Rob Curtis (he/him) is CEO and co-founder of Daylight. Rob’s background is in financial services, delivering technology projects across insurance and banking clients in Australia and London. In the latter part of his career, Rob has been leading LGBT+ consumer businesses. He was previously Managing Director of Gaydar, a dating and social networking platform with over 2 million LGBT+ members worldwide, where he led brand and customer acquisition. His last start-up, Helsa, connects LGBT+ clients with expert mental health professionals. Rob is an activist for LGBT+ causes and has appeared in Buzzfeed, the Advocate, Huffington Post, and more.
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.
My guest today knows a thing or two about challenging the status quo. Rob Curtis has spent a good portion of his career carving a path for the LGBT community. While the community has achieved greater levels of popular acceptance over the last 20 years, financially its members are often several steps behind. Rob is taking on that challenge with the neobank, Daylight, which caters to LGBT consumers and their unique needs. He has an expansive vision of how technology can enable financial services companies to deeply personalize their offerings, build trust, and close the LGBT wealth gap.
Rob, welcome to Emerge Everywhere.
Thank you very much. Great to be here.
So you have described yourself as a serial LGBT entrepreneur. You’ve built a number of businesses aimed at this market, Gaydar, a dating site, Helsa, which connected LGBT individuals to mental health resources. And now, your latest venture, Daylight.
Daylight is a neobank serving the LGBT community. Tell me, why does the LGBT community need its own bank?
I think that’s a really good question, and this is not the first time that people have tried to create a financial services institution for the LGBT community. The reasoning for it, and we’ve talked to thousands of LGBT customers, absorbed as much research as there is available. And there is a dearth of research on the financial lives of LGBT folks, but it really boils down to this, LGBT people start off on the back foot.
When we try and get help, we struggle to play catch up. And as a result, our financial outcomes suffer at almost every stage of our life. And I’m going to unpack that a little bit, because there’s quite a little bit there.
So I’m going to start with just the cost of being LGBT. It costs more to be an LGBT person. It can be simple things like we earn less on average because of ongoing wage discrimination, and bear in mind, it was only last year in July that we were allowed to be LGBT in all 50 States without being fired, but we don’t know how long those protections are going to stay.
It means that when we look to things like mental health, which is a topic that’s very dear to me, we are three to five times more likely to suffer from common mental health things like depression and anxiety. And yet those are things are very costly to manage. We find that there is only partial cover for many of the things that are important to our lives in traditional insurance and protection products. Fertility treatments aren’t covered by everybody, gender affirming care isn’t covered by everybody.
And probably one of the biggest determining factors is that when a young person comes out to their family, there’s a 40% chance that they’ll be cut off financially, 40%.
And LGBT folks are born randomly into straight families. You have to come out, you don’t have to come out when you identify with a different ethnicity. So it becomes this moment for many LGBT people, where we have to make a choice often very early. And that choice is it’s more important for me to be myself and to pursue my personal happiness, than to chase social acceptance and to lean into all of the negatives that can come with being an LGBT person, and money is just a part of that.
And when we reach into traditional financial services to get some help with those things, we find that there’s little or no help available that suits our needs. Are there loan products to help you get a mortgage? Sure. Can a bank help you navigate through the choices of, do you want a home or a family? Which is a common question that we’re asked in the 30s. And if you’re gender non-conforming or trans, maybe a transition is all that you get.
Our financial services organizations are set up to be able to support young people who have been cut off financially from their parents, and particularly when they’re in these volumes. And we find that the answer is just no. Most financial advisors are unable to connect with and advise an LGBT person about their financial matters.
And if you aren’t talking to your doctor about all of your health problems, you’re not getting the best care. And I think the same thing happens in finance. We’ve started off on the back foot because our cost of living is higher. We would lean in to get support and we find that financial products don’t exist. The advice isn’t right. I’m asked what my wife does. A trans person can’t get a name on their card. These things matter, because what it means is that many people stop participating in traditional financial services. And then, when we look at long-term outcomes, across almost every financial outcome, LGBT people are behind. From estate planning to retirement preparation to family preparation, through to 50% more college debt. LGBT people are less well off financially. It is actually one of the hardest myths that we have to dispel is this idea that all LGBT people are rich because they don’t have to pay for school uniforms.
