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Providing Easy Access to Workplace Savings with Michelle Tran

A secure retirement doesn’t just happen. It needs to start with planning and saving early. People are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of retirement savings as they age but still fail to save enough. While there are several reasons for this, others simply do not have easy access to a retirement savings plan at work.

In this episode, Jack talks with Michelle Tran, SVP & Head of Enterprise Sales at Vestwell. Passionate about all things fintech and wealthtech, Michelle is a growth and sales leader with success in growing businesses and teams. She is a fintech and wealthtech leader supporting women in the industry and helping end investors and small business owners fulfill their financial legacies.

As one of the top 100 women in fintech, Michelle talks with Jack about the important role that workplace retirement business plays in educating and guiding new investors, the convergence of workplace retirement and wealth management, and her commitment to empowering women in fintech.

What Michelle has to say

“Not a lot of American has access to savings. If you think about just the 401k space, there are 32 million small businesses in the US, and less than a million of them have actual workplace savings.”

– Michelle Tran, SVP & Head of Enterprise Sales, Vestwell

Read the full transcript

Jack Sharry: Everyone, thanks for joining us for this edition of WealthTech on Deck welcome. For today’s discussion, we will look at two different areas I find particularly interesting. First, we will look at the important role the workplace retirement business is playing in educating and guiding newer investors. And the second is the work our guest is engaged with empowering women in FinTech. So I guess today is Michelle Tran. Michelle’s day job is Senior Vice President, head of enterprise sales at Vestwelll. In her spare time, in addition to being a mother of four I can’t get I can’t get past that one for Michelle is the board member is a board member of take the lead women, founder of the NYC FinTech organization, is founding member of dreamers and doers. So, Michelle, welcome to Wealthtech on Deck, great to have you on board.

Michelle Tran: Thanks for having me, Jack. I’m so excited to be here.

Jack Sharry: So Michelle, let’s start with a little background on your career and some some more about your role at best balls kind of give the backstory and then we’ll talk about some of the things you’re working on now.

Michelle Tran: Yeah, so as you said, I lead enterprise sales and channel partnerships for Vestwell. So my day job, what I do between the hours of six and midnight feels like is really focused on and figuring out how to help vessel grow, it grow in a very scaled way. And what’s really interesting too, is in the industry, what we’re seeing is that there’s just a lot of momentum for companies to really figure out how do we offer workplace savings to employees. So that’s what I do you know, today, really excited to be at the firm love our mission and what we’re doing in this space. My background is I come from years of wealth management asset management experience. So started my career at Blackrock leading a number of initiatives across FinTech, also, sales within iShares spent some time in Hong Kong, so lived in Hong Kong for a couple years, growing our ETF sales with global public banks. And it was really interesting, because it was a really new and nascent product at that time, especially in Asia, and then moved back to the states and moved to New York to figure out our FinTech strategy. And this is at a time when you didn’t hear anything but robo advisors in the news. And then robo advisors were going to take over the world from, you know, all the advisors. It was a robots, robots robots. But the good thing was that they’re using a lot of ETFs, right, from a liquidity standpoint, a fee perspective. And so really, what we were trying to figure out is, you know, what’s our play there. And as you’ve seen it, and Jackie know that, well, it hasn’t played out right, or in terms of robots are taking over, what they really done is democratize access to investing, which has been really cool, it’s really provided a lot of access for people who don’t usually have access to investing who think investing is willing for those that have a million dollars and that and that’s no longer true. And so what’s really happening now is that people are starting to create wealth, create opportunity, and from Blackrock went to apex clearing, which they were at the forefront in terms of the technology to help enable people to invest. And so really the foundation behind, you know, early foundation behind Robin Hood Foundation behind a lot of the robo advisors and creating that, that technology to enable small account and fast account opening. And then, you know, spent some time at some various number of startups and figuring out how do we continue to help them grow their business, all in have a look at my career are really focused on these new innovative products that are bringing access to investors access to savings. And that’s really what brought me to basketball was, you know, I’ve gone through a number of companies where we provide access to investing. But access to savings is different. Not a lot of American has access to savings. If you think about just the 401k space, there are 32 million small businesses out there in the US in less than a million of them have actual workplace savings. And I just think back to personally, I’m a first-generation immigrants, my parents came over from Vietnam, and they never had access to workplace savings. And I was very fortunate to do so. And so to see the impact of being able to save through my job, and what it’s afforded me, you know, has a big reason why I’m at Vestwell today.

