EMERGE Everywhere

Ennie Lim: How Empathy Can Improve the Workplace

Honeybee CEO and co-founder Ennie Lim shares her experiences launching the financial wellness fintech in the wake of her own personal financial challenges. In this episode of EMERGE Everywhere, Ennie joins Jennifer to talk about coping with gender discrimination in financial services, helping employers navigate operational transformation through the height of the pandemic, and uncovering effective solutions for vulnerable workers, like rainy day funds for workplaces. Listen to learn how Ennie and HoneyBee are bridging financial literacy gaps, and taking steps toward workplace equality.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022


  • Ennie Lim
    Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder
  • Jennifer Tescher
    President and Chief Executive Officer
    Financial Health Network
Ennie Lim

Ennie Lim

Ennie Lim is the CEO and co-founder of HoneyBee, a Certified Benefit Corporation that helps employers create healthier workplaces by providing free and equal access to financial tools. Ennie is passionate about diversity, inclusion, and building businesses for a better tomorrow. HoneyBee resulted from Ennie’s journey through personal financial challenges after her divorce. Eighty-nine percent of HoneyBee’s users are women, people of color, or both. Ennie and HoneyBee are bridging financial literacy gaps, and taking steps toward workplace equality.

For more insights from innovative leaders advancing financial health for customers, employees and communities, explore more episodes of EMERGE Everywhere.

Episode Transcript

Jennifer Tescher:
My guest today, Ennie Lim, is a refreshingly authentic fintech entrepreneur who has transformed her personal history of financial difficulty into a financial wellness company that offers loans, financial literacy and financial coaching programs. As the CEO and co-founder of HoneyBee, Ennie has brought her entire self to her company, willingly sharing her story to convince employers they can play an active role in their employees’ financial lives. 

Ennie, welcome to EMERGE Everywhere.

Ennie Lim:
Thanks for having me.

Jennifer Tescher:
Ennie, you are the founder and CEO of HoneyBee. Tell us a little bit about your company and how it works. Let’s start there.

Ennie Lim:
Great. Well, you and your team at Financial Health Network know this issue very well. Economic inequalities already existed way before the pandemic, so I wanted to highlight some of the issues and why we do what we do, but what the pandemic really did is accelerated the need to get access to better financial tools. We started to see employers realize that it’s no longer a nice to have, but a must have to have additional financial wellness benefits, or any financial wellness benefits at all, in order to retain and attract that talent, especially in this tight labor market.

At HoneyBee, we saw a massive shift towards employers buying behavior because every industry was just trying to keep up to attract talent and compete for them. We became a really integral part of their retention and employee engagement strategy.

What we do at HoneyBee and our goal is to ensure that every working American can get free and equal access to financial tools to better themselves and their family. We make that possible by providing no-cost rainy day funds. That means no interest, no late fees, no subscription, no tipping and unlimited access to financial therapy.

We treat financial therapy the same way like we would treat mental health. One in five mental health issues are related to money concerns. When you’re dealing with mental health, you can read up online about ways to treat yourself, but you really can’t compare getting that one-on-one therapy session and it could be life changing for so many people. We look at financial therapy the exact same way, and we should treat financial health that same way. When someone’s overwhelmed with their finances, like I was five years ago after my divorce…

Speaking to a financial therapist, would’ve made really the world of a difference for me, and I know it would’ve made a huge difference for my mom that was the sole breadwinner for a household of five when she was struggling to get by. That’s what we do in a nutshell, and we also have our Honey Academy Program. We put these educational webinars together for employees and their families and their kids to attend some of these webinars. We customize that based on employers. Of course, all of this is paid by the employer and is 100% free access for employees.

Jennifer Tescher:
Wow. You’ve given us so much to talk about, Ennie. As some of our listeners might know, HoneyBee was part of the Financial Health Network’s accelerator, part of the Financial Solutions Lab, so I’ve gotten to watch HoneyBee grow and develop from a pretty early moment in time.

