Emmanuel Smadja of MPower Financing On 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive…

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Emmanuel Smadja of MPower Financing On 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

Addressing employee burnout: Amid widespread tragedy and loss, people have also faced unprecedented disruptions to their daily lives throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, burnout is at an all-time high across professions, as per a recently released report from the American Psychological Association. This is not good news for anyone — not for employees, and not for employers. Having available resources to support mental and physical health, and encouraging taking time off are good ways to start to address burnout.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Emmanuel (Manu) Smadja.

Emmanuel “Manu’ Smadja is an ex-international student and the co-founder of MPOWER Financing, a DC-based, mission-driven FinTech company that leverages global data to finance thousands of bright minds around the world to attend top graduate programs in the U.S. and Canada. Manu’s core belief is that money should not stand in the way of a bright mind getting access to a top education. A decade ago, Manu started MPOWER (as a public benefit corporation) with a big idea, and a lot of hope. He has built it into a 250-person company, working with 425 universities across the U.S. and Canada, and eMPOWERing 10,000 new students this year.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

My experience mirrors that of our students. I moved to the U.S. as an international student from France to study engineering at the University of Virginia. During my time there, I struggled to pay for my education — but eventually earned enough money by tutoring math, physics, computer science, French, and refereeing indoor soccer — but it always bugged me that it was difficult for international students to finance their education abroad.

I later completed an MBA from INSEAD and worked at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co, where I focused on global financial inclusion. That’s when a student from the University of Virginia reached out for support. He only had a few semesters left and was going to drop out for only a small amount of money. After speaking with him, I sent him the funds; but I then realized that I had to solve this problem for real. That’s what motivated me to co-found MPOWER Financing.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Banker to the Poor, by Muhammad Yunus comes to mind. The book was my first encounter with microcredit and the idea that lending, when done right and for the right borrowing purpose, could make a radical positive impact in someone’s life. Yunus’ book was my first introduction to financial inclusion and cemented in me the idea that for-profit lending and impact could go hand-in-hand and would actually be more sustainable that way.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“When you educate one person you can change a life, when you educate many you can change the world” by Shai Reshef. At MPOWER Financing, we believe in breaking down barriers to education — especially financial barriers. Higher education is key to socioeconomic mobility but, unfortunately, millions of students struggle to get into or through school due to financial constraints.

We’re solving this problem by offering no-collateral, no-cosigner loans to students from around the world. Our no-collateral, no-cosigner funding has played a significant role in broadening access to a world-class education to the brightest students from around the world.

It is overwhelming, but incredibly satisfying, to see your mission come to fruition and to help support the educational dreams of so many promising students from around the world. In feedback from our students, the word that stands out is “dream.” Almost daily, our students tell us that MPOWER makes their dreams come true by enabling their educational pursuits.

MPOWER graduates are contributing significantly to the economy and civil society: 18% of graduates have raised funds and advocated for key causes; 10% have founded or co-founded a company or organization; 4% have served as elected officials; and 2% have received or filed for a patent.

An overwhelming majority (91%) of our students mention that the availability of an educational loan through MPOWER was instrumental to their ability to study abroad. As one MPOWER student recently wrote, “Many brilliant students can see their dreams of studying abroad become a reality thanks to [MPOWER’s] support.”

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

A “compassion-first” mindset is my and MPOWER’s leadership approach. This entails training leadership and employees to listen to each other more effectively, creating an environment where everyone is encouraged to voice their opinions and feel heard.

Continual learning is also really important in today’s competitive job market. The benefits of this are symbiotic for both employees and employers. By fostering a culture of learning at work, employees will no longer feel that their job is becoming stagnant. Rather, they are future-proofing their skillset and expanding their career prospects. It also allows employers to raise employee engagement levels. Essentially, engaged employees are more productive employees. In the end, it’s a win-win, and employers benefit from being able to build tomorrow’s workforce today.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. In the summer of 2020, the United States faced a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on what made the events of 2020 different from racial reckonings in the past?

