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Teaching Women to Manage Money

Alexa von Tobel, founder and CEO of LearnVest, recently left Harvard Business School in her RC year to run LearnVest full-time. LearnVest is envisioned to be the trusted liaison between young women and the world of personal finance, providing interactive, educational content in a clear and approachable manner for women ages 18-40. I had the opportunity to chat with her about her past, her brief stop here at HBS, and the journey she’s decided to undertake.

DJ: What did you do before business school? How did that shape you into becoming an entrepreneur?

AVT: I think I’ve always been creating things for as long as I can remember…but, I worked at Morgan Stanley on their proprietary trading desk, focused on CDO’s and CLO’s, and then worked at a venture backed start up called www.drop.io as their head of business development. Drop.io is a very cool company!

DJ: When did you get the idea? What changed after you got to HBS?

AVT: Before my senior year of college — I was startled to realize that I was on the verge of graduating from Harvard and had never had a single class regarding my personal finances. Ironically, I was going to work in finance at Morgan Stanley on their internal proprietary trading desk.

DJ: How did you weigh the decision of continuing at versus leaving HBS?

AVT: Well, this is the worst economy arguably since the Great Depression — people are terrified about their personal finances and the need for LearnVest is pressing– I really want to educate people, and I felt like the timing was perfect. So…after having a few professors really appreciate the idea, staying was not in the gameplan.

DJ: What, if anything, from your limited time in HBS are you using at work?

AVT: Well, help from great friends for one! Some of my friends have been instrumental in connecting me to amazing resources. For example, Jake Anderson in my section connected me to his father, a professor at MIT, who made LearnVest the entrepreneurship final for his whole class. It helped us receive a ton of thoughtful feedback. Thanks guys.

DJ: While you were contemplating the jump, did you find the HBS environment encouraging or stifling?

AVT: The HBS staff was amazing. I was torn between staying and going, and they encouraged me to take the leap. I think I may have even cried in Pat Light’s office once or twice.

DJ: Do you feel you might come back and complete your MBA at some point?

AVT: I don’t know. I have no clue what’s in store for me!ÿ

DJ: Many would argue that most people in America can do with better financial management skills. Why target a specific age group of women?

AVT: Undoubtedly, everyone needs help with their personal finances. Even the “so-called” experts! However, I feel like of all the resources out there, none are focused on young women, so we decided to fill the void.ÿ I was getting sick of picking up books that were not written for my audience, especially when this topic is something about which I should really be concerned.

DJ: What has the response been to the site? How many subscribers do you have? Share with us a few anecdotes from your customers.

AVT: We’re currently in private beta testing, and people love it. The site is very well organized and very clean. Users have been pleased that they never feel overwhelmed by too much content at any one time. And, of course, we certainly have a lot of work to do!

DJ: Tell us about a day in your life right now. What sacrifices have you had to make?

AVT: For starters, I invested a huge chunk of my personal savings into this business! I felt like if I was going to start something, I had to make real sacrifices, so that has been an adjustment. Additionally, I barely sleep and travel constantly, which can be wretched. Weeks ago, I slept on the floor of the Oakland, California airport. However, I am the happiest I have been in a long time. for the first time, I am doing exactly what I want to which is a nice relief.

DJ: Tell us something of the “glamour” of entrepreneurship.

AVT (laughs): Well, talking to angels and VCs to raise money is a big portion of what I do every day. And while I don’t find it glamorous, I can tell you that in every single conversation I learn so much more about different ways to think about my business. This market segment, that scenario, what if, and 5 years from now, and on and on – there are just so many contingencies that people ask me about before investing – it is the most rewarding and painful part of what I do.

ÿDJ: What advice would you have for our new admits who’ve got entrepreneurial instincts – should they try, fail or succeed, and then come to HBS? Or should they first get their MBA, and then try to start a business?

AVT: For the last 2 years, I have been thinking about building LearnVest. My biggest advice is if you’re going to do it– DO IT. Not part-time, not on the side, not half-way. To build a business, you have to live and breathe it full time. So, if you have an idea and think it is sound and build-able, don’t make excuses for yourself. There will be a million and one reasons not to try…but just get out there!

ÿDJ: Do you have any full time / summer positions for which HBS students can apply?

AVT: Actually YES! We had enough people approach us about working with us that we decided to find real, independent roles for people who want to join us this summer. We are accepting resumes at jobs@learnvest.com.

March 9, 2009
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