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

Getting People on to the Credit Ladder: LendUp CEO Sasha Orloff

Barefoot Innovation Podcast

Getting People on to the Credit Ladder: LendUp CEO Sasha Orloff

Jo Ann Barefoot

Today’s episode is about new ideas about a very old problem in consumer finance -- high-cost lending to high-risk borrowers. My guest is LendUp CEO Sasha Orloff, who is one of a new generation of fintech founders building alternatives to traditional payday lending.

In public policy, there has been a long-standing assumption, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit, that widespread access to credit -- especially mortgages -- is a good thing. A host of government regulations, programs, and bank supervisory activities aim to promote more credit, because we’ve assumed that wider credit access is, broadly speaking, good.

Is it, though? Most people would agree that up to a point, it’s good, and beyond some point, it becomes bad. It definitely becomes bad at the point where the borrower can’t realistically repay the loan. It can also become bad if the pricing is so high that the person ends up worse off for borrowing, instead of better, especially if the borrower doesn’t understand the terms

We could do many episodes on the tough issues embedded in this question. One is whether it’s better to have high-cost loan options that are legal and subject to regulation, or to outlaw them, knowing that shutting down legal options will drive some desperate people to use illegal ones, which hurt them even more. Another is the philosophical question of how much the government should protect people from themselves. If the price of a high-cost loan is clear, and borrowers understand it, should the government respect their decision on whether to take it, or substitute its judgment for theirs and remove the option?

Again, public policy has been debating these issues for decades --  maybe centuries -- and still is, including through many of the initiatives taken to date by the CFPB.

In this podcast, we won’t tackle those questions, but will instead ask a very different one: What if we didn’t need to resolve them? What if, thanks to technology, we could solve the problems surrounding high-cost credit -- or a big chunk of them -- not through regulation, but in the marketplace.

LendUp.  Sasha Orloff founded LendUp to provide more affordable credit to the 50% of Americans with credit scores below 680. He had worked at a big bank, and at an NGO in the developing world, and had a brother in the technology world who kept telling him that better software could create better products. He finally founded LendUp, to build them.

LendUp offers credit products online -- which means it has, automatically, a lower cost structure than the traditional bank model of branches. As Sasha explains in our discussion, it has also designed its products to offer borrowers a gateway to better credit scores, credit options, and financial health.

LendUp is backed by major investors including Y-Combinator, Google Ventures, QED Investors, Startfund, Kleiner Perkins, A16Z seed fund, Thomvest Ventures, Kapor Capital, Bronze Investments, Founders Co-Op, Data Collective, Susa Ventures, and Radicle Impact.

Sasha and the firm have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, NYTimes, Financial Times, CNN, NBC, TechCrunch, Venturebeat, Inc, Wired, Bloomberg, Fortune, Dow Jones, American Banker, Marketplace and many others. He has presented at TEDx, and LendUp, and they won Finovate Best In Show. FastCompany named the firm as one of the World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Personal Finance, and it won runner up in Webbys for best website design. They have presented at LendIt, Emerge, Money20/20, The HubSF, NBC News, and Huffington Post Live, and participate in The Clinton Global Initiative on Financial Inclusion. Sasha also serves on the Consumer Lending Advisory Board for TransUnion (one of the three major credit bureaus)

A regulatory note.  After Sasha and I recorded this episode, the CFPB announced an enforcement action against LendUp. The order is, among other things, a warning flag for startups about the importance, and the great challenges, of maintaining complete regulatory compliance in the midst of rapid growth. The company has responded with a massive expansion of compliance staff. Following the announcement of consent order last fall, it issued this statement:

We started LendUp because the traditional banking system wasn’t working for more than half of Americans. From day one, we’ve committed ourselves to offering better, safer and more transparent credit products and to aligning the success of our business with the success of our customers.

We genuinely believed the product features that were identified by the CFPB and the California DBO– like optional expedited funding and a 30 cent per day discount for early repayment—were in the best interests of our customers. But we fell short in the execution and in meeting the expectations of our regulators.  We have since taken action to resolve every issue they’ve raised, including beginning to refund customers prior to entry of the Consent Order and Settlement Agreement.

We’ve also made significant investments to build out our legal and compliance operations. In this respect, we are a different company today, with a completely new legal and compliance team that is larger now than our entire company when we started these exams. Importantly, those teams are brought in at the beginning of the development lifecycle for every new product and feature.

We are proud of the progress we’ve made to expand access to credit, lower borrowing costs and provide credit-building opportunities to our customers. LendUp has:

  • Graduated more than 20,000 borrowers to the highest rungs of the LendUp Ladder in more than 11 states

  • Saved Californians alone more than $18M in 2016 (and an estimated $40M to date nationwide)

  • Delivered over 800,000 free credit education classes; and

  • Helped LendUp customers improve their credit scores: according to TransUnion data, 66% of LendUp customers showed a credit score increase – more than those in the control group using similar types of products from other lenders.

We are eager to keep building on this track record, and look forward to continuing our work to put our customers on paths to better financial health.

I have found Sasha to be one of the most thoughtful people in fintech. I think you’ll be fascinated by his overview of the shrinking of the American middle class, the impact of the smartphone revolution; innovation models fort startups versus banks; how making financial education interesting; and how to redesign regulation for the 21st century,

The loans at Lendup cost less than traditional payday options, but more than loans to prime customers, because the borrowers are simply higher risk. If lenders can’t charge enough to cover that risk, they won’t serve these customers. If they can, though, and if they can leverage technology to gain efficiency and underwriting accuracy, and if they can enable high-risk borrowers to build and repair credit records, and if they can educate people about managing their finances, and can also make a great return on capital and then truly scale up…. then seemingly unsolvable problems can, maybe, begin to.get solved.

More links:

More for our listeners:

I'll hope to see you at "LendIt in New York in February, SXSW in March, FinXTech Summit in April and of course CFSI’s Emerge in June.

Remember to review Barefoot Innovation on iTunes, and please sign up to get emails on new podcasts and my newsletter and blog posts at jsbarefoot.com.  My latest post argues for some healthy regulatory disruption as a new administration takes office. Go there too to send in your “buck a show” to keep Barefoot Innovation going. Please also join my Facebook fan page, and follow me on twitter.

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And watch for the next podcast, because we’re going to turn to innovation in small business lending. My guest will be Karen Mills, the former Administrator of the SBA and at Harvard Business School, where she has just issued an updated study on small business lending This one is focused mainly on fintech. We had a fascinating conversation. See you then!