And we looked at all of these things and we realized that we’re a generation that has been promised freedom and opportunity. We don’t have the money to afford those things. So we created Daylight and we called it Daylight to focus on what those new horizons are going to look like for our community, because we think they’re incredibly optimistic. We are overrepresented on TV. We’re accepted like never before. The best-selling rapper right now is a queer man, a queer person of color, but most of us will not be able to have the opportunities that are being presented to us because to have a family can cost $100,000 for two men. To afford a home for most people is a challenge. Gender affirming care is up to $100,000 for many folks going through gender transformations. And so if we’re going to have these bright futures, we’re going to have to start making the funds available. And we decided that it was time for us to take matters into our own hands. And that’s why we created Daylight.
Now I noticed that you, when you talk about this community, you use the acronym LGBT. Elsewhere, you often hear LGBTQ. Sometimes you hear it with the plus. Sometimes people add the IA and I want to make sure that the language that we’re using in today’s show, that we’re being purposeful about that. So talk to me a little bit about how you’ve chosen to describe the community that you’re attempting to serve.
Yeah, so we often flick between LGBT and LGBTQ. This is a very personal and sensitive topic to many LGBT people. The Q stands for queer, which is increasing a way that young people identify. It’s also very offensive to some generations of older men. And so with how we talk about our community, there’s a lot of really specific, fine details. And so, we try not to make any assumptions about how anyone identifies. LGBT or LGBTQ I find for the purposes of this conversation from our opinion, we’ve tested these with our audience. So we’re nerds about this stuff.
People identify slightly more with LGBT, but when we asked them why mainly because it’s easier to say. So it is funny that the quirks and the things that are important are actually quite, quite different for individuals, but LGBT or LGBTQ is pretty fine. We do talk about the queer community, but I wouldn’t label any individual as queer. I would say that there is a community of queer folk, but it’s very different to include myself as in the queer community as to say that I’m a queer man. So when we talk about individuals, we try and get it right about how they personally choose to identify.
Got it. I appreciate that explanation. And I think it’s a great example of the nuance that’s required, not just to serve this particular community, but really to serve any particular community that has a unique or particular identity. And you talked a minute ago about the challenge of breaking down stereotypes. And I guess my question is, how are you doing that? Where are you getting the data that seems to be missing? How do you get these incredible figures that you’ve been sharing in order to make sure that you’re seeing your customer base in all of their beautiful complexity?
Yeah. I think that is a really important question. And it’s the one thing that traditional financial services companies get wrong. They assume we’re a monoculture and a monolith. That we’re all the same, but actually those two queer men who are doing well, not buying school uniforms. And I say to them, and they’re probably gay men working in finance on a coast somewhere. Their life is very different from a queer person of color, 20% of whom are unbanked or underbanked. So we have incredible diversity within our own community. Finding data on them is a matter of stitching together. It’s almost like a quilt with lots of individual pieces and we’ve got to kind of pull together a tapestry out of it. So we’ve pulled together basically every piece of publicly available data. And we’re commissioning the largest study on LGBT Money Matters in American history right now in partnership with Visa, the Movement Advancement Project.
And our goal is to start filling in some of those gaps. We, on top of that, are about to build with sponsorship from another financial services company, a theory of change to close the LGBT wealth gap, because actually to change the LGBT wealth gap and to close it is going to require a response that is not anything that one bank or government organization can do. It’s going to require lots of folks. So we see part of our job as filling the void on data that is just not there. And it doesn’t really tell the full story about our community, but there are some really great sources for data if you are a data geek or you’re furious.
The Movement Advancement Project, the Williams Institute have lots of great data on LGBTQ folks and their lived experience. And one that I’m a big fan of because I was a fan of the podcast. It was called Nancy by WNYC radio. They did a queer Money Matters survey, where they did a statistical sampling of LGBT folks across America to understand their financial behaviors. And we’ve also conducted a similar testing of our own using quantitative studies. So, short answer is we’re leveraging as much of the data that is available as possible. Slightly longer answer is that we see our role for ourselves as building that data out for others to build upon because that is just part of what we hope is going to be a response to wealth quality that will touch upon many organizations, LGBTQ focused and otherwise.
