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Beyond the Check
Faith and Technology with Alana Ackerson, Co-Founder of Figure
January 15, 2019 John Weems
Beyond the Check

Faith and Technology with Alana Ackerson, Co-Founder of Figure

January 15, 2019

John Weems

Alana Ackerson has spent a significant portion of her life wrestling with questions of financial inclusion, the implications of technology in extending human life span, and building companies including SoFi and currently Figure. 

Alana Ackerson has spent a significant portion of her life wrestling with questions of financial inclusion, the implications of technology in extending human life span, and building companies including SoFi and currently Figure. 

Episode Transcript

Note::0:06This interview transcription came via an automated service with some basic human editing, but cannot be considered 100 percent accurate.


John Weems:0:06If you didn't need the money, would you still show up to your job? I'm John Weems. I've spent half of my career in the corporate world and the other half in full-time spiritual guidance as a pastor, I respect people of all views, unless they're totally closed minded A-holes. I am not here to tell you what to believe. I am here to encourage you to think beyond the check. Welcome to this podcast where we talk about work, life and the meaning of our time here. You'll hear from a wide range of business people from multiple backgrounds. Today, I have the honor of welcoming Dr. Alana Ackerson to Beyond the Check. Alana is the chief people officer at financial technology startup Figure, was previously a VP at SoFi and served as CEO of the Thiel Foundation among several other several other investment based leadership roles, in addition to earning a degree from Stanford.

John Weems:0:57She has a doctorate in Faith in Technology from San Francisco theological seminary where she and I met briefly while serving together as trustees. Alana, welcome to beyond the check.

Alana Ackerson:1:08Thank you, John. I've been looking forward to conversation.

John Weems:1:11I'm honored to have you here today, so I know you know, many of the people I've had a chance to speak with work at really cool companies as you do and we want to talk about that. But you are the only one thus far who has a degree that is theology related and specifically I don't think any of my listeners have probably heard of a degree in faith in technology, much less a doctorate. So can you talk a little bit about that? What compelled you to pursue this area and then we'll circle back to Figure and some of what you're up to now.

Alana Ackerson:1:39Yeah, sure. Well, I appreciate the invitation. So, you know, I started my career in finance and um, was in a few different areas within asset management and investment management and um, but in parallel was always interested in pursuing work in theology, spiritual direction, and ministry. And so I was running a parallel track and first got a master's in systematic and philosophical theology where I looked at the impact of life extension technologies on our faith narratives. And I studied to be a spiritual director. While doing that, and I thought a doctorate in ministry would be a nice combination and the reason I picked the faith in technology focus, uh, for my dissertation was I was spending a lot of time in, in tech world, right in Silicon Valley and people were building extraordinary things, but I wasn't hearing in the way that they were talking about their work, a lot of context around the why of what they were building. But what you could pick up is very specific language that indicated intentionality that indicated a desire for solving certain problems, right? And what it sort of begs the question of is, and this was the question of the dissertation, is the development of newer and better technology, fundamentally a very faithful, widely defined beyond a specific religious doctrine or belief system in that it is how we as human beings express hope for a better future for humanity. It's how we participate in creation as co-creators, right? And within the Christian tradition there is a strong sort of strand of thinking around this idea that we have been made as co-creators, right? And we are invited to participate in the unfolding of the world. And so, you know, I thought it was a really interesting question to examine and to spend time on and you know, there's one quote, I do want to share it because I love how it, how it captures this, and this is by Brian Arthur who wrote the nature of technology, which is a great book that goes into this. Why do we create technology question and what he said was, "To have no technology is to be not human. Technology is a very large part of what makes us human. Technology is part of the deeper order of things, but our unconscious makes a distinction between technology and is enslaving our nature versus technologies, extending our nature. And this is the correct distinction. We should not accept technology that deadens us, nor should we always equate what is possible with what is desirable. We are human beings and we need more than economic comfort. We need challenge. We need meaning. We need purpose, we need alignment with nature. We're a technology separates us from these. It brings a type of death, but we're it enhances these, it affirms life, it affirms our humanness." Right?