Jack Sharry: So one of things I find fascinating about vest Well, first of all, I love the growth story, and I’d love to hear some more about why you think that is I have some ever I have an inside track. I’ve had talked to your boss, Aaron Schumm, who’s the CEO at festival on our podcast, and he’s filled us in a little bit. But I’d love to hear your perspective on that. You’re growing like crazy, it seems also it seems I’m pretty well informed on this. You’re adding lots of value. You’re not it’s not just a savings program, but the teaching program, if you will, in terms of showing people how to save and invest for the future. Love to hear some more about that. But clearly, you’re in a hyper growth mode, and I think some of those contributed may be more. So fill us in, what is it that you think what’s the secret sauce investable, why are you guys doing so well?

Michelle Tran: There is a number of different factors. One is when you think about access and helping people save, how are we making it easy? How are you making it frictionless, right? You don’t want, you know, people who are trying to save that extra $100, that extra $200, to go through 10 different steps, you want to make it as easy as possible. And that’s the way that they’re, you know, these individuals are gonna be able to save for that long term help to so when they retire, they’ll actually have money to to use. And so that’s really I think, at the crux of it is when we think about technology, we’re really using technology to one, build efficiency for the user experience, and modernizing that user experience. But also building it when we think about in house and looking internally, right, how do we serve operations? How do we think about, you know, our investments, all these different components that go into running a business, we’re bringing technology into those areas. And so that’s really where, you know, one, just love the secret sauce that we have DocuSign came out with a case study on this very recently, a couple of weeks ago, about how we really increase the client journey and the number of client agreements that we got signed, because we’re able to fast track and really build efficiencies into the whole contract signing process. So what we really did was bring multiple different contracts in into one signing experience. So it wasn’t you had to go to, you know, three or four different DocuSigns to get something done, you had an all in one experience. And that really leapfrog the way that a lot of firms that work with us, were able to move quickly to launch their plans. So that’s one part was an example of efficiency that we bring to the table.

Jack Sharry: So I’d love to hear more. I know personally, when I’m online, and the steps are too many I give up at a certain point because I don’t have the patience. They just don’t want to deal with it. If they’re not going to make it easy for him to heck with them, even though it frankly might undermine this sale price that I had available to me or whatever. But I what I gather is not only are you making the process easier, Aaron talked about that when he was with us. But you’re also starting to add additional services when he talked a little bit about that in terms of how you’re enabling participants to save more easily in terms of the process, but also guidance along the way.

Michelle Tran: Yeah, so we launched a managed account platform product, with our partners at Franklin Templeton, for that easy button in terms of savings. And so within this managed account solution, you know, what we do is we take in about 40 different areas of inputs, we take in Social Security calculations, we take an income, age route retirement, you’re able to add in different accounts as well. So we take all this information in to provide a real kind of customized portfolio. You know, when you think about it, from an individual standpoint, they don’t hear the words customized portfolio, they don’t know what that means. What they see is that, Hey, someone has taken in all my information, they looked at my financial picture, all these different inputs, and are giving me kind of a mix of different investments that are tailored for me. And we’re doing this through automation. And so that’s one that we really, you know, we see a lot of success in and we’ve seen a lot of individuals and small businesses say, Hey, you’re actually building some technology that will help my individuals, my employees save more. The bigger thing here too, is that it’s a native experience. So when you talk about the easy button, you’re not going to go to another website to do this function and then come back. We’ve built it all natively within the experience for the participant. So they just have to go in, it’s all part of their sign on experience. They’re setting up their investment experience, but it’s all native within our the individual portal. And so when you talk about like, how easy can it be, you’re not going anywhere, you’re not clicking on 20 different tabs, you’re not clicking on 20 different websites, you’re really doing it in one place. And so you’re as easy as possible.

Jack Sharry: So Michelle, we share Franklin Templeton as an important client in common. And what you’re referring to is the goals optimization engine, which has been an award-winning planning tool and implementation tool and also commonly referred to as GOE a goals optimization engine. And LifeYield recently announced our deal with go and soon enough, that will be tied into Vestwell. So when you’re describing, setting up the process you’re using go as the planning tool and implementation tool. And on the back end, what you’re going to have is you’re going to have LifeYield, then suggesting how to optimally withdraw or drawdown across multiple accounts. When you talk a little bit about that kind of fun, how are our various tech capabilities are coming together?

