“I Am Living Proof Of The American Dream” With Edrizio De La Cruz, CEO and Cofounder of Arcus
“It really is the land of opportunity. I believe wholeheartedly that I don’t think my journey could be achieved in another country. This is the only country where you have true opportunity for socio economic upward mobility. Here, you can make major moves between social classes, and typically everywhere else, it takes multiple generations to move between social classes. In spite of America’s challenges and dark history, it’s the only country where you can come in with nothing, and just through sheer effort you can power your way to the top. One of my heros, Arnold Schwarzenegger, knows he couldn’t have done what he did here, in Austria. The guy was the best-in-class at three things: bodybuilding, acting, and then politics when he was the Governor of California. You can’t do that in Austria, Japan, Russia, or South America. This is the type of opportunity that’s as close as you can get to a meritocracy.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing, Edrizio De La Cruz, CEO and Cofounder of Arcus, a leading financial technology company working to create better financial health for people around the world. He is a Wharton graduate and founded Arcus in Y Combinator in 2013.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in the Dominican Republic and I immigrated to the states when I was 12 years old. I first lived in the South Bronx, but moved around a lot between Bronx, Washington Heights, and Harlem. I wanted to leave uptown, so I applied to a high school in Queens, Aviation High School. Meanwhile, my mother started a cookware wholesale business with the goal of buying a home and improving our living situation. While attending Aviation High School, I earned an FAA-issued aircraft engineering technician (AET) license. During my senior year I was awarded a fellowship that presented the top 20 students with internships and a full-scholarship to attend the College of Aeronautics (COA). During my first semester at COA, my mother’s business failed due to lack of financial resources and as a result, we depended on welfare and moved constantly between apartments. I felt pressured and overwhelmed so I decided to defer college and work two jobs to make ends meet.
I started my first full-time AET job at Swissair in the fall of 1999, and a second job after I left COA. The work, while dynamic and challenging, was under dire conditions. One late Christmas Eve a Boeing DC-10 had a malfunctioning number two engine, located on the tail 50 feet above ground. My crew chief ‘volunteered’ me to climb the access ladder in the tail and crank open the engine cowling to run diagnostic tests. As I climbed, the ladder shook and my hands turned numb from the strong sub-zero winds that often struck JFK airport. After opening the cowling, I looked over the horizon, saw the NYC skyline and yearned for change of scene. I knew something had to change.
After almost three years, I saved enough to help my mother buy our first house. My involvement in this transaction immediately sparked my interest in finance and entrepreneurship, so I decided to pursue a college education concentrated on finance. For my first two years in college, I kept the full-time night shift at Swissair as I had been promoted to lead technician. Despite the rigor of the commute between work and school, plus lack of time and sleep, the work ethic I had developed at Swissair propelled my academic performance. As a result, I graduated with honors, earned an investment banking offer from J.P. Morgan and bought my own investment property, a three-unit building in Queens, NY.
Overcoming this challenge ignited an internal drive to lead and be self-reliant, as I had no choice but to become a leader in my family and shoulder responsibility. I have learned that my social entrepreneurship ambitions came from witnessing my mother’s struggle with her own venture. This experience instilled in me and innate sense of purpose and vision that has driven me incessantly throughout my career progression and crafted my current long-term vision.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
● I don’t think there was an “ah-ha” moment specifically, but my dad did see that there was limited progress in the country, in the Dominican Republic, a third world country. Unless you come from a particular class, it’s hard to achieve social and economic upward mobility, and my father wanted us to have a better opportunity, and we knew that being middle class in the Dominican Republic would be a huge shift from working class, a shock to the system as an eleven year old because you have to become an adult very quickly. At the same time, I’m really grateful to have the opportunity because it really gave me an advantage that most people my age don’t have, which is that I have the perspective of being an adult 10 years before everybody else was. I was an adult at 11 because I had to be, and most people don’t become adults until they’re 21, and some don’t even become an adult until they’re even 31. I see it as an advantage and I am very lucky to have that opportunity.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