Alana Ackerson:4:29And so this again goes to, as I see what we're building at Figure as I see what my friends and colleagues are building all across the valley. I see it as the way that we participate again in that co-creation that we are truly human, right? We want to build and the reason I think we want to build is as a faithful response in the world is one where we are active, where we are working toward a restoration and the redemption of creation, right? Um, and, and, you know, I think that that is seen very clearly when we're creating and building things. Yeah. Any surprises from your research? You know, it's um, it's, it's one of the most interesting things is this whole idea that um, there are lines in the sand in terms of what is palatable by society at points in time. Right? It's sort of there, you know, we should not go beyond here because there'd be dragons over there and as if that's something that is an absolute. And, and so you can go through and you can see over the ages how that absolute through, um, better understanding, more information, a deeper knowledge of what it means to be human begins to change and shift, right? And so some of the surprises were the evolution of scientific facts, right? The evolution of an understanding of how we as faithful beings in community can understand new technology and technology is just a term, you know, it's, it, it comes from technique, right? So that is a tool of some kind, but it's also a process. Technology is just the way we do things, right? And so as we have a better understanding of who we are as humans and our own capabilities, the way we do things will change. And the hope again is that we're doing things in a way that is life giving and solving the big problems that we see in response to, um, the, the challenges and the pain and the world. So to that end, and looking at, at big challenges and opportunities in the world, where does Figure come and tell us a little bit about right? So Figure as a great for me, you know, in building Figure, it's been great to combine the finance and the technology background. Um, so Figures primary mission is to build and promote blockchain solutions to eliminate rent seeking and facilitate innovation and financial services, right? So right now within financial services you have a ton of intermediation, right? Where people will come in and take a piece of the pie either from consumers or investors or various institutions in order to mediate information to be an authority on that information. Right? Um, and so one of the first things we've created is Provenance, which is a blockchain protocol for the origination, custody trading and securitization of whole loans and other assets. And what that does is it, it streamlines the process of transacting assets, right? Um, and it makes everything faster, transparent, right? Um and it really directs the financial space, right? Which is key for so many reasons. Um, you know, every time we have a major financial disruption, um, that impacts each individual because it impacts their ability to provide for themselves, for their families, right? It impacts the resources they have available to them in their lives to do that good work we were just talking about. Right. And so, you know, one of the exciting things about blockchain technology is, you know, it's distributed, right? So everyone sees the same information, so it almost democratizes information, which I think is always a good thing. It's immutable, right? So, um, you timestamp that information and no one can just come in and change it. So that's part of the making it less risky, right? Because it's harder to commit fraud and more people can trust that that information is correct and it's trustless because it means you aren't paying someone to be that arbitrator of trust if everybody sees it. Um, there is no need to negotiate trust between two counter-parties, right? And so those are all very, um, that's, that's a huge development in financial services to be able to build a marketplace based on those characteristics. And, and we created a lending business to be the first, to generate assets, to put on provenance instead of the, if we build it, hopefully they will come. We want it to be the first mover and really lead the charge on what's possible.

John Weems:9:10Now, Alana, you were early at SoFi, which I'm sure many of our listeners have heard about and probably refinanced student loans or home purchases. Tell us a little bit about how does SoFI compare to Figure and what advancements have you been part of now?

Alana Ackerson:9:24Right. So, you know, SoFi is also another groundbreaking financial technology company that was founded by my co founder here at Figure Mike Cagney and, you know, SoFi tackled a big problem, which was student loan refinancing. Um, and, and also approached it from the idea that there are ways to streamline the process of receiving this type of consumer credit. Um, and so, you know, Figure is approaching a much different market Figures approaching the home equity market to begin with in terms of our consumer lending business, which is, I'm a massive addressable market given that a lot of people in the US own homes and for a lot of people the majority of their net worth is locked up in their homes. Right? So there are house rich and cash poor and that is problematic if they're underfunded for retirement, if they want to do a remodel, but the available, you know, sort of, um, home equity products are take 30 days for approval and you know, or 30 days for funding, a lengthy amount of time and you know, kind of a laborious process. And so we've done a few things that are really interesting, you know, the one that I am most excited about and it seems like a simple thing, but transforms the experience of someone trying to get this type of loan is instead of having to go into a notary to get the documentation notarized, we're doing that online, sort of an easy notary process, right, where you can do a video call with someone from our team and go through that notary process. And there are only three states right now who have passed legislation to allow for that, uh, Nevada, Texas and Virginia. So it's a very new piece of technology. Um, but again, the better way to think about it is they've decided to be more efficient, right? With how we go through that process by allowing us to use digital tools to do it virtually, um, without losing any of the necessity to get certain information from a customer and be able to validate that that information is true.

