp, a socially responsible FinTech company redefining financial services for the emerging middle class.
Anu candidly shares how she faced adversity head-on and became fearless along the way. Her career decisions not only led her to the helm of a company, but also shaped the leader and person she is today.
Meet the Guest
Anu Shultes is CEO of LendUp, a mission-driven financial technology company focused on expanding access to credit and creating pathways to better financial health. A 25-year veteran of the financial services industry, Anu has a personal mission to lift people out of poverty and infuses her work with her passion for financial inclusion. Anu’s career spans a broad spectrum of roles across subprime credit cards, subprime loans, and prepaid cards. Her significant experience building efficient operational processes and teams to support them has led her to become one of the few female CEOs in fintech.
Beth Davies, host: Careers don't happen in a vacuum, but rather unfold in the context of our lives. Our guest today is a good example of this and candidly shares how she made the best career decisions she could based on the circumstances she was in.
Welcome to Career Curves where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are.
I'm your host Beth Davies. Today we're joined by a Anu Shultes who earlier this year was named CEO of LendUp, a socially responsible FinTech company redefining financial services for the emerging middle class. It wasn't an easy road to CEO, but rather her journey included doubters, setbacks, hard landings and serious illness. In spite of it all Anu persisted and got where she is today.
She has an interesting story to tell. So let's dive in and let her tell it.
So I'd like to start with actually where you are right now, which is as a CEO. So, we always hear about the role of CEO. It's probably one of the most well known job titles out there. But what probably a lot of people don't know is what does that mean? What do you actually do as a CEO?
Anu Shultes, guest: It is a good question on what CEOs do, right? I think it's different for each company. I can just tell you my experience.
Before becoming a CEO, I was GM for many years and a General Manager, we run the business – the profit and loss. We manage the outcomes for the business. That includes who's on your team, what products are you building, what is marketing doing. So, all of the pieces that make a business make money.
So when I transitioned to CEO, you have to do all that and then a lot more. So you want to now talk to all of your investors, think about what are the external parties that are interested in what you're doing in the company, build relationships with community leaders, investors, potential other partner companies. And so there's a lot of external work that happens on elevating the company's profile, but always constantly looking for if there another big opportunity around the corner that I can pick up on, but being fully engaged in the industry. And so I find that it is being a GM, but then you add on a whole other set of external responsibilities.
Beth: So let's back up and find out how you got to this point. So tell me about your family and where you grew up.
Anu: So I grew up in India. I have one older sister. My dad worked for the government. He was an electrical engineer for the central government of India. So as part of that we had to move a lot, but primarily my schooling was half of it was in the South, which is where my parents are from. So half of my schooling was in Chennai. And then the second half from middle school to high school was in Delhi.
Beth: Thinking about your parents, your family, were there messages that you were receiving as a child about what you should do career-wise? What you shouldn't do? What you could be? What you couldn't be? Tell me some about those childhood messages.
Anu: It's me and my sister and in India it is definitely – or at least when I was growing up – sons definitely felt like they were more valued. My parents kind of broke the mold on that in my opinion. They focused on education. My mom particularly instilled in me that you want to be financially independent. "Regardless of where you end up in life, we want you to get married and have kids, but we want you to be financially independent. We want you to focus on education because that's the ticket to financial independence."
And so education has always been #1 focus. I mean we could get out of chores as long as we got good grades. (Laughing) Also I think my mom had her heart set on us becoming doctors because doctors are very much revered in India. And, when I was younger, like when I was seven or eight, I really wanted to do that, but by the time I got to high school I realized even though I was really good at sciences and biology and chemistry, I really just wanted to be an engineer. And so that was very difficult for my mom and I think she still hasn't gotten over it.
Beth: What was it as a teenager that you were learning about engineering that had you say, "That's what's going to appeal to me?"
Anu: I think it was more the fact that I really, really liked math and numbers, and science came naturally to me. There's an entrance exam process where after the 12th grade you take all these entrance exams and you get in based on how you do in them. So I took all of the medical exams and all of the engineering, and I got into every medical school that I applied for. And then I didn't get into all of the engineering I wanted to go because I actually was more stressed about that, but I did get into good schools. And so that was the other place where my parents really struggled because I got into the elite medical schools and I just said, "I don't want to do it."
Beth: What did you end up majoring in in college?
Anu: I really looked up to my dad and I said, "Oh, he's an electrical engineer, so that's what I want to be." I went there and I realized it just did not click for me. So I ended up majoring in computer science and engineering.
Beth: So you're in school. At some point, of course, the school is going to come to an end. What kind of plans were you making for what was going to come after school? After graduation?
