FAVORITE DISH: Pasta. SOMETHING PEOPLE DON'T USUALLY KNOW ABOUT ME: I started working when I was six. FAVORITE AUTHOR OR BOOK:Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION: Playing a role in creating the change I want to see in the world.
The thrill of going your own way
REFUSING TO BE A BYSTANDER. For years, Colin Walsh was a top executive at several industry-leading global banks and financial services companies - for most, that would be a career well-spent. But for Colin, nothing has been more exhilarating and rewarding than building his own company centered on his vision for a more inclusive financial system. In 2015, Colin founded Varo Bank, a neo bank with a mission to advance financial inclusion and opportunity for all.
“I have spent my entire career in financial services and banking and have observed the struggles of people trying to access these services,” Colin reflects. Many American consumers face a difficult climb to financial progress due to the high costs of core banking services, which are often designed to be more expensive for low-income folks. Varo seeks to reinvent what it means to be a bank, simply by using the latest technology and designing banking products around the way Americans live.
The way Colin sees it, there’s “good” revenue and “bad” revenue. Excessive and punitive overdraft fees imposed on customers fall into the “bad” revenue category. On the other hand, “good” revenue is the result of a company offering a high-value service or product that meets the wants and needs of its customers. Varo puts this philosophy into practice with Varo Advance, a small dollar, short-term line of credit. An advance of up to $20 is free with larger advances capping out at a flat $5 fee - a far cry from the $35 overdraft fees per transaction of a traditional bank.
Colin’s innovative vision was shaped earlier in his career at American Express and Wells Fargo. Legacy financial institutions are all limited by their aging technology and the classic innovator’s dilemma - these constraints are often too great to drive the true innovation that millions of Americans need to get ahead. “I realized I had a choice to make. Either be a bystander and wait for someone else to eventually create that change, or be a participant and do it myself,” he says. Colin describes his transition to starting Varo as “stepping out of the board room and into his living room.” But making the decision to launch a company that aligns with his values has been the highlight of his professional life.
EMPATHY FORMS THE CORE. His deep sense of compassion and desire to make an impact have been a guiding force in Colin’s personal and professional life. “I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up in an environment that taught me how to connect to my fellow human beings.” He also credits his brief stint as a child actor with helping him develop his empathy, emotional intelligence and confidence at a young age.
While Colin is grateful that he grew up in a supportive environment, he acknowledges that for many, identifying as LGBT can involve personal and professional exclusion. “I had spent a fair amount of time thinking about my LGBT identity and was aware that as a community, we are often excluded, either explicitly or implicitly.” His identity and philosophy towards otherness became an essential part of his drive to create a more inclusive bank.
Inclusion and acceptance can have a real impact. “My husband has been the rock of my decision to start Varo. It makes a big difference to have someone just be there and support whatever I want to do,” he says. Any entrepreneur experiences that anxiety that one’s start-up might go under at any moment, and that’s a fear that would never go away in the early days,” Colin notes. “When you have a system to handle your anxieties for you, it takes a lot off your mind and empowers you to go further.”
“Finding that support can be hard, but everything about starting a company is hard anyway,” Colin laughs. “I’ve done this for decades, so it’s easier for me. But don’t be afraid to ask for help. People want to help, if you reach out. Yes, some people will ignore you, some will say no. But the ones who say yes, they are the ones who will create that special bond with you.”