That’s fantastic. So you’ve got two co-founders. One of whom I know, Paul Barnes Huggett, who is an alum of the Financial Solutions Lab Accelerator, and also Billy Simmons. And I want to spend a minute talking to you about Billy, who is a transgender woman, and she has spoken publicly about her experience of being deadnamed after she transitioned. And I think this is an important story because it helps to explain at a really visceral level what Daylight hopes to offer and accomplish. You mentioned things like financing to be able to start a family for gay couples, as an example. There are some things that seem very tangible and obvious. Deadnaming for those who aren’t familiar with it, it may not be so obvious and it may not seem like such a big deal, but it’s a really big deal. And so, why don’t you tell the listeners a little bit about Billy, about what it means to be deadnamed, and how Daylight is really going to try to solve that problem?
Sure. Billy is wonderful. I met her on stage at Google years ago when we’ve worked in other ventures. And what I love about Billy is that she’s able to bring her lived experience to the table in a way that actually would be very confronting for many folks. And we’ve built a lot of our services around her lived experience. And I think that’s some of our secret powers. And then there’s a number of areas where being trans impacts your finances, but deadnamed, to be really clear to folks, is the use of somebody’s name associated with their previous gender identity. So a trans person, Billy is a woman. She’s always been a woman, but for a period of time, she was assigned a different name at birth by her parents.
And we’ve built an identity system for banking around legal ID, because that was the only thing that really existed, where you figured out that for cultural reasons, some women would need to change their surnames when they got married. But beyond that, that system hasn’t been updated in a really long time. Gender is not that simple. We built a system predominantly for men. We’ve adapted it for women. And now we’re entering into a world where trans folk are visible. Trans folk have always existed. Gender nonconforming folk have always existed, but here they are.
So when you open a bank account, let’s say Billy opening a bank account at Capital One, show me your legal ID, create a bank account, do our fraud checks. Tick, tick, tick. Great. Here’s a card in your name. Now for a trans persons to update their identity documents as they go through a transition, for Billy to become Billy Simmons, she had to go to a doctor for permission, a lawyer to help prep, a notary, a judge, a courthouse. She had to out herself five times to complete strangers as a trans woman, very challenging and very unsafe thing to do because you don’t really know. There could be 50/50 support for trans folk or not.
She had to take expensive documentation, spent 20 odd hours trying to change those documents to go into her bank in order for them to reflect her new gender identity. So the root of the problem is that we’ve built a system that is only supportive of legal ID. Now we don’t see the world that way in Daylight. We recognize that for regulatory reasons, we need to know who a person is as established by the legal ID. That’s all we need it for. Actually, Billy can order a card in her name, through the signup process because we respect her pronouns. Her gender identity may not match her legal ID. And so, Billy is signing up to Daylight, her experience would be vastly different. We would use her legal ID to do the appropriate fraud checks as required by regulation.
But from that point onwards, we say let’s compartmentalize that for a second. That’s one part of you. What’s your name? What’s your gender identity? What pronouns would you like us to use? And from that point onwards, her experience at Daylight is entirely governed by how she chooses to identify. She is a woman. Her name is Billy. I don’t need a doctor and a courthouse and a judge and a notary to tell me that those things are true. We’re going to take that on faith, because this is a woman who is part of that community.
And while she could go through that process at another bank, chances are they’ll change one part of it. The leading major bank that is able to provide a name in a trans person’s card still emails them and text messages them, in their deadname. Because for those of you that know how big banks work and I used to bill in them, it’s all kind of stitched together. And there’s a statement system written in COBOL. And you don’t want to touch that because if you do, you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to get it off the ground. It’s too hard to add in a whole new field there for a chosen name instead of legal name. And I think what we’ve been able to do by building this stuff in very intentionally and from the beginning is to create an experience that is gender affirming in totality. Once we’ve gone through KYC, we’ve established that this is a real person, from that point onwards, Billy is Billy is Billy. I don’t need anyone else’s permission to call her that.