Anu: Somewhere along the way – I can't quite remember, I want to say it was in my high school years or maybe in my freshman and sophomore – I made a decision that I want to go to the U.S. and so I actually spent part of my sophomore year preparing for the GRE that I took in my junior year.
Beth: So did you then go straight from undergraduate into grad school?
Anu: I did. I did. So the only place that gave me full funding was Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and it was actually for a master's in operations research. It was a course that I took in my senior year, final semester, that I felt like I found that thing that really made me happy. And the lecturer/professor was a graduate of Case Western and he said to me, "You're applying to all these places for computer science, why don't you apply to this one place for operations research and I'll give you a recommendation letter?" And they gave me full funding for full two years. And so I went from Delhi to Cleveland, Ohio.
Beth: You studied then operations research. What were you thinking you would do with that degree? What was the plan?
Anu: I don't know if I had a full plan. The choices I was going to consider was find a job or pursue a PhD. By now, I had met my husband, he was at Case Western as well, a year ahead of me. We were going to get married. He was already in a PhD program in a different state and my choices were to also join that program because I got admission or make a little bit of money.
Anu: As an immigrant on a specific visa – this is the early nineties – it wasn't that easy to find someone who would hire you full time because there's a whole sponsorship issue.
So there's a company in San Francisco called, at the time, First Deposit Corporation. The CEO was a graduate of Case Western, so he sent his executives back to hire on campus. I interviewed with them. They flew me out to San Francisco. I really clicked with the management team that interviewed me and I felt like this is something where I can really add value and learn. And so I got a job for an entry level what is now a Data Scientist job. Back then it was called Credit Analyst. So I got into financial services and credit cards through that initial job.
Beth: A lot of times we talk to people about following their passion and following what is your life's work. If I'm hearing you right, what you're saying was that you weren't even necessarily asking yourself that. What you were saying is, "Look, here's the circumstance I'm in. I am on a visa and I've got to be super practical and just say, who's willing to hire me?" And that was really the driver for selecting the job and it ended up taking you into a field that now has become my life's work.
Anu: And I love it. And you know, I fully believe that as we talk through my career path, you will find this theme: I'm in a certain circumstance and I say to myself, "What can I do that I can add value,, where I can learn and hopefully I make money." So those are the three things I've consistently used to say, "Is this getting me closer to my long-term goal? Am I adding value? Am I learning new things and am I having fun and am I happy? Am I making decent money?" Right? So my whole life has been that.
Beth: Am I learning? Am I adding value? And, am I making money while taking my me towards my long-term goal?
Anu: That's right.
Beth: So you go into Providian – what has now become Providian – as a Credit Analyst and you were there for eight years.
Beth: And rose all the way to becoming a vice president.
Anu: I did.
Beth: Tell me about that journey inside Providian. What was happening that was allowing you to keep growing in your career while you were there?
Anu: So what was great about Providian – and I absolutely have not only fond memories, I think that it was a very defining period for me – the company had a culture of, "We're going to hire smart people and we are going to give them problems to solve. And when they show that they can solve problems, we're going to give them the next harder problem to solve. So it was a meritocracy. Ethnicity, age, gender for the most part didn't matter. I n hindsight, I probably held myself back because I was still getting acclimated to the U.S. and what's expected.
I grew up as, "Hey, you don't talk about yourself. You don't boast about your successes." That's how I was. But I will tell you that I did well. Two things I did is one, I reached for opportunities. I was in the Credit Department for four years. I kind of got tagged as a super analyst who could build amazing models that lasted the test of time and I saw my peers in Marketing and other groups moving up faster than I was. It wasn't that I wasn't valued, I just noticed that we always tend to compare ourselves to our peer groups and I noticed that people who joined the same time as me were moving up faster than me.
Beth: And why do you think that was?
Anu: The theory I had was in Credit, we're always managing losses. On the Marketing and other line roles, you are generating revenue. And somehow a dollar made feels more than a dollar saved.
And they said, "What do you know about Marketing?
And I said, "I don't know anything about Marketing. I just want to be in Marketing." And so we came up with a compromise. I moved into the Marketing Group, but working on the targeting team, because at the end of the day, we acquired customers through direct mail. And so there's this whole analytical function within Marketing that had the same skillset that I had – building models. Instead of credit models, we're building targeting and response models. So that's how I moved into Marketing.
From there I graduated, if you will, to running the front end operations for the unsecured card business and eventually ended up being the VP of Front End Operations. It wasn't just Operations at that point. I took over the analysis and the model building, the operations, being the liaison to the credit bureaus and really owning the front end engine for Providian's unsecured card business.
Beth: So you were trained to do operations research, you start as an analyst. How did you build the skills to be able to run an operation?
