As a dual major, Karen Biddle Andres learned quickly to speak the language of business and policy, and more importantly how to use her time and talents effectively. We had the opportunity to speak with her recently about the things she learned at Michigan, and discoveries made since she began her career improving the financial health of everyday people.
Describe the path you have taken to end up in your current role at CFSI.
I began my career in the investment industry as a 401(k) educator. Having spent several years personally immersed in the financial challenges facing so many households in America, I came to Michigan specifically to prepare myself for a career in financial inclusion. Knowing that both private market and public policy innovation were going to be required to address financial security in America, I chose to pursue both Master of Public Policy and Master of Business Administration degrees. After an internship with ShoreBank, one of the pioneers in community development banking, I made a beeline for the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) after graduation. I have now been with CFSI for 10 years, and I have also joined the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program as a senior fellow working on retirement security for vulnerable populations.
How have you leveraged your Ross and Ford experience in your career?
Karen’s MAP team from 2007, which spent a month in India helping develop a franchise strategy for a public health NGO.
My work at CFSI has been about influencing the way companies understand and design for financial health. I often joke that I am fluent in English, Spanish, and Corporate, despite having spent the past decade inside a nonprofit. It’s been critical for me to understand what drives corporate decision-making; how to think like an internal strategist; how to find the right champions and change-makers with strong tailwinds; and how to offer the right kinds of data and support — and how to diplomatically deliver constructive advice — in the context of corporate politics. I also gained critical firsthand experience with NGOs and nonprofits, from my MAP project — designing a franchise strategy for an Indian healthcare NGO, to my time as a Board Fellow with the Southwest Detroit Business Association. Finally, my involvement with the Zell Lurie Institute, participating in various business competitions, gave me an inside view into the life of a start-up, and has made it easier for me to engage with the hundreds of fin tech start-ups that CFSI attracts and supports.
In what ways do you know that your work and the work of CFSI are having an impact on people’s lives?
Karen’s husband, Matt, is a clinical professor at Michigan Law and, as an alum of both Michigan and Michigan State, he stays neutral during football season.
Definitely the most important question. CFSI is designed to achieve impact by influencing the work of financial services providers, employers, and other entities who have a stake in the financial health of their customers, clients, and employees. We do that by providing deep consumer insight and expertise, helping companies understand what’s really going on in the financial lives of their customers, and then helping them design and deliver products that can help solve those customer challenges. So that puts us at arm’s length with the people we are ultimately trying to reach, meaning that we have two layers of impact. First, we have to impact companies. We see evidence of that impact in so many different ways: business leaders start talking about financial health in their messaging, companies form new financial health-focused initiatives and hire people to run those initiatives, and ultimately they roll out products and services to help improve their customers’ financial health. We’ve been consulting with companies for years as they do all of the above, and we have seen some really exciting engagement and profitability metrics that tell us that customers are responding to the kind of consumer-centric design that a financial health strategy ultimately leads to.
But at the end of the day, those are still outputs, not an outcome, and our primary objective is impacting real people by improving their financial health. Recognizing that, we have spent the past five years developing a research-based, quantitative set of indicators that allow us to measure and diagnose the specific financial health challenges of a customer base or segment, a group of employees, or even a population segment. Knowing that what’s measured is what matters, we are working with the companies in our network to begin gathering and using this data to objectively assess the impact that products, services, and programs are having. Ultimately, we are working to create a financial services market place that uses financial health as a basis for competition, and a common set of metrics for evaluating what works and what doesn’t.
What do you want to see business schools do to prepare students for careers with impact?
I believe there is an opportunity for business schools to spend more time teaching its students about the key challenges of our time. I think it’s fair to say that we are in a moment when we are realizing just how many problems there are to solve as a nation, and as a world. From financial security to public health, to climate change, to public education, to the very health of our democratic institutions…we have some really big problems, and we are going to need all hands on deck to solve them. If we don’t, frankly, who really cares how many more widgets or gadgets we can sell? There are so many talented, driven people who come to business school looking for a productive way to channel their energy and drive. By the time I came to Michigan, I was lucky enough to have already seen one of these challenges firsthand, and it became part of my professional identity and personal mission early on. But not everyone has that opportunity so early in their life or career.
So let’s have business schools, either on their own or in partnership with other schools or entities, provide their students with deep, immersive exposure to society’s challenges. If we say that business can be a force for good in the world, I believe we need to start by helping our students really understand the nature of our problems, and find an empathetic and emotional connection that can drive them in the years to come. For the record, I can’t think of an institution better prepared to do that than the University of Michigan, with a world-class constellation of professional schools: public policy, public health, social work, SNRE. The Erb Institute in particular is a terrific model to replicate across a wide array of societal challenges.
Do you have any advice for students aiming to make a career in the social sector?
Karen with a group of dual degree MPP/MBA students at B-Dubs.
I have three pieces of advice. First, don’t ever stop learning about the problem you are trying to solve. Our world is a big, complex, interconnected place, and data ages fast. Stay on top of the ways your problem is changing, and evolve your views and theory of change accordingly. It’s ok to change your mind.
Second, get comfortable with sales. Whether it’s selling funders on a new idea, selling corporations on trying something new, or selling products within a social enterprise because you have to keep the lights on, sales and business development are key, differentiating skills in the social sector. Find opportunities to learn to sell both idea and product.
Finally, think hard about whether the world needs one more start-up. I love the entrepreneurial spirit that drives many people to go start a new mission-driven venture, but I also see a lot of wasted overhead between new organizations that could be combined. There are already so many terrific organizations out there doing great work, so seek them out and find the opportunities to do what you want to do within their walls. You may find that they’re already working on just your idea, which will help you get to social impact that much faster.
Okay, it turns out I have four pieces of advice. Fourth: pace yourself. Change is slow. Change can be hard. Sometimes things go backward. Keep hammering away, and take the long view.