Women Leading The Finance Industry: “Why you should create your own reality” With Erin Papworth of Nav.it

Tyler Gallagher
Aug 18 · 15 min read
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“Create your own reality” Through much of my life I have struggled with fear of the unknown, and wanting to know the future. What I have learned through life’s ups and downs is that we have no ability to predict or control the future, and in fact what we do moment by moment is what determines how the future unfolds. When I started focusing on the moment, on what my long term goals were, but also how I could act on them on a daily basis, I was able to free myself from anxiety and worry and move towards my goals with no judgement of myself or the situation. It’s a work in progress but it’s been an invaluable lesson that I take with me in my work, as a parent and in society.

a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Papworth.

Erin is a two-time entrepreneur with a behavioral science background. Erin spent twelve years running multi-million dollar development programs in sub-Saharan Africa for marginalized populations. She is a financial coach and the founder of Nav.it, a financial technology company on a mission to change the narrative around money through values-based banking: making money more inclusive, positive, and practical. Erin brings her behavioral science background to the financial technology and services industry to redefine financial health for the millennial generation.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the finance field?

hank you for having me!

I spent twelve years working in international development, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. During that time I worked in economic and financial systems that dramatically reduced people’s ability to create intergenerational wealth. When you have a limited rule of law, financial systems don’t loan money, provide credit, or support populations in their quest to build businesses or grow wealth. Equally, I lived in many countries where women (half the labor market), weren’t allowed to own personal property or access financial markets because of their sex. When I moved back to the U.S. after a decade plus aboard, I became passionate about dispelling the negativity and fear around the financial system of this country and giving people the opportunity to take advantage of it as adults.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occured to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I had the great privilege to work with Doctors Without Borders in my early career. One story that most exemplifies my incredible experience is a childbirth I assisted one dark night in a remote region in the northwest corner of Central African Republic. I had no business being in the room as I was the logistician and responsible for supplies and staff for Doctors Without Borders/MSF, not healthcare delivery. But there were only three members of MSF based in that village, and the two male African nurses needed extra hands. It’s surreal to look back on now, ten years later, and after my own childbirth experience in a pristine western hospital equipped with oxygen and epidurals.

But there is a purity in that night; a woman giving birth under the cloak of darkness. No drugs, no electricity, two headlamps, a kerosene lamp and forceps ushering in a beautiful new human life. The nurses made sure she and her baby survived, while I stood by her head, a lost, useless wreck, holding her hand and blotting her forehead, wondering if I should be doing more.

She came to us because she had been displaced from her village due to the rebel activity in the region. I didn’t know where the father was or if he was still alive. I vaguely remember her mother or an auntie accompanying her. I didn’t know how she had come to that tiny town surrounded by Chadian troops to the west and French legionnaires to the south. I couldn’t understand her language. I couldn’t help physically, aside from moving the light in whatever way the nurses directed and handing them equipment. I didn’t know how to get the baby out safely or make sure she didn’t bleed out.

All I really could do was hold space for her in that instinctive way a woman does for another, willing the Feminine spirit in her to assist her body to do what it was designed to do. She barely cried out, she suffered and groaned in composed, resilient dignity. She gave birth to a gorgeous baby girl.

I learned the next day she named her Erin, after the foreign woman who stood by her as she brought her daughter into the world. I saw her one more time after that and then she and the baby were gone.

Looking back, if that woman’s husband had been killed, she would not have been considered the head of household under state law. There was no bank or functional government system for her to access support for her child, to start a legal business or to seek a loan to buy a house. She and I were equals in every way, and yet I came back to my privileged life in the U.S. and did all of that. I started a company, provided for my son, bought a house and started to grow my wealth. I was purely lucky to have been born in this country, at this time, and as white women. There is another Erin out there living in a totally different system who will not have the same outcomes. I can’t fix the political problems in her country but I can continue the fight to protect the rights of my fellow countrymen and women that represent hope and a better future.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am so passionate about our current product at Nav.it. Nav.it Money is really designed to support people in their journey towards financial freedom and confidence. We are bringing a new conversation to the table, helping people connect their mood, behavior and mindset to their world of personal finances. Our purpose is to change the narrative to help people see money as just a tool, not something intimidating or fear-evoking, but a part of life that can be controlled and managed. It’s all about starting with the right mindset then being able to navigate all of life’s ups and downs with resilience and grit.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our focus on financial wellness and paying attention to your mindset as part of a healthy lifestyle is really the differentiator of Nav.it. Our journey has been an evolution, but one always centered on changing the narrative around money for the millennial generation.

