Warren Hogarth of Empower: “Make family time sacred”

Make family time sacred. I have two sons ages 3 and 5 and a newborn daughter. Juggling parenthood and entrepreneurship is demanding, especially since Empower is Series A and will pull me in multiple directions. I’ve learned to set clearer boundaries because the opportunity to watch my kids ride a bike for the first time […]

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Make family time sacred. I have two sons ages 3 and 5 and a newborn daughter. Juggling parenthood and entrepreneurship is demanding, especially since Empower is Series A and will pull me in multiple directions. I’ve learned to set clearer boundaries because the opportunity to watch my kids ride a bike for the first time or answer my kids’ questions about rockets and astronauts — those are moments I’ll never get back.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Warren Hogarth.

Warren Hogarth is the Co-Founder and CEO of Empower, a mobile banking app that helps people achieve financial wellness. Prior to Empower, Warren was a Partner at Sequoia Capital, where he worked shoulder-to-shoulder with founders to build large, enduring businesses including SunRun (NASDAQ: RUN), FutureAdvisor (Acq: Blackrock), Carbon and Guardant Health (NASDAQ: GH). Warren holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Queensland.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was born and raised in Australia and spent my formative years in Brisbane and on my grandparents’ cattle ranch in western Queensland. I have very fond memories of my childhood on the ranch — riding horses, mustering calves, mending fences, repairing machinery, and the like. Working the land is incredibly hard and requires grit, self-sufficiency, and resourcefulness. Kids grow up tough and hardy out there! So ever since I was a child, I’ve loved building and tinkering with things and devising clever solutions to fix problems. Spending all that time on the range with my family, I saw firsthand how challenging but also rewarding it can be to build something of your own from scratch. Speed forward to today, and the Empower team and I are building new products to improve the customer experience in a broken industry.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

75% of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck while 40% wouldn’t be able to cover a surprise 400 dollars expense with cash, savings, or a credit card charge they could pay off comfortably. Those stats are pre-coronavirus, and the pandemic has only heightened the financial toll and anxiety for tens of millions of people in the US. The traditional “main street” banks have never shown real interest or intent to help everyday Americans achieve financial health and weather financial crises.

Empower is mobile banking designed for today’s generation and their needs. We bankroll you today while preparing you for tomorrow. This is how our 3 hero products work in tandem to break the cycle of check-to-check living:

  • Empower Cash Advance floats you up to 250 dollars if you need a bridge to your next paycheck. No interest. No late fees. No credit checks. No questions asked.
  • Empower Automatic Savings uses AI to intelligently detect when you have excess cash and will automatically move money from your checking account into savings. It’s the easiest way to save small increments, continuously, for emergencies or big purchases — and you never have to lift a finger.
  • Empower Interest Checking gives you everyday income on all your deposits with an APY that’s 6x greater than the national average and sends you 24/7 spend tracking alerts when your expenses are about to exceed pre-set limits by category. No overdraft fees or minimums.

No matter what lies ahead, Empower is banking that will help you thrive.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve got two words for you: crypto leaderboard. No joke, we believed in it and launched it, and the Empower team and I often look back and chuckle (and cringe). The lesson is relatively simple: stay loyal to your target customer and the problems they need help solving. Businesses can’t afford to be distracted by hype and fads.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I am unbelievably grateful for my dad’s example and guidance over the years. He was born and raised in a cattle ranching family, where it would have been too easy, too expected, to go into the family business. But my dad took the road less traveled and became an engineer. He used to tell me: filter out the noise, follow your heart, trust your instincts. I’ve made a few significant transitions in my career, from chemical engineer to venture capitalist to co-founder of Empower today, and his guidance made those forks in the road smoother to navigate.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Industry disruption is not so positive when we fail to consider the holistic impact of a new product or service offering. I think we all tend to focus on narrow short-term definitions of positive when we talk about maximizing shareholder value or net promoter score. If we were to pause and really grapple with the impact to, say, the environment, workers’ rights, or gentrification and communities of color, the disruption may not seem that positive.

