Ellevest’s Chief Product Officer Alexandria Stried: Investing Isn’t Just A Man’s Game
I couldn’t be more excited to feature our next Luminary — a true trailblazer in the financial world, who works every single day to serve one of the most powerful and underserved customer groups: women.
Alexandria Stried is the Chief Product Officer at Ellevest, a wealth management firm whose mission is to unleash women’s financial power by helping them meet their goals. While Ellevest is only two years old, it has already made waves in the wealth management space; just last month, it received a $33 million funding round from former Obama White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, Melinda Gates’ firm Pivotal Ventures, and PayPal.
From goals-based and impact investing to the hard-learned lessons from her days in ballet, here’s what Alexandria had to say about the world of finance and the importance of women supporting women.
JARED JOHNSON: Tell us about your personal journey that led you to become the Chief Product Officer at Ellevest.
ALEXANDRIA STRIED: While I was an undergrad at Bradley University, I was dancing with the Illinois Ballet. But when I moved to New York about 12 years ago for grad school at NYU, I decided I didn’t want to be a ballet dancer — I’d do it for fun on the side, but it wasn’t necessarily a career path I wanted to take.
While I was there, I had an internship with Weight Watchers in its product management group. One of the members complained that Weight Watchers needed more food in its database, so I was helping with that, and I started to really learn what product management is. It excited me to build products and features for people to make them happy.
Weight Watchers had such a wonderful mission — trying to solve the obesity epidemic that is plaguing the United States — so I ended up spending quite a few years there. Once I graduated, I ended up getting promotions along the way and working with them on some of their big, innovative products, like the PointsPlus Program, which brought the stock up to $86 [roughly 3x what the stock price had been one year before launching PointsPlus].
And just like all things, you eventually want to move on and find other opportunities. I remember searching for my next gig; I got a random LinkedIn message from a recruiter, who told me about an early-stage startup that didn’t even have a company name yet. At the time, it was just the two co-founders and one operations person. They were looking for someone to lead the product division. When I was interviewing, I asked, “Are you sure I’m the right person? I don't have finance experience.” And they said, “Well, you have experience with women and behavior change.” So much of my time at Weight Watchers was getting people to change their eating habits, and so a lot of that knowledge I had gained was about behavior change tactics. Weight and finance have a lot of similarities, and the pain points are the same — think “I’ll start tomorrow” mindsets.
When I joined Ellevest, I was employee number six. Today we’re at 75 people, and I’m supervising not only product management but also the CX and financial planning team.
Weight Watchers and finance have a lot of similarities, and the pain points are the same — think "I'll start tomorrow" mindsets.
JJ: You mentioned you did ballet. What lessons have you learned from the ballet world that you’ve been able to apply to product management and financing roles?
AS: That’s a great question. I rehearsed for hours and hours. Some days I would be there for six to eight hours and going to school on top of it. Hard work and dedication is the name of the game and, the more time you put into something, the more you're going to get out of it. Especially in those early days of startup, I just kept reminding myself, I'm running a marathon here. There were a lot of long nights and weekends, but I think back to the stamina I gained when we were rehearsing for a big ballet performance. That dedication and hard work stuck with me.
Especially in those early days of startup, I just kept reminding myself, I'm running a marathon here.
JJ: How do the product people, designers, and developers at Ellevest gain empathy for the end users? What does that user research process look like? How is it different from incumbent wealth management firms that aren't exclusively focused on women?
AS: We do not have user researchers here — the product and the UX team do that work together. We have experience in ethnography, especially when we launch a new product offering. For example, we launched Ellevest Digital and the Private Wealth Offering, and we did ethnography for both. It’s a scrappy one, because we’re a startup and we don’t have the budgets that I had at Weight Watchers, where they’d give you $30,000 to fly to Dallas and talk to people in their homes. So it’s a lot of Google Hangouts for us. We will sometimes have people come to the office, which isn’t true ethnography because you really want to see them in their natural state; but we do the best we can with the resources that we're given.