If I remember correctly, I feel like your initial concept was enabling employees to take out loans against their outstanding vacation time, like trying to figure out what are assets that even low-wage workers have that they might be able to leverage. Now, clearly, similar idea, but you’ve pivoted in a whole host of different ways based on what you’ve learned in the market. Talk a little bit about how you got from that original idea to here and also tell us where the name HoneyBee comes from.

Ennie Lim:
Absolutely. Well, we’ve been privileged to be part of Financial Health Network for a while now, and it’s amazing to be part of that network. You have seen different iterations of HoneyBee. I’ll start with HoneyBee, the name. The name comes from if you think about honeybees as insects, they’re really crucial insects for the ecosystem. They bring a product that brings wellness. We have to find ways to protect these honeybees from the environment and the same way we have to protect working Americans that’s bringing a lot of products that we use every day. 

Jennifer Tescher:
I love that. Workers, worker bees, honeybees, love it.

Ennie Lim:
Exactly. HoneyBee has lived through a few key pivots. Statistically, I think about 55% of Americans have millions of paid vacation that are left on the table every year. US companies are carrying about $300 billion in liability for all of that unused PTO that sits on their balance sheet. Those are assets that working Americans own. HoneyBee wanted to leverage that PTO to provide access to credit that people… Especially for people that need it most.

Now, try and repeat that to HR. Although it’s great in theory, and I still think it’s a super, super genius idea, it was unbelievably difficult to sell to HR. There were so many questions from legal and labor laws… We did successfully sign about 10 companies when we started, but you can imagine all of those questions made it a very lengthy sales cycle.

Right before the pandemic, we wanted to ensure that we changed that model and it was going to be a proof case of whether employers were going to pay for it, during one of the most like challenging times that the world has ever seen, to ensure that their workforce had 100% free access to the tools they needed.

I know there’s a lot of fintech companies that provide a solution that’s free for employers, but the reality is somebody has to pay for those fees. I did come across that FinHealth report that Financial Health Network just published and you saw about $255 billion of interest in fees for everyday financial services are paid by vulnerable households. If we could figure out a way where they didn’t have to pay for anything… It just never felt right to earn revenue from a population that relied on it and had to borrow perpetually. That’s why we-

Jennifer Tescher:
Now, why employers? Tell me why employers. That’s been a consistent through line for you from the very beginning of HoneyBee. Why are they important here? Did your business model shift work? Has this been a useful shift for businesses?

Ennie Lim:
Yes, I’ll answer that question first. Thankfully, we’re still around, and yes, it did work. I think we’re almost at over 60 company now. The proof case that like employers need to bulk up their benefits… They’re already paying for things like snacks. If you just kind of put that and budgeted a small fee to cover your employees’ financial wellness, it would make the world of a difference for them. Luckily, that pivot did work. We weren’t sure when we started and when the pandemic happened, but I’m glad that we’re starting to see that shift in employers buying behavior.

Why employers? I think when I first started… My co-founder, Benny, who you know him pretty well, his family used to own restaurants. Every time an employee was faced with an emergency, his dad would find himself lending money to the employees. My mom experienced it first hand because she always relied on a loan that she would get from her boss as well. Just talking to different industries when we first started, we were starting to realize that it was pretty common within the workplace, but no one really talked about it.

We came across employers that were like, “Yeah, I do lend employees money, but it really depends on if they’re crying or not.” There was no structure in place and no real way to collect that money back because it’s extremely awkward between employers and employees when you have to collect that money back from your employees.

We knew that there was an opportunity to solve this problem through the employer channel and then now, even more so, that employers cover it and employees have free access. They’re more engaged with the workforce and definitely feel more loyal. That’s why we’re definitely an integral part of their retention and engagement strategy today.

Jennifer Tescher:
You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that COVID has obviously driven significant demand from employers. Talent is so hard to come by right now. That, plus employers really seeing up close and personal the financial challenges that people have every day and how it can get in the way of work. I’m wondering if there are certain sectors, certain kinds of employers or certain sectors of the economy where an employee wellness solution seems to be a better fit or where the HR professionals and, frankly, the C-suite has a greater appreciation and understanding of the benefit.

