The Financial Industry Needs Data On The Unbanked: Sheena Allen On Mogul Watch

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz

A 29-year-old resident of Sunnyvale, California is leading the conversation on how financial products fail to serve many low-income and rural consumers.

Sheena Allen is the founder and CEO of CapWay, an online banking and financial literacy app servicing the unbanked population.

Allen got her inspiration for her tech company from her hometown of Terry, Mississippi, a rural area 17 miles south of Jackson where large banks will not set up branches, and check-cashing shops that charge high fees are about the only way to turn a check into cash.

This is not uncommon for many areas of the U.S.

CapWay offers consumers a way to turn paper checks into digital currency via an Android or Apple app on mobile devices. Users can load money onto a prepaid card with lower rates. They can access financial products and tips to help them begin to move towards
homeownership or building financial literacy. CapWay is doing this for thousands
of people living in the U.S.

Allen has competition, but she also has an edge: she knows her market and it’s personal.

“Success for me is getting one guy who didn’t trust banks, but he relates to and trusts CapWay. He now is becoming financially literate.” — Sheena Allen, founder and CEO of CapWay

Allen went through a New Orleans incubator, PowerMoves, and received added funding from Liberty Bank, the second largest African American-owned bank, CNN reported. She also raised funds from Backstage Capital, a Los Angeles venture capital firm that focuses on funding women and underrepresented founders.

With $125,000 in funding, CapWay is in its seed round and looking to expand its reach and offerings to the underbanked.

“We’re transparent with our users. We are pulling their data. We’re not doing it like Facebook, but we’re pulling data because every financial product relies on data. The financial industry has data, but not on those that are financially underserved. Therefore, the information is biased.” — Sheena Allen, founder and CEO of CapWay

Allen spoke to Moguldom about data, bias and the unbanked. Learn more about this mogul in this interview, part of the Mogul Watch series:

Sheena Allen founder and CEO of CapWay. Photo: Whitney Gardner/Capway

Moguldom: Why did you Start CapWay?

Sheena Allen: CapWay is my second startup. I’m not new to the tech space. CapWay began after a visit home to Mississippi. Mississippi has one of the most significant populations of unbanked residents. I knew this personally because I grew up in a town that only had one bank. My great-grandmother used to keep her money in her house because she never had a bank account. I still have family members to this day that do not have a bank account. During my visit back home, I was re-exposed to this fact. I wondered as an entrepreneur, what could I do to solve this issue? This is why I started CapWay.

Moguldom: Do you find that people who don’t trust banks understand what you are trying to do for them?

Sheena Allen: In 2016, we did a lot of research. We spoke to that segment of consumers. They were so used to check cashing places as their source, they were not as quick to want to use a digital platform. However, their feedback led to a lot of interesting conversations and insights to help us to reach possible users. They appreciated it, but they’re still learning how to use smartphones and iPads. The younger generations understand it but getting the older generation to move from their processes of 30-to-40 years is a challenge.

Moguldom: What do you think are some of your notable wins with CapWay?

Sheena Allen: The narrative CapWay has been able to start. You don’t know there are people not living the way you live until you begin to talk about it. People are talking about those who have been left on the outside of traditional banking. People are now learning there is a population of Americans without a bank account in today’s digital age. What I’ve seen is more dialogue on this topic and what solutions can be provided to this demographic.

Sheena Allen, founder and CEO of CapWay. Photo: Whitney Gardner/CapWay

Moguldom: What are your thoughts on building a good team?

Sheena Allen: For me, the most important thing is the team member must understand the mission. They must come from a diverse background. There are other companies trying to do what we do, but they fail. They see this is a problem. They jump in attempting to solve it, but they don’t understand the actual people in need of the services. No matter if the person is financially underserved in Detroit, the Southside of Chicago or rural Mississippi, these are not people you can sit back and research with your Harvard degree. The research is not going to show you the real picture. So, anyone I employ, I want to make sure they understand the people we are serving. The other thing that was important is that they know they are working with me and not just for me. I’m not looking for people who are coming to work for me. Those are the type of people looking for a paycheck, and that is it. I want team members who are a part of the mission. Those are the people who will give you 110 percent.

Moguldom: What does success look like for you?

Sheena Allen: Change. Positive change. I have significant milestones, but I celebrate the smaller ones too. Success for me is getting one guy who didn’t trust banks, but he relates to and trusts CapWay. He now is becoming financially literate. That is a milestone. That is success for me. We have taken on the entire financial system. A system that has not worked for Black and brown or even those with a low income. So, success for me is to build this company to continue to challenge the system — a system that has failed low income and minorities.

Moguldom: How do you keep the creativity flowing to keep making the best product and service for your clients?

Sheena Allen: Talking to people every day, keeping things fresh, bringing in new team members and looking at different markets. Even public discussions like when the celebrities such as T.I. were saying to “Bank black.” Paying attention to the conversations help to figure out what challenges are preventing us from moving ahead.

Moguldom: What do the next five years look like for CapWay?

Sheena Allen: Of course, continuing to grow in America, but also looking to Africa and Latin America. However, I believe we will be a powerhouse when it comes to data. When you look at the financially underserved population right now, they utilize prepaid cards, money orders and check cashing where you cannot track the spending behaviors of these consumers. We’re very transparent with our users. We are pulling their data. We’re not doing it like Facebook, but we’re pulling data because every financial product relies on data. The financial industry has data, but not on those that are financially underserved. Therefore, the information is biased. The data points out there are from Visa, Mastercard, Bank of America and Wells Fargo. There is no Bank of America in the entire state of Louisiana. There is no Chase in Mississippi. What we get to do with CapWay is use the data we receive to create financial products for those who are being left on the outside by traditional banks. We’re in it for a marathon and not a sprint. We’re in it to make some changes in the industry.

Moguldom: What do you think the people in your organization would say about your leadership style?

Sheena Allen: I would like people to say that I treated everyone around me as if we were in it together. I don’t want to stand over people. I want people to feel as though I can learn from them as much as they can learn from me. Just because I’m the CEO, I do not think I’m better than the next person. I set a high standard for the company to be a profitable one and one focused on the mission.

Sheena Allen founder and CEO of CapWay. Photo: Whitney Gardner/CapWay