In my opinion, I don’t think we start educating early enough. We are so quick to teach important subjects in school like history, literature and math, but I believe financial literacy education should be taught as a practical life skill. Across the country, financial education in schools is required in less than half US states. Since we don’t teach financial tips at a young age, people often learn about finances and credit through trial and error, which can take a long time to recover from. According to a recent survey we released, 76 percent of Gen Z consumers said they believe their high school should have mandated courses on managing finances. If I had the power to make a change, I’d love to make this a reality and help young people access quality financial education more easily.
As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alpa Lally. Alpa is Vice President of Data Business for Experian’s Consumer Information Services business in North America. In her role, Alpa is responsible for product management related to Experian’s core credit and alternative data assets which includes but is not limited to credit scoring models and tools such as Experian Boost. She is passionate about finding new ways to utilize alternative data in order drive to financial inclusion and help people gain access to the financial services they need.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Alpa! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?
To be honest, I kind of fell into banking and finance. I completed my undergraduate degree in Canada as a civil engineer and minored in structural engineering. For the early part of my career, I led design, engineering and development for engineering/construction companies.
Around 2008, I moved down to California. This was also around the time of the subprime market crash. I decided to use this time to get my MBA at University of California Irvine. Upon completion of my MBA, I had the opportunity to work at Experian as an MBA leadership development program participant. After completing my rotation program, I formally joined Experian’s Consumer Information Services business as a Director of Prospecting.
I realize now that my passion for data is what ultimately drove me to the finance industry. In construction, if you do a load takedown on a building and you look at the foundation, it’s all about the data. It’s about how you bring all those forces together and translate all the different data pieces into a structure that’s sound, secure and architecturally beautiful.
When you think about what we do at Experian, it’s all about data too — from our score models, alternative data sources and the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and our advanced analytics tools. Data is helping us enhance the core credit report for better financial access for consumers. My passion stems from a need and curiosity I have to understand complex problems and solve them very simply by leveraging different data assets.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
One experience that sticks out was early in my career when I was in Canada and designing buildings. When you design buildings, you spend a lot of time doing site inspections to ensure everything is accurate and going according to plan. I once went out to a building that I designed and realized there was a pretty significant error made by the construction team.
As you can imagine, there were not a lot of women in my field. As I was trying to signal the crew to stop pouring concrete, they started yelling at me and I somehow ended up getting covered in concrete. The construction supervisor didn’t buy into what I was saying about the mistake and called my manager, but my manager stood by me. He said, “if she said it’s wrong, it’s wrong.” My manager told me to stay there and not back down until it was fixed and that’s exactly what I did.
This experience has stuck with me because it illustrated that the belief a manager has in you can really help you overcome obstacles and make a huge impact in building confidence. It reminds me about how important it is to support my team in this way. It’s also reflective of the leadership I like to work for and our culture at Experian. We are lucky to have strong leaders who allow you to fail while pushing you to be your best and achieve your professional goals. If you want to do something at Experian, and you voice that, the leaders here will give you a path to do it. I feel very fortunate to be here.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m personally extremely passionate about finding new forms of data to help consumers gain access to credit and the financial tools they need. Thankfully, it’s what I spend the majority of my time working on at Experian. More than 100 million Americans don’t have access to fair and affordable credit today — making it more important than ever for companies like ours to find new, innovative ways to improve the financial health of consumers.
I am especially passionate about this because I’ve personally faced the challenges of having a limited credit history. When I immigrated to the U.S. from Canada, none of my credit history moved with me and I had to start from scratch. I then later went through a major life changing event. I got divorced. This also significantly affected my credit and I needed to rely on alternative financial services because I did not qualify for traditional credit.
During this time, the trend of using alternative data sources and consumer permissioned data did not exist. But we’ve come a long way since then. We’ve found new ways to empower consumers with alternative data and it’s making a big impact. Our new free tool, Experian Boost, allows people to add their positive telecom and utility payment information directly to their credit report. We see scores instantly improve for two out of three people who use it and it’s especially helpful for consumer with limited credit histories, like me. This is the first-time consumers have been able to directly contribute information to their credit report. As a company, Experian Boost is something we’re extremely proud of.
It’s definitely the most exciting project I’ve worked on throughout my time here.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I know it sounds cheesy, but I truly get excited about coming to work every day. When I think about why this is, I know the work I get to do plays a part, but the people I work with and our leadership team has created an environment that I truly enjoying being in.
Our leaders have an open-door policy that is very empowering. Whether it is a quick question or need 30 minutes you can walk over to any leaders office and speak to them. I don’t think there are a lot of companies that can say that about their leadership.
Another factor that plays into making this a great place to work is that Experian really stands by the motto of bringing your whole self to work. A lot of companies may say this, but at Experian, we really lean into it. We know companies that embrace diversity are more innovative and Experian is really talking the talk and walking the walk in this area. It’s one of the many reasons we’ve created our Employee Resource Groups and that we work to create an inclusive and diverse team. Our leaders believe that when we’re empowered to bring our whole selves to work, we’re able to be more effective in what we do. It’s one of the reasons we’re recognized as a Great Place to Work and included in Forbes’ List of Most Innovative Companies.
