If there’s one place a world-changing idealist traditionally wouldn’t have been caught dead, it’s a bank.
But clearly, times have changed. A wave of tech-centric “neo-banks” have popped up in recent years, usually promising a smoother customer experience marked by lower fees and branch-less, online-oriented services. And some have sought to go even further–differentiating themselves from the competition via a focus on on socially and environmentally conscious values, investments and product offerings.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Jessica Jackley, the co-founder of microfinance startup Kiva and a bit of a rock star in the sustainable investing world, has looked to a neo-bank with a conscientious bend for her next move. Jackley has joined Marina del Rey, Calif.-based Aspiration as the company’s new chief impact officer, Fortune has learned.
Aspiration, which launched in 2015 and now has roughly 1 million customers, helps customers align their spending with their social goals via tools such as its Aspiration Impact Measurement (AIM) app, which provides them with a personal sustainability score based on where they choose to shop and spend (the more sustainable your shopping habits, the higher your score).
“I was really drawn to [Aspiration’s] mission and the potential of carrying it out on as large a scale as possible,” Jackley told Fortune. “I think where and how and on what we spend our money matters, and I’m excited about the options we’re giving people to actively make better decisions and encourage spending that is more sustainable.”
Among Aspiration’s differentiators: customers can receive bonus cash-back rewards for spending at socially-conscious businesses, and can choose to invest their money in vehicles like Aspiration’s Redwood Fund–a fossil fuel-free fund that targets companies with environmentally sustainable practices. Aspiration also donates 10% of its earnings to charitable causes.
So far, these efforts seem to have won the startup some fairly notable fans. Last month, Aspiration announced that it had recruited actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio as an investor, with DiCaprio also joining the company’s board of advisors.
Aspiration created the role of chief impact officer role specifically for Jackley, who described it as “the first full-time job that I’ve taken since [founding] Kiva at an organization that I didn’t help start.” Jackley noted that she “wasn’t looking” for such a gig–opting instead to spend more time with her husband, the author and religious scholar Reza Aslan, and their three young children at their home in Los Angeles.
But the opportunity to join Aspiration came as a result of a friendship that she struck up in recent years with Aspiration co-founder and CEO Andrei Cherny, who reached out to Jackley after the 2015 publication of her book, Clay Water Brick. Eventually, the two had a conversation about what a role at Aspiration would entail.
Cherny described Jackley as “a trailblazer” whose work at Kiva and other ventures “reframed the conversation around how a financial institution could be a force for lifting people up and changing lives for the better.” With that idea being “the hallmark of what we’re about at Aspiration,” he said Jackley was a logical fit for the role.
“The work that she’s doing is in many ways the most important work at the whole company, because it’s why people are drawn to opening an Aspiration account in the first place,” Cherny told Fortune. “It’s important that we have a leader of [Jackley’s] caliber to guide that work on a daily basis.”
Likewise, Jackley described Aspiration as a venture in line with the values of “financial inclusion, empowerment and social justice” that have guided her own career to date. The nonprofit Kiva launched in 2005 with the idea of crowdfunding loans for financially underserved entrepreneurs around the world; to date, Kiva has funded nearly $1.3 billion in loans for more than 3 million borrowers in 80 countries around the world, according to its website.
“I’m not somebody who grew up wanting to be an entrepreneur, or who thought banking was the most interesting thing in the world,” she said. Instead, her work in the realm of finance has been driven by the belief that “money can actually be used for good–it’s a uniquely powerful tool that can nourish beautiful ideas and help people grow to their full potential.”
Those kinds of values may sound quaint in the traditionally ruthless, dog-eat-dog financial services world, but they’ve gained a foothold in recent years–with even the largest financial institutions now reckoning with the increased influence of environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria in choosing how they allocate and invest their customers’ deposits.
“I look at it this way: the companies that are asking and answering questions about long-term sustainability will win,” according to Jackley. “It’s the correct thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, and it’s the ethical thing to do.” While noting that it’s “better late than never” that major corporations are now embracing such values, Jackley isn’t heaping praise on business leaders who have come around and taken a stand on something that’s “very obvious” to many. “It’s not like we should stand up and have a slow clap for the banks that are realizing that sustainability matters,” she said.
“I’m not interested in doing business the same way and having a feel-good program or two on the side, or doing something for the sake of optics,” she said. “I’m here because I want to help disrupt this industry.”