Anu: I'm fundamentally, more than anything, a problem solver. If you put a problem in front of me, my instinct is to try to solve it. And it could be a math problem, it could be a coding problem or it could be a people problem. It could be a process problem. And so Operations at the end of the day is a series of processes. And so it's really the problem solving skills that I think got me there.
Beth: Tell me a little bit about leaders and bosses, particularly in this first job at this first company. Were there any key messages that you were hearing that were helping build your confidence? Or conversely, were there any messages that you were hearing that would've planted seeds of doubt inside of you?
Anu: So I had both. It was a very competitive place where I felt like I had to keep running. So some of the things I struggled with at Providian was the balance between personal life and work life. While I was at Providian, I had my first child. While there was a very supportive environment, I struggled with, "I can't run as fast anymore because I also have to take care of a child," and that put me behind. So it did create a lot of self doubt in me over time on, "Can I do this? Can I be a working mom and be successful in this environment?"
I definitely had mentors in different parts of the company I would hear different things from. But I also had someone I had reached out to, he was head of a business within Providian. You could get time with executives and go chat with them about their path and what you want to do. And so he asked me what I'd like to be and I said one day I would like to be CEO of a company. And he looked at me and he said, "You know, that's a great goal to have but I just want you to make sure that you are also realistic about what you can achieve. There's not that many people like you who are in CEO roles today."
And I remember it was a very defining moment for me. He didn't turn me off Providian because I knew it was an anomaly that I had that conversation. But it was a real conversation. Right? I kind of filed it away as, "Okay, I have my tasks cut out for me. No matter the meritocracy, eventually there will be a glass ceiling that I need to work through"
Beth: And what he was saying when he was saying "somebody like you" is he was really saying a woman Indian immigrant. Is that what...
Anu: That's kind of how I took it. I didn't want to really probe. It was just a weird conversation. At that point I was just trying to wrap up the conversation, but that's what I took away. Right? Because he mentioned at the time we had an African American CEO over a Fortune 500 company, he mentioned him by name and he said, "Yeah, there's there's a few people at the top, but there aren't that many women," and so I kind of assumed that it was a combination of gender, ethnicity. More than immigrant, I think it was gender and ethnicity.
Beth: How long did you hold onto that message that you could not be a CEO? How did you process that?
Anu: Over time I figured this out, that it's in my nature that I don't necessarily hold on to it. It doesn't hold me back. My approach to things, when somebody says, "Hey, you can't do that," or, "You're not going to be able to do that," is, "I think you're wrong. And so my job is to show you that you're wrong, so I'm just going to go do it." Right?
So that's always how I've approached things. And it's not a conscious decision. It's not a chat I have with myself. I just decided, looking back at my career that the multiple times these were said to me, I didn't let it get me down. I kind of said, "Okay, I understand what I'm up against, so let me work on what I need to work on to get there. Perhaps I'll get there. Perhaps I won't, but it's just up to me to figure out how hard I want to try."
Beth: So after eight years, you ended up leaving Providian and it sounds like it was a great run for you.
Beth: Why did you decide that you needed to move on?
Anu: If I had a choice and if my circumstances were different, I would have probably been a career Providian. I loved the company. I was an ambassador for it. I loved everything that they offered me and everything that I was giving back
My husband... we'd been married at this point six years. We had a child, he had finished his PhD, moved to the Bay Area, and he ended up getting a faculty position in Ohio. That had been his goal to get a faculty position and it's very hard to actually land a faculty position when you first get a PhD. And I was just very naive. I thought, "Wow, I'm doing so well here. I run a large team. I have a very large budget. I'm managing the front end of a large multinational company. I should be able to go land a job anywhere in the U.S." So I quit my job without having a job lined up. We moved to Ohio. That's why I left.
Beth: And how did that work out for you?
Anu: It was a hard landing. It was a hard landing because it turns out that being a VP at Providian by the time I'm 30 wasn't as valued when I went to banks in Ohio. I was told, "Hey, for you to be considered for a management role, you need to have an MBA." Or, this is one of my favorites...
Beth: Favorites in air quotes.
Anu: Yes. "Have you considered a job in IT?"
Beth: And why do you think they were suggesting that?
Anu: Because a lot of Indian men and women at the time, and maybe it's still true, were in technology, in the technology part of the companies.
And so I really didn't have a concept of what it's like to penetrate into a brand new city in a brand new company with my background.
Beth: Where are you attaching that message to the one that you had heard from that one leader at Providian, that other message that said you should be limited by being a female, and now here you're hearing again because you're Indian, this is what you should be going into. Do you remember at the time, were you putting those together or...