People were worried that there might be some fraud. There’s often this fear that failed straight men are dressing up as women to commit crimes or to play sport. This is the latest one. A, this is just not a thing. B, this isn’t really targeting trans people. This is targeting them for the wrong reasons. And when we had to sit down and educate our bank of record, one of the only banks in the country that was willing to take a punt on this, they realized that this was only a perceived risk, and not a real one. And so while neobanks, we’ve had some early indications of consumer fraud, 0% of that has been related to names on cards. And so I think what we had to do to bring that to life is not only have that deep experience and compassion and prioritize her experience and her comfort. We have to negotiate with Visa. We had to negotiate with a bank. We have to negotiate with Marketo. We had to negotiate with people all the way through the stack.
Visa changed their rules globally in support of Daylight. Marketo created chosen name fields. MetaBank, our bank of record, adapted their entire identity verification approach. And now that we’ve got a 24 hour hotline to call in case the merchant gets it wrong. And it’s an example of how with determination and tenacity, you can affect change from within. But sometimes it’s just a question of asking and presenting a case that is data led rather than just an emotive case. Those two things are really powerful combined. And it is the first feature that we rolled out because we think it’s the most important. And while it may seem like it’s nice to have, a person that presents in a card with the wrong gender identity at a point of sale, 30% of people in that situation have been accused of criminality, have had refusal of service, they’ve been threatened with violence or have had violent acts committed against them. And so this is a matter of safety and life or death for folks. And it’s just an example of where, when you take a community and you focus on their needs explicitly, you can impact their lives outside of just something that looks nice in your wallet.
So what I’m hearing in all of this is that while there are some very specific product or policy or practice features that are going to be very much relevant to the community, the guts of the banking experience is essentially the same. And so I take from that, that much of this new business is a marketing play. And I don’t say that disparagingly. Again, you’ve done this many times before. Different product, different service, same market. And I think in the neobank space in particular and in financial services because of tech, we’re seeing more opportunity for specialized services. And I’m curious what you think about that in terms of the potential for scale, because one of the many reasons why some of the very large financial institutions that you mentioned have the deadname problem is because the bigger you get, the less specialized and focused you can get on your market because of the pressure. So, how do you think about that? You’re at your early days, so you don’t quite have to worry about that yet, but talk to me a little bit about how you think about that broader issue.
Yeah. I would disagree with just one little part of that.
Which is that personalizing banking services was incredibly challenging when Citibank started. I’m just going to pick on Citibank. I love Citibank. They’re an investor now, so full disclosure, but they don’t get it right. They know that we believe that. And we have very friendly and frank constructive conversations around that. Software is solving that problem. And so when we first went out to raise money for Daylight, and that was more than 12 months ago, this idea of community led neobanks was entirely new. We’re out there carving a path before George Floyd, which enabled Greenwood and First Boulevard to get funded, which then built a wave that got venture interest. And the first question was market size is too small.
We spend more than the GDP of Mexico each year. We’ve never said Mexico is too small, but the traditional wisdom at the time was okay, we can see a trade off where this could be a billion dollar company, but we’re going to need to acquire customers really low. They’re going to need to be really sticky, and we’re going to need to sell them lots of other things. And actually, you know what, I can sell travel insurance that covers me and Dubai with a same-sex partner, but curating products that are suitable for us because actually we exist in a landscape where many products just aren’t suitable. So outside of marketing, it’s also about suitability.
Curation is a good word. I think that’s exactly right.
Yeah. And in fact, we’re influencing these companies already to change their products, to just cover these gaps because they don’t need to exist. And we don’t think this is a winner takes all market for LGBT folks. But here’s the thing, banks get us wrong because they think we’re all the same. So they stick a rainbow on it and they call it a day. Because actually it’s really hard to find commonalities amongst a really diverse 30 million strong community in the country, unless it’s a rainbow or a flag of some slightly different set of stripes. Here’s the thing, Jennifer, you and I don’t need to have the same bank. Most of the listeners here will have vastly different financial experiences. And yet, we asked served with the same dumb instrument where we look in and it just shows our balance and it shows the same thing, it tries to sell us the same things.