Ennie Lim:
When we started, we started with nonprofit sectors, and there was definitely a huge need with nonprofit sectors. We started expanding. The way we see it is there’s almost seven out of 10 Americans that live paycheck to paycheck. You can imagine how many people need it. The one industry that we didn’t focus as much on was probably the high paying tech industry. With that as an exception, we looked at all the other industries.

Today, we’re working with a lot of distribution center, a lot of nonprofits. You have museums. We have schools, healthcare, utilities, water utilities, waste utilities. If you focus on low to middle-income workers in America, which is, I think, roughly about 87 million Americans that fall into that sector, that is that’s a massive market. That’s how we started. Then we started with different industries, but now we’re definitely looking at regions as we break up our sales team.

Jennifer Tescher:
Got it. You’ve been at this for a few years now and I’m curious, what are you learning from the actual workers who are using your platform. Is there anything surprising that you’ve learned? Are there any stories that folks have shared with you about the difference that the product is making in their lives?

Ennie Lim:
Absolutely. The one thing we did learn, and I think we, we knew this at the very beginning… Through the Financial Health Network, we got to work with Washington University in St. Louis to collect data from our users. The result was really astonishing, that 89% of our users were people of color and mostly women. I think we always knew this, but seeing that in black and white was really telling because we were able to reduce that financial literacy gap in the workplace and also give people access to credit.

Some of those stories we hear, I wouldn’t say they’re surprising, but I think that’s what keeps me going is listening to these stories. I would get calls with these users sometimes because I think those are really meaningful stories that we have to constantly share publicly and for our team. At the end of every application, there’s a little section where they can put a note for HR. I think it’s really important to send these notes to HR because they are the ones implementing this and they need to know that what they’ve done is really valuable for the people that are using it.

At the beginning of COVID, we saw kids were moving to virtual learning. We had a single mom that relied on meals that were provided for her daughter at school. Like one in six Americans, she started going to a food bank. She used the HoneyBee funds to pay for internet for the first time and for her daughter to get a computer, which is something they never had to do before.

We had a healthcare worker, she doesn’t have the luxury to work from home, like so many of us. She had to commute about two hours to work every day. This had happened before HoneyBee was implemented, but her car broke down. Before she had HoneyBee, she missed a week of work because she couldn’t figure out how to get cash for her car repair. Unfortunately, as a last resort ended going to a payday lender, paying about 500% in interest. In addition to that, you talk about it trickling into the workplace. Because she had missed an entire week of work, her colleagues had to cover her shift and do overtime.

Then you look at when she had HoneyBee, she was immediately able to get the funds she needed, no questions asked. Our financial therapist also helped her to save up to get a better secondhand car. I think those are some of the stories that we hear constantly. We think it’s important to get access to that no-cost loan. At first, they’re like, “What’s… This is too good to be true. Why is this free?” But in order to work with them financially, to meet their financial goals, they do need that education piece. I think that is so key and a huge component of what we’re offering.

Jennifer Tescher:
I’m struck in this conversation by how much the product, the concept, the way you think about financial therapy… I’ve never heard anyone use that framing before. Super interesting. All of that really comes out of your own lived and personal experience. I think one of the things that’s really unique about you is your authenticity. You’re willing to talk about those experiences. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about the story that you shared earlier about the challenges that you faced after your own divorce and if you can tell us more about how that led to the creation of HoneyBee.

Ennie Lim:
Well, first of all, thank you. That means a lot. I know I’m very transparent about my background and my setbacks. When we started HoneyBee, that was definitely not the case. I was embarrassed to talk about my setbacks. While we launched, I was living in my parents’ basement out of necessity because I couldn’t get approved for any apartment because the divorce had affected my credit.

You hit a new low in your mid 30s when your mom gives you money to buy groceries, but somehow, solving one of the most fundamental problems in the US still seemed like a really great idea. When we started, I was cold calling a lot of employers. I would even show up at distribution centers completely unannounced, but there was one pivotal meeting that really changed my perspective.

It was this one company. It was actually a city in the Bay Area. They had agreed to meet in person. There was about five people in the room I remember. Some of them included HR managers, directors, head of finance. I pitched HoneyBee like I always did at the very beginning. One person had said, “Our employees doesn’t look like they would need this.” That’s what really triggered me. I think that was my aha moment because I paused, and I asked her if I look like I was someone that needed financial help.

