Tony Tran On How Lumanu Is Helping To Promote Financial Inclusion

An Interview With Orlando Zayas

Orlando Zayas, CEO of Katapult
Authority Magazine

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Deeply ingrained issues exist in the current financial system that no one single company can solve. Companies have to work together to make the economy better for everyone.

Most of us take it for granted that we can open a bank or a credit card. But the truth is, according to the World Bank, close to one-third of adults — 1.7 billion — are still unbanked, and have no access to a transaction account. About half of unbanked people include women in poor households in rural areas or out of the workforce. What can be done and what is being done to promote more financial inclusion? Authority Magazine is starting a new series about Companies Helping To Promote Financial Inclusion. In this series we are talking to leaders of companies and organizations who are helping to promote financial inclusion.

As part of this series I had the pleasure to interview Tony Tran, co-founder and CEO of Lumanu.

Tony Tran is the CEO and co-founder of Lumanu, the platform that lets creators grow, collaborate and become more successful.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

My family immigrated to South Carolina from Vietnam in 1994 as political refugees. I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process and what allows creators to do what they do — which is one of the reasons I ultimately founded Lumanu. I graduated from MIT and worked at McKinsey and Google before starting Lumanu. My personal experience as a Vietnamese immigrant growing up in the south led to a passion for fostering inclusion, creating community and advocating for those who don’t also fit the typical mold.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

HyperGrowth by David Cancel really drives home the notion of rapid iteration and putting the customer first, a notion I wholeheartedly subscribe to as a founder. At a start-up, your customer is your stakeholder. From building the product to decisions around marketing and sales, you want to make sure you’re 100% focused on the customer. The book also speaks to the importance of developing autonomy and accountability within your team. People don’t want to be treated like bio-robots. They want to be told the “why” and then be empowered to figure out the “how,” regardless of role or seniority.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Go Slow to Go Fast.” I’m a naturally impatient person, which has served me well, especially in the start-up universe. But I’ve learned that in certain situations, it’s best to take a step back to assess. Sometimes going slow will ultimately make you go faster. I might come up with a decision in 30 minutes but I also recognize it’s important to take a step back to help your team understand why a decision is being made rather than just giving orders. If I give my team time to ask questions and push back, even if it slows down the process, it’s ultimately helpful at driving towards faster and better execution.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I once read an essay that centered on the idea that the most effective leaders observe and empower. I truly believe leaders exist to empower the people they’re leading. And if they’re not good at that, then they’d be a better individual contributor than a leader. The best ones observe their teams to determine where they can contribute and how, without overstepping and becoming a micromanager or crutch for the team.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I’m notoriously commitment averse when it comes to where I live. When we were first building Lumanu, I could no longer afford my San Francisco apartment so I “moved” into the accelerator we were a part of in Milwaukee. To save money, I slept on a couch in the accelerator’s office and ate pizza almost every day. In fact, one of the people at the cleaning company thought a homeless person was living there and later found out it was just me! It was actually a fun time, despite it being one of Wisoncon’s coldest winters and existing on a diet of non-stop Dominos pizza. I met a lot of great people and the company grew, but my health definitely paid a price!

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with a basic definition so that all of our readers are on the same page. What exactly is Financial Inclusion?

Today’s financial system was built by a certain demographic that caters to that same demographic. There are systemic issues in how the banking system works. You know the saying that it takes money to make money, but there’s a huge difference between being rich and being wealthy. Financial inclusion is about using technology, education, and policy changes to solve systemic issues so that the system works for the world we live in TODAY. It’s about increasing access to capital for more people regardless of race, background or how they make money. In the old days, in order to open a bank account, you had to talk to a banker. Whenever two people interact, there can be implicit bias. Even with technology and automation, there can be implicit basis — hence why we need to actively work against the default state of financial exclusion.

What does it mean to be “unbanked”?

My definition is when an individual or business can’t get access to services a bank will provide, such as deposit accounts, credit cards, loans, checking, savings, working capital, etc. Without access to such services, it becomes incredibly hard to live fulfilling lives or build successful businesses.

