Throughout her impressive career, which has seen her pivot from epidemiologist to fashion influencer to venture capital investor and best-selling author, serial entrepreneur Kathryn Finney has always stayed true to her “why.” As founder of the Genius Guild, she’s building a venture firm that is investing in diverse entrepreneurs who are building exceptional companies in the health and sustainability spaces.
Fittingly, in 2021, Finney was one of the recipients of PayPal’s inaugural Maggie Lena Walker Award, named for the pioneering tour de force who became the first Black woman—and the first woman period—to charter and lead a U.S. bank. Finney recently sat down with PayPal CEO Dan Schulman for a conversation about the most important things they’ve learned through their journeys, Finney’s tips for women looking to take their careers to the next level, and how they built careers with purpose.
KATHRYN FINNEY: What inspired you to found the Maggie Walker Award?
DAN SCHULMAN: I remember this so distinctly. I was in my office, and my wife runs in. She’s got The Wall Street Journal in her hand, and she goes, “Have you ever heard of Maggie Lena Walker?” And I was like, “No, I haven’t.” And she said, “You need to read this article.” I read the article, and I was blown away and so inspired. Here is this Black woman in the post–Civil War era who is the first woman to charter a U.S. bank. She is a civil rights activist, a newspaper editor, and a businesswoman, and she goes on to be an inspiration in her community, building and helping underserved communities in the face of tremendous pressures and barriers. I thought to myself, “Nobody knows who she is, and she’s incredible. She broke barriers. And we need to figure out a way of celebrating and honoring her legacy.”
DS: Kathryn, you won the award in 2021, and I remember being so inspired by your journey. Out of all your accomplishments, what is the one that you’re most proud of?
KF: The Maggie Walker Award is up there. To receive an award that’s named after a person who made it possible for me to even exist in this space and do what I do is an amazing honor. When I think of honors and what’s most important to me, I think about a talk I had with a group of students in Fargo, North Dakota, where a student asked me this same question. I have a 20-year-old nephew who drove in a snowstorm to come hang with his aunt [that day]. So I said, “What I’m most proud of is that not only have I had a successful career, but my family still loves me, and that my nephew—who is 20 and has a lot of things he wants to do—drove to hear his aunt speak.” At the end of the day, what we do is important, but the impact we have on those around us is very, very important.
KF: Dan, on the same note, I know you’re winding down your time as PayPal’s CEO. What legacy do you want to leave behind?
DS: I get asked that question a lot because I am winding down one chapter and beginning another. And to me, a legacy is the cumulative total of everything you’ve done up to that point. Some people measure success in terms of how much money they made or how much shareholder value they created. But I think your legacy is so much more than that. What impact did you have on the communities you were serving? Did you show respect to people along the way? Did you bring positive energy to people’s lives? Did you make a difference in the world? I hope my legacy is about showing respect for people and making whatever difference I could make in the world to help others.
DS: As I look to the future, one of the things I’m thinking about is helping entrepreneurs and helping others. That is something that you do all the time. What financial tips do you have for women who are trying to start their own business?
KF: One tip is to make sure you have a support network, especially when it comes to caregiving. For women entrepreneurs, many of us are mothers and/or caregivers. When I moved to Atlanta, I couldn’t find good childcare for my son, and I was so frantic. I called my mother and was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” And she said, “Do you want me to come?” I’m thinking she’s coming for a week or two, and I was like, “Sure.” She’s like, “No, no, do you want me to move to Atlanta to help you?” Sometimes we try to do everything ourselves. We try to take on the world. And I said, “Yes, I actually do need you to come.”
She lived with us for four years until my son went to kindergarten. I can’t even calculate how much money it saved us because my son’s father and I were both traveling and trying to work on our careers. If our plane was late, my mom wasn’t going to be upset. We didn’t have to pay extra. The economic impact of having her be able to provide childcare was quite significant. So one of my big financial tips is really to lean on your support network. They might not be able to write you a $50,000 or $10,000 check, but there are other things they can do that save you money.
KF: One thing we share is helping others build the financial wellness and resilience needed to reach their goals. Throughout your career, you’ve advocated for more transparent financial products to help the underserved. And more recently, you developed a financial health program for PayPal’s employees that has been scaled with your partner JUST Capital. What inspired you to dedicate your career to helping the next generation gain financial independence?
DS: CEOs serve multiple constituencies, but the number-one constituency for me is our employees—if they’re passionate and healthy, you’re going to be successful. A lot of people think about “healthy” as being physically healthy, but during the pandemic, we saw that mental health was just as important. And financial health is an essential element of being able to live a productive, fulfilling, and happy life. What I found is that a large portion of PayPal’s employees were not financially healthy. They were having to make choices between healthcare and putting food on the table.
I just felt that wasn’t acceptable—we needed to look at our employees’ financial health, and we raised wages. We slashed the cost of healthcare, gave every single person equity in the company, and surrounded all of that with financial education. The amount of disposable income they had left over after paying for essentials went from 4% or 6% before this program to almost 20%. So now people finally get to save and think about their future. And because they’re living a physically, mentally, and financially healthy life, they come to PayPal and give it everything they have. This is the thing I’m most proud of. I think that managing and moving money should be a right for everybody—not just a privilege for the affluent. So I’ve dedicated a large part of my career to acting upon that vision.
DS: I’m curious, Kathryn—we talked about ambition and what that looks like for you. How would you encourage young female entrepreneurs to find that ambition within themselves?
KF: At Genius Guild, we’re focused on investing in diverse entrepreneurs building exceptional companies in the health and sustainability spaces. It’s a tough time with some of the challenges we’re facing in our country, and I find it’s important to connect your ambition with purpose. We’re raising our next fund, and there’s a reason for that. It’s not just to make money for our limited partners but to be able to invest in founders that people just can’t see—people and companies that the current system can’t identify because of its own blind spots.
That, to me, is the definition of true ambition. I encourage young entrepreneurs to really think about the “why” of what they’re doing. We have a lot of stories of what happens when you have ambition for ambition’s sake, and it hasn’t necessarily served anyone well. I also say, particularly to women entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs of color, that you’re going to find yourself at a time period where no one’s going to get what you’re doing. Having a vision that’s connected to who you are as a person is going to give you the foundation to help you get through it and see around the corners.
DS: Yeah, I love that answer because a lot of people think profit and purpose are at odds with each other, and I believe that profit and purpose are fundamentally aligned with each other. When those two things can come together, that is what ultimately drives and maximizes profit.
KF: I think we’ve been conditioned to think that if I win, you lose. And I just don’t subscribe to that. How do we create a world where we all win? To use a venture capital term, maybe not everyone gets 10x or 2x, but we all get some sort of return from what we’re doing. I think that’s what you built at PayPal—with your employee financial health program, everyone is winning, and as a result, you’re seeing this improvement on the business end as well. I think if more companies and investors had that view, we would see ourselves a lot further along in our world.
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