Technology has moved so far away from that. And mainstream banks are still struggling with how not only to change the front end, but all of the things that sit behind it. For us to be a great LGBT bank, we have to serve black trans women in Arkansas, Asian-American tech bros in the valley, and an Aussie immigrant living in Brooklyn with a Mexican partner, right? Those are really different banking needs, banking experiences. The way the images we use, the tone we might use. Some gay men are okay being called queer. Some aren’t. Means we have to personalize our services very deeply to respect the identity that is a personal decision of every person. And why that is important for the question is that we think the Daylight is… The LGBT audience is the perfect audience because of its diversity, but it’s narrow enough focus to test out highly personalized banking services that could be rolled out to all Americans. Identity, it is great that we are starting to see a hyper focus of different types of identity. It’s a good start, but identity is fluid.
A freelancer bank is only going to be great while you’re a freelancer. A couple’s bank is only going to be great while you’re managing through the integration of your personal finances. A teenage bank is going to be great when you’re a teenager. We think the LGBT one is great because your LGBT people search for each other when they’re 12 on Tumblr or TikTok these days. And they retire together. But we believe that identity is highly intersectional and that a customer could be a member of First Boulevard and daylight, but in practice, we need to do better. We need to be able to recognize that a queer person of color experiences is, their queerness is impacted by the fact that they are a person of color. And those two things together create a special set of needs that are served neither well by a bank for white cisgender gay guys, which is how most of our products are defined or a bank that is designed for the rest of the black community.
And so my punchy answer is watch this space because we’re called Daylight, not rainbow bank or pride bank, because we actually believe that we can serve 30 million LGBT folks, 60 million parents of LGBT kids who just want to do good by their children, allies, friends, siblings, and all the rest of it. And so rather than just think of this as it’s chime with rainbows on it for queer folk, think about what the power our tools can give when we’re focused on the values and the attributes of an individual. So we’re releasing a tool called Walk the Walk, which allows you to assess how queer friendly your spending is. Now, I’m sure Jennifer, you’d love to know that Pizza Hut spends a lot of money on anti-trans causes and AT&T spent more than a million dollars on it in the last year, because you’re most likely an ESG consumer.
So I think of Daylight as using LGBT matters as the beginning of focusing on what it is that people see as important to their futures and young people see more than just LGBT rights as part of it because the planet is burning. So we can’t support our community without looking at things like climate change. We can’t support our community without looking at the intersection of race and gender and identity. And so I think single issue, book unity neobanks will do really, really, really well. But I think the winner, if there was a winner in this space, will be capable of understanding the complex layers of somebody’s identity and serving those needs in a deeply personalized way and in a very specific way. And that’s very much how we see our role in Daylight and hopefully teaching the rest of the world, how they can do better using queers as the example.
Yeah. I find that the entrepreneurs who are most successful are those who are solving a problem that they have experienced in their own life. And it’s one of the reasons why we get lots of services for cookies at 2:00 AM and crypto, because these are largely young white men of some level of privilege. Financial privilege, I should say. And so tell me a little bit about you. It’s one thing to be LGBT, it’s another to then decide you’re going to become an entrepreneur and to build a series of businesses around that. So what brought you here?
Great question. I was born in an incredibly working class family. After I did my paper runs, when those were a thing, my first job was in Australia, the equivalent of stuffing the Costco roast chickens that we all buy for $3. So I’m really proud of that because that’s where my career journey started. Deeply working class, living on the bread line, helping my parents sometimes put food on the table. I was very lucky to be well-educated, to live in a city with good opportunities. I became a policy analyst and advisor in the Australian government. I built the election system in the UK when I first arrived. So I had a lot of really great exposure to wonderful projects. My privilege was really an important part of that.
It wasn’t economic privilege in this instance. I’m a tall, white, masculine presenting cis-gendered Australian and all of those things matter. And so I managed to climb into finance. I’ve done charity transmissions. I’ve actually had the great privilege of working over 15 years in lots of different corporate lands, but I couldn’t go the extra mile. I didn’t care. I couldn’t align with the mission because mission businesses weren’t even a thing. And I asked the CFO of the insurance company I was working at and I’m like, what gets you up in the morning? And I had to watch him go through this gymnastics of “I’m helping a young Asian family put their child to school as a British insurance professional in Britain,” because that’s how far away it is in a lot of financial services companies away from mission.