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?
I think awareness, education and support from male leaders has helped create this shift. There’s still work to do, but the more companies embrace diversity like Experian has, I think we can continue to create meaningful impact and ultimately more successful and inclusive companies.
As I mentioned, Experian promotes a diverse and inclusive community. We embrace and celebrate the diversity of ideas and backgrounds across the company. This diversity of thinking, and the way we harness it at Experian, helps to fuel our innovation and ultimately our ongoing success as a business. Our progressive policies in areas like female empowerment, flexible working hours, paid parental leave and Experian clubs ensure that all employees can flourish and feel a sense of pride about working for Experian.
I’m proud that almost half of our Experian North America workforce is made up of women. Our Women in Experian Employee Resource Group is focused on championing and cultivating women leaders. Groups like this make a big difference in empowering and elevating women. We also invite male colleagues to join the group and collaborate as we know it’s vital that men are also active participants in advocating for women.
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?
In order to support an increase in female leadership, I think individuals can get involved in resource groups, seek out guidance from leaders and ask a lot of questions. It’s important to get smart about your industry so that you can continually provide an educated point of view. I’d also encourage individuals to find a mentor in a leadership position. Mentorship can be extremely valuable for career advice and decision-making. Lastly, as an individual, it’s important to believe in yourself. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and you may be surprised about what you’re capable of.
I believe companies can help their employees and promote leadership development by making resources available. We offer our education assistance program at Experian which gives partial tuition reimbursement that employees can use if they’d like to go back to school while still working at Experian.
Lastly, as a society, I think we can do a better job of empowering younger generations to set and go after their career goals, regardless of gender.
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?
In my opinion, I don’t think we start educating early enough. We are so quick to teach important subjects in school like history, literature and math, but I believe financial literacy education should be taught as a practical life skill. Across the country, financial education in schools is required in less than half US states. Since we don’t teach financial tips at a young age, people often learn about finances and credit through trial and error, which can take a long time to recover from.
According to a recent survey we released, 76 percent of Gen Z consumers said they believe their high school should have mandated courses on managing finances. If I had the power to make a change, I’d love to make this a reality and help young people access quality financial education more easily.
Experian is a resource, too. We have a lot of free educational content on our website, through Experian Boost and on our social media channels. We know that debt can be a financial problem, but credit is a financial tool. We want to help all consumers understand how to use and manage credit responsibly so that it’s there when they need it.
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.
Five non-intuitive things I’d recommend to my children to become more financial literate would be:
- Start early. Building credit and positive financial habits doesn’t happen overnight. It’s important to start building credit early. Find a trusted resource and ask questions if there’s anything you’re unsure of to avoid potential pitfalls.
- Check your credit report on a regular basis to avoid any potential surprises. It’s important to understand that your credit report can be used for anything from loans for your car, your security deposit on an apartment and landing that dream job.
- Use the credit you have wisely. Good credit scores are not about having a lot of credit, but rather about how you use the credit you have available. Make a small purchase each month and pay it in full. That will show you can use credit well without taking on debt.
- Use your cell phone to improve your credit. With Experian Boost, you can add positive telecom and utility payments to your credit history and possibly boost your credit score. In the past, failing to pay your utility or cell phone bills could hurt your credit, but paying on time didn’t help. With Experian Boost, that’s changed.
- Ask questions. Financial health can be difficult to learn especially if you do not have good role models. Take the time and ask questions, research online, read books, and learn as much as you can. There’s a lot of great resources available today including our Ask Experian blog.
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’m very grateful for my parents who helped me grow both professionally and personally throughout my life. I was supposed to take over my father’s business and follow in his footsteps to become an engineer. My life took another turn and I ended up moving out to the U.S., which pivoted my entire journey. Regardless of that, my parents have always been really supportive of my decisions.
Professionally, my father instilled in me the importance of driving towards my goals. He taught me to be confident and stay true to who I am. Most importantly, he always challenged me and created a level of curiosity that has stuck with me forever and helped me in my journey. Today my parents continue to support me, and I also have an amazing husband who is with me every step of the way. He is my rock. I can face any obstacle with him by my side.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The rest of my time will be more productive if you give me my workout time,” Barack Obama. This quote is me. It is important to take time for yourself and as a result I am happier, more productive and just feel good. Self-care is critical, it is that simple.
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 would inspire a movement for consumers to consent and believe in the power of sharing their data. I truly believe it can create significant benefit for consumers in a way they may not yet understand. We’re starting to see this with the consumer interest around Experian Boost. More than one million people have connected to Experian Boost in the six months since we’ve launched. This is really exciting and a trend I hope will continue as more consumers see the value contributing data can create in their lives. I’ve seen it happen in my life and I’d love to inspire a movement that allows more people to see it in theirs.
Thank you for all of these great insights!