At 28, Alexa von Tobel already has a career that most corporate CEOs would envy. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Psychology with a citation in languages and literature, von Tobel started her career as a trader at Morgan Stanley in the New York Global Proprietary Credit Group. Soon after, she left to become the Head of Business Development at Drop.io, a technology-focused start-up.
In 2008, Alexa enrolled at Harvard Business School, only to leave after a semester to launch her own start-up, a financial literacy website for women called LearnVest. In September 2009, LearnVest debuted as a TechCrunch50 company. Today, the company has raised just under $25 million to date, making Alexa—the Chief Executive Officer and Manager of the company—one of the most successful women of her generation.
We were excited to speak to Alexa about her rapid rise to the top of the start-up food chain, and how she balances her 100-hour workweeks with the rest of her life.
Why were you inspired to found LearnVest, a company that aims to empower young women to gain the financial literacy tools that will allow them to achieve their dreams?
I felt very strongly when I was graduating from college that there were no good resources to learn about financial literacy, especially not for women. It’s something that we all need to learn. I found that even though I was working as a trader in the finance industry, I still didn’t know how to manage my own money. I had to try to figure out what to do with my signing bonus, for example. And I didn’t understand how my taxes worked on my salary. Going through the pieces, I kept on asking myself, “What is all of this?” Even simple things like opening a credit card were difficult to think through, and I couldn’t find any trusted resources to turn to for advice.
What were the steps you took to found LearnVest?
While I was at my first job, at Morgan Stanley, I became really passionate about the idea of building a resource for women around financial literacy. So I started developing a business plan. After working in New York for a few years, I decided to enroll at HBS, where I won a competition for the business plan I had started writing at Morgan Stanley. That idea became LearnVest. I quickly realized the growth potential for the website, so I took a leave of absence from graduate school and moved to New York to work full time on building the company. Today, we’re the leading website for women and money online. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around that!
How much have you personally learned about financial literacy since you started LearnVest?
I know a lot! I wrote a 75-page business plan, so I really had to know every angle. I knew every question to ask, and I knew how to answer them. A big part of my job is about understanding the resources that exist in the United States. But the most important thing I do is listen to the questions that other women have.
How has LearnVest’s mission as a company changed from when you first launched?
Surprisingly, it hasn’t changed much. Our focus is still on personal financial literacy. We continue to provide really consumable information that is right at women’s fingertips. We wanted to create trusted content, and we’ve done that. We wanted to create tools that people could link to their personal accounts, and the site has been very successful at executing that.
Have you grown a lot in the past few years?
Yes! Today, we have 40 full-time employees. As a company, our business has grown 310% in the past year alone. It’s really exciting.
I’ve heard many women say that they have trouble feeling confident enough to approach firms for venture capital money because it’s such a male-dominated field. Is that something you’ve experienced?
I haven’t noticed it at all. I think that I always knew a lot about the space, because that’s all I was focused on. And I had a really great experience raising money. People didn’t look at my gender when I walked into a room. They focus on how much I knew.
How would you like to see LearnVest grow in the next five years?
I’d like the website to become like Weight Watchers for personal finance. I want financial help to be readily available to those who are looking for it, and I want our advice to be easy to follow. That’s our goal as a company, and I think we can achieve it.
What advice do you have for young women starting out today?
I would say to dream really big, and to focus on things you feel really passionately about. You should wake up and think about every day with a lot of excitement. I work one hundred hours a week, but I love what I’m doing. If you find a job that you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.
Have you had many women mentors who have helped you along the way?
Yes, women like Caryn Effron, the founder of GoGirl, and Ann Kaplan, who is the Chair of Circle Financial Group, an investment and wealth management membership organization. Everyone on LearnVest’s board has at one time or another been a pretty amazing mentor. They are really focused on my success, and that gives me a lot of confidence. But most of all, my mom has been my biggest supporter. She’s the perfect example of someone whom I admire. She struggles with balancing her work and her three kids, but she’s always been passionate about her job, and about being involved in the community. She is where I get my endless energy.
Do you envision getting married and having kids in the future?
Of course! I just got engaged. I’d love to have a big family. There will be a lot of juggling, of course, but I’m ready for it.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given to you?
Remember to always call your mom. Life is short, and that’s one of the most important things you can do.
Do you have any advice for women who are looking to improve their financial literacy skills?
Sign up for LearnVest’s bootcamp!