John Weems:11:25Our listeners consistently tell me they enjoy hearing about earlier background and people's first jobsm, go back as far as you would like.

Alana Ackerson:11:30I think my first job was working at a small advertising agency. Um, this was actually before I went to college and I, and I think what I found so interesting about that as much of what I found interesting about later projects in life was how, how does a narrative come together that is compelling, that resonates with someone's identity. Um, you know, how do you represent information in a way that is accessible, um, and is logical and, and, you know, footsie with people's lived experience. Yeah.

John Weems:12:10How so were you like eight years old when you did that?

Alana Ackerson:12:12No, no, I think that was more of, you know, 16, 17. What was that environment like was, uh, you know, I've been around ad agencies some as well. And it wasn't like mad men at all. What was the experience like for you? It wasn't, it wasn't. It was fun that the head of it, the agency was a bold and boisterous woman who was very sharp in the field of advertising and, you know, um, it was really fun to learn from her how to unpack certain ideas and how to empathize with an audience and how to understand how to segment an audience so you can be responsive to individual needs, which I think is an incredible ability to have in so many things if you really have a servant's heart. Right. And, and on the Enneagram, I'm a hard helper and so for someone who has, um, who's, who's really, I'm wired that way, you're always looking for the best way to support people, to engage people, to respond to people's needs

John Weems:13:15From 16 and beyond, what, what were some of the careers you were considering as you prepared to head to Stanford?

Alana Ackerson:13:23Oh, you know, even as a very young child was a very young child. I wanted to be the lead singer in a rock band that, that wasn't really based in reality, but that seemed exciting at the time. Did you have a rocky road at the time or she wrote either one. Was there a band that you, uh, why was a child of the early eighties? And so Jem and the Holograms, this was definitely the exciting, uh, exciting show to be watching as a young girl. Um, and so that was, I think that may be what inspired that, you know, but over the years it's a lot of different things, but it's largely what's presented to us, you know, as a mother of young kids, what I'm finding interesting is you hear fewer people ask at the schools they're at, what do you want to be when you grow up and more people asking what problems do you want to solve when you grow up? And there is such a fundamental difference in the spirit of that question. What you want to be has to do with more of a sense of self actualization, which is important, but also about what you as an individual are experiencing as opposed to how you are being in the world. Right. Um, and certainly the idea of what problems do you want to solve, I think is, is definitely something that, that implies. Community implies, duty implies participation in that co-creation as we talked about. So I find with young kids, it's always so much more exciting to say what problems do you want to solve when you grow up? And then you can work backwards into interesting, you know, that someone can focus on so that they, they can create an identity of a person who solves those kinds of problems.

John Weems:15:00What a great question! What's your earliest memory of seeing a problem in the world you wanted to solve and working toward that in your career?

Alana Ackerson:15:08Yeah. So I, um, I was really fortunate to, when I was at Stanford do a summer away in India for an organization that I had gotten connected to called Opportunity International. And um, they had a branch office in Bangalore and I went over there, it was really to document loan recipients in the field, help them with their annual report, do a few things that were, I hope at the time, additive to their work. But for me it was an incredible opportunity to see first-hand how fundamental services can really transform the family structure, can transform communities. Um, and, you know, globally a big issue is access to capital, right? Um, and it certainly was not that long ago that access to capital prevented people from being able to, um, take care of their families from being able to self actualize through anything vocational from being able to transform communities through better education, better healthcare, better commerce systems. And so, you know, Opportunity International was a micro-finance organization that offered micro-loans, very small loans to individuals to essentially become entrepreneurs. So you could offer, you know, I, I think the average, um, um, was, you know, the average loan was about $100, right? And for $100 a year you could help fund a small, um, sort of dairy, you know, a goat dairy or you could fund a small sewing operation. And, and so it was amazing to see how little was so transformative. And, um, I guess I was the earliest, um, even before I started my more formal career, I guess I was in consumer credit right through that and I've stayed engaged and now sit on the national board for Opportunity International

John Weems:17:06Before Fintech was even a term you were out there?

