SoftBank bets big on a ‘digital Ellis Island’

Welcome Tech, which has built a digital platform aimed at immigrants and their families, has raised $35 million in a Series B funding round co-led by TTV Capital, Owl Ventures and SoftBank Group Corp.’s SB Opportunity Fund.

Crosscut Ventures, Mubadala Capital, Next Play Capital and Owl Capital also participated in the financing, which brings the Los Angeles-based company’s total raised to $50 million since its 2010 inception. Welcome Tech, which has an office in San Antonio, Texas, raised an $8 million Series A in March of 2020.

Built by immigrants for immigrants, Welcome Tech aims to do just what its name indicates — help immigrants feel more welcome, have an easier transition and achieve greater success when moving to the United States.

The company’s approach was different in that rather than launch a banking product and then set out to earn the trust of the community it aims to serve, it first worked hard to earn that trust and understand the community’s needs. 

So in its first years of existence, Welcome Tech has focused on building out a platform that provides educational resources, information and services that “they need to thrive in a  new country.” Its efforts are initially primarily focused on the Hispanic community in the U.S.

The goal of its platform, dubbed SABEResPODER (meaning Knowledge is Power in Spanish), is to serve as “a widely recognized and trusted resource” to members of the Hispanic community in the U.S., the company says.

Armed with knowledge and data that it has gathered over the years, Welcome Tech six months ago launched a banking service, including a debit card and bilingual mobile app. And in January, it launched a monthly subscription offering that gives users access to discounted resources such as medical and dental professionals.

Gardiner Garrard, co-founder and partner, TTV Capital, points out that the Hispanic market represents the largest minority cohort in the U.S., with a population of 62.8 million. 

“That said, less than half of Hispanic households are ‘fully banked’, meaning they cannot open an account, which then negatively impacts their ability to secure other products or services,” Garrard said. “To not serve this community is a major failure. Welcome Tech is addressing this issue head on.”

Today, Welcome’s platform is approaching 3 million active users, according to co-founder and CEO Amir Hemmat. Its ultimate goal, he said, is to serve as “digital Ellis Island.” 

“The way we leave immigrants’ success to chance is pretty crazy,” he told TechCrunch. “If you think of countries the way you think of companies and the way they want to attract and retain…here, we almost do the opposite.”

Image Credits: Welcome Tech

In particular, Hemmat and co-founder Raul Lomeli-Azoubel recognized that access to financial services was crucial to immigrants’ success.

“Although we ultimately see ourselves building towards a better future for immigration and a broader platform, the foundation and beachhead for that is definitely in financial services,” Hemmat said.  

Welcome offers a free banking account that is fully bilingual for English and Spanish speaking communities with “key features that are very tailor made for this community.”

A number of new digital banks targeting Latino and immigrant communities in general have emerged in recent years, including TomoCredit and Greenwood. Welcome aims to differentiate itself from competitors in being a more broad-based platform. Its subscription offering — at $10 a month — does things like offer discounts to healthcare professionals and free televisits, for example.

“When we dug in, we realized that immigrants are not being provided data-driven recommendations,” Hemmat said. “It’s very much a word of mouth and trial of error, and in some cases highly predatory, experience. We’re working to aggregate a historically fragmented audience and that gives us massive leverage to source better offerings, pricing and experiences for consumers across multiple categories.”

The company plans to use its new capital to build more partnerships so that it can do the above, as well as spread awareness about its services.

Gosia Karas, vice president and head of growth-stage investments at SoftBank’s Opportunity Fund, told TechCrunch that the fact that the immigrant population in the U.S. is “growing really fast and underserved creates an opportunity for someone to come in and serve them well with a financial services offering.”

In particular, SoftBank was attracted to Welcome Tech’s approach to truly understand, and gather data around, its target market.

“Before even jumping head first into building a fintech company, they did a lot of work prior,” Karas said. “They spent years building an understanding of this audience of the immigrant population, including building trust within that demographic. And at the same time, they have been building targeted content. This serves as a really great backbone to build a company that is very well-suited to serve that audience and to roll out things like the debit card and other financial services offerings.”

