Jul. 16, 2014 by Wesleyan Alumni Community
In this interview with Wesconnect, Jacob Eichengreen ’13 and Frank Fineis ’13 talk about translating the intellectual work of a senior thesis into reality with Bloom Financial, a microcredit startup that fosters peer-to-peer lending in Uganda.
Bloom Financial is in the running to win Venture for America’s Innnovation Fund crowdfunding competition, which allots an additional $10k to the winner.
Jake and Frank talk about the inception of their startup, launching Espwesso and boxing club, and how Usdan never really had vanilla soft serve:
WESCONNECT: What are your roles at Bloom Financial? How do you see this project taking off?
JAKE EICHENGREEN: Our roles are pretty equal right now at Bloom, as we’re so focused on this crowdfunding campaign and laying the foundation for the project to grow. We’re planning on a purposeful take-off as things become ready. Initially, we will be building our team and network in Uganda, identifying communities and players that are particularly good fits for what we’re doing. Once that happens we’ll grant the first few loans and work carefully with the borrowers to improve our processes and the guidance we give both lenders and borrowers. As we move out of the fundraising focus, my role will shift to a more traditional CEO role, and Franks will become what most people call a COO – his current graduate work and experience is perfect for operating our peer-to-peer lending platform, and he’s much more interested in the technical side of things. Building the tech is going to be a key piece of our trajectory.
WC: On a similar note, this microcredit institution grew out of an honors thesis. How did you translate the thesis into reality?
JAKE: That’s an awesome question. I researched this opportunity first through a SIT summer study abroad program in Uganda and Rwanda, and then again on an independent, Davenport grant-funded research trip back to Uganda during my junior summer. It ultimately turned into my thesis. In my research, I repeatedly came across intellectual works that prescribed solutions to many development problems, but rarely actually were translated into action. I wanted to break that pattern and actually put my research to use outside the University. I was interested in Venture for America following graduation because I saw it as an awesome opportunity to gain the skills and experience in building startups to ultimately realize the vision of the thesis.
I’m currently in Las Vegas, working hard to launch SHIFT and revolutionize urban transportation. Watching Downtown Las Vegas – and the dozens of startups here – evolve and develop over my first year of the fellowship has been incredibly inspiring and motivated me to start moving forward with Bloom Financial. I started working with several local and national players to begin much of the preliminary work for this – legal research, business plans, and solid mentors. Bloom is still in an incredibly early stage, but everything I’ve gained (and will continue to gain) through my fellowship and my time here in Las Vegas will continue to push this thing forward.
Frank and I were housemates senior year, and close friends for most of our time at Wes. We spent many hours (usually while Frank was brushing his teeth) talking through my ideas for this, and he always had suggestions for ways to make my arguments stronger and my thinking more sound. Now that we’re actually building, he has the technical skillset to compliment my experience on the ground.
WC: How did you begin working in development? What are your future career goals?
JAKE: I actually first experienced development work as part of a group of Wesleyan students who went to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake my Freshman year. I was overwhelmed by my experience there; what I had initially thought was a ‘warm fuzzy’ that the developed world does for the developing world – international aid – turned out to be a quagmire of politics, egos, conflicting motives, and more. I became fascinated by the global development world, and wanted to dive in. The whole field is full of incredibly fascinating and complex problems that, if approached properly, present real opportunities to meaningfully improve the lives of millions. I love it. As I mentioned, I spent the next two summers digging deeper and researching. My dream would be for this project to become my my career goal… it will take a lot of hard work to get it there. Work that I’m genuinely excited about doing.
FRANK FINEIS: I lived in West Virginia for the first few months after graduation, working on clean energy projects. Building an oasis of sustainability in the middle of the coalfields was a really challenging and rewarding opportunity. We brought new jobs to folks in the area, but also saw long-engrained ways of life disrupted by moves away from coal. This project is really a transformation of that kind of development work to a bigger stage. It’s an opportunity to promote innovation and develop new ways of conducting business and engaging in an economy while still being conscious of the cultural transformation that such development undoubtedly will bring.
WC: What kind of classes/activities at Wesleyan helped in the formation of this startup – and in your personal approach towards social entrepreneurship?
JAKE: Several, actually. I was a CSS student and found so much relevant information in all of my classes in the major. Understanding the intersections between history, government, and economics as they pertain to development helped me develop a much deeper and broader connection to the issues Bloom is trying to tackle. And, so much of the work in CSS is self-motivated – obviously a huge boon to a project like this. Additionally, I took Joy Anderson’s Money and Social Change my senior year which challenged my notions of how to use money to achieve social change. Finally, I helped build Espwesso – the student run cafe down in Allbritton. I was one of the first baristas hired before it opened, and became manager my junior year – its second year of existence. In my 2 years managing, we more than doubled income and became financially sustainable. Less than 5% of cafes nationally are profitable on coffee sales alone. Not only is Espwesso profitable on coffee sales, it has become a campus staple.
FRANK: I took a class on Labor Economics that shaped my thinking on this. The professor was very careful to point out how the Econ 101 supply/demand model that is so often touted really falls flat in the face of the nuanced complexity of an economy. Economic health is so much more than supply and demand. Health, happiness, culture all have a tangible impact on economic health and vitality. I’m really taking that to heart through this project.
WC: Any memories of Wesleyan that stand out?
FRANK: Launching boxing club. I launched boxing club my senior year and watching it take off was awesome. Seeing myself do something outside of the classroom that is reflective of who I am was really something I’ll never forget. It was the first time I really made something mine and took charge of doing things outside the classroom; it’s a bit smaller scale than what we’re working on now, but it will stay with me for a long time.
JAKE: So many things – if I had to sum it up, though, it would be the community. Being at Wesleyan helped me understand the true power of a tight, deep-rooted community. It’s a big part of what keeps me working to build community vitality wherever I go. Also, there was never any vanilla soft serve at Usdan when I’d get dinner. They should work on that.
Image: c/o of Jacob Eichengreen and Frank Fineis
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- Jacob’s honor thesis: “Can’t Buy Me Love: Development and Social Destabilization in Uganda”
- Senior Voices 2013: Jacob Eichengreen ’13
- WesCeleb: Jacob Eichengreen ’13 talks cougars, coffee
- Wes Pacific, Episode Three: On Hondas, fashion, tipping and more Hondas
- Frank Fineis at LinkedIn
- Jacob Eichengreen on LinkedIn