Anu: I remember being angry about it. I wasn't angry when the Providian conversation happened. It was more of a data point for me. But, the experiences I had trying to break into the market in Ohio was hard for me.
So what I decided was I got angry. So I told my husband, "Well, if it's an MBA they want, then it's an MBA, I will get." So I took the GMAT and I ended up getting a full time MBA from The Ohio State University. And I was in Cincinnati, but I commuted to Columbus.
I did really well on my GMAT. I wanted to go to an Ivy League for an MBA, but I had just had my second child. So I had an infant and a three year old. And I said, "Well, I need to go to a ranked program" and the closest ranked program was 90 miles away.
Beth: So you commuted to Columbus from Cincinnati...
Anu: For two years.
Beth: Every day?
Anu: Four days a week. I had a system. So the classes were such that either they were 8:30–3:30 or 10:30–5:30. So I would basically leave home around 5:30 AM on two days a week and then as soon as class ended at 3:30, I would drive back for two hours so I could make the daycare deadline to pick up my children and I would take care of them. And every night I studied after 9:00, from 9:00 to 1:00 AM was my study time. And then the other days, when I had to be there at 10 30, I did the drop off at 8:00, then went to school and then my husband did the pickup and I would get home by 7:00. So that's what I did.
And then the second year, I upped the ante a little bit because I was paying out of pocket and paying for daycare. I just was running through my savings. I was offered a Graduate Assistant position, so I took it. So I had 20 hours of commuting, 20 hours of classes and 20 hours of work.
Beth: It's incredible. Did you, at any point in this, cut yourself some slack and say, "Given all that I'm juggling, I will be not as high performing as a student as I've been before, or maybe I'm not going to be quite the perfect mother that I have always wanted to be..."
Anu: I'm not sure. I think I struggled. I still struggle with, "Is my house clean enough?" and I think most moms do. I wouldn't say I've made peace with it, but I've kind of come to some happy acceptance. No, I did not cut myself slack. I felt like if I'm going to learn, I'm going do my very best.
Beth: So you finished the MBA, did you at that point then circle back to the companies that had said you have to have an MBA and did they welcome you with open arms? What happened then?
Anu: So I did circle back. I was told by a large multinational company that was in my backyard, like I could walk to work that, "Hey, congratulations. Every year we hire Ohio State graduates from the MBA program. We'd love to have you join our management training program where you start at the bottom."
And I thought, "Wow, I can't do that. I'm not going do that."
Beth: I've already been a Vice President in a bank.
Anu: That's right, and I can't do that. I ended up actually taking a job in Cleveland at a bank called National City because they offered me the opportunity to run a home equity line of credit product. And in my previous experience, I had never run product. And that's why I took that job instead. And so we moved to Cleveland and he was going to look for his next gig.
Beth: So now you're getting a chance, like you said, to run a product. And how long were you in this role?
Anu: I was only there about a year and a half. Culturally I was not a fit. I learned a lot about running a product, dealing with the company that had 1200 branch locations where the branches have to sell your product. So I learned a lot of new things and I contributed a lot. But culturally I felt like there was no path for me.
It was a large company with pretty rigid structure. Having come from Providian – remember, my last job was still Providian – I just struggled with coming from a fast-paced, innovative meritocracy to a much older company that had processes you had to follow. And it just felt like a slow pace for me.
Also my husband, he couldn't find the role he wanted in Cleveland and then he ended up getting an offer (go figure) in Florida, something he really wanted, and we said, "Here we go again."
Beth: So he gets this offer in Florida. And so that means...
Anu: And I was unhappy with my job because I felt like it was a dead end job. It wasn't that. I could have done well, but I wouldn't have become CEO. There was a path. It was slow and steady and I would have...
Beth: So at this point, had you set your sight that you wanted to be a CEO someday?
Anu: I had set that goal, yes, before my MBA. I think I wrote it down somewhere and my husband bought me a book that said, "How to Become a CEO" and I read that cover-to-cover. So, it was in the back of my mind. It wasn't something that I thought about every day, but my process has been, "Is this getting me closer? Am I learning a skill that's gonna make me closer to that?"
So I went through a process of methodically making sure that I cover... I started with data science and I did marketing, then I did operations, then I had done product. I had gone back and did an MBA in Finance, so I felt like I'm covering the pieces I need to cover.
Beth: So you were consciously setting out to learn essentially all aspects of a business?
Anu: That's right. And somewhere along the way decided that I needed to become a GM before I could be a CEO. So my goal was really working towards the GM role.
Beth: Was that advice somebody had given you or was it just for you that you said, this is logical and this is how I'm going to set out to do this?
Anu: I just came up with a logical... I mean, who knows. Maybe it made sense. Maybe it didn't. It kept me engaged.
