This Black Founder Stayed True to His Triple ‘Win’ Strategy to Build a $1 Billion Business
Wemimo Abbey’s journey to co-founding billion-dollar fintech company Esusu, the leading platform for renter financial health that supports low-to-moderate-income households in the U.S., began in Lagos, Nigeria.
Abbey was raised by his mother and two sisters after his father passed away when he was just two years old. Then, in 2009, his mother’s staunch belief in the value of education brought him to the “magical place called America” for college, from his 80-degree hometown to 22-degree Minnesota.
But it was far from an easy transition.
In need of a loan to fund her son’s schooling, Abbey’s mother walked into one of the largest financial institutions in the U.S. — and was turned away because she didn’t have a credit score. Not only was she forced to borrow money from a predatory lender at a 400% interest rate, but she also had to borrow from church members and pawn her husband’s wedding ring.
“No matter where you come from, the color of your skin and your financial identity shouldn’t determine where you end up in the wealthiest nation in the world — and dare I say anywhere in the world,” Abbey told Entrepreneur.
That conviction led Abbey and his co-founder Samir Goel to launch Esusu in 2018. The goal was to offer a path to building credit for those who might not have the option otherwise — and that’s exactly what Abbey and Goel have done with their company, which reports rent payments to major credit bureaus to help renters raise their scores, and owners and property managers maximize returns.
“We really believe in this idea of justice capitalism: We can do good and do well.”
Homeownership is the largest driver of wealth in the U.S., Abbey said, and the legacy of Jim Crow and redlining have left people of color at a distinct disadvantage.
Today, that history contributes to a significant racial wealth gap in the U.S. The divide between the wealthiest and lowest-income families in the U.S. more than doubled from 1989 to 2016, by which point the median wealth of white households was $171,000 — 10 times that of Black households ($17,100) and eight times that of Hispanic households ($20,600), according to Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances.
With Esusu, Abbey strives to dismantle a system that has failed millions of Americans.
“We need to find ways where we can create a win-win-win construct across the board,” Abbey says. “We really believe in this idea of justice capitalism: We can do good and do well — and it’s by no means mutually exclusive.”
Esusu adheres to a “do no harm approach.” The platform captures on-time rental data and reports it to consumer revenue agencies, but it only reports positive rental data. Renters enrolled with Esusu can also opt-out at any time.
But Esusu’s desire to bridge the racial wealth gap goes even a step further: renters can tap into a zero-interest rent-relief fund.
“It’s this win-win-win construct,” Abbey explains. “It’s a win for the renter because they can establish their credit score or build their credit score and not go through what my mother and I went through when we came to this country, and during a tough time, [renters also] get access to zero-interest rent relief. The landlord can also get paid instead of evicting the renter. And the last win is for society — to prevent eviction and homelessness.”
Esusu is valued at $1 billion. Abbey acknowledged that the premise of the company’s existence is “very in your face” and that its investor demographics reflect that: Roughly 75% of Esusu’s investors are women or people of color, he said.
“Because we’re talking about addressing the [racial wealth] gap, those are the kind of investors we attract,” Abbey says. “My co-founder and I spoke with 326 investors and received multiple ‘nos’ across the board because some of the traditional folk just didn’t want to get behind an idea that’s going to bridge the gap — it sort of sounds [like a] nonprofit to some people. But we fundamentally believe that the rising tide lifts all boats.”
“We need to give credit where credit is due so everyone’s on the same page.”
“Representation is not liberation,” Abbey says. “Representation is currency. You, as a founder, have the currency to fundamentally impact the world in a positive way.”
Esusu’s positive impact has already been significant. The company works with more than 50% of the largest property owners and operators in the U.S., which translates to more than four million rental units. Esusu is “immensely grateful” for its current partnerships, but it’s “still early days,” and Abbey has his sights set on the nearly 50 million rental units across the U.S.
As the fintech company grows, it must continue to meet U.S. compliance and regulatory standards. “There are a lot of compliance and regulatory challenges,” Abbey admitted, but Esusu has managed to navigate the “constellation” of thousands of rules and regulations to ensure rent reporting happens.
It’s a stringent process, but Abbey “applauds regulators across the country” for their due diligence. What’s more, Esusu has gained powerful traction with government-sponsored entities including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
“We collaborate with them,” Abbey explained, “and they’ve essentially created incentives to make sure sponsors and lenders within their network are pushing this agenda of rental reports to reflect on the consumer credit score.”
Additionally, Abbey noted that support for rent payments counting towards credit scores has crossed party lines: the bipartisan Credit and Inclusion Act of 2021 allows for the reporting of information related to a consumer’s performance in making payments either under a lease agreement for a residence or pursuant to a contract for a utility or telecommunications service.
“This policy is probably one of the only bipartisan issues we have in Washington, D.C. today, and it’s simple,” Abbey said. “When you pay your mortgage, you get credit for it, and when you pay your rent, you should also get credit for it. We need to give credit where credit is due so everyone’s on the same page.”
This article was republished with permission from Entrepreneur.com.