When Andrei Cherny received the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship in 2000 he was pursuing a law degree at the University of California Berkeley Law School and it seemed clear that his future was in politics and writing. Afterall, Andrei had served as the youngest presidential speechwriter in the nation's history for President Clinton and his book The Next Deal, was one of the top-selling political books of 2001. But fast-forward to 2021, and Andrei is a leader in the financial industry. He is the CEO and founder at Aspiration, an online bank with a focus on helping consumers align their finances with their values. We wanted to hear from Andrei, whose parents emigrated from Czechoslovakia, on how he is thinking about shaping culture and making an impact in the private sector.
At Aspiration, we sometimes say that we didn't set out to build a bank, we set out to build a better world. When I was a Fellow, I never would have imagined that I'd be "a leader in the financial industry." The reality is that every part of the financial industry shapes our culture. Money drives all aspects of our culture and society -- whether it is in ways we like or don't. When we each make decisions on where we save our money, where and how we spend our money, we are making moral judgments -- either by omission or commission. The largest banks in the world use their own customers' deposits to finance fossil fuel projects, gun manufacturers, private prisons, detention centers and more. With Aspiration, we are creating a home for people who don't want their dollars used in such a way and instead want to make a positive impact through how they spend and save.
While there are many financial services companies out there, your company Aspiration helps consumers align their finances with their values, which is what makes it unique. Why do you think other banks and services have been slow to focus on empowering consumers in this way?
More and more people are acting as "conscious consumers" -- considering ethics and environmental sustainability as they buy groceries or coffee or clothes. But they have been slower to bring that consideration into where their dollars have an even bigger impact -- their deposits and spending. The more that consumers vote with their dollars and switch to places like Aspiration, the greater the pressure on traditional banks to change.
As the co-founder and CEO of Aspiration, what are your goals for your company’s culture? How do you hope one of your colleagues would describe it?
We define our culture as “Mission | Driven.” Many companies use this phrase, but at Aspiration we emphasize that both of those words carry equal weight. Our Mission brings us together and unites us around a shared sense of purpose. But that Mission moves from ideals to reality because we are Driven. When we hire we look for people who exhibit both of those qualities.
You’ve worked in the public and private sectors, when it comes to shaping culture are there particular advantages to being in one or the other?
I'm a big believer that incentives matter wherever you are. The private sector does a better job of continually being forced to focus on effectiveness and results instead of intentions and rhetoric. On the other hand, in public life, so much comes down to one single election day. There is no tomorrow. And while a company that is in second place in its category can be an enormous success, there is no second place winner in an election. This has a way of focusing one's mind.
What cultural shifts do you think the United States needs to make when it comes to environmentalism and climate change?
I started my career working for then-Vice President Gore in the Clinton White House. We were unsuccessful in getting people to take action on what we were calling back then "global warming." A quarter of a century later the still-distant threats we were pointing to are now upon us. There has been a sea-change in attitudes and behaviors when it comes to climate change. Most people want to take action to combat this crisis. But we no longer have the luxury of time and of waiting for someone else. We need to make the largest, fastest shift in behavior in human history over the next decade if we are to have any chance of holding back the worst calamities. And we each need to do our part. ∎