Beth: So now your family is off to Florida and what was the next opportunity you found that was going to either allow you to have impact or keep learning while furthering you towards your goal?
Anu: While I was in Cleveland, I was expecting my third child. I moved to Florida, had my son, and then I decided, based on how the previous pregnancies worked out, that I really wanted 4-5 months at home before I would even look for a job.
I looked around in Florida and there were no banks headquartered, so it felt definitely like, here's another hard landing that's coming my way. I used my connections to explore what the opportunities were and really couldn't find that one thing that I really wanted to do. So I kind of convinced myself that there's no path here, but I didn't want to move again and I was convinced that we're going to make it work here. My husband had a great job. We loved a lot of things about Florida. I said, "This is it, so I'm going to make it work."
So I convinced a hiring manager at Home Shopping Network to hire me as a senior manager for Direct Marketing because I had a lot of experience in Direct Marketing. I was definitely way over-qualified but I basically told them, "Look, take a chance on me."
The job was listed for $70,000. My last salary had been $90,000 and this was after I already taken a pay cut when I went from California to Ohio. So I kind of said I need to make $90,000. The recruiting manager said, "Hey, I don't know if that's going to move forward," and I said, "Let's get me in the door. If the hiring manager likes me, we can decide. You don't have to shut the door and we'll decide. We're not making a commitment." So I went in, I had a great interview and the VP of CRM ended up hiring me for what I wanted. But the title didn't match the salary; I came in as a senior manager
Beth: A couple of times now you've mentioned that you had a hard landing. How did you not let hard landings get the best of you?
Anu: You know, in hindsight I would say it definitely didn't get the best of me, but in the moment it was hard. It was a lot of stress. It was a lot of soul searching on what am I doing here? And it was hard for my husband as well because he knew I was this go-getter. For him to come home and see that I'm struggling was also a struggle. So, at the end of the day I went back to the core things I look for: am I adding value? Am I learning something new? And I'm having fun? And am I making some decent amount of money? That was a criteria for me for every job.
And so this HSN job, it was just really exciting because I had never done anything like it. I learned a lot. It was very much informative. I met a lot of good people. So it really expanded my horizon. And so it was still good I think for me in hindsight,
Beth: Sometimes we get very fixated on job title and, as you mentioned, this role in HSN, Home Shopping Network, did have a much lower job title than some titles that you'd had before, but that also isn't in your formula. So were you able because of that to say, "I don't care about job title, I care about impact, I care about learning and I care about income." Or did you still have to come to terms with the job title and how did you do that?
Anu: So I didn't fundamentally care about the job title because a job was important to me. What I had to deal with, which I wasn't expecting, was that even if your title is senior manager, if you've been a VP, you're going to come in and deliver like a VP.
Beth: Just in how you carry yourself?
Anu: How you carry yourself. The problems you solve. The level of engagement you have and the authority that you think you have. Right? Like I'm going to solve a problem. The concept of "it's above my pay grade" doesn't exist.
So I started, I solved a lot of problems, and I ended up going from senior manager to director within six months because they realized I'm delivering at a much higher level. But it ruffled a lot of feathers because people who had already been there 10 years or five years say, "Who is this person who just came in? What is so special about her that she's getting promoted in six months?" So definitely I had to deal with that. So that was hard. But fundamentally I came in and I started to really add value because one of the groups I supported was the online team and I was able to, based on all the work I'd done before, to quickly make an impact on the email program that drove sales. I was able to drive new direct marketing programs that showed tangible sales. And so the CMO took notice. I wasn't there to show off. I was just saying, "You're paying me. I'm here. I'm going to make an impact."
Beth: Tell me about where you went from Home Shopping. Take me through some more of that career journey.
Anu: So my husband did really well in his job in Florida. He got promoted to the next level and he was told, "Hey, we want you to go to El Paso." And, then at HSN, I was definitely adding value and I was valued. But there was no path. I'd done an amazing, in my opinion, lots of good stuff, project marketing, but then it wasn't something they were going to continue to invest in. So I felt like, "Okay, I've hit my ceiling here." And then when my husband said, "Hey, I have an opportunity, but that would mean that I traveled to El Paso. I don't think we should move, but I should travel to El Paso."
And I thought, here I am with three young kids, a commute, a husband who's going to travel 100%, and then a job that basically I didn't have a path. So I said to my husband, "So how about I pick where I want to be? You can still travel 100% and I'll figure it out." And so we decided to move back to California.
Beth: I want to pick up on another phrase I've heard you say a couple of times, which is that you recognized that you didn't have a path. What I'm hearing you say about that is, again, under your trilogy – Am I adding impact? Am I learning? Or is it furthering me where I want to go? – that at some point you're looking in organizations and saying it has stopped in terms of where it's taking me. Is that what you mean when you talk about you no longer saw a path?