For the benefit of our readers, can you explain some of the typical reasons why a person might be unbanked? Why can’t they just walk into the local bank and open an account? Why can’t they simply open an account online

Perhaps you don’t have a strong credit history or you make income in a way that is foreign or atypical which makes it hard for banks to work with you. This is a very common issue for creators and influencers as well as anyone with a 1099 income (think Uber drivers, Etsy sellers, etc.) versus a traditional 9–5 job.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your work to promote Financial Inclusion? Without saying names, can you share a story about a person who was helped by your initiative?

Lumanu’s mission is to empower creators to thrive on their own terms, so that we can democratize the creator economy. Financial inclusion is a key pillar of achieving that mission. One of our most popular features is Early Pay, in which Lumanu puts cash in creators’ pockets based on work they do, not based on history or standing with a bank. One of our creators, Jamila Reddy, is a creator and coach who uses Lumanu to organize her work and manage her finances. She quit her job before the pandemic hit because she found it unfulfilling. Now she has a coaching and content business in which she works with individuals and businesses on mindfulness and DEI, as well as creating content for brands. For her, when she has to wait to be paid, she doesn’t have a huge cash reserve to dip into — she needs money for rent, for life necessities. So Lumanu’s Early Pay acts as a non-predatory credit line for someone who would have a hard time accessing one otherwise.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for businesses to promote financial inclusion?

At the end of the day, the economy is a circle: the more money people have, the more they can reinvest it back into the economy for other people and businesses to use. There can’t be a successful economy when so many people don’t have the access to basic financial services that will enable them to be successful. As our economy becomes more diverse, with immigrants, people of color, and people from other disadvantaged backgrounds finding new ways to make money — these are the people who are contributors and spenders of the economy. It’s irresponsible to not address everyone in the economy who needs access to money to live and prosper.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps Business Should Take To Promote Financial Inclusion”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Treat your vendors like humans. Far too often companies treat vendors like expense items. They forget that at the other end are people with families and a cost of living. When you don’t pay them on time there are huge personal repercussions. This is something that has to be top of mind for companies that work with solopreneurs, vendors, and creators.
  2. Make responsible credit more accessible: There are a ton of companies that encourage people to spend money they don’t have. But there are others who help people manage their spending in a way that doesn’t hurt their credit scores or suffer the consequences of taking out a personal loan. The rise of BNPL allows people to purchase and pay over time without using credit and undergoing a hard credit check. Companies like Lumanu give its users access to cash without taking out predatory loans.
  3. Embedding finance into your product or service. Today, almost every tech company or service deals with money. So the easier you can make it for your customers to be financially healthy, from instant payments or instant bank transfers, the better off they’ll be and the better your relationship with your vendors and customers.
  4. Companies joining forces to remove friction in financial markets. Deeply ingrained issues exist in the current financial system that no one single company can solve. Companies have to work together to make the economy better for everyone.
  5. Making finance and financial education more accessible: Venmo is making crypto much more accessible- people can learn crypto by watching videos. Square Cash went after urban populations and helped explain concepts and features that were traditionally reserved for more expensive apps. Acorns makes saving money easy so that it becomes a habit.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Those who are able to should mentor two people who have never been mentored before. At the end of day, there’s something about a one-on-one human connection that you can’t replicate through YouTube or school. Mentorship is something that has traditionally only been accessible to the privileged with others having a harder time breaking in. I think there could be a viral factor to this movement if it really takes off, ensuring everyone will have an opportunity to benefit from mentorship.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Arnold Schwarzenegger. First of all, I love his movies. Second, I really love his life story. He’s an immigrant who has been successful in so many disparate areas, from bodybuilding to movies to government to activism. I loved the message of his commencement speech at the University of Houston that “there’s no such thing as a self made man.” He gives so much credit to all of the people who have helped him along the way and I think that’s really inspiring.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Lumanu is a great resource for creators and businesses who work with creators. Personally, you can always hit me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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