HoneyBee CEO Ennie Lim tackles financial wellness with equitable loans
For Ennie Lim, financial wellness is more than just a trendy buzzword. It is a difficult goal to achieve that has consumed and defined all of her life.
Today, Lim is the co-founder and CEO of HoneyBee, a finance solution platform that provides employees in need with 0% APR loans of up to a thousand dollars and personalized financial coaching. But her way to the C-suite was hard won.
At the age of nine, Lim and her family immigrated from Malaysia to Montreal, Canada. When Lim’s father was unable to work due to an unexpected illness, her mother had to take on the role of sole breadwinner for a family of four. Lim watched as she struggled to make ends meet, living from paycheck to paycheck, and relying on short-term employer loans when money ran low.
“It was really intimidating,” says Lim, who developed a skewed perception of financial stability. “All I knew about my finances was saving every dollar and not looking at my bank account.”
This mentality accompanied Lim into adulthood. After moving to the United States in 2011 at the age of 26, Lim was what is known as “credit invisible,” a term coined to describe individuals who do not have a credit history with any of the three major credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax or TransUnion – and can therefore not prove any creditworthiness.
She didn’t start building credit until after she got married – when she only did so with her husband’s line of credit. “We never thought twice about what would happen if we got divorced,” says Lim, who is now 38 years old. “I never wanted to put us in this state.”
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But after seven years, she and her husband divorced, an event that proved much more devastating for Lim financially. In addition to the reality of declining creditworthiness, Lim faced expensive legal fees and was unable to help pay them.
Suddenly, things she previously thought were achievable – a loan, an apartment, a car, and even a job – were out of reach. Forced to start her financial journey from scratch, Lim moved to her parents’ basement in Montreal.
“That was a really humbling experience,” she says. “[I felt like I] Bottom reached. But when you’ve hit rock bottom there’s no other way than to go up from there. “
As a woman and a colored person, Lim’s experience is hardly unique. The credit space has always disproportionately affected minorities: according to the data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act 2020, lenders deny mortgages to black applicants at a rate 80% higher than that of white applicants. And when women are tested on their personal finance knowledge, only 38% of the questions answered correctly, according to the Personal Finance Index.
The statistics on financial literacy – and the significant gap for women – hit Lim, who knows how much misinformation can affect a woman in a situation like hers.
“I speak to so many women,” she says. “And finances are the main reason they don’t get divorced – because they’re afraid of what will happen to them afterward.”
There in her parents’ basement, still from the events that had led her to this position and with no career prospects, Lim realized that she wanted to find the solution to her very own problem.
“Not everyone struggles with financial challenges,” says Lim. “But everyone has a story.”
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Lim was aware of her own and the importance of accessible financial wellness platforms for all segments of the population. When long-time friends Benny Yiu and Max Zschoch approached her with a prototype idea for financial support via the employer channel, she used her own experience to create the framework for a future customer base.
In 2016, the trio jointly developed and launched HoneyBee, the first service of its kind that charges companies a premium and gives employees direct loans at 0% APR. This allows those in need to avoid the use of more traditional banks, which often penalize BIPOC borrowers with high interest rates and the inability to improve their creditworthiness.
“Employers should play a much bigger role in making sure they can deliver equitable and inclusive solutions,” says Lim. “People come from different socio-economic backgrounds and won’t talk about it at work, but that’s the reality.”
In the beginning, Lim and her co-founders had booted HoneyBee before raising pre-seed capital in 2017. The process was brutal, Lim recalls: They set up more than 100 VCs and had dropped to $ 200 in their bank account by the time they finally got their first check from investors.
After leading HoneyBee’s sales team during the company’s early years, Lim was named CEO in July 2019, a transition she didn’t take lightly.
“Silicon Valley and FinTech in particular are predominantly male-dominated,” she says. “It is important for women to continue breaking down these barriers and obstacles, and it is important to have men as our allies. My two co-founders were my most important support. “
Walter Balmas, Head of Consumer Success at HoneyBee, was the first colleague to suggest Lim take on a bigger leadership role, largely because of her commitment to spreading her customers’ stories as well as her own.
“As a startup, you have to be really good at telling a story,” says Balmas. “Our storyteller is Ennie. Ultimately, she is a person who inspires and lives what she believes. “
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These stories helped HoneyBee attract top talent like Balmas, who previously worked in the student loan space for nearly three decades. HoneyBee’s mission, says Balmas, would allow it to redefine diversity, equity and inclusion in other businesses – it’s not enough for HR departments to understand that there are financial differences between demographics if they don’t implement the tools to to bring about change and support marginalized employees.
At the end of the day, Balmas says that he feels like his work is contributing to something great. His previous work felt very transactional; At HoneyBee, getting a $ 400 loan approval for an employee is important.
“We’re up to something,” he says. “We can help [employers] Make sure a diverse workforce has the tools they need to make them feel part of them. “
This commitment to closing the diversity gap prompted Lisa Sordilla, VP of HR at the HR technology solution platform Energage, to introduce HoneyBee in her own department.
“Given what happened last year, it’s time for [HR] to do more and not just say they support justice in the workplace, ”says Sordilla. “What could you do? Are your achievements fair? That’s important to me.”
Since Energage is a software company with comparatively high wages, many of its employees do not have to use HoneyBee’s credit services, according to Sordilla. Instead, the real value of HoneyBee at Energage lies in its coaching opportunities – because “financially stable” doesn’t always mean “financially competent”.
“I use financial coaching myself,” says Sordilla. “I set myself three financial goals for 2020 and achieved all three. I have benefited so much from having just one responsible partner in my trainer and having someone to help me think about things differently. “
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This type of feedback is music to Lim’s ears and proves that it has long been correct: that many people from many socio-economic backgrounds crave a reliable and emotionally safe space to prioritize their personal finances. It’s the kind of space Lim wanted but never found.
“I just wish I could have asked for help,” she says of the events that have brought her to where she is today. “And when I think about my mother growing up, I wish she had someone she could rely on too.”
Although she has made great strides towards that vision that no one is in the same position as she is, Lim says that HoneyBee – which now has 20 employees – is far from the end of achieving its goals.
“We will continue to grow,” she says. “Even if we complete our next round of financing and our team will double [in size], It is important to me to always maintain our culture and core values, and to ensure that everyone embodies them as we grow. “