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Big banks rush to back Greenwood, Killer Mike’s Atlanta-based digital bank for underrepresented customers

Before even taking its first deposit, Greenwood, the digital banking service targeting Black and Latino individuals and business owners, has raised $40 million — only a few months after its launch.

Coming in to finance the new challenger bank are six of the seven largest U.S. Banks and the payment technology developers Mastercard and Visa.

That’s right, Bank of America, PNC, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Truist, are backing a bank co-founded by a man who declared, “I’m with the revolutionary. I’m with the radical policy,” when stumping for then Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Joining the financial services giants in the round are FIS, a behind-the-scenes financial services tech developer; along with the venture capital firms TTV Capital, SoftBank Group’s SB Opportunity Fund, and Lightspeed Venture Partners. Sports investors Quality Control and All-Pro NFL running back Alvin Kamara also came in to finance the latest round.

Atlanta-based Greenwood was launched last October by a group that included former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and Bounce TV founder, Ryan Glover.

“The net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family and eight times greater than that of a Latino family. This wealth gap is a curable injustice that requires collaboration,” said \ Glover, Chairman and Co-founder of Greenwood, in a statement. “The backing of six of the top seven banks and the two largest payment technology companies is a testament to the contemporary influence of the Black and Latino community. We now are even better positioned to deliver the world-class services our customers deserve.”

Named after the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Okla., which was known as the Black Wall Street before it was destroyed in a 1921 massacre, the digital bank promises to donate the equivalent of five free meals to an organization addressing food insecurity for every person who signs up to the bank. And every time a customer uses a Greenwood debit card, the bank will make a donation to either the United Negro College FundGoodr (an organization that addresses food insecurity) or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In addition, each month the bank will provide a $10,000 grant to a Black or Latinx small business owner that uses the company’s financial services.

“Truist Ventures is helping to inspire and build better lives and communities by leading the Series A funding round for Greenwood’s innovative approach to building greater trust in banking within Black and Latino communities,” said Truist Chief Digital and Client Experience Officer Dontá L. Wilson who oversees Truist Ventures, in a statement. “In addition to the opportunity to work with and learn from this distinguished group of founders, our investment in Greenwood is reflective of our purpose and commitment to advancing economic empowerment of minority and underserved communities.”

So far, 500,000 people have signed up for the wait list to bank with Greenwood.

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First Boulevard raises $5M for its digital bank aimed at Black America

The murder of George Floyd last May ignited many things in the United States last year — one of which that was perhaps unexpected: a rise in the number of digital banks targeting the Black community.

Some members of the Black community took their belief that big banks are not meeting their needs and turned them into startup concepts.

One of those startups, First Boulevard (formerly called Theme), has just raised $5 million in seed funding from Barclays, Anthemis and a group of angel investors such as actress Gabrielle Union, Union Square Ventures John Buttrick and AutoZone CFO Jamere Jackson.

For co-founder and CEO Donald Hawkins, the genesis for the Overland, Kansas-bank came after Floyd’s murder, when he and friend Asya Bradley were talking about what they felt Black America “really needed to get out of a vicious cycle” of dealing with the same issues with no real solutions in sight.

CEO Donald Hawkins

COO Asya Bradley

“After viewing yet another tragedy engulf the Black community, and the all-too-familiar protests against persisting issues,” Hawkins said. “it was beyond clear to me that the solutions Black America needs must be financially-focused and developed within our community.”

The pair both had fintech experience. Hawkins had founded Griffin Technologies, a company focused on providing real-time, contextual intelligence to community banks and credit unions. And Bradley most recently was a founding team member and head of revenue at Synapse, a platform that built banking-as-a-service APIs to help bank the unbanked of America by connecting fintech platforms to banking institutions.

They discovered that there were only about 19 Black banks in the U.S., collectively holding about $5 billion in assets.