Anu: That's right? It's not so much a title as it is am I continuing to learn? If I've done everything I can and I've optimized for where I am, what am I doing next? What is the next problem I'm solving?
Beth: So now the journey takes you back to California.
Beth: And tell me what happens once you come here?
Anu: So I actually reached out to ex-Providian folks who were running a startup called AccountNow. It did re-loadable debit cards for people who are underserved and didn't have access to bank accounts. And so I thought, "Well, I'm going back with three kids, so I need to be in a safe place," meaning I need to control for some factors. So I end up taking a director role.
I came in at a time when this whole industry was nascent and I was able to do a lot of really nice things about how to drive retention in this industry. And I picked AccountNow because it felt safe. I knew everybody in the company. I didn't want to come in and have to spend six months proving myself and making friends. And so that's why I picked them.
Beth: Did it feel like you were going home?
Anu: It did. It was a nice homecoming.
Beth: What happened then once you got there? Did you again have a long run like you did at Providian? What happened?
Anu: I stayed there for three years. A couple of things happened. I realized that this whole small issue of the path existed because it was a small company. We had a CMO and I was director of CRM. But, it was like family to me, so it didn't bother me that much. We did a lot of amazing things together.
It was also a time when I got sick. Summer of 2008, I discovered a lump that turned out to be breast cancer. And so Fall of 2008 all the way through the end of 2009, I was in treatment. My husband was still traveling, my health insurance was through his company, so he couldn't quit and move back. My children were still young, and so they really supported me like they were my family.
It takes a village to get past something like that and AccountNow was part of my village. And so I really didn't think about career path, it was just more about, "Am I gonna make it to tomorrow? Am I gonna make it to next month?" We still had a house in Florida because it was also the housing crisis. So I had a health crisis, a housing crisis, a financial crisis. And that's what half of 2008 and all of 2009 was.
I came out of it in 2010. I moved on from AccountNow. It was a hard decision.
Beth: I just have to pause for one moment because I think sometimes we see people, like somebody like you who's so accomplished and here you are as a CEO of a company, and it's easy to look and say, "Wow, she obviously has accomplished a lot and her life must be charmed." And we're not even to the present yet and what you've shared, and I really thank you for sharing, is just really how much struggles there are along the way. And you've had some really major struggles including the largest struggle you could have, which is a health, I was going to say "scare," but it's really a health crisis. Before we move on, how are you now?
Anu: I'm doing great. I'm past the 10 year mark, last October.
Anu: Thank you. It took me 10 years to get to the point of being grateful for that experience. I don't know how many people get there, but I did. I am grateful that I went through cancer because it changed who I am and it propelled my success after. So my career took off again after 2010 primarily, I would say, because of what I went through and how I processed it.
Beth: In what ways did it change your perspective?
Anu: Fundamentally, I became fearless. I realized that at the end of the day, if I fail in my career, I'm not going to die. My family and my kids are my biggest priorities and everything else kind of is a lower priority. And so when I got there and I was able to really process things differently at work, it really propelled my career because I think I came out of that shell that I had been. I really lost my fear and I really said things like they were, politely, but I called things as they were.
I remember in AccountNow when I was going through treatment, the CEO wanted me to do something and I told him I will not do it because it did not make sense. And he pushed me and I said, "Well honestly, I'm not going to do it. If you need someone to do it, you should find someone else, but I will not do it."
Beth: And that wasn't the Anu before?
Anu: No, I was not. So suddenly, I think people sat up a little bit and said, "Wait a minute. What she's saying is true," and it did drive a lot of my success after. I didn't go out and lean in and say, "I'm going to be this really blunt person." I'd always been kind of blunt at home, but I lost my fear of "if I see this, what would happen? Will I lose my job and what happens if I lose my..." Like all those things, I think we subliminally tell ourselves that, "I'm in a meeting. I don't want to speak up because I'm not sure if that will be well-received." I lost that fear.
Beth: Because in the end, it is just a job.
Anu: That's right.
Beth: So now you mentioned that the folks that you'd been with at Providian, that you now were working with again at at AccountNow had been the network and support that you needed to get you through this tough time. But then in 2010 you left them. How did you do that? How did you step away from a group of people that had been so core to you and why did you step away from them?
Anu: It was a very hard decision. I had a lot of guilt about that decision for a long time. There's a company called Blackhawk. They were launching a reloadable debit product. They were looking for somebody like me who had really figured out retention for the customers. They basically poached me. They courted me and I turned them down and they kept upping the offer and I really didn't want to leave AccountNow because they were my family. But it came down to the realization that there's this opportunity that's knocking and I need to try it. I need to try it because it is a larger company with more revenues and I could potentially have a path there that I didn't have at AccountNow.