Michelle Tran: Yeah, that’s what’s fun in our space, right? When we think about wealthtech, there’s a number of amazing technology, innovative technologies out there. And I think the fun part is how do you piece it together to provide that right experience for the user. And that’s where we’ve really, you know, really loved working with Franklin as they thought, right, innovatively about how to offer a managed account solution. Bringing in the right experts to provide components like bringing in LifeYield. So we’re really excited to partner with them and with you eventually.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, actually another piece to that equation. The second deal LifeYield signed when we were founded some 14 years ago was with Franklin Templeton, it was a Social Security optimization tool, which at the time was part of a much more complex system, but we broke it out because they wanted us do it became wildly successful for them. And for us, interestingly, it’s now going to show back up and go as part of the optimizations optimizing Social Security, optimizing income withdrawal, across multiple accounts. Talk, if you would a little bit about this whole convergence, one of the things that I see that I’m quite fascinated by excited by is this convergence of workplace retirement, retirement savings, and wealth management, they’re really coming together in a way where, depending how you enter, you’re gonna get taken care of over time as particularly as your, your wealth grows as the complexity of what you own grows, and that by working together between the workplace side and the wealth side, the client succeeds. And frankly, the advisor does as well.

Michelle Tran: Yeah, it’s really, really interesting. And I think it’s the next big wave of what’s to come within the retirement space. And within the whole space, what you’re seeing is you’re seeing retirement groups offering wealth management, and then you’re seeing wealth management groups, who usually only do wealth management, look at the opportunities and the tailwinds that they see in the space, and now beginning to really see the commercial opportunity within 401. K and retirement. So I think that’s what’s really interesting. And what I predict will happen in 2023, and 2024, is that you’re going to see a lot of these while shops begin really starting to think about the 401k channel in a more concerted fashion. And what that really means is, how do we look at segments of retirement? What are the segments of retirement that are growing fastest. So you know, again, when you look at, I’m really in the small business space, this is a world this is a segment of that market that is growing very fast. And there’s a huge opportunity, and a huge opportunity, not only as because of the number of small businesses that exist, it’s because the government is also mandating retirement options for small businesses. And so that always helps, right? When you have the government say you have to do something, and then most businesses will. And we’ve seen that play out in California, and California, you have to offer retirement option if you have five more employees, and their deadline was in June, and you saw activity in California really spike, what we see is that we see these Wealth Management shops who focus primarily only on wealth management, really seeing retirement being a huge revenue channel for them. It’s because of state mandates, it’s because of a number of small business out there in the market. But they really see this as an opportunity for them to continue to build a different segment where advisors can build books and business. And what’s really interesting too, is that this is a really interesting place for the next gen advisor. So you think about those next gen advisors who are, you know, right out of school, or building out their book of business 2030 goals, they’re not necessarily going to buy a book of business, but they see 401k as a space where one, I can attract and meet with small business owners who can both be a 401k client as well as potentially a wealth client. The other interesting part too, is we talked about robo advisors and access to investments is what we do at basketball is that we provide our advisory groups access to both the advisor and to the participants. So when we think about it, you know, the data is yours as an advisor. And so what this becomes is a cross selling opportunity. So for participants in the market, you know, if they’re interesting, if there’s a, say, a robo advisory platform that an advisor can offer, they can really offer investment management, as well, to all the participants. So there’s a lot of opportunities for advisors to think about, Hey, what should I be doing in the 401k space? What’s really cool is, we’re trying to make it really easy for them, right? They shouldn’t be spending, you know, countless hours on building out small business plans, etc, what we really want to do is make it the easy button, we want to be price competitively. And we want to give everyone a really great modern experience. And that’s true across the advisor, the small business and those that are saving the user experience, like you said, if you have to click 20 different places, you’re going to lose interest and go somewhere else. And that is ever so true for those that are just trying to save and don’t know a lot about financial services, investment management. So when we think about how do we enable that saver, to save more, or even to get enrolled, we want to make it as easy as possible. And that’s where the technology piece comes in.

Jack Sharry: So one of the things that another client in common we have is Morgan Stanley, so we’ve worked on the wealth side vest well as along with empower and probably others are working on the workplace side. Of course, Morgan Stanley was smart enough to buy ETrade and has been quietly developing Morgan Stanley online and of course they have Morgan Stanley at work where were you reside as does empower what’s interesting, it’s all converging and really what Morgan Stanley’s strategy they’ve been quite vocal about this is to meet the client or the participant, whether where they live where they want to start, and it’s access to a market because they built the technology infrastructure or the wealth management side, but it is and will be continued to be expanded and utilized on the workplace side. So you get high end experience, by the way informed by the whole Robo process. Robo really taught the old school, the OG wealth management world, taught how to how to be simpler, and they’ve just embraced and adopted organizations have great example of that, where they’re growing their assets and the fact that the top three by the way, so it was a Tiburon recently, the top three fastest growing new asset firms are Fidelity, Schwab and Morgan Stanley. And so what they’re doing is they’re garnering gathering the assets by going to people where they want to find out whether it’s their workplace, whether it’s direct through an E trade, or however they want to do it, it’s a wealth manager, old school, Wealth Management client, but they’re gonna have the services, the wherewithal, the capability all driven by tech. And then to the degree you want an advisor, however, you want an advisor, you want an E trade adviser, you want to Morgan Stanley, traditional advisor, they’re there at your service, however you want to be served. So it’s fascinating to watch. And, of course, you’re on the front row seat on the workplace side, watching this happen.