“And their technology was really behind the times,” Hawkins said. “We also took a hard look at some of the existing digital banks to really see who was really going about it  in the same way that we felt like America needed, and it was pretty clear at that point, that no one was really attacking the issue of helping Black America build some level of financial stability through the form of wealth-building play.”

The pair formed First Boulevard last August under the premise that Black Americans are “massively underserved consumers” of financial products and services despite having a collective spending power of $1.4 trillion annually. The startup’s mission is to empower Black Americans “ to take control of their finances, build wealth and reinvest in the Black economy” via a digitally-native platform.

Part of its goal with the new capital involves building out a Black business marketplace, which will give its members Cash Back for Buying Black™. It also plans to use the money to expand its team, increase its customer base and grow its platform to offer fee-free debit cards, financial education and on developing technology to help members automate their saving and wealth building goals.

History has proven that oppressed communities can succeed when their finances are centralized, and when it comes to financial services for the Black community, a centralizing force is long overdue,” Hawkins said.

The bank’s Cash Back for Buying Black™ program helps members earn up to 15% cashback when they spend money at black-owned businesses. 

“I believe the most recent stat but that also was that 41% of black owned businesses have closed since COVID-19 started,” Hawkins said. “We want to support them as much as we can.”

First Boulevard also is focused on passively building wealth for its communities.

“Black America as a whole has been blocked from learning how money works. We want to connect our members to wealth-building assets such as micro investments like money market accounts, high yield savings and cryptocurrency — things that Black America has largely been blocked from,” Hawkins said.

Bradley, who serves as First Boulevard’s COO, believes the current financial industry was not built to serve the needs of melanated people. Its goal is to take their understanding of the unique needs of the Black community to provide things such as early access to wages, round up savings features, targeted financial education and budgeting tools.

The pair aims to have a “fully inclusive” team that represents the community it’s trying to serve. Currently, its 20-person staff is 60% black, and 85% BIPOC. Two-thirds of its leadership team are women and 100% is BIPOC.

“We are very proud of that considering that in the fintech space, those are not normal numbers from a leadership perspective,” Bradley said.

For Katie Palencsar, an investor at the Female Innovators Lab by Barclays and Anthemis, said that her firm has always recognized “that access to financial services has long remained a challenge despite the digital evolution.”

“This is especially true for Black Americans who often reside in financial deserts and struggle to find platforms that truly look to serve them,” she said. “First Boulevard deeply understands the challenge.”

Palencsar believes that First Boulevard’s mission of helping Black Americans not just bank, but actually build wealth, is unique in the market.

First Boulevard sees the wealth gap that continues to grow within the U.S. and wants to build a digital banking platform that addresses the systemic and structural challenges that face this population while enabling Black Americans and allies to invest in the community,” she said.

The company also recently announced a partnership with Visa, under which First Boulevard will be first to pilot Visa’s new suite of crypto APIs. First Boulevard will also launch a First Boulevard Visa Debit card.

First Boulevard is one of several digital banks geared toward Black Americans that have emerged in recent months. Paybby, a digital bank for the black and brown communities, recently acquired Wicket, a neobank that uses AI and biometric technology to create a personalized experience for users. Hassan Miah, the CEO and founder of Paybby, said the bank’s goal is to be “the leading smart, digital bank for the Black and Brown communities.”

Paybby, which started by offering a bank account and a way to expedite PPP loans, will soon be adding a cryptocurrency savings account for the Black and Brown communities.   

“Black buying power is projected to grow to $1.8 trillion by 2024,” Miah said. “Brown buying power is over $2 trillion. Paybby wants to take a good portion of this multi-trillion dollar market and give it back to these communities.”

Last October, Greenwood raised $3 million in seed funding from private investors to build what it describes as “the first digital banking platform for Black and Latinx people and business owners.”

At the time, co-founder Ryan Glover, founder of Bounce TV network, said it was “no secret that traditional banks have failed the Black and Latinx community.”

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