And a number of years ago, I decided to leave banking, and took on a transformation of Gaydar, which at the time was 20 years old. It launched the year Ellen was booted off of television for coming out as a lesbian, and 20 years later the world had completely changed. And I realized I was doing a thousand times better than before. I wasn’t making up stories about going to the farmer’s market on Sunday, because I didn’t want to say that I was off meeting my gay mates or turning down those paths of my world that were considered to be less acceptable and career barriers, because there’s an invisible glass ceiling for folks still.
And I think once I realized that I was a Gaydar, even though it was a dating site, I realized that the potential to improve the lives of my community was something that I really cared about. And I’ve been focused on building mission based companies ever since. And living in Europe, living in Australia, and living in the states, I’ve seen really different models of how progress is realized. Europe has a really strong regulatory stance. The EU establishes the human rights act that filters down into LGBT protections for everybody. The US doesn’t have that advantage. And politics are so heavily contested here that when marriage equality came, often it was through large companies offering support for their same sex couple staff, adding them onto their health insurance plan, allowing them to take paternity leave when they’d adopted. These things that companies can do in America to engender social change, I think are incredibly impressive. And it seems to be the only model that works here to go the last mile.
We’ve had huge amounts of charitable support, regulatory support, government support, policy support, and yet we still face an LGBT wealth gap that is incredibly astounding to me. So that’s where I believe wholeheartedly, having worked in charities, worked in government, worked in financial services, that the best way to deliver the kind of change that we want is in the guise of a bank. Now, it’s not a popular opinion in my community. We’ve taken some flack for being a financial services company, because LGBT folks have been left out for so long they’ve naturally got some scar tissue, but every step of my career has led me to this point. And I just feel incredibly privileged to have been able to create a sense of opportunities in entrepreneurship to do the things that are important to me, that can create value and can create money for shareholders as well.
So Daylight is coming up on its one year anniversary of its launch. Hard to believe. I think it’s November, and is now part of the Financial Health Network’s financial solutions lab accelerator. Tell us a little bit more about where the company is in its development. It sounds like you’ve got real live users at this point, but let us know where the company is headed over the next, say 12 to 18 months, and then tell people how they can learn more.
Great. Right now we’ve been in a closed beta, we had a cut in the market at the end of last year, but we’ve really been focused on these 500 users. How can we serve them better? How do we make sure that we’re creating value for them? And we’re about to come out of beta in October. So we’ll have been taking away from some prepaid cards that we use to get things started, we’ll roll out a full bank account for LGBT folks, and right now we’ve got tens of thousands of folks on our wait list. It’s growing very fast, so we’ll be going and raising more money after we start launching in certain test cities during October or November.
So really I think the next thing that most folks will hear about Daylight will be launch activities. Onboarding thousands of new customers, onboarding new merchants into our merchant reward program because we believe in building an ecosystem in which other LGBT entrepreneurs can thrive as well. And I think the big focus for us through 2021, the remainder of it, will be launching. Next year will be a really big focus on personalizing more so we can serve LGBT folks in a more personalized way, that is better for them. Activating our first major financial services products. It’s going to be something that is a financial product need that is not yet met, but continuing to build out our ecosystem. We don’t need to be Citibank to be able to create the value that Citibank does. We just need to be able to connect with experts in their field and for us to overlay our expertise.
So our goal is to double down on growing rapidly over the next six to 12 months, providing financial services products that enable some of the freedoms that we want our community to have. And looking further afield. Not just in terms of adjacent markets like parents and others that can really benefit from what we’re doing, but the needs that we’ve identified exist across the world. People are still cut off financially by their parents. They still need support for gender transitions, and I think we want to see a Daylight card in the hands of queer people everywhere the sun shines. So we’ve got a long journey ahead. Lots of really exciting things to share, I hope.
But if you want to find out more, the place to go is to www.joindaylight.com. You’re able to see our features in a little bit more detail, connect with us on social media, and hopefully take up some of our financial education content there, which helps dispel some of the myths about LGBT finances, but also makes this stuff quite personal and real.
Excellent. Rob, thank you so much for joining me on Emerge Everywhere.
Thanks Jennifer. It’s been a real pleasure.
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. And 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.