NYBJ Interview: Betterment Board Director, Donna Wells
Over the past three decades, Donna Wells has built a prolific career across various aspects of financial services and fintech.
Now she’s bringing her expertise to a New York-based startup.
Wells has officially joined the board of directors at Betterment, an online financial advisor that specializes in distributing clients’ funds across multiple ETFs.
A 30-year veteran in the industry, Wells most recently served as president, CEO and board director of Mindflash.com, a leading platform for online training. Prior to that, she had an extensive career in the financial services and software industries, serving as the chief marketing officer of Mint.com, a personal financial management app for millennials.
She has also held titles at Intuit, Expedia, Schwab, American Express, and myCFO, the first technology platform for high net-worth wealth management.
The New York Business Journal caught up with Wells to discuss her new role, lessons she has learned throughout her career, and how Betterment can help the current “retirement crisis.”
What lessons were learned at Mindflash and Mint.com that could help Betterment management?
My key lessons learned, relevant to Betterment, are how to build breakthrough products by incorporating customer research early and often in product design; the criticality of designing software for rapid growth and large scale from the earliest days; and the power of bringing a diverse, transparent team when you’re attempting to solve large and challenging problems. I’ve been impressed with Betterment’s approach and progress on all three fronts and am looking forward to joining these ongoing conversations.
How can Betterment stand out among the all of the other ‘robo-advisors’ out there?
When I first heard about Betterment in 2009, I remember thinking the product was one of the most intelligent and potentially powerful approaches to wealth management I’d come across in years. Obviously, a lot of players in the industry felt the same. Since Betterment came on the scene, every major wealth management firm has also attempted to launch a competitive offering.
Betterment’s not only kept but extended its leadership role by continuing its low and transparent fee structure and its commitment to unbiased investment advice. Unlike most of the industry, Betterment doesn’t sell proprietary products that have the potential to create conflicts of interest between the advisor and the client.
They’ve continued to lead the industry in introducing personalized advice, services for employers and financial advisors and, most recently, personalized portfolios. As a result, Betterment has earned the highest client trust and referral rate that I’ve ever seen… in nearly 30 years in this industry.
What caused the ‘retirement crisis’ and how can Betterment help?
The traditional investing industry is so poorly designed for the individual investor that it results in 70% Americans having less than $1,000 at retirement. And half of those people have nothing. Zero. There are several factors that led to this “retirement crisis,” including: changing demographics, wage stagnation, and the global economy’s digital transformation.
Betterment helps individuals start and improve their investing by offering low account minimums, low and transparent fees, and unbiased advice through a unique and powerful combination of software and expert advisors. Betterment also helps companies and their employees by making it easier for employees to take full advantage of retirement plans made available to them.
It also allows employers to evaluate the quality of the plans they’re providing, as well as their own policies on participation. In 2016, only 47 percent of US businesses offered employees some kind of retirement plan. I think Betterment’s approach can help increase that in a generation.
What direction would you like to see Betterment go?
I’m hopeful that Betterment’s influence will help the broader industry earn and raise trust levels off of the floor they’ve rested on since the 2008 financial crisis. Also, I hope to see Betterment continue to lead in the application of advanced technology to these difficult problems.
In my opinion, too much of the software built by our best and brightest engineers has been focused exclusively on making more money for institutions and speculators. Betterment stands out because this company’s technology helps the investor, employee and employer win. Their no-conflict-of-interest business model ensures that the investors’ interests will always come first.
In your experience as a finance expert, how are millennials doing when it comes to saving?
Most people are surprised to learn that Millennials (now 25–40) are actually better at saving money than earlier generations were at their age. According to a recent Harris poll, 71 percent of Millennial workers are saving for retirement, and they started saving at 24, younger than Generation X’s median starting age of 30. The problem is that they aren’t investing that money in assets that will provide them growth.
They are letting their money sit idly in savings, which will not earn them enough to meet their retirement goals. Economists tell us that this is due to their innate conservatism: having lived through the 2008 financial crisis, they are inherently risk-averse.
In addition, Millennials tend to be distrustful of financial advisors. That’s where I believe Betterment can play a major role. Betterment is a smarter, easier, lower cost alternative to DIY investing or using a commissioned wealth manager.
This interview appeared in the New York Business Journal, written by Anthony Noto.