Most customers of Amazon love on-demand access to diverse goods from around the world, delivered fast and conveniently. I’m one of them! But how does this value to me compare with the huge environmental toll of Amazon’s shipping and packaging practices? Has Amazon been good or bad for small family-owned businesses?

Or take Uber and Lyft. These apps have fundamentally changed the way we get around, and customers have come to depend on these platforms. But how do we reconcile this value with woeful driver pay and lack of driver protections? Or the increasing traffic congestion and air pollution as people ditch walking and public transportation for a ride-hailing app?

Perhaps Juul is a clearer example of “not so positive” disruption given the habits they’ve now nurtured in a new generation of American tweens and teens.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

First, your expertise may be holding you back. You’ll be surprised what you hear when you explicitly ask people for feedback and set the expectation upfront that you want their honest perspective. Since we’ve started working from home, I’ve scheduled virtual coffees 1:1 with all employees and it’s amazing to have time and space, with no agenda, for junior and senior teammates to relay their thoughts on this product or that marketing campaign or what they wish we’d do differently or better. It’s a stark reminder that I’ve got a great body of experience but by no means do I have all the answers or even the best answers.

Second and related, spend more time listening than talking. I make it a point now to be the last person to share a perspective during a discussion or debate so I’m not creating bias or inadvertently killing ideation. I know it takes people off their guard when an hour goes by in a strategic discussion and I’ve yet to weigh-in, but more often than not, hearing the conversation informs my own judgment and empowers my team to be decision-makers vs. just executors.

Third, make family time sacred. I have two sons ages 3 and 5 and a newborn daughter. Juggling parenthood and entrepreneurship is demanding, especially since Empower is Series A and will pull me in multiple directions. I’ve learned to set clearer boundaries because the opportunity to watch my kids ride a bike for the first time or answer my kids’ questions about rockets and astronauts — those are moments I’ll never get back.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

I can’t share too many of our secrets, but here’s one. We’ve invested heavily in relationships with content creators because they bring relatability and authenticity to hard, intimate conversations about money. Those collaborations have allowed us to build the Empower brand and drive high-intent customers into our product.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Expect Empower to reimagine every single aspect of your consumer banking experience today — and do it better.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

My reading and podcast listening centers on current news, but a few years back I read a memoir called Educated by Tara Westover. I don’t read autobiographies often (ever, actually), but a friend urged me to check it out, and I was blown away. The story at its core is about the power of education to expand your world despite all odds and limitations.

I’ve been fortunate to have had a strong education and that’s led to great opportunities for me. I’m a big believer in the importance of investing in your own human capital, and that includes on-the-job learning — people spend 3x more years working a trade or profession than attending school. As we’ve recruited talent to join Empower, I’m always on the hunt for people with raw potential and a deep hunger to learn, instead of pedigree or track record on paper.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve heard variations of this one saying over the years and it’s stuck with me: “There is nobility in defeat, but not in wasted potential.” With every twist and turn in my own journey — from chemical engineer to venture capitalist to startup founder — there have been countless moments that felt too intimidating, too complex, too crazy. Nobody wants to let themselves (or other people) down, so we make excuses and pass up the chance to tackle something new or hard or unknown. And that means we also pass up the chance to grow and achieve something exceptional. I’d rather crash and burn than not give it my absolute best shot.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Financial literacy has been declining for years now, with only 17% of 18–34-year-olds demonstrating a solid grasp of fundamental financial concepts. Staggering, right? This should be cause for real alarm.

I am passionate about financial education for children as soon as they reach school age. The movement I want people to get behind is mandatory personal finance education in all elementary schools across the country — and elevate its importance alongside math, reading/writing, and history. Children are sponges and the earlier you immerse them in money management and the vocabulary, the more likely they are to retain and apply these ideas as teenagers and then as adults. The ability for any individual to make sound decisions about money rests on their understanding of budgeting, saving, investing, credit, and debt management — things you should know to thrive in adulthood. And given the rising cost of living, student loan debt, the evolution of work in the 21st century (among other macro trends), we’re failing our kids by not giving them the practical knowledge to excel with their money at every stage of their life.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: @warrenhogarth

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

It was fun answering your questions! Thanks for having me.

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