● When I first came to the US, it was such an ecstatic, such an “ahhh” experience. I remember growing in the Dominican Republic, everyone talked about New York City as if the streets were paved with gold; the land of opportunity; America the Great; the Big Apple; you watch it in movies. There was this romanticism associated with New York City and America. When I first arrived, it was winter of 1992. It was the first time I had experienced cold weather in my life, I didn’t even have a coat. My dad greeted me at the airport, and I remember us driving from the Van Wyck Expressway and crossing the Queensboro bridge for the first time, and I remember my eyes just lit up looking at Manhattan, the city skyline, the iconic New York City skyline. I was just in awe. Really enamored by being in that environment. But then, I remember waking up the next morning in the South Bronx which was geographically close to Manhattan and what I had just witnessed, but psychologically it was a million miles away. It could not be more different. Being able to see those two worlds within 24 hours really set the tone for what the rest of my life was going to be. Here’s what’s available, and this is your reality today. And that duality, that dichotomy that existed at such a young age, really instilled a sense of expectations in me that “if you can do this, you can get here. You can get out.” Where you are is not where you’re going to be. It almost didn’t matter to me that I was in the South Bronx and surrounded by crack heads and drug dealers literally. That’s the first thing I saw the morning I woke up. But that didn’t matter, what mattered was the iconic vision of Manhattan was accessible to me both geographically and metaphorically, and that’s a moment in my life I’ll never forget.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
● I don’t recall specific individuals at that time. My parents, I’m blessed to have my parents, even though I came from a non-nuclear family, I’m just blessed to have my parents. They’ve very supportive and always pushed me to do more and pursue an education. I didn’t really have any mentors growing up, but I did read a lot and was always a big fan of really defining not what I wanted to do, or what I wanted to be, but who I wanted to be. Very early on, I started reading about Richard Branson and read his first book where he talks about being a working class kid, and how he suffered from dyslexia, just like me, and also suffered from a set unfavorable circumstances at the time. He had to, like me, work his way up. He started working at age 13, and I started at age 12. Who he became ultimately, not just a business entrepreneur, but a philanthropist as well, really hit home for me. That’s how I picked who I wanted to be — the Latino Richard Branson. When I made that decision at age 12 or 13, everything became much easier because it became a set of decisions that centered around “will this put me on the path to becoming Richard Branson?” When you have a MO, a model of operating in your life, that makes it clear about what to do and what not to do, everything becomes a lot easier to deal with. From your career, to school, to who you’re married to. I think a lot of my success stems from that clarity early on.
So how are things going today?
● Personally, I’m blessed. I’m sitting in my apartment right now overlooking at the skyline of Manhattan. I live in a loft in uptown, and I’m very fortunate to be in the situation I am in today because not long ago, I was living with my parents in Queens. I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity I have today, and I express gratitude every single day. To me that’s like hitting a rest button every day that allows you to be in the moment and enjoy what you’ve accomplished. Professionally, I’m ecstatic at where our company, Arcus, is today. We’ve doubled in size across multiple metrics, but I feel we still have 90% of our growth in front of us. The market is moving in our direction, and fintech is becoming something that licensers and lenders need to have, not just should have. I’m really excited about our company’s lifecycle. And, we actually just announced our new partnership with Happy Money where they’ll adopt our xPay API into their Payoff Loan. This enables their members to directly and automatically pay off multiple credit cards with a single low-rate loan so they can more seamlessly work their way out of credit card debt and live happier lives.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
● That’s a great question. So, I look at my contribution in two aspects: one professionally and the other one personally. Starting with the former, what we’re doing at Arcus, we believe provides a direct social benefit for most people. We are a platform for bill pay, and our goal is use our technology to help banks, fintechs, and lenders to provide a better way for the everyday consumer to manage their personal finances. The average household pays 10 bills a month, and most people pay bills late which incurs late fees. We feel that if we provide banks with better technology, a lot of people will be able to reduce their financial stress and create a sense of financial well-being. From a personal angle and more long term aspect, I believe that a lot of the narratives and sentiments we’ve heard in the media and in society, since our current president took the administration, existed beforehand and he didn’t make them happen, he’s just an amplifier of those feelings and sentiments. I think a lot of these narratives could be better appeased if we change the conversation towards immigrants. Hopefully I can take Arcus to a level of massive success and I can be the Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk of this field, then people can point to “hey, look here is this kid who grew up in the Bronx, immigrated here, he had no resources, he did it. The other kid from the South Bronx, or east LA, or the southside of Chicago can do it too. And I think that’s very powerful. Having those examples is powerful because it changes the narrative for the people communicating the narrative, and those who are victims of it. That kid in the South Bronx is a victim of it because that’s all he knows. There’s no one in the media telling him the opposite. No one is saying, “oh if you grew up in the South Bronx, you can be an investment banker or a doctor.” The only out is you’re a baseball player or a drug dealer. There’s no one telling him that there’s a path, and even if someone was telling him that, he wouldn’t believe it because he’s never seen it. He’s seen the other, but he’s never seen the path that I’m talking about. So just being that symbol, I think, can cause a seismic shift in our nation’s perspective, and I want to be that symbol. I work everyday to become that symbol.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