Our generation truly has a unique financial experience and outlook. Women now make up a substantial part of the work force and can access higher education and careers like never before. LGBTQ individuals can marry. Those factors mean the family structure has shifted and dual-income households, childcare and cost of living are nuanced and different for us. At the same time, student loans have ballooned, and credit cards targeted at young people have created a heavy burden of debt for our generation. Many of us came into the labor market during the 2008 crisis and now we are experiencing a global economic crisis in the middle of our key earning years.

Finances were not taught in school and our confidence is low because our literacy rates are pathetic. The financial system greatly benefits when there is fear or a lack of understanding and we believe it’s time for this generation to take ownership of their relationship to money, to become confident in their capacity to navigate the financial world, and to start building wealth.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

This is such an exciting time to be alive. I think the slow shift in the financial sector is just another representation of the legal changes that occurred in the 1970s that gave people of color and women access to higher education and more career opportunities. While there are still systematic barriers, particularly for people of color, but the Civil Rights Act and things like the Pregnancy Act of 1978 forced Ivy League schools, and various industries to not discriminate on the basis of sex, reproductive health, or sexual orientation.

Now, it’s not perfect, and our society is currently grappling with the echoes of economic enslavement for Black people and the Jim Crow laws that reduced access to economic growth for this population. However, I think the shifts we’re seeing now in senior management, Board seats and venture capital dollars going to women and minorities is just the financial industry catching up and starting to represent the Gen X and millennial generations that were born into a society where there was more economic opportunity, particularly for white women.

I also think a younger generation is looking for a better way of engaging with their peers, and place a premium on diversity, transparency and inclusion. So the consumer is starting to demand better and more diverse business practice and the market is responding, albeit in its own clunky way.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?

We have to demystify money and conversations about the financial system if we want to truly engage a diverse employee base in financial services. We have to show people of all walks of life and genders managing their money and succeeding at achieving financial health, confidence and career growth. We need to highlight those narratives back to the communities where those individuals come from to give people the blueprint for growth.

As individuals, we have a responsibility to have conversations with our daughters, sisters, and nieces about money and ensure they understand the value and importance of healthy financial management. By prioritizing those conversations and demystifying the system early, you have the potential to inspire the next generation of girls and women to seek out careers in financial services.

That education, however, can only be coupled with change on the parts of financial institutions. If systemic change is to occur top management must prioritize and seek out the diverse and truly different narratives that exist for people of color, women and other marginalized groups around money management. That means hiring women at mid and senior management positions, but most importantly, giving them the tools, they need to succeed in a potentially hostile environment. That also means ensuring a company educates its male leaders and staff to become more self-aware of their own working biases and facilitate true collaboration and safe working environments that allow all their employees to shine. We know that companies with more diverse boards and senior management significantly outperform their competitors. It is not a moral imperative, but the best business practice and I believe the only option for companies to survive in the long term.

Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?

These are statistics we are actually trying to change. I think there are two key systemic issues to address. First, somehow, we have not normalized inter-generational financial education in this country. It’s not a standard topic that we have prioritized should be passed down from generation to generation. I think some of this stems from fear and uncertainty, and that the financial industry has historically benefitted from keeping financial information opaque. Our government has not required things like the fiduciary rule to be the law of the land, where investment advisors have a legal obligation to put their clients’ interests first. As a society, we haven’t placed a premium on financial literacy as a characteristic that is attractive and sought after. We have stereotypes of the Wall Street traders types who are glorified gamblers and make risk look attractive, but we haven’t held up the quiet housewife in Seattle who became a real estate mogul on the side, or the Black man in Texas who started a small business and grew it to 6 figures in 12 months. By not placing a premium on financial savvy, we undermine the incentive to learn and actively seek out financial information. I do believe this is changing slightly with financial technologies targeting younger generations, but that reality also comes with an important responsibility on the part of the FinTechs to ensure they are not taking advantage of an unknowing population.

Second, we have not reinforced this education in our school systems and prioritized giving people the basic information they need to navigate the system. While some of financial literacy must be gained from experience, there is so much that can begin at a young age, such as building credit and starting to invest even nominal amounts. I also believe we have completely taken out the personal aspect to finances and pretend like it’s all about math and numbers. Personal financial management starts with the basic knowledge of the financial system, but the lion share of success rests in your behavior and your relationship with yourself and your money. If you place your worth in the balance of your bank account, are you more likely to buy a 5 million dollar home and drive fancy cars even if you can’t afford it? If you consistently live in a scarcity mentality are you more likely to keep all your money in cash and never invest it over the course of your lifetime? Our cognitive relationship with money is an important and novel area that we are only beginning to discuss as a society that determines a person’s desire and drive to become more financially literate.

(Choose) You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.

We know that starting with a small goal, achieving that goals and then moving on to another goal is the best way to build habits and reprogram our financial brains.