There was this awkward silence, but at that moment, I decided I was going to share about my financial setback. The last thing I said to them was that they should never assume that people doesn’t need access to financial help when most of America lives paycheck to paycheck. Needless to say, I never signed that client, but a woman from that meeting had reached out to me after and thanked me for being so transparent. She was going through a divorce herself and had financial difficulties. It’s really unfortunate that she wasn’t able to share that experience that day.

Then that just became my purpose, to always be able to destigmatize access to financial help in the workplace by really encouraging people to open up about their setbacks, especially at the C level. That’s truly embedded in our culture today, not just about personal finances, but really creating a safe place that people can open up, share vulnerability and lean on each other to overcome their challenges. I’ve been pretty transparent about my struggle ever since. Sometimes it makes people uncomfortable. I’ve seen investors like, “Oh, that’s like overshare,” but it is what it is. If people had more empathy, I really do feel the world would be a better place.

Jennifer Tescher:
I couldn’t agree with you more. What’s so interesting about your being transparent and using yourself as an example of the need… lots of founders have stories that somehow connect to the purpose of their product, but I think one of the other reasons why your sharing is particularly brave is because of the additional burden or challenge that I’m guessing you face as a woman in fintech. I don’t have to tell you about all of the stories of women founders who just have a way tougher time raising money, whose ideas are often scoffed at, laughed at by male investors.

In a way, sharing that story potentially plays even more into some of the negative stereotypes that I think can lead to challenges for women. Talk a little bit more about how you’re navigating this world as a female founder. I mean, you were just named Inc’s Most Innovative Women Founders. Clearly, you’re doing something right, but you must have worked on this intentionally.

Ennie Lim:
Yeah, absolutely. I think like the barriers to entry, especially in fintech, is definitely high. As you know, the space is highly regulated. Not only is FinTech very much a boys club, but venture capital is still heavily male dominated. I like to think of it a lot like a meritocracy. They invest in people very similar to them. They will stick with their existing networks.

VC firms are hiring a lot of female associates, as I saw in my last fundraising round, but the reality is only about 12% of those decision makers at VC firms are women and even less so women of color. I think a big part of this journey is I’ve learned to accept rejection gracefully. I feel like women in general will always have to deal with more challenges and gender biases, not just in fintech or tech.

It happens every industry. That’s really frustrating to read, sports, entertainment. There’s clearly so much work to be done, but I think a big part of my goal is that as I’m going through this journey, I do want to make it easier for someone after me that has to go through this. Whenever I see women in fintech or new entrepreneurs, I will 100% always spend the time to like, “If you have any questions, if you need any help, please let me know,” because why do we have to make it hard for every everyone?

I had this conversation over the whole holidays with my family, and I think about my twin nieces. If I could make it easier for someone like them when they grow up and hopefully they become an entrepreneur one day, the journey will just be a lot easier for them. I would actually like to ask you that same question. You’re a highly respected leader in a very male-dominated space. Have you faced similar challenges and how have you overcome them?

Jennifer Tescher:
Well, this is a good example of how you are successful because I’ve never had a guest turn the microphone on me. I love that. I think we probably have a little bit of a generational difference, you and I. I grew up at a time where women sort of had to wear the big shoulder pads in their suit jackets that looked like male clothing to demonstrate that they could be taken seriously, but it was also a time when we were taught that women could have it all. Women could be in the workplace and make a difference in their careers and have children and juggle it all somehow. It would all work out.

I think it didn’t take very long to see that that wasn’t exactly true. While I have deep appreciation for all of the women who came before me and who paved the trail that enabled me to really be able to do what I wanted to do, it certainly hasn’t been easy. Like you, where we talked about both being a woman leader in finance and fintech, but also sharing things about your personal experience that may be, in some cases, negatively associated with being a woman, I run a nonprofit organization that has a mission. There’s also a stereotype associated with that.

