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Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

Steve Carlson, Founder & CEO of Ascend, Winner of the CFSI Financial Solutions Lab Competition

Barefoot Innovation Podcast

Steve Carlson, Founder & CEO of Ascend, Winner of the CFSI Financial Solutions Lab Competition

Jo Ann Barefoot

Episode 9 finds us at the 2015 EMERGE conference in Austin with the winners of the first Financial Solutions Lab competition.

The contest is a $30 million, five-year initiative funded by JPMorgan Chase and run by the Center for Financial Services Innovation, or CFSI, the conference sponsor (note -- I serve on CFSI's board). It challenges entrepreneurs to create solutions for the cash flow difficulties facing millions of American middle and lower income-households.

Two hundred ninety-eight innovators applied. Nine were chosen. And  -- drum roll - one was Steve Carlson of Ascend Consumer Finance, our guest for this episode.

Ascend was recognized for its unique approach to broadening credit access and affordability for non-prime borrowers.  The company wants to drive a new generation of lending with its Adaptive Risk Pricing tool, which actively monitors and rewards customers for positive financial actions throughout the span of their loan, sharply cutting interest costs.

I've known Ascend's Co-Founder and CEO Steve Carlson since we both joined the Consumer Advisory Board of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) when it first was formed in 2012. Ascend has benefited - and so does our podcast - from Steve's double background in banking and technology. He has held senior executive roles at HSBC and Washington Mutual and advised global financial services firms as a co-founder of Sung Carlson Associates. He was also the head of marketing and business development at Intuit Financial Services (Mint.com and Quicken).

(A side-note on Intuit:  in the recording, Steve  relates its history and I ask if its founder, Scott Cook, got started by making calls from a phone book. Afterwards, I looked up the story and found it in The Lean Startup, by  Eric Ries (pages 88-89). He writes that in 1982 Cook "picked up two phone books: one for Palo Alto, California, where he was living at the time, and the other for Winnetka, Illinois." He randomly called people to gauge interest in his idea, and a company was born. For any listeners who haven't read The Lean Startup, do!)

In our conversation, Steve describes the impetus behind Ascend, their current status (including their partnership with Lending Tree), and why he believes banking should be a value-driven proposition. He thinks both consumers and the industry can benefit by improving the financial health of consumers. The company's pioneering product, RateRewards, enables borrowers to earn up to 50% off their interest expense by making responsible financial choices throughout the life of their loan. With Adaptive Risk Pricing, Ascend is able to offer loans at rates that reflect real-time performance instead of past behavior. This, Steve says, is reinventing "the whole concept of underwriting and risk assessment."

Indeed, many "non-prime borrowers" - a group that actually represents about a third of the U.S. population - are better candidates than their credit scores would indicate. One-time financial shocks and "thin" files can greatly diminish a consumer's chance of getting a reasonable rate on a loan, or even a loan at all at a traditional institution. Ascend is encouraging borrowers to bet on themselves and prove -- through their actions, rather than their credit history -- that they are creditworthy. As Steve says in the episode: "Everyone today [is] going to be in a different stage in terms of their financial health ... I might be in great shape today; tomorrow could be totally different."  Ascend is trying to make the road to financial wellness smoother -- something Steve says he feels good about.

This episode of Barefoot Innovation became a brainstorming session, as Steve and I tried to think through how innovators, banks and regulators can move toward better ideas for financial consumers -- including musings on how innovators should interact with the world of bank charters and regulation.

Enjoy it!  And check out more information on Ascend, and on the Innovation Lab winners.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes HERE or by opening your favorite podcast app and searching for "Jo Ann Barefoot".