Everyone is good at something, even if they’re not good at what they’re doing right now. As a leader, it’s crucial to recognize what everyone’s gifts are and how to help them hone them. Rather than focusing only on what a person can’t do, you can help people who are struggling to find more of what they’re good at and encouraging them to do more of it.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonya Merrill. Sonya is the co-founder and Head of People Operations at ZestFinance, a software company that uses AI and machine learning (ML) to make fair and transparent credit available to everyone. Sonya has been in the tech industry since its dot-com heyday, at large companies and startups alike. Prior to Zest, she led product and international communications at Google and was instrumental in its growth from startup to one of the most valuable companies in the world. Sonya is passionate about Zest’s mission of helping more Americans gain access to credit through the use of innovative technology, especially those who have been historically shut out of the process such as minorities, women and younger generations. Her primary focus has always been to build Zest into an inclusive, horsepower-driven company where people can grow and thrive at work and where it matters most: in their personal lives.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Sonya! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My husband and I — we co-founded Zest in 2009 — both left our excellent jobs at Google (he was CIO, I was the head of Communications) to do something we were really passionate about. It’s not that we weren’t passionate about our work at Google, but we wanted to make more of an immediate difference and were ready to try something on our own. We simply couldn’t find other companies doing things as cool as what we had done at Google, so we knew we’d have to start something from scratch that had our passions, convictions, and skill sets built into its core.
What sparked the idea for ZestFinance was that one day, my sister (a working single mom of 4 kids), called us and said she needed cash immediately for snow tires so she could get herself to work and the kids to school safely. Of course we helped her, but we also asked her, “What would you have done if we hadn’t helped you?” The answer was, she’d have taken out a payday loan, which typically carry enormous interest rates and trap borrowers in a cycle of debt.
After looking into payday loans, we realized how broken and outdated the entire credit system was — especially for underserved groups — but saw there was a technology solution. Douglas had worked very closely in machine learning and AI during his time at Google and knew that essentially, this was a math problem waiting to be solved. That was the genesis of ZestFinance. Now, we work with large and small financial institutions alike to make fair and transparent credit available to everyone through the use of AI and machine learning.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the wildest things was that in our early years we could not stay in one office for more than a few months at a time (if we were lucky) because we were growing so fast. A great problem to have, but after having moved six times in the first two years, we got pretty good at taping up boxes, so much so that we’d often joke about becoming location scouts if our AI startup didn’t fly.
More recently, Douglas was invited to testify before Congress on the responsible use of AI and machine learning. He’s the first-ever CEO to testify before the House Financial Services Committee’s AI task force, alongside academics and NGO leaders. He’s been relentless in getting regulators on board with our mission. It feels like every other week he’s meeting with DC policymakers, regulators and lawmakers to help them get their arms around the promise of AI in banking.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think there are two main ways Zest stands out. Technically speaking, we are reinventing lending through machine learning. We’re switching out old credit models that don’t apply to everyone equally and helping lenders use new models that offers nuance, explainability, and transparency. We are helping more qualified people get loans and helping banks get more efficient by making fewer bad loans.
In a more personal way, I have built Zest into the kind of company I had always wanted to work at: inclusive, flexible, prioritizing employees’ whole selves, and cultivating leadership skills and career growth for all those who work here. When we first started the company, I was pregnant with our first child. We now have three beautiful kids and understand that work/life balance for working parents is a near-impossible task most days. I have made it my mission to create a company where working parents can have the flexibility and understanding needed in order to both have a career and raise a family.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m very proud of a new AI tool that we’ve built to inspect and correct machine learning models for bias, enabling lenders to dramatically expand credit, particularly for minority populations.
In a test with one client, we were able to generate a fairer model within minutes, shrinking the approval rate gap between white and African American borrowers by 32% and between white and Latino borrowers by 29% while the lender saved $1.2 million annually from fewer defaults. This is extremely exciting and revolutionary to help get credit in the hands of those who have been historically shut out.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I truly believe that the basis of good management is caring about your employees as real people. You must invest in your team by taking an interest in their personal lives and investing in how to help their career trajectory and building leadership skills. One of my mottos is: people work for leaders, not companies — your team will be motivated to work for you if you can inspire them and they know you care about them. Work is personal — we spend so much of our lives at work — and leaders who take the time to invest in their teams will reap the rewards.