Alana Ackerson:17:08Yes. Yes, absolutely. Before Fintech was a term, um, opportunity was looking for ways to participate in, you know, mobile banking, where possible.

John Weems:17:18Any, any stories of, of loan recipients that come to mind? I'm sure there are many you've encountered through the years, anyone that stands out a little bit

Alana Ackerson:17:26You know, there's, there's a theme that stands out and one was, you know, um, how empowering it would be when I'm the wife of a household would take alone. And that actually was opportunities focus particularly early on, was access to capital for women. Um, because they were very inclined to invest back into their children's education. Um, there was such a sense of duty to the community for them to be good stewards of that capital. Um, the women would create little trust groups where they would help loan teach other and support each other in the repayment of their loans to opportunity. Um, and so what was transformative was watching how that gave women in rural areas a voice they didn't have before, um, because they were now entrepreneurs.

John Weems:18:15So I can hear the passion coming through loud and clear and for many of our listeners are, even if they're in their second or third act or trying to figure out what's next, trying to figure out how to add more meaning. What, what was your process of understanding the meaning of work and you've mentioned co-creation, etc. but how has the meaning of work evolved for you?

Alana Ackerson:18:36Right. So it's you know, there's kind of the macro and the micro, you know. At a macro level, um, it's about, um, as we talked about kind of the unfolding of creation. You know, it's sort of a very, you know, Augustinian view that God created the world and then stepped back to rest and observe, you know, and then the world spins and we're all kind of, um, you know, actors in that, um, you know, and it's a very different take to see it as an open and ongoing unfolding. And, and, you know, there's an interesting theological idea of it being a grand improvisation, right? Which, which is a little art and a little science, right? Um, but you know, my, my vision of God is one that is, you know, actively engaged and present-- a persuasive God. Right? And so, you know, the meaning of work is how we respond to that persuasiveness, how we respond to that sense of participating in that unfolding, you know, and, and on a more macro micro level, excuse me, it's, it's really about how you want to show up everyday in your life. Where are you investing your time and your attention, right? Um, and, and what projects are worthwhile as part of the unfolding of creation, which projects seem to be in response to, um, those pains of the world, you know, that we talked about earlier and sometimes it's not immediately obvious, but behind every piece of technology and every process, there is ideology, there is intentionality, right? As I talk about Figure, it's about opening up almost democratizing, certainly streamlining, making more efficient and hopefully I'm less risky financial services which underpins everything we do in commerce and how we interact as human beings and how we build as human beings. Right? And so Figure very much, you know, the, the philosophical underpinning of it is one that I see as being very life giving to community, right, and to human processes and how we, how we do work. Um, and so I think that that's, you know, and from my masters where I looked at life extension, one of the most interesting things is, you know, the reframing of the time horizon of the work we do. Um, so it, you know, the narrative use to be back in the day, you know, if you were lucky, maybe you'd live to 30, 40, you know, life was short, it was very, very hard, right? And a lot of ways, um, people might or might not procreate, they might or might not be able to provide for extended family community, you know, and you would pass away and the narrative was, that's okay because then you go to heaven, right? And it was all. And it also did imply less of a real investment in this creation in this world, right? This, the idea of looking so much towards, you know, um, the eschaton that you weren't really invested in this creation as beautiful as it is, right? Um, what happens if we live to 150 or 300 years, right? That fundamentally changes that narrative. It isn't life is short and hard, but then you die and then there's the afterlife, right? And this is something that all religions will need to come to grips with in terms of that, that larger religious narrative, right? As part of their tradition, if you live 150 years, 300 years, what kinds of projects do you invest into? I see it as an incredibly exciting thing that as we, um, be able to slow down cell decay, and we live more healthy lives as human beings. It allows us to invest more deeply into the things that matter to us to, um, see the fruits of our labor over a longer time horizon. And again, I do think it is very clarifying to, to then step back and say, if I'm, if I have 150 years to, to build, what would I build? Right? If I'm going to be in community with the set of people for 150, 300 years, how do I engage them differently? I think it fundamentally changes everything that.

