Alex Williamson of Asteya: “Remember to set aside not just money but also time”

I also think that it’s important that young people recognize how empowering it can be to take control of their finances — and also how necessary it is. This means that it’s important, too, for people to take control over their financial health before they place their trust in a business. Similar to how we teach young […]

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I also think that it’s important that young people recognize how empowering it can be to take control of their finances — and also how necessary it is. This means that it’s important, too, for people to take control over their financial health before they place their trust in a business. Similar to how we teach young people to be defensive drivers, we need to teach them to be proactive — even defensive when it comes to their finances.

As part of our series about “Women Leading The Finance Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Williamson.

Alex Williamson is the CEO and co-founder of Asteya, the income protection startup whose mission is to provide financial health and wellbeing by transforming the disability insurance space. She previously served as the Chief Brand Officer at Bumble, where her work broke through social norms by encouraging women to make the first move. Now, she’s focused on reimagining the world of disability insurance, addressing the gender and professional inequity that persists in this space.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the finance field?

My pivot from the dating app space to insurance surprises people at first, but the story is a very personal one. While working as CBO at Bumble, I had very little work-life balance. I loved the fast pace of my work, but when I experienced a debilitating flare-up of my fibromyalgia, I realized something had to give. After that, I couldn’t keep going at the same pace, and I had to take medical leave to manage my pain. Taking time off for medical leave helped open my eyes to the need to protect one’s livelihood, especially when you can’t work. I was inspired to find ways to help others have opportunities to heal, prioritize their wellness, and take care of their health. What I realized is that the one way to help a person find wellness is to help protect their finances, because finances are at the heart of wellness and that the social determinants of health are astounding.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occured to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

At Bumble, we spent a lot of time discussing how we can create a dating environment wherein women felt empowered — and safe. We listened to user feedback about the problems they had experienced on other platforms and one seemingly simple, but really powerful, move we decided to make in response to users’ needs was to ban d*ick pics. People often feel like they can hide behind their screens and treat others differently than how they would in person where they would be held accountable for their actions. We wanted to change that dynamic at Bumble by holding people accountable for their actions to protect our users. I was really proud of our initiative to ban d*ck pics because we were creating a space where women didn’t have to worry about being treated a certain way just because they were women. I’ve carried that over to Asteya, where we’re similarly trying to build a space where women are treated fairly and creating products that empower women.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The pandemic made it so clear how urgently entrepreneurs need income protection. It may seem obvious that when an entrepreneur — who is often the sole or primary revenue generator for their business — is unable to work in cases of sickness or injury, their business bears a harsh economic burden, yet many solopreneurs don’t have income protection. This might sound like hyperbole, but the country is at risk of losing a core part of its backbone because this important part of our economy doesn’t have income protection — I feel like this is an area where Asteya can really make a real difference.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What sets us apart is our commitment to truly advocate for people’s mental, physical and financial wellbeing. When our team sat down to discuss what products we’d prioritize first, we were all in agreement that we wanted to launch with offerings targeted at the people who have struggled the most over the past year due to COVID-19. The pandemic made it clear that small-business owners, entrepreneurs, and gig economy workers are in urgent need of income protection. That’s why our first products are tailored to meet the unique needs of these groups. By helping people achieve financial wellbeing, our goal is to also help them find overall wellbeing.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

Not only are Wall Street and finance all white boys clubs, but insurance is too. When men run the show, that has a trickle-down effect on how women are treated in insurance products, contributing to a world in which women on average have had to pay 40 percent more for income insurance than men. That’s why I’m so excited to be shaking up the old boys’ club of disability insurance, and why I’m focused on finding ways to make strategic changes to bring down the cost for women.

As for why the change is happening, I think it’s the result of the empowerment of women in leadership roles driven by community support and the democratization of media so that women can find their voices and share their stories. But we aren’t nearly done yet. There’s still so much more work to be done to make room for women in traditionally male-dominated spaces.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?

It is very, very true that there is so much more work to be done to achieve parity between men and women in senior leadership positions, and that women are facing many barriers of entry at that level. When I was at Bumble, I saw firsthand the challenges that my friend Whitney Wolfe Herd had to overcome in her role as CEO. Now, in that same position myself, I’m learning just how hard it can be for women to lead in roles traditionally occupied by men.

Based on my own experiences, I think one way that individuals can help push this movement forward is by leading with empathy — being conscientious of the gender inequity that’s baked in the old boy’s club and working to actively address these issues is one of the first steps in creating an environment that empowers women leaders.