● It’s an interesting system, and a very bureaucratic system, which is the best way I can describe it. Their strategy is to wear you down so you give up. So you have to do things like mail documents, fill out a number of paper forms, not online, and if one small thing is wrong, you have to re-do the entire thing and have to mail it again. And you’ll never know if it’s incorrect. Just six to seven months will pass and you won’t hear back. Rather than treating it as a lottery where anyone can get in, it should be treated like a college application. More meritocratic than democratic. Make it easier to measure, such as “this person has a college degree, or has accomplished X, Y, Z,” or even make them write an essay in English or make them take a test as a part of the process. And do this before, not after. There are ways to streamline it so that the people that get it, are the people that have really have earned it. Then you don’t have to play these games by trying to wear people down. It’s annoying, it’s wasteful, and it’s expensive for the government because of all the paperwork they have to process. It’s just a game. You think I’m going to stop applying because you’ve worn me down and haven’t responded? So make it more streamlined, make it more meritocratic than democratic is my suggestion. Make it less of a game. Nobody wins. If anything, the government is really losing because a process that could have taken 3 months is now taking 2–3 years, and that’s 2–3 years of the government’s resources that’s costing the government a lot of money, so I don’t think anybody wins in the current system. This is just a surface suggestion, though the deeper suggestion is a shift in attitude which won’t come until we have another administration. That’s not a suggestion, that’s just more of a fact. So when that happens, the next administration can take that suggestion.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
Who you spend time with is who you become.
I like to say that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. I’ve found this to be true, and if you look around, it becomes immediately clear how being around successful people breeds success, and vice versa. This is one of the most important things to be mindful of.
No pain, no gain is one of the most widely known cliches for a reason. I’ve found that through my toughest times I’ve developed what I see as my most valuable traits for entrepreneurship. While it may be tough, or even excruciating during the moment, it’s this pain drives your personal growth both personally and professionally. Just think about going to the gym. Your muscles hurt for a reason, but it pays off if you keep at it. Same thing applies here.
It’s on you.
Changing your mindset from “this/that/etc caused this happen” to “I caused this to happen” will radically shift your approach to business and success. While it makes you feel fully responsible for the failures, the moments of success and triumph will be that much sweeter for you and your team. Adopting this mindset will improve the way you work. It will bring moments of pain, but that’s why you need to learn to embrace the pain.
Work your ass off.
If you ask just about any successful person about hard work, they’ll tell you that hard work pays off. We’ve all heard that before, but for a reason. Keep in mind that the harder you work, the faster you’ll learn how to work smarter as well. The world’s most successful people didn’t get to where they are by clocking in and clocking out. People like Richard Branson got to where they are by working their ass off, and I plan on doing to the same until I can’t.
At the end of the day, it’s about the bigger picture. The people around you, the community around you, and anyone and everything you can have a positive impact on. If you’re fortunate enough to have the time or money to give back, giving back is one of the most rewarding things we as humans can do. Everyone needs a helping hand at some point in time, and it’s all of our responsibility to pitch in where and when we can.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
● The three things that make me optimistic about the US is the speed at which you can move social classes, the fact that everyone has the opportunity to do it, and that the US allows and encourages it. As hard as it might be, it really is the land of opportunity. I believe wholeheartedly that I don’t think my journey could be achieved in another country. This is the only country where you have true opportunity for socio economic upward mobility. Here, you can make major moves between social classes, and typically everywhere else, it takes multiple generations to move between social classes. In spite of America’s challenges and dark history, it’s the only country where you can come in with nothing, and just through sheer effort you can power your way to the top. One of my heros, Arnold Schwarzenegger, knows he couldn’t have done what he did here, in Austria. The guy was the best-in-class at three things: bodybuilding, acting, and then politics when he was the Governor of California. You can’t do that in Austria, Japan, Russia, or South America. This is the type of opportunity that’s as close as you can get to a meritocracy.
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 whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
● Richard Branson. As I touched on earlier, he’s someone I’ve always looked up to, and with the similarities in our stories I would love to spend some time with him and just talk about our paths and get to know each other.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?