2020 was a momentous year for many reasons, not least because it spurred an international conversation around race, diversity, equality and inclusion. The senseless murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis resonated not only in the United States, but also globally. The widespread use of video-based social media and the interconnectedness of people around the world allowed for the rapid spread of information and mobilization of support. This also meant that as the leader of a global organization, I felt the need to address our team about it and make clear that MPOWER stands in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion for all people.

The MPOWER team mirrors the diversity of its students and celebrates our diversity through shared recognition of life events and experiences. Five out of MPOWER’s six executive team members are either immigrants and/or from underrepresented racial groups. Among its 30 U.S.-based employees, 19 are either immigrants and/or from underrepresented groups.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Since MPOWER was co-founded by two ex-international students, a Jewish Algerian guy from France and a refugee from Iran, it’s perhaps not surprising that DEI is embedded in MPOWER’s core product and is fundamental to our management approach. We broadly define DEI to include seeking out and embracing diverse viewpoints, as well as supporting and celebrating diversity — in race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, religion, national origin, physical ability, and sexual orientation — across employees, borrowers, investors, advisors, board members and partners. Diversity helps us be more innovative in reaching our customer base. As a global company with global customers, MPOWER must tap into a global talent pool to effectively communicate with, and serve, borrowers around the world.

As a company, we focus on creating the type of work environment that showcases compassion, inspires impact, and encourages curiosity and growth. Focusing on opportunities in professional development, creating space for inclusion, emphasizing the criticality of diversity, and embracing new, hybrid work environments are all ways to live company values authentically.

MPOWER has been intentional about living our mission and values from day one and ensuring that our team, through our recruiting approach, adds to the strong positive culture we set out to build early on.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Our talent strategy, which puts our culture at the core, enables us to infuse social impact and global citizenship throughout our operations. Founded by, and comprised of, a dedicated group of global citizens, we’ve built a dedicated team with unique talents and passion. Together, we “empower” international students to become global citizens and future leaders in business, government, and their community.

Nine out of MPOWER’s 15-member senior leadership team are either immigrants and/or from underrepresented racial groups. Five of MPOWER’s nine Board of Directors members and seven of its 11 Advisory Board members are either immigrants and/or from underrepresented groups. A diverse executive team brings together a range of perspectives, fosters innovation, improves decision-making, enhances problem-solving capabilities, strengthens market understanding, promotes employee engagement, and enhances organizational reputation. These factors contribute to long-term success and competitiveness in today’s dynamic business landscape.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”?

One of MPOWER’s core values is inclusion, which is defined broadly to include seeking out and embracing diverse viewpoints as well as supporting and celebrating diversity — in terms of race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, religion, national origin, physical ability and sexual orientation — across employees, students, investors, advisors, board members, and partners.

To increase access to education and to address this clear gap in financing, MPOWER Financing was founded to offer scholarships and no-cosigner, no-collateral loans for international and other immigrant student groups who are shut out of the traditional lending system. MPOWER’s goal was, and continues to be, to broaden access to education.

MPOWER is expanding the higher education market to serve more of the world’s highest-potential students — regardless of income, family background, or gender. In the long term, this enables tomorrow’s doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and business and government leaders to realize their full potential and to make powerful contributions to society. This impact is also grounded in the idea of contributing to four of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Quality Education; Gender Equality; Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure; and Reduced Inequalities.

MPOWER’s social impact approach is grounded in a clear “theory of change” model that illustrates how investments made at each critical juncture in a student’s journey can lead to a multiplier impact and to significant outcomes for individuals, institutions, organizations, and societies. MPOWER’s borderless loans enable students from around the world to realize their full academic & career potential by attending top universities in the U.S and Canada.