I wasn't necessarily thinking at this point that I'm going to someday be CEO. I think I kind of stopped thinking about it entirely. But it was a combination of financial security, being able to do what I did but at a larger scale at a company with more revenues but also close to home. It was still only a 10-minute commute.
Beth: And then how did you message that back to your family at AccountNow?
Anu: I was heartbroken, but I know that they were very disappointed. But they also understood. I think they saw me go through all that and sometimes I think when you go through illness in such a massive way, it's such a crisis, you want to change your place as well. So I think they understood that. So they were supportive. But I also had one foot in. I always thought if it doesn't work out, maybe I can run back in three months. But it was a difficult decision, but they were ultimately supportive.
Beth: And then tell me about your run at Blackhawk. How did that go?
Anu: So that's probably where my next set of a steep career growth happened. I came in as VP of CRM for a product they were just launching and I quickly realized that the product had some fundamental flaws. So just over a few months I ended up taking over the product role for the financial services business. And really it was mid-launch, so I launched the product for them. I built a small team and I started to really work on that business.
They posted a job for a General Manager that I kind of raised my hand and said, "Hey, I want to be a General Manager." Like finally, my spark came back and I thought, here's an opportunity. It's actually gonna happen.
Beth: So at this point, CEO starts to come back onto your radar again?
Anu: I'm not sure. Maybe, maybe.
Anu: I talked to my boss who was at the time President or maybe SVP and now she's CEO. And she said, "Anu you're such an amazing product person. You're really not GM material." And she said it in all sincerity. It was not at all a knock. It was just like, "Hey, we love you. I hired you. Of course I love you. We're looking for someone else. We are looking for somebody with different characteristics."
I was like, "Okay, all right." It took them a year or so to fill that position. They kept looking. In the meantime, I quietly started to run the business. I actually hit the goals for that first year.
Beth: So this is again, you in some... I don't want to say subversive way but... Somebody telling you no, and you saying, "Well then I'm going to show you."
Anu: Yeah. And they interviewed a lot of people and actually they did hire someone for about six months and he moved on and then at that point they're like, "You know what? You've been doing it anyway. Let's just give it to you."
I have to say, she was very nice about it. She said, "You came to me, I said, you can't do it. We hired someone else. It didn't work out. In the meantime, you've been doing it and here you go. You can have it." And so I thought that was really a moment I still remember. The day I got that job and how I felt like, "Oh my God, I can do it now. I actually am back, I'm back."
Beth: How did you manage during those types of times to not get resentful?
Anu: You know, I had just been what two years away from cancer. I had just gone through this crisis and I was still recovering financially and in many other ways. I was resentful that I had to go through cancer. I was not a resentful about my job.
Beth: Again it's that perspective shift that it gave you.
Anu: Right. And then it took me a long time. Like I said, at the 10 year mark, I stopped being resentful. I became grateful. But at that time, when I was at Blackhawk, I was resentful of the challenges I had to face and I felt the "Woe is me. Why me?" Right?
Beth: So you get the GM role, which you really had said, if I'm going to become a CEO one day, I'm going to become a GM. Tell me about what happened between Blackhawk and where you are now.
Anu: Blackhawk gave me a lot of resources in terms of ... not resources, but just support to go do what I need to do. And I ended up building close to a billion dollar in deposit business and it was an amazing accomplishment. And I thought, "Wow, this is amazing. I couldn't have thought I could do this."
In the meantime, Blackhawk went public, purchased a couple of other companies that were in corporate gift and really decided, "Hey, we cannot invest in financial services anymore. We need to focus on gift." And so that's when I left. It was another difficult moment. I felt like, "Oh my God, it's happening again. I'm in crisis again. I don't have a job. I built this billion dollar business that if I'd done it as a startup, I'd be worth a lot of money. But I did it in the umbrella of a larger company and they kind of said, 'Hey, it's not important to us anymore.'"
Beth: Which is so interesting because you said one of your three things is if I'm adding impact and here you had been adding impact, but they basically came in and said, "Yeah, but it's not in something we're valuing anymore.
Anu: That's right. So I stepped away and then I decided I'm only going to look at small companies because I want to own my outcome. So I ended up just through happenstance at a startup, at the seed level. They didn't even have seed money. The CEO had an idea. I jumped on board without a salary. Ended up raising a large part of the seed round. Found out that I have the ability to raise money, which I didn't know before. Helped launch that product. I stayed through Series A...