I think, at the corporate and societal level, there needs to be more structural support in place, such as parental leave and income protection, to help women stay in the workforce. The pandemic is the most recent example of when hundreds of thousands of women were pushed out of the workforce to care for their families. Having institutionalized support in place may have eased the pandemic burden on women and allowed them to continue working. I get asked the age-old misogynist-rooted question “how do you juggle work-life balance?” And so many women often say that men should be asked that too. I agree, but the question serves a different intention for men. Men aren’t expected to balance, men are expected to work. So instead, we should be asking men, “what are you doing to be present at home? How are you sharing the burden?” We should be discussing paternity leave as well. We’re never going to achieve parity by only focusing on women. This just puts more pressure on women. The pressure should also be on challenging the age-old dynamics and creating cultures that encourage men to show up for their families as well, beyond just economically. I think these conversations will drive more support for women, who often carry the weight of home and kids and work, because society has ingrained in all of us that the onus is on women.

Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?

I believe financial literacy is a core part of wellness, as essential as physical and mental health. And yet it is not often taught to kids or prioritized in their education (though it’s exciting to see things starting to change!) We are seeing an uptick in time spent teaching kids to care for their physical wellness — think P.E. classes, nutrition education — and their mental wellness — school counseling, therapy sessions — but we have neglected to teach them how to manage their own finances. I would recommend making personal finance education a part of the core curriculum in schools. I was never even taught how to balance a checkbook. No one is born with the ability to read and write; literacy is learned because we teach it to our children. Financial literacy must be taught, too.

I also think that it’s important that young people recognize how empowering it can be to take control of their finances — and also how necessary it is. This means that it’s important, too, for people to take control over their financial health before they place their trust in a business. Similar to how we teach young people to be defensive drivers, we need to teach them to be proactive — even defensive when it comes to their finances.

Generally, I also think we need to explore how to make financial education more interesting and engaging! Just because something is crucial to know, doesn’t mean students will be willing to learn it. Thinking outside of the box about how to engage students with interactive learning experiences could help to make financial literacy for all a more achievable goal.

Focusing on total wellbeing and collective wellness — financial, mental and physical wellness — is critical to the success of actually achieving it. Life happens. Sometimes we end up with health conditions that are out of our control. But, being familiar with and practicing stress-reducing practices and smart lifestyle choices that can prevent illness or burnout along the way help us promote a healthier world.

You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.

1. Understanding how to build credit in a healthy and manageable manner.

2. To take advantage of the various financial accounts as soon as you can.

3. To create systems for your finances, like using auto-bill pay, putting money into your IRA or savings account without thinking about it, and so on. Investing your money is not something that’s only for the ultra wealthy.

4. Remember to set aside not just money but also time. Managing your own finances and becoming financially literate are time-consuming and require active effort. If you don’t budget time for personal finance education — and later management of your finances — it’ll be harder to get done.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are too many people to name. I don’t think I would have achieved any bit of success without the support of friends, colleagues, family, and for that I feel so lucky. So much of my drive towards success came from people doubting me or my choice in projects, so I’m grateful for that, too. Most recently, my boyfriend and life partner has been instrumental in my success as a constant support team member for me. When I went through medical leave, he was there for me every step of the way as my closest friend. He has supported my career changes and believed in me wholeheartedly. As the son of a strong mother and badass businesswoman, he truly sees the world through a lens where women can and should do anything. Trust me when I say, I know how fortunate I am to have that level of support in my life now.

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

“Asteya” is the name of our company andit’s my favorite mantra. When I took medical leave, I went to study at an ashram to be able to reconnect with my body and find a holistic, Eastern-medicine approach for managing my pain. That’s where I first learned of the yogic concept of Asteya. It means non-stealing — not taking more than you need from the earth, from others, or from yourself. Living by the value of Asteya encourages a circle of abundance and generosity, and I feel that we all need to be reminded of that at times. I even have an “Asteya” tattoo as a reminder to be generous with others and with myself. (I got this tattoo before we named the company Asteya :))

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

I’d love to start a wellness movement! I’m incredibly passionate about wellness, both on a personal level and in encouraging others to take tangible steps to incorporate wellness into their daily lives. My experience with fibromyalgia and needing to take medical leave taught me that wellness is a practice, something that you have to work to maintain, but it’s worth the extra effort. Even if you don’t have a chronic health condition, life in general just takes so much out of us physically and mentally. I see income protection as contributing greatly to a person’s overall well being, yet there’s a lot more to wellness beyond finances. If I could inspire people to devote just five minutes a day to actively work on their wellness — whether that means going for a short walk outside, practicing mindfulness, or taking time for self-care — I would be so gratified.

Thank you for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success.

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