John Weems:22:48You mentioned earlier that among your other certifications, you became a spiritual director. I'm sure some of our listeners are aware of therapists, etc. What is a spiritual director? And as we think about these big questions, you're asking like what if we have 150 or 300 years? How does that come into play?

Alana Ackerson:23:03Right? So, you know, I, I think there's the perception that therapy is, is problem solving, right? You sit and then, you know, a therapist, a counselor makes recommendations. Um, the, something that's prescriptive, right? Um, spiritual directors have been seen as um, as spiritual, um, companions in a sense. We accompany people as they attend to the presence and experience of God in their lives. Um, it is about holding space for someone to discern, to feel the movements of the spirit, to respond to a, of calling as we've been describing it. Um, and, and the, the spiritual director doesn't so much prescribe something as make offerings of things they are observing in that moment in those people. Right? Um, and so that, you know, there's something qualitatively different about not only the work, if you call that way, but, but how that space is held and what is assumed about that space

John Weems:24:11I know you wear many hats as a founder here as well, but as chief people officer, how does that lens impact the way you look at how you build out the organization and the people you interact with as, as they consider their own sense of direction in your consideration of their fit at Figure?

Alana Ackerson:24:28Yeah. So, so when I first sat down with the early team, as we were thinking about what kind of organization we wanted to build, you know, it was very much about how do we, how do we prioritize, I'm investing into culture early on and culture is kind of this amorphous term, but really, you know, practically it can be just creating a space where people can do their best work, right? So how do we support our team? How do we create an organization with the right norms, with the right values, right? Um, and it can be everything from, 'be direct when you communicate, show up as your whole whole self, you know, and be very direct about what you see and what you don't see.' Um, you know, it can be about holding people capable, right? Assuming that they are making a real effort to participate in what we're building and that they are capable of so much. Right? And so there are certain things that, that we mapped out very early on that, you know, look different at a company in the first few days of its life than, than how they look, you know, a couple of years in and will look different when you're 10 people then when you are, you know, 250 people. And I think that's something that is challenging for any organization is that question of scale maintaining, um, a culture. It's not going to be the same, right? Because every new person that joins the team changes the experience of that team, changes the makeup of the organization and impacts how you work, right? How you collaborate, but can you consistently pull through those same values, those same intentions, those same norms, um, as you scale. And that takes a great deal of vigilance and intentionality from the leadership team. It takes a commitment and, and people being consistent, you know, about that commitment.

John Weems:26:28Now you've mentioned some common threads through your life, including early exposure to financial inclusion. We've hinted around this, but do you believe in callings?

Alana Ackerson:26:37You know, it's interesting, when I was a young girl, my father always said, you know, Alana, look for ways to make a maximum positive impact in the world, right? Think about the scale of the problems of the world. I think about what talents you've been given, where you come alive, right? Um, were you were effective in this world and look for that intersection. Right? And so I think, you know, with callings, it's about self awareness for where you can be impactful, from where you are most authentically yourself. And again, where that, and this is sort of a common question people ask them, where does that intersect with the needs of the world? Right? And, and that very much is a way to think about calling, right? That I think can be very powerful.

John Weems:27:27Your father was asking the same questions that now people are asking about what you have problems in the world and just what do you want to be.

Alana Ackerson:27:38Right, right.

John Weems:27:38You talk a little bit how your faith was shaped as a young person and to the extent you're comfortable sharing kind of how you would describe your spirituality now.

Alana Ackerson:27:48Right. So my mom was incredibly contemplative, came from a Greek Orthodox background, um, you know, and so one of the things and, and so that was something that I'm deeply rooted in, um, and informs, um, my more contemplative seasons of life, but it's interesting to really see life as being made up of seasons. Right? And so right now I would say I'm more in a practice focused season of life, um, and less contemplative because there is so much work that I'm doing. There are so many ways that I am doing that good work that I am participating in building within creation. Right? And so that is how my energies are focused in our being channeled right now in my life. Um, and that is definitely more of my lived experience right now than in other seasons.