And what’s nice about that — we see the client experience all the way from their coming to the website for the first time to potentially calling to do a 401K rollover or an IRA transfer. We also use website analytics, so we actually watch what people are doing on the site through numbers. If we see drop-off on certain points, we know that's an area that we might want to explore. We try to collect data in different ways and then bring it all together and enhance the roadmap based on that.
JJ: What is different about the digital products Ellevest offers? Is the digital product roadmap at Ellevest prioritized differently than in your previous product roles due to the focus on women?
AS: From the very beginning days, when we were just getting started, we would talk to women and try to understand why they were not investing in the stock market and what their main pain points were.
If you talk to a guy, they might say, “Yes, I want to be in the market because I want to get a return and I want as much money as I can.” The industry is really for men by men. Women don’t really think that way — they are more goal-oriented. When they think about the future, they don’t tend to make impulse decisions. All of that was factored in when we were creating the product. We are the only digital investment platform that has what we call a “goal planner,” where you can divvy up your money among each of your goals.
So she comes in and tells us her information, and we assess the risk for her — it ensures that she’s more likely to [achieve] her goals because, if you want a healthy retirement, you cannot be in a super-conservative portfolio if you’re 28 years old. You’re supposed to be in a very aggressive portfolio.
Another thing we recently launched was Impact Investing. Women wanted to do more with their money. I will say when we launched the product, it was right around the time of the Parkland shooting. Our whole product is about women helping women, and so one of the mutual funds we were in was focused on women having a certain number of seats on a board, or companies that would promote women to leadership positions. We had a few people write in and say that they cared, but most people were just like, “Hey, thanks for asking. My financial advisor at name-your-favorite-place didn’t even call to ask me.” Women wanted to be in impact funds, and they wanted to continue to support helping women.
The industry is really for men by men. Women don’t really think that way — they are more goal-oriented. When they think about the future, they don’t tend to make impulse decisions.
JJ: Ellevest is trying to tackle the unserved market of wealth management for women. Outside of just wealth management, do you see a gap of financial products that serve women?
AS: I do know that there is a gap, not only in the investing space but also in venture capital dollars and the "pink tax." Investing is the one we’re focused on tackling at the moment — it’s not to say that we won’t get into others, but I would argue that the game has always been what “he” wants and not so much what “she” wants.
Pink Tax: when products and services targeted to women are more expensive than the male equivalent.
We want to manage as many women’s financial accounts as possible, but we also want to shed some light on the fact that women have been underserved. I do hope that not only Ellevest, but also other financial firms, start to think differently about women and make sure they have a seat at the table when it’s time for user testing, and that products are created with women in mind.
JJ: What does the process look like for Ellevest to validate hypotheses? For example, if an idea arises for a new app feature (maybe a competitor released something new, a problem is discovered from user research, or a new channel emerges, like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant), how do you decide what’s actually worth building out?
RS: That’s a really great question. We believe ideas can come from anywhere and what we don’t want to do is launch the shiny new object. We want to make sure our ideas are vetted. So my team does an opportunity assessment, where we answer specific questions around what problems a product is trying to solve. Who is the target audience for it? What KPIs will this move? What competitors are currently doing something similar? What inspiration could we get from other fields?
There was a time last year when other digital investment advisors were coming out with cash management accounts. I believe they were doing that because the market was going down and they did not want clients pulling all of their money out to put into a savings account. And so you were seeing these cash management accounts pop up. We asked ourselves, Should we be doing this? Everyone else seems to be doing it. We decided against it because of the way that our investors invested. They were able to ride out the tough times, and good thing that they did, because if they were not in the market at the beginning of the year they would have missed out on all of the upside that happened.
We believe ideas can come from anywhere and what we don’t want to do is launch the shiny new object.
So we decided not to go with that approach. That’s just one example of how we vet our products. But we believe that ideas can come from us internally — they can come from clients, and they can come from the industry. But you only have so many resources, especially in a startup, and so we want to make sure we are vetting all of our opportunities.
Follow Alexandria on LinkedIn.