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?
I had a wonderful high school English teacher, Sandra McQuinn at Rogers High School in Spokane, Washington who quite literally changed my life. I was in her AP English class my junior year, and until then I had been used to coasting by without much pushback from teachers. The first paper I handed in, she didn’t even grade it. She simply gave it back to me, told me I could do a lot better, and that she would only grade it once I rewrote it. It was a shock to my system — she demanded greatness from me, and until that moment, I didn’t know I was capable of it. Coming from a low-income community, not much was expected of us, but I believe that nearly everyone thrives when a certain standard or bar is set for them. People can and do rise to the occasion — especially kids. Ms. McQuinn knew this very well and from that point on, was my biggest cheerleader, advocate, and motivator inside and outside of the classroom. Prior to meeting her, I never viewed myself as a leader, but she saw my potential and encouraged me to go after leadership positions. If I was interested in the debate team, she’d encourage me to become the president of it. If I went out for the cheerleading squad, she encouraged me to be the captain.
She may actually be responsible for the fact I got into any colleges at all. She reviewed and edited my college essays and gave me advice on how best to position myself as I went after things. She even loaned me her lucky earrings for a big public address I gave. As an adult, I look back with awe and a deep appreciation for all Ms. McQuinn did for me. In addition to the often thankless job of being a teacher, she was a single mother and still spent her personal time to help me in so many ways. I am so appreciative of her and hope she realizes what an enormous impact she had on my life by helping me believe in myself at a time when I didn’t even know who myself was.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In two big ways: The first is what we are doing for our employees by building this supportive place where they can do their best work. The second is aiming our technology at helping millions of people who are shut out of the mainstream credit system. We can help lenders find good borrowers who deserve credit that other banks have overlooked. More people can buy homes and build wealth, pay for an operation, or buy snow tires so their kids can go to school. It’s AI for good. I like that.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Everyone is good at something, even if they’re not good at what they’re doing right now. As a leader, it’s crucial to recognize what everyone’s gifts are and how to help them hone them. Rather than focusing only on what a person can’t do, you can help people who are struggling to find more of what they’re good at and encouraging them to do more of it.
- I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: you need to care about the people who work for you and invest in them. They’ve invested in your company, so be respectful of that and appreciate them as whole individuals, not just as your employees.
- Work/life balance is a myth. Work is a part of life, and when we try to think of it as wholly separate from our personal lives, we run into burnout syndrome, where you feel wholly inadequate in both realms. It’s far more realistic to think of it as work/life integration and blend them together. For example, sometimes kids get sick and you have to take them to a doctor’s appointment in the middle of a workday. Alternately, sometimes you have a huge work project due and need to work through dinner in order to meet a deadline. These are very common scenarios that blur the lines between work and life. Human beings generally don’t compartmentalize things very well. We don’t stop thinking of our personal lives the minute we step into an office, and we don’t stop thinking about work the minute we leave, either.
- People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves: True leaders understand that people are driven by passion. Even the most junior employees need to know the company’s goals and mission. The number one way for a person to feel satisfied by their work is to know how their work fits into the big picture and see it making an active difference. Sometimes managers don’t do a good job explaining this, but I’ve seen how feeling like you make a difference can help increase motivation exponentially. People want to know that what they do matters.
- Almost no one works just for the money: Despite common assumptions, money isn’t the biggest motivator for employees. People obviously have salary expectations, but more important than this, people want to work on difficult and interesting problems and see that what they are doing is meaningful and impactful.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I deeply admire Rep. Maxine Waters, who is one of the most effective and straightforward politicians I’ve ever seen. I admire her ‘tell it like it is’ communication style and her decades-long career is an inspiration, whether you agree with her politics or not. She exerts truth-telling power on a global scale and is a shining example of how women can show up, take up space and make their voices heard. In her New York Times profile, I really connected to her journey, as I also had a hardscrabble upbringing being raised by a single mother in a low-income community. I admire anyone that can come from a difficult background and become a role model to others, especially those who give back to their communities. I would love to have lunch with her to pick her brain on what makes her tick and her tenacity to fight for her constituents.