Michelle Tran: Yeah, it’s been pretty amazing. I mean, I think, you know, the Morgan Stanley partnership has really helped us open our eyes to in terms of how do we work with partners? And how do we serve advisors, I think what we love to hear is when advisors really think about what they can do with the small plant space, that gets us really excited. And you know, in the beginning, we would work with advisors who would only have one or two plans, you know, accommodation for their small business client. And now they’re looking at 30 40 plans, they really understand the market, they know how to simplify the message, they know the value proposition for their client. And on the back end, then, you know, Morgan Stanley’s making it easy for them to be able to offer those plans. And that really extends out and helps them build out in exponential ways, their business.

Jack Sharry: So there’s been great fun talk about best well, and partnerships and smart firms like Franklin Templeton and Morgan Stanley invest well, and LifeYield. Let’s talk a little bit about what you do for fun, aside from being a mom of four kids, so can’t get over that, that you do all this plus that. But the work that you’ve been doing with women and fintech you’re involved in forming and being a board member, a number of women in FinTech organizations tell us all about that. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How much money haven’t toes having a lot of fun.

Michelle Tran: It’s a lot of fun. Great, it’s my passion at the end of the day, right? We all want to figure out what how are we going to impact the world? And for me, it is it’s how do we help women and fintech? How do we help women in general, we started NYC, FinTech women in 2017. And it really started with a small group of us, you know, 16 women at a bar on a rainy Tuesday. And that that bar no longer exists, right? So. And now we’re 10,000 women and men across the US and globally. And it’s been just really amazing to hear how we’ve impacted people across the board. And everything from Hey, you know, I was able to meet this woman. And now we have a deal on the table, to someone taught me about angel investing. And I wrote my first check to I was able to get promoted, and you helped me, you know, kind of take that next step and ask for more money. So our mission is to empower to connect and to promote women and fintech and those three very specific words of Connect, empower and promote. And so everything we do is centered around that. So I absolutely love it. And wish I could spend more time we definitely have, we have a team of volunteers that run it. So very grateful for all of them to help us expand. So we’re now not just in NYC. So now we’re in San Francisco, Chicago, there’s after starting in Boston, someone reached out to start something in Hong Kong. So hopefully, we’ll be truly worldwide at some point. And a lot of that also informs what I do in terms of my board role would take the lead. So take the lead is a platform looking to get to gender parity by 2025, through women in leadership. The other thing that I am passionate about too, that I spend some time on is within the Asian American community. So helping women within Asian community, Asian American community, think about leadership roles, because that is a big challenge for women in the community is to get to leadership positions. And then the other piece two is when we think about funding, so funding both for women and Asian Americans. So the stat is still astounding to me, but only 2% of institutional venture capital money goes to female founders. And then that starts even smaller when you get to, you know, Asians or any other minority. So that’s one piece out, you know, something that I want to focus on and 2023 is how do we think about getting people to write more checks to female founders and thinking about who are those who Little better writing the checks as well.

Jack Sharry: Good for you. Congratulations on the good work you’re doing. And I have a hunch you’ve only just begun. Let’s talk about the future a little bit. Talk about for best well, for our industry for women and fintech, where do you see the world going? What’s going to happen over the next three to five years, we’ve been through a great run. Over the past year, some tough markets, people kind of matured quickly, in terms of their investing experience. So what do you see come? What’s happening over the next few years around FinTech in particular, and all the different ways that we’ve discussed?

