One of the biggest concerns many parents share is saving for their children’s future, whether that be funding a college education or helping their kids get established in their first homes. Meanwhile, student debt has reached crisis levels, with 44 million Americans collectively owing $1.6 trillion. Ksenia Yudina, the founder and CEO of UNest, has created a fintech solution aimed at serving not just the wealthy, but also mid to low-income families.
UNest makes it easier than ever for parents to save for their children’s future. As one of the fastest growing fintech apps of all time, it has onboarded over 250,000 parents and kids in just a few months and is projected to reach one million families by the end of 2021. Yudina has recruited a diverse and mission-driven team, and raised funding from leading venture capital funds including Northwestern Mutual, Anthos Capital, The Artemis Fund, Group 11, Draper Dragon, Unlock Ventures, and Vested Ventures.
By blending intelligent, simple-to-use savings and money management tools with investment managers working in the background, UNest helps families add to their savings in three easy ways: gifting, rewards, and referral bonuses. This mix has been especially timely during the Covid-19 pandemic, when people are looking for additional ways to boost their savings.
As a result of UNest’s success, Yudina was recognized as a 40 Under 40 by Investment News in 2020, and a Rising Star of the Year by Los Angeles Business Journal. She received an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and holds a CFA charter, of which only 17% are female.
“I’m not a typical startup founder and couldn’t have predicted that I would be running a fintech powerhouse,” Yudina says. “My path came out of a passion for investment management, my own experiences as an MBA student, and my career in finance at one of the largest investment firms in the country.”
Yudina came to the US from Russia when she was 18 and put herself through college. As an undergrad, she discovered a deep passion for finance and investments. However, when she graduated in 2009, she found herself in the midst of the financial crisis. Thousands of financial firms were shutting down and people were losing their jobs. So, she pivoted to real estate, where she helped people who couldn’t make their mortgage payments go through loan modifications and short sales.
Later, she decided to get her MBA and a CFA designation – the gold standard in finance, which takes on average five years to accomplish. When Yudina was accepted to UCLA Anderson School of Management, she was just 24 years old, married, and had a one-year-old daughter. Most of her classmates were in their early 30s and single, and almost none had children.
At UCLA, Yudina became the only female portfolio manager among 16 grad students at the Student Asset Management club, which managed $500K of the university’s endowment. The experience opened her eyes to how underrepresented women are in the financial industry. She became determined to even out the gender ratio.
After graduating from UCLA, Yudina went to work for Capital Group/ American Funds, one of the largest investment management firms in the country. As a vice president in their Private Wealth Management group, she helped clients with financial planning and analysis of their investment allocations. While this was her dream job, she began to recognize issues that the financial services industry had overlooked.
The largest problem was that the industry failed to recognize that parents prioritize saving and investing for their children above all other financial goals, including retirement. This was just as true for wealthy parents as it was for disadvantaged parents. Yet the products companies were offering had low contribution caps and also required a ton of paperwork.
“As a young parent myself, I could relate to this desire to save for my children’s future,” Yudina says. “Parents were routinely using apps like Venmo and Robinhood, so filling out long forms was alien to them. I realized that this was an opportunity to solve a huge problem. But it was tough to see how a large financial institution could move quickly enough, so I decided to do it myself.” By the time she launched UNest, Yudina had three kids. Her twins were only two years old.
Yudina is proud of realizing her vision to allow all families, regardless of income level and background, to responsibly save for their children’s futures. She’s also proud of the diverse team she has built at UNest — 40% female and with employees of various ethnic and national backgrounds.
But getting here wasn’t easy. “The main problem I faced with VCs was a lack of traction,” Yudina says. “They said ‘no’ to me for conflicting reasons – because either there was no proof of concept or someone had done it already. Meanwhile, I watched multiple male-led companies raising millions of dollars without any customers or product. I felt very lost and confused.”
Then the reality hit her – 98% of the capital from venture funds flows to male founders. Women are a significantly underrepresented group. The chances of raising capital at the crossover of the two most male-dominated industries, finance and technology, were remote.
So, Yudina partnered with Peter Mansfield, who later became CMO of UNest. “This was a game changer,” Yudina says. “Peter had an extensive track record in fintech and was the second team member at Marqeta. He knew a lot about fundraising do’s and don’ts, and had an impressive network in the industry.” Together, they were able to close a seed round from some of the leading VCs in the country, including The Artemis Fund, which focuses on female entrepreneurs.
To others looking to tap into their life purpose, Yudina offers this advice. “Use education as a stepping stone to your career of choice. Don’t be afraid of failure. Most successful companies and their founders have tried and failed at something previously, but they’ve shown resilience and learnt from the experience to bounce back. Finally, mentors and advisors are key. Surround yourself with people you admire to guide and support you on your journey.”