Beth: So in a certain extent, when we started and you were talking about how being a CEO has the external piece, this next role was really giving you your first visibility to, "Wait, I do have the external piece then as well."
Anu: That's right. So I stayed through Series A and I left because a recruiter called me on behalf of LendUp and said, "We have this data position. They're looking for a head of Data and you've done data science, so we thought we could give you a resume."
And I said, first of all, I'm not a data person anymore, but I said, I do want to talk to LendUp because they're mission driven, it's a company that I've been following and this problem they've solved, which is doing small dollar loans to the folks who are underserved, is a problem I've been trying to solve since 2010, from the time I was at AccountNow. So I said, I want to talk to them for sure, but not for this role. And so that's how the conversation started with LendUp.
And so through those conversations, they said, "Hey, we have this loans business. We need somebody to come in, be a GM, and it's a turnaround. There's a lot of things we need to fix." And I said, "Bring it on."
Beth: And so now you're here. And how did you go from being a GM here to being the CEO of LendUp?
So by now, I honestly think that I had stopped thinking about becoming a CEO. Right? I'd kind of just decided I want to pick the jobs I love to do, problems I want to solve, and make decent money, and really feel good about what I'm doing. And so when I came on board, if you'd asked me two years ago that this is the outcome, I would have said that is not possible. It was not at all on my radar. I was focused on really fixing the nuts and bolts of this core business.
I was just heads down working through things and just happenstance the fall of last year just because of market forces, we had to split the company in two. T hey put my name in front of the board and that's how I got to the table with the board members who told me, "Hey, we'd like to offer you an interim CEO role."
Beth: An interim CEO role. So is that the role you're in now?
Anu: No. So I was offered the interim CEO role and I told them that that would be difficult for me to accept. My main concern was as an interim CEO, I wouldn't have the authority to hire the people I need to hire because people always want to know who they're gonna work for. If you're interim, it's means that you're going to go away.
Beth: Right, because as between the two words, interim and CEO, the interim one takes precedent.
Anu: That's right. So I said to the Chairman of the Board, "Hey, listen, if you make me interim, I'm going to fail and you're going to let me go. If you give me the job and I fail anyway, you're gonna let me go. So why not just give me a shot at success and make me CEO and if I can't make it, I can't make it and I'll make peace with that."
And he said, "You make a really good argument."
Beth: And gave you the role.
Beth: Good, good. And now here you are, eight months, nine months later and going strong.
I have just a few more questions to ask you, questions I'd like to ask everybody.
What would you say is the smartest career move that you made, whether intentionally or accidentally?
Anu: Being the smartest was coming to LendUp as a GM. I was a COO of a startup that was in the middle of a Series A close and I decided that I needed to follow my passion, which was working on products for the underserved. So even though I was not going to be on the executive team and I was not going to be a C-level, I took the job.
Beth: If you had one do-over, what would it be and why?
Anu: So the do-over would be when I was at Blackhawk and they said, "Hey, we're not really gonna invest in this business," I didn't know I could raise money at the time. In hindsight, I would've probably gone to the leadership and said, "Hey, let me go get a group of investors and buy this out from you guys because I really care about this business and it's close to a billion dollars in deposits. It's close to profitability. Let me take this." I just didn't even think that was a possibility. I didn't have the guts or the confidence to do that.
Beth: What's one piece of career advice you wish you could have given your younger self?
Anu: I would have told myself life's gonna have a lot of ups and downs. Just don't take it so hard. It's okay if someone who graduated with you is now a millionaire and you are not, or they joined a startup that went public or someone who started with you on the same day is a couple levels higher than you. Because at the end of the day, each of us have our own journeys and they all ebb and flow. And I never thought I would be here. Right? When I was in Florida, I didn't think I would be here. Two years ago I didn't think I'd be CEO. So it's just when it happened, it was as much as surprise to me as other people. But I also was ready, right? So I would just say to myself, just keep working on the things you like and enjoy it. Don't stress. Life has a way of evening out over time.
Beth: Last question. How do you define success for yourself?
Anu: Success is doing what you love and having fun doing it, and hopefully that provides a life for you and your family that you like. It's just all personal definition.
Beth: Anu, I've enjoyed knowing you for two years and I've certainly enjoyed this conversation. I always get a chance to know you even more, and it's such a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Anu: Thank you.
Beth: We hope you’ve enjoyed Anu’s story. Be sure to visit our website, careercurves.com, for resources related to this episode including a link to the book Anu read on how to become a CEO and links to her company, LendUp.
While you’re there, check out our other resources, join the conversation, or send us a comment. And finally, be sure to tell your friends about Career Curves. It’s exciting to see our audience grow and referrals from people like you make this happen.
As always, thanks for being part of the Career Curves community.