John Weems:28:41And as you live in this time of so much action and work to do, how do you stay centered? Are there spiritual practices that help you?

Alana Ackerson:28:51Yeah, there, you know, it's, it's, it's always a question, right? For people to identify which spiritual practices, um, resonate the deepest with them. Right. Um, and so for me, I, you know, it, part of it is influenced by, um, having young children and inviting them into some of those that are accessible to kids who are only a few years old. Right? Um, they, they won't quite get the idea of gazing, you know, at iconography, um, but they do understand being in nature. Right. Um, and, and so it's a question of connecting them with the splendor and serenity of creation and creating a space where things quiet and they can experience themselves as spiritual beings. And so I think that as, as my family carves out time, that's something that we do quite a bit of.

John Weems:29:49Have there been any seasons in life when it felt like your faith was tested or just that were especially difficult valleys?

Alana Ackerson:29:58Yeah. So I think with anybody, you know, when you go through extreme trauma, right, it, it forces a question of um, you know, sort of the question of what theodicy you hold, right? And, and, um, theodicies, um, are many in the world and that is, you know, how you explain where God is in the midst of human suffering or it's a question of, you know, it's the theological question of why is it that we suffer, right? What is the meaning of suffering? And, and you know, there, there are many that are well known. You know, Calvin, you know, sort of, um, proposed that suffering was um, the, the result of us being sinful. You know, C.S. Lewis saw suffering as a soul making exercise and a gift in that way. Um, it, it's interesting how when you go through your own suffering, how you respond to those different, the odysseys, you almost sort of start trying them all on very quickly to see which one seems to make any sense at all.

Alana Ackerson:30:59And so my husband and I lost a little boy, our first child. I'm in labor and that, you know, I mean, that broke us, it really did. And you know, as I was sitting on the bed in the hospital, I'm the priest who married us, came in and, and you know, asked where is God right now for you? Um, it was an unexpected question, but as I sat there, the instinctive answer was God is sitting there sobbing with me. Right. And it's interesting. It was an interesting answer for me because as I reflect back, it very much was in line with the theodicy. I had decided I'm most was most in line with my lived experience in the world when I was doing my masters. Um, I took an excellent course with Professor Greg Love at San Francisco theological seminary on God and human suffering. And you know, we, we looked at, um, the work of a variety of theologians in this area. And the one that I really thought was incredibly nuanced and authentic again to my lived experience was Wendy Farley who put forth this image of a suffering with God. Right? And I always thought that seemed to be so real to me and the idea that God was sitting on that bed sobbing with me, I'm definitely showed that my ex, you know, the expression of that in my life was that of a suffering with God

John Weems:32:29Looking out a year, whatever timeframe that you would like. What are some goals you have for yourself, your family that, uh, that tie into your. How do you know, how do you set them? And ultimately how does that tie into how you define success?

Alana Ackerson:32:44Right? So I, um, you know, it's, it's always tough to, to try and crystallize that specifically ahead of time because you're always surprised by as you try and do what's better and then better and better as living into the best, right? You know, and the same with doing the next and the next and the next in life is part of that, building that progression, you know, of your life's work. Um, you know, it's unclear what the paths are. You just, you make yourself ready, right? You make yourself ready and you make yourself available. Um, you know, and, and it's amazing how opportunities will present themselves that you have not expected. There are a few things that I hope for, um, and one specifically is, you know, looking at the work I've done on, you know, faith in technology and why we build and the meaning of our work and what that says about what it means to be human. I would love to find ways to sit in deeper conversation on those questions and to engage a broader community, um, on those questions because I think it does inform what we build. Right? And I, and I think that as the pace of technology quickens the, the pervasiveness of certain processes, reach, you know, everyone around the world, um, it's gonna be really important to make sure that we have a strong, um, I guess I ideology around Technology That's rooted in faithfulness, um, to make sure that, again, as I said earlier, quote from the nature of technology said that, that what it is that we're building and how we're using it affirms our, you, our humanness.

John Weems:34:26I want to thank you for giving us some big questions to think about for me and for our district. I appreciate it. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Alana Ackerson:34:33Thank you for having me.

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