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Welcome to EMERGE Everywhere, I’m Jennifer Tescher, journalist turned financial health champion. As founder and CEO of the Financial Health Network, I’ve spent my career connecting forward thinking leaders to the growing fin health movement. Now, I’m sharing these conversations with you. Discover how these visionaries are challenging the status quo and improving financial health for their customers, employees, and communities.
I don’t know about you, but for me 2021 has been one long, hard slog of a year, and where it’s ending is not at all what I expected when it started. This was supposed to be the year that vaccines vanquished the pandemic, that work and life as we knew it would return to something approximating normal. That certainly hasn’t happened. This was supposed to be the year that nastiness and rudeness retreated, but instead the lack of civility has festered and we remain utterly divided as a nation.
My guests on this podcast and the conversations we had reflect the twists and turns of this roller coaster year. Despite the extreme uncertainty in the world, all of them remained committed to working across silos and sometimes outside of their comfort zones to improve financial health for all. My guests regularly reminded me that, while the context in which we operate matters, acting in concert with our values matters more. As we prepare to ring in 2022, I’d like to share reflections from my journey this year with the 18 leaders and innovators who graced this show and the lessons we can all learn from them.
I had the privilege to talk with a wide array of leaders who are truly showing up to do the work.
They come from many sectors – media, finance, tech, labor, insurance – they are all on similar journeys. They are motivated to do better by their fellow human beings, whether because of their upbringing, their lived experience, their values, or some combination of the three. They’re leaning into the societal momentum to increase equity, expand justice, and demonstrate empathy. They are leading with authenticity, and bringing their organizations along with them.
We started the year off on an optimistic note with Judy Samuelson of the Aspen Institute, who reflected on the progress being made to level the playing field of capitalism by getting CEOs to recognize that their employees and their customers are just as important as their shareholders. Similarly, Martin Whittaker talked about how his organization, JUST Capital, has worked to connect high-minded concepts of impact, sustainability and purpose with the real challenges that people face in their everyday lives as a way to drive progress in corporate America. Nothing like a global pandemic to bring leaders face-to-face with the real lives of their customers and their workers. Now, some shrug off the rise of purpose-driven companies and stakeholder capitalism as more talk than action, but I’m inclined toward what Fortune CEO Alan Murray said on the show, that he thinks “there’s something very different in the air and in the water” in the way leaders are approaching social responsibility. His own podcast, Leadership Next, is premised on this very insight.
So many of my conversations touched on work and workers. A number of factors converged in 2021 that ultimately led to the “we’re not gonna take it” moment we’re witnessing and to a rise in worker power. The issues that workers face today are decades in the making. Gene Ludwig, former Comptroller of the Currency, believes the government doesn’t even fully understand the scope of the problem because the way it measures unemployment dramatically understates it. Workforce experts like Maria Flynn, CEO of Jobs for the Future, have spent decades focused on the need for worker training and upskilling as automation eviscerates whole categories of jobs, with no end in sight. Meanwhile, the cost of college puts it out of reach for some while burying others in mounds of debt. Chris Smith, who runs the Group Benefits business at Guardian Life, is more driven than ever because of the pandemic to provide workers with the insurance they need to be resilient in the face of a crisis.
Racial equity came up in nearly every conversation I had. The former mayor of New Orleans and the head of the National Urban League, Marc Morial, reflected on his organization’s history of civil rights and urban advocacy, and the fact that many of the economic justice issues it is fighting for today are the ones it was fighting for at its founding 111 years ago. Take small business lending. Luz Urrutia, the CEO of Accion Opportunity Fund, lamented about the disproportionate setbacks that businesses owned by people of color have faced during the course of the pandemic because too many remain shut out of the mainstream financial system. The challenges loom large, but there are green shoots. Roger Hochschild, the CEO of Discover, which is located in the northern suburbs of Chicago, talked about the decision to open a new call center on the South Side of Chicago and set a goal of hiring all of the center’s leadership from within a 5-mile radius. Chief Diversity Officer at Comcast NBCUniversal Dalila Wilson-Scott shared her efforts to foster more diverse voices and faces both on-screen and behind the scenes. Sarah Rosen Wartell, the leader of the Urban Institute, talked about Urban’s work with PolicyLink to develop models for assessing the racial equity impact of legislation, as a way to change the basis on which decisions are made and thus change the system. Much work remains to dismantle systemic racism; the creativity and determination of my guests gives me hope.
I was similarly buoyed by the irrepressible optimism of the innovators I spoke with, all of whom are building businesses designed to serve groups of people who have been historically ignored or excluded. Jimmy Chen described his frustration with the fact that technologists and entrepreneurs build businesses that solve the problems they themselves understand and experience, which means they tend to exclude those outside the dominant culture and with fewer means. Jimmy’s company, Propel, builds software for low-income Americans, and the first problem the company has tackled is helping food stamp recipients manage their benefits electronically, something most of us take for granted. Rob Curtis, the founder behind Daylight, has built a financial platform to meet the unique needs of the LGBT+ community. Abbey Wemimo’s immigrant experience made it clear to him that a credit score is a financial passport that opens up all kinds of opportunities; his company, Esusu, is helping renters build credit.
As important as product and service innovations are, again and again the leaders I spoke with came back to culture as the essential driver of change. Alice Rodriguez, who is overseeing implementation of JPMorgan Chase’s $30 billion racial equity commitment, emphasized that the work must become part of the organization’s DNA if it is to truly take hold. Goldman Sachs’s Stephanie Cohen talked about the importance of listening in creating a culture that centers the needs of employees and customers. Brandee McHale, head of community investing and development at Citi and President of the Citi Foundation, talked about the importance of interrogating the way things have always been done in order to change culture.
It was fitting that I ended the season in conversation with futurist Brett King, the author of the new book, The Rise of Technosocialism. In it, Brett and co-author Dr. Richard Petty suggest that pandemics, inequality, artificial intelligence and climate change will make “the 21st century…the most disruptive, contentious period humanity has ever lived through.” 2021 sure showed us that we’re off to a good start on that prediction. They see four possible outcomes, most of them dark, scary and depressing, and one of them, technosocialism, a potential nirvana. The book charts a course toward this nirvana in which automation replaces most work as we know it, technology makes basic needs like housing and health care ubiquitous and low cost, and capitalism is re-engineered to promote equality and advancement of humanity. I don’t agree with all of their arguments, and I am especially skeptical of AI as an unfettered force for good. But in times like this, when we are lacking certainty about the most basic things, talking to Brett reminded me that we as humans do control our destiny. The fate of our society is quite literally in our hands.
We have demonstrated time and time again that we can do great things when we come together around a common cause. Remember, we started this year without a COVID vaccine and now over 3 billion people around the globe are vaccinated. In their own ways, the leaders and innovators I engaged with this year demonstrated how change happens – one step at a time. It’s a journey, one that will have bumps and detours, but one that we must ultimately must navigate. I see this podcast as the soundtrack for the trip. Thank you for listening to EMERGE Everywhere this year.
This has been EMERGE Everywhere, a Financial Health Network production. If you like the show, please help spread the financial health message by leaving a review. If you have ideas for future guests or thoughts on the show, please click on the link in the show notes to connect with us. See you next time.