I often am seen as the do gooder. That’s the thing that I’ve always focused on is making sure I’m being taken seriously and that the work and the mission is being taken seriously. It’s not just a nice idea, but as a game changer that really impacts the lives of the majority of Americans and is going to impact the businesses of the companies and organizations we work with. It doesn’t sound like it’s getting easier, but it does sound like it’s something that we’re at least able to talk about and acknowledge in a more full way. So I really appreciate the question.

Ennie Lim:
Thanks for sharing that. I think it’s so interesting when you talk about impact focus because we’re a for profit, but we are definitely impact focused and there is negative connotation, especially when you’re pitching to investors, because they’re like, “Well, we want to make a lot of profit. How are we going to do that?” I’ve had so many pitches and investors like, “We don’t like the fact that it’s too impact focused.”

I started removing… catering it to my audience. Sometimes I would remove that from my pitch that we were so mission driven and impact focused, focused more on the number and the growth and the margins. It’s very interesting because I had to cater to that audience, but it is interesting that mentioned that.

Jennifer Tescher:
I think in the social impact world, wherever one is on the spectrum in terms of mission and margin, it’s all about balancing the idea of tailoring one’s message to the audience while, at the same time, not losing sight of what really matters. I think that is one of the most challenging things that the founders that I think we work with through the Financial Solutions Lab face. All of them are part of our accelerator because they, in some way, are connected to a broader mission. They’re also all trying to make money doing it.

We fundamentally believe that one can do both of those things at the same time. Despite the fact that there’s been a lot of movement in the world towards that idea, particularly with folks who are focused on return and focused on finance, it can be hard to make that case that there doesn’t have to be a trade off.

Ennie Lim:

Jennifer Tescher:
Ennie, tell me what we can expect from HoneyBee this year. As you’re talking about that, would love to hear you reflect on what you think’s going to happen to the enthusiasm among employers for financial wellness solutions, as God willing, the pandemic hopefully, hopefully begins to recede. Are you worried at all that this will feel like a flash in the pan?

Ennie Lim:
I’ll answer that first question. 2022, I truly believe… And I know every founder says this every year, but it will be a pivotal moment for us this year. We’re building a lot of strong partnership with companies that are mission aligned. We have extremely loyal customers. We’re finding that companies are seeing that importance in bulking up their financial wellness benefit in order to compete effectively. I think a big part is… What I’m most proud of, of everything we’ve done, is really building a strong culture even as a fully remote team.

We really have an unbelievable team that has the skillset and ambition to help us, to help HoneyBee grow exponentially. Really proud of how far we’ve come. It is very tough to build a team that is focused on the mission. I think like that’s what we’ve done successfully really well.

The second question to that is what we’re expecting from employers. We did see that shift when COVID happened and one in five households was losing an income earner. Employers definitely saw how important it was because employees were affected when hours were decreased, they were being furloughed. That was early 2020. Then after that you saw this race for talent.

Then you have to see companies like Amazon and Target kind of lead the way because that’s what triggers employers. They’re like, “Well, we don’t want all our employees being taken up by all these large companies.” Then I know that… You know it as well through the worker initiative that you work with multiple large companies. They have to lead the way and they’re already doing that.

You’re going to see more of these larger companies put these financial wellness benefit as the forefront, and everyone will just start to follow. I think like 401k 40 years ago might have seemed crazy to a lot of employers like, “Why are we paying for this? Why are we investing in this? Why are we matching?” But it is just part of every package today to invest in your employees’ retirement savings and to help them as they retire. I’m sure a lot of employees thought that was crazy, but I think we’re seeing more and more of the employees and the employers are starting to realize how important this is.

My hope is that… We have a lot of large companies in our pipeline and they are the ones that will lead the way. I think that’s why our focus is like really looking at these large companies because the more they lead the way, the easier it’ll be for mid-market companies and smaller companies to bring it on.

Jennifer Tescher:
Just becomes standard practice.

Ennie Lim:
Yes, exactly.

Jennifer Tescher:
Well, Ennie, best of luck to you and the HoneyBee team in 2022. Thank you for joining me on EMERGE Everywhere.

Ennie Lim:
Thank you so much, Jennifer. It’s always a pleasure to see you.