Further, as a global company with outreach to students across different countries, MPOWER taps into a global talent pool that is able to effectively communicate with, and serve, students around the world. At MPOWER, we are committed to:

Understanding evolving workplace needs: The pandemic has sparked shock waves of change in everyone’s day-to-day lives, including employees’ personal lives. With these changes in behavior and values have come new needs, priorities, and expectations from employees, and employers need to keep up as circumstances and sentiments shift. As an example, MPOWER sends out a monthly pulse survey to gauge how employees are doing, their workload, their mindset, and how we can better support them. We ask the same questions with each survey so we can track sentiment over time. Our survey strategy, a critical tool for employee engagement, helps us stay current and relevant in our operations, benefits, and culture.

Monthly employee newsletters and quarterly virtual town hall-style meetings are becoming supplements to new, more timely tools for sharing information with teams. Information needs to flow in real time, and through more relevant means. Using technology tools such as Slack helps us democratize information and spread critical news quickly. Employees rightly expect their companies and leaders to be truthful and transparent, but now more than ever, communication needs to be timely as well.

Celebrating achievements — both big and small: At MPOWER, we know that recognition plays a defining role in employee satisfaction. Celebrating personal events and company wins can improve morale, bolster teamwork, and make the workplace more enjoyable and rewarding. Achievements can be celebrated publicly, such as through a newsletter or during town halls, but encouragement from a manager directly goes a long way too. MPOWER leaders write thank-you notes or give small gift cards as tokens of appreciation, and also celebrate those who live our company values through quarterly value awards — which come with a fun certificate and a cash prize

Addressing employee burnout: Amid widespread tragedy and loss, people have also faced unprecedented disruptions to their daily lives throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, burnout is at an all-time high across professions, as per a recently released report from the American Psychological Association. This is not good news for anyone — not for employees, and not for employers. Having available resources to support mental and physical health, and encouraging taking time off are good ways to start to address burnout. At MPOWER, we’ve also learned that taking time off and actually unplugging must be modeled from the top down.

Prioritizing pay equity: Various social movements have emerged throughout the pandemic, especially as inequity and inequality come into greater focus. Now is the time for organizations to review performance and compensation, scrutinizing it heavily and seeing where gaps exist. Payroll is the largest expense in the budget — and this is for good reason. After all, pay not only drives financial performance and productivity but it also helps us engage top talent. We are committed to continuously reviewing our compensation practices, ensuring they reflect our organizational values of inclusion, belonging, and equity. In the long term, we know pay equity is a powerful vehicle for us to drive our integrity forward and be a force for good in the world.

We are going through a rough period now. What makes you optimistic about the future of the US? Can you please explain?

I’m tremendously optimistic about the future of the United States. Real problems notwithstanding, in recent years the U.S. has managed to bounce back from the pandemic with vigor.

We’ve strengthened NATO and supported our friends in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion; partnerships in Asia, including with key nations like India and Japan, are stronger than ever; the American economy is robust and enjoys among the lowest inflation rates among the industrialized world; and bright students from around the world continue to beat a path to our leading, world-class universities.

I recognize that challenges exist, not least with political divisions and climate change. But I think there are few more attractive places to be in right now.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d like to meet with George Soros, as he’s someone I look up to for his work in supporting global citizens and refugees, as well as his talents in financial markets. I’d also love to meet with President Obama, who as you know is the son of an international student and the creator of the DACA program. Obamacare enabled me to start MPOWER nine years ago without having to worry about what would happen if I faced a medical emergency as an entrepreneur. It’s an example of how the social safety net can be a critical enabler to business and societal wealth creation.

How can our readers follow you online?

Here are a few social media links of MPOWER Financing, we regularly share company’s updates.

LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/company/mpower-financing/

Twitter — https://twitter.com/MPOWERfinancing

Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/MPOWERFinancing/?mibextid=ZbWKwL

Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/mpowerfinancing/

Here is my personal LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/esmadja/

Our team regularly posts news and updates to our website: https://www.mpowerfinancing.com/about-us/news/

Also, MPOWER regularly releases a social impact report measuring our progress in delivering on our mission of equalizing lending for international students and graduates: https://www.mpowerfinancing.com/about-us/social-impact/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Emmanuel Smadja of MPower Financing On 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.