Michelle Tran: Yeah, it’s been quite a year. I think everyone can attest to that. Yeah, January highs to now where we are. And I think it says a lot about companies and people and how they weather the storms. Right? So I think, you know, what we’re gonna see is one that modern user experience is ever so important, right? It is, how do you continue to build a user experience that will effectively and efficiently get users engaged. And that’s always going to be at the core of how businesses need to think about building their platform. We are launching, you know, a new record keeping platform called Sierra, that’s part of that. And, you know, anecdotally, what it does is, it’s streamlines and build so much efficiency into our operations. And that’s going back to the user experience. So a real life story, right? If you have a 401k, and you take a loan from a 401k, you don’t want to wait two weeks, because you need that loan for a reason. It’s, you know, markets are down, maybe you need that loan to put food on the table, or maybe you need it to pay some bills, whatever it is. And so we’re really excited to launch this, because what it’s going to do is, you know, one of the efficiencies is that it’s going to be able to provide loans within several days instead of several weeks. And so just thinking about that, from a personal experience, is that that brings just that technology built into that user experience and being able to fast track access is really important. So that’s one again, that modern experience, too, is that we need people to save more. So how do we get people to save more? It is, you know, within the US, what we’re really seeing is that within the minority communities, there’s not a lot of access to workplace savings. There’s not an even if there is access to workplace savings, not a lot of people are utilizing it. So how do we support the state business? The states that are offering retirement programs? How do we support the small businesses to get workplace savings into their hands? I think that’s really important as we think about, hey, as a business and as people, how do we want to help others? How do we want to help our community? What’s the impact that we can have? And again, it comes back down to my personal story, right, as an immigrant, first generation immigrant, my parents owned a restaurant, they didn’t have access, and I’ve been so fortunate to see through my corporate career, that now looking forward, you know, 20 plus years, I will have retirement. And that gives me a sense of security. That gives me you know, time and space to spend with my kids, my multiple, four crazy children. And so I think, you know, making sure that everyone has access to savings is very important, important. And then when we think about, you know, kind of FinTech and gender two, is we need firms to be more intentional about who they’re hiring. And so, you know, within FinTech very specifically, to me, it all starts at the leadership level, you need to be intentional about what how you want to build your company. We have all the stats to support, how diversity helps the business’s bottom line, and we need to actually put that in action. So really being intentional about where are we recruiting from Who are we trying to recruit? How do we want to fill the leadership positions, representation really matters. And so I think maybe taking a much more concerted effort to get to that diversity level than we have been before. So those are the three things that I would say are top of mind for me when it comes to FinTech, retirement, and women and fintech.

Jack Sharry: That is great. So I have to ask the question, how do you find the time to do all that you’re doing for children, number of boards of FinTech women and fintech boards and senior role at a fast growing firm, so because how do you do this?

Michelle Tran: I love everything that I do. Honestly, I know I love. I love being at festival and I love what I’m doing at basketball. I love the people there. And our mission is really important. When I was looking for a role that was really important for me, it was what is the company trying to do at the end of the day. I love really helping women and fintech in all different capacities. I love my children. And I will answer your question by telling you I don’t sleep much. So you must go to bed usually around midnight and up around five or so. But my magic trick my superpower is that I’m a really great napper. So I only need 15 minutes. It’s like someone’s cup of coffee. Right? So 15 minutes, not even 15 Even 10 And I’ll set my alarm and I wake up before my alarm goes off, and I’m raring to go.

Jack Sharry: That’d be something. I love it. I love it. My favorite question. Should at this point in the show, is to ask people what they do outside of work that they’re particularly passionate or excited about. Sounds like you got a pretty full slate. But anything else that you do that people might find interesting or surprising, you’d be willing to share?

Michelle Tran: Let’s see interesting or surprising, you know, I spend a lot of time on the FinTech stuff and the Asian community. I think, you know, the other piece is I really love spending time with my kids. And they’re young, you know, the oldest is seven, and the youngest is one. So they’re crazy, loud bunch. And what’s really important for me is when I have any extra time, is taking them on hikes, showing them you know, kind of cool restaurants and just spending time with them. And, you know, someday we’ll travel the world together. But right now, it’s the little things.

Jack Sharry: As the father of four sons, in my case, oh, oh, now in their 30s. It’s a load just to move four kids anywhere.

Michelle Tran: Yes, my husband bought a minivan last year, after years of me protesting. And in exchange, it is his minivan and not mine.

Jack Sharry: But you gotta need it. So, Michelle, thanks. This has been a great conversation really enjoyed getting to know you better. We’ve known each other for a while. But I’ve learned a ton and really impressed by all that you do and what you do with great grace as well. So my applause to you and all that you do. So, for our audience. If you’ve enjoyed our podcasts, please rate review, subscribe and share what we’re doing here on WealthTech on Deck. We’re available wherever you get your podcast show. Thanks so much. This has been a real pleasure.

Michelle Tran: Jack, thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun.