I met Colleen Poynton on one of my very first days at Princeton at a dance audition. We remained friends throughout our four years, spending many hours in Hagan Dance Studio and eating dinner together at Terrace. It was a pleasure to talk with her about her life post-Princeton and to hear about all the ways she and the venture capital firm for which she works, Core, are working to make an impact. I hope you enjoy reading her interview as much as I did!
My primary extracurricular was dance – I was an active member of DiSiac. Socially I was a member of Terrace Club. In terms of academics, I came to Princeton thinking I wanted to do architecture and civil engineering, so I took all my architecture pre-reqs and declared the major, but I came back from my internship my sophomore summer having spoken to a lot of very unhappy architects who basically counseled me to not pursue the profession. That certainly left an impression. I really enjoyed studying architecture as an exercise, but I could tell it wasn’t enough of a defining passion in my life to justify a frustrating career. So Junior fall I choose to switch majors.
I switched into politics, with a focus on urban economic development, and did the Urban Studies Certificate program, which combines various disciplines that are core to creating economically vibrant, sustainable cities. I wrote my thesis with Douglas Massey, analyzing the political origins of our parochial land use policy in the US, the impact it has had on metropolitan development patterns and energy consumption, and how market incentives could be used to encourage more efficient development outcomes. I guess it was an unusual academic path but I ended up doing something I was passionate about.
Talk about what you’ve been up to since Princeton. What are you currently working on? What has the path been like to get to where you are today? What’s next?
After Princeton, I moved to Chicago. I wanted to work in urban development and I had reached the conclusion that one of the most effective ways to catalyze urban revitalization was to ensure local access to capital, so that regional businesses, industry, and even residents could thrive and reinvest in their community – thereby creating economic opportunity from the bottom up. I went to work for a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), which is an organization that predominantly invests in urban areas and helps catalyze initiatives like industry attraction, job training, and financial literacy and inclusion programs in the local community.
This CDFI was on the far west side of Chicago, one the most distressed neighborhoods in the city and an area traditionally unserved by large financial institutions. Working out there, I realized that there actually were financial services available, but they were super predatory. So residents of these neighborhoods are using terrible products to access credit, smooth cash flows, get liquidity, etc. – things like pawn shops, payday loans, check cashers, etc. These products are extremely expensive, poorly designed, and as it turns out, pretty inefficient. So it was fascinating to see that there was a huge market, but it was being really poorly served.
One of my primary projects that year was a peer-to-peer microlending platform. When I was a senior at Princeton, I became interested in microfinance and what Kiva, Grameen Bank, and others were doing abroad. Given my focus on urban economic development, I couldn’t help but ask – why isn’t anyone doing this in the United States? Microcredit seemed like a potentially powerful tool to apply in the context of domestic development. So I went to the head of the CDFI to pitch my idea, and he basically said, “Sounds interesting, run with it. Figure it out – tell me how we would implement this and figure out what a pilot would look like.” I spent a lot of time working on that, and putting the pilot in place.
The other project I spent a lot of time on involved a regional bank that was seized by the FDIC in the fall-out of the financial crisis. Park National Bank had been a real anchor on the Westside, and had been operating profitably as basically the only mainstream bank out there for over 25 years. Unfortunately, it was part of a holding company with sibling banks that were heavily exposed to the subprime crisis – via extensive mortgage holdings in Southern California. So it was seized by the FDIC along with the rest under a regulator provision called the cross guarantee mechanism, and sold overnight to a large national bank, in – shall we say – a somewhat uncompetitive process.
This caused a total uproar in Chicago, and a coalition of regional leaders formed to petition congress for a hearing to investigate the grounds and the terms of the sale. I was the point person for our CDFI within the coalition, and when my CEO was elected to testify on behalf of the coalition and the community, he asked me to write his testimony. So I ended up sitting as council to the witness in front of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit, with an audience full of people from the Westside, who traveled from Chicago to D.C. and back in bus to show solidarity with the CEO the bank. These folks didn’t have the resources to stay in a hotel room, and they traveled all that way to show their support for a wealthy Bank CEO who had actually served their community fairly and with dignity for decades. This was in the nadir of the crisis when Wall St. was being thrown under a proverbial bus. So the juxtaposition of the scene in that chamber was just surreal.
Suffice to say I walked away with a much deeper appreciation for the importance of financial services to individuals’ lives – especially to those with fewer resources. It truly is expensive to be poor – or really, even moderate income – and these folks need efficient, well designed, financial tools more than anyone because their financial lives are more volatile and complex.
My time with the CDFI was part of a Project 55 Fellowship (now AlumniCorps). At the end of it, I was put in touch with this crazy startup by John Fish ’55, who was one of the founders of Project 55. The company was trying to solve the problem of high cost of client acquisition in commercial real estate, by tapping regional donor networks of major nonprofits to acquire clients more efficiently. The goal was to disintermediate online lead generation firms, which typically take 15-25% of agents’ commissions, and split the savings between agents’ and local nonprofits. Agents on our platform kept more of their commission, and donated a portion of their savings through our platform to whatever nonprofit their client chose. So agents earned more; local nonprofits got funding; and commercial clients (banks, law firms, etc) looked like heroes because a donation had been made in their name. I thought it was a creative, market-oriented approach to urban reinvestment. I joined in 2010 as employee #1 and worked there for two years helping the founders launch, scale, and completely redevelop the platform.
The experience taught me that I liked the pace, creativity, and dynamic nature of startup environments. High-growth companies can have remarkable impact in an incredibly short period of time and that was the environment that I wanted to work in. I wanted to be working with people who had a big goal and were running really fast to execute it. I also felt that in certain cases, companies were able to address meaningful problems in a more scalable, sustainable manner than the public or civil sector. But, I also witnessed firsthand how critical strong management skills were to a company’s success.
That experience motivated me to get my MBA. I went to Columbia Business School, where I focused on entrepreneurship and finance. During my time there I connected with a venture fund called Core Innovation Capital, which is where I work now. Core invests in financial technology companies, and specifically in financial technology companies that are serving consumers who could be described as “under-banked” or as we say “emerging middle class.” These are people who exist somewhat outside of the mainstream financial system: some of them may have bank accounts, some of them may not; some of them may have access to traditional credit, some of them may not, and to some degree, they all use alternative financial services – the high fee, high interest rate products I saw in Chicago (and are actually ubiquitous across suburban and rural America as well). These people may be young with no credit footprint, they may have damaged credit, they may be recent immigrants who struggle to get documentation and access the banking system, or they may be independent contractors with spikey volatile income. Most of them are earning somewhere near or south of the median household wage – about 45k.
This is a huge market, with 80 M Americans spending over $1B a year on these services. Core’s central thesis is that many of these individuals are misclassified and overcharged because incumbents in the space are capital intensive and use antiquated technology. There is a huge opportunity to apply cutting edge technology to build financial products and services that are more efficient, accessible, scalable, transparent, and more accurately priced – which makes the companies we back not just better for the consumer, but also extremely competitive.
Core was based in Soho at the time, and came to campus one day to present their thesis to interested students. During their presentation, I just thought, Wow, they totally get it. They shared the point of view that it was possible to build scalable, competitive, profitable companies in a way that aligned corporate enterprise value with long term customer value. That resonated very strongly with me. So, I applied to their summer internship role, and ended up receiving an offer.
Right after I got the internship offer they mentioned “Oh, by the way, we’re moving to LA,” and I thought, “oh it’s just a summer, they’re never going to offer me a full-time job, so… why not! I’ll just hang out in LA for a few months…” Ha. And here I am.
Who is a Princetonian who has helped you along the way? Can you talk a bit about how this person has been an influence on your life or career?
Without a doubt, my P55 / Alumnicorps mentor: Marquis Parker, he was Princeton ’99 and Stanford GSB 2006. He was my mentor during a somewhat tumultuous professional time. In retrospect I talk about it like it was fascinating – and it was, I’m so glad I did it – but at the time, I was like, what the heck am I doing? I took the jobs I did because I was excited about the work, but they were certainly unconventional and far more risky than numerous other professional options.
Especially during my time at the start-up, Marquis was an awesome role model and someone I could email at any time to ask for advice, or call, or get lunch with. At work, I felt like I was learning everything by doing, without any real leadership or guidance internally. So he was an incredible resource during that time, and someone I trusted to sanity check my perspective and approach in dealing with the challenges of the job. He was also the person who encouraged me to pursue an MBA. Both of my parents went to law school, so that was the known route: you go into law or policy. For me to think about getting an MBA was just a very different thing. For Marquis to say, “Given what you’re passionate about and given not only the problems you want to solve but how you want to solve them, you really should go to business school” – that was impactful.
In retrospect, business school seems like a natural course, but at the time it felt like a very different path. For someone to say – you can and should do this – really made a difference. So yes, he was great role model and mentor during a formative professional period.
What about your life now would your Sophomore-year self be most surprised by?
That I’m living in LA! Honestly, my sophomore year, I was studying architecture and was all about reviving cities, urbanization, efficiency, etc. I was like, “LA is the devil. LA is the epitome of everything that is wrong.” Haha, so that was my sophomore self, like, hell will freeze over before I move to LA.
And now, I find being here so fascinating. First of all, LA is going through a lot of change, and it’s quite neat to observe it real time. There’s a way in which New York is New York. Comparatively speaking, it’s not broken. It’s a wonderful city. New York and Chicago are probably the most high-functioning large cities in the U.S. so there’s a way in which for me, for anyone who is interested in fixing things, it’s kinda cool to be in LA. I feel like LA is evolving and rediscovering. I aspire to have free time one day and when I do, it would be awesome to be involved somehow, whether it’ a public space initiative, or in supporting transit and cycling, or redevelopment initiatives – it would be great to contribute somehow. Our office is at the heart of Hollywood and Vine, in an old historic building, so I feel lucky that I can watch that area evolve around me day to day.
What’s your favorite thing about your life right now?
What I like the most about life right now is I feel that even through I’m super super busy and not sleeping enough, I’ve been able to keep the things that I’m really passionate about in my life. I was that worried when I left Princeton, and more recently grad school, that professional success would come at the expense of personal fulfillment. I was worried that I would never have time to dance; that I’d have to take some job that I wasn’t very excited about; that the music was just going to stop and I would have to forsake things that I was passionate about.
I think what I love the most about life right now is that from 9am-5pm—or ha more like 8am-2am–I am actually engaged and excited about what I’m doing. I’m working to find and support companies that are solving problems that impact millions of Americans and the health of our economy as a whole. And I’m incredibly lucky that here in sprawling LA, our office is two blocks from one of the best dance studios in the city, so that once or twice a week I can take a break around 7pm and scoot down there for an hour long ballet class. I always have to go back to work, but that’s such a valuable mental and physical break. The ability to keep that in my life is wonderful. I value those small moments of balance.