So, my first advice would be look at the three building blocks to financial health and choose which pillar you want to tackle first:

  1. Spending: Do you spend less than you earn? This is a key staple to build long term wealth from your income over time. If you spend more than you earn, can you whittle down your expenses and see if you can stay within your salary for one month? How much do you have left over at the end of the month? Can you do that a second month in a row?
  2. Emergency Fund: Do you have an emergency fund? Most experts suggest you have 3 -6 months of your fixed expenses in a high yield savings account in case you need to quit your job or one of life’s bumps occurs. If you don’t have a nest egg, can you start to fund one this month? Can you commit to putting 10% of your income towards this goal and see how it feels?
  3. Debt: Do you have high interest debt? High interest debt in the form of credit cards is essential to get off your books in the long run. First,have a look around if there are any lower APR options you could potentially consolidate multiple cards into. Watch out for balance transfer fees, this might not be to your advantage when do you do the math. Second, can you try and set aside even $10 on top of your minimum payments for the next two months to pay down the card balance? There are two suggested ways to work your way out of debt, the avalanche method and the snowball method. Learn more about them and pick your fav.

Now that you have the basics done, the next steps are to take your newfound financial confidence and think about growing your wealth.

4. Invest: If you have already started a habit of saving for the emergency fund or paying down your debt, can you take that same amount each month and invest it? This could be in the form of contributing to your 401k to achieve your match, or opening your own brokerage account at a low-fee brokerage like Vanguard

5. Reflect: Now that you understand the basics, now you need to get comfortable about how you engage with personal financial management. What areas of this list are uncomfortable for you? What areas do you feel like you need to learn more about? How do you feel about investments and risk? Take a moment to reflect and think about your approach to the knowledge you just gained so that you can see clearly your next steps towards financial confidence. .

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I definitely would not be where I am today without my parents. I was raised by my father, my mother and my stepmother who came into my life at the age of nine. Each one brought extraordinary lessons and support to me in childhood and at various times in my adult life.

My father was an entrepreneur who exemplified the hard work and determination it takes to run your own business and create innovative products in the market. He also gave me a sense of humor, which is invaluable as you move through all areas of life. My mother was a supporter of mine in the best way possible, only marginally balking at my desire to work in war zones in my early 20s and visiting me in the most remote places of the world. She also taught me empathy and the value of service to others. My stepmother rounded out my incredible education by providing my very feisty and high-minded adolescent self the blueprint of a woman who had fought for what she believed in and achieved professional success against all odds. She taught me the history of women’s rights and how it was only her generation that gained access to Ivy League education, birth control, labor markets, and financial credit on their own merit. She taught me how systems and laws dramatically impede or cultivate the economic success of women, children and thus society as a whole. She also shared her love of travel with me that has equally become a passion of mine as an adult and opened up continents, cultures and world history to me in a way that has shaped who I am today. I will be forever grateful in having this diverse parental structure that has allowed me to achieve the things I have today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Create your own reality” Through much of my life I have struggled with fear of the unknown, and wanting to know the future. What I have learned through life’s ups and downs is that we have no ability to predict or control the future, and in fact what we do moment by moment is what determines how the future unfolds. When I started focusing on the moment, on what my long term goals were, but also how I could act on them on a daily basis, I was able to free myself from anxiety and worry and move towards my goals with no judgement of myself or the situation. It’s a work in progress but it’s been an invaluable lesson that I take with me in my work, as a parent and in society.

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

My dream is that people are free from the fear of finances and that financial knowledge and management are integrated into our social norms as a key part of a holistic and healthy lifestyle. This aptitude doesn’t happen overnight, and while knowledge is essential to free you from fear, developing the characteristics of grit and resilience to manage the good times and weather the bad ones is essential to gain confidence in your ability to navigate the financial system and your lives.

Everyone has ups and downs in their financial lives. Sometimes careers are changed to follow a passion but results in income loss, so adjustments have to be made. Sometimes a global pandemic, like the one we are currently facing, creates job loss and demands our personal finances become front and center in our daily lives. Sometimes you go to work for the right company at the right time and have a windfall, or your experience a divorce or financial loss. All of these situations occur whether we want them to or not, and grit and resilience are key characteristics that help individuals move through it all and see the bigger picture.

You can and will recover from economic loss. You can navigate complex career moves. You can and will rebuild your life after a divorce or bankruptcy. Once we see money management as a necessary part of our adult life and embrace it, earn it, and grow it, we build the confidence to navigate our lives on our own terms.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Tyler Gallagher

Written by

CEO and Founder of Regal Assets

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Tyler Gallagher

Written by

CEO and Founder of Regal Assets

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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