Our greatest strength comes from our darkest places.
When that phrase first came into my life I was in an incredibly painful period, deep in a closet of shame and secrecy around my sexuality. I'm grateful to now live in the joyful normality of being an out gay man.
I am also an entrepreneur, a "founder" in startup parlance. I struggle to talk authentically about my startup journey without talking about my queer journey. The two are intrinsically connected. Coming out was transformational. The experience gave me the strength and power to jump head first into the unknown -- starting a company, EarnUp, to transform an industry and change people's lives.
First let's talk about the closet. I was there a long time. I used workaholism, porn, and various other addictions to cut myself off from my emotions. Things got worse, then better, then much worse. I wanted to kill myself. I didn't. I reached out for help. Friends grabbed my hand. I lived. I started to speak my truth.
Boom. Matthew is gay. This was a bomb going off in my family. There was anger, fear, and confusion for all of us. Some horrendous things were said. We all suffered from a vicious homophobia. Relationships were strained but never broke. Each of us pursued support and healing in our own ways.
My father, for example, formed a deep friendship with an openly gay businessman in his area. We all healed and become closer than we were before. My mother likes to say, "Our whole family came out together." I like that. We were all brave.
I first kissed a guy when I was 26 years old. The same year I came out to my family. The same year I started to think about the startup concept that would become EarnUp. There is a deep connection here. The energy to create and explore in my professional life emerged at the same time as it did in my personal life.
I want to be clear on something -- being gay seriously frazzled my self-confidence. I still deal with this. I know many LGBTQ people who are the same way. It is incredibly damaging to grow up when you're a child internalizing those voices: "There is something inside you that is wrong. Broken. Diseased." That is heavy stuff. Glenn Greenwald has spoken powerfully about this impact.
The specific suffering I endure in my queerness makes me very sensitive to injustice. I am able to relate deeply to people's pain in ways I never could before.
In my late 20s I started to become aware of the daunting injustice and inequality of our economic system. I saw this in my parents, who were struggling to manage massive amounts of debt heading into retirement. I saw this in friends. I remembered acutely my own fear and confusion with my student loans. I got angry at a system that causes so many to suffer. These feelings planted a seed. It was a seed of anger. It was also a seed of hope that maybe I could be part of making things better.
It was clear to me that there was something horribly wrong with the consumer loan industry. From my experiences and those of my parents, I could see the process of managing loan payments, in particular, was totally broken. Loan statements are confusing, the customer service is miserable, and loans are constantly transferred to new servicing companies. It is a challenge just to make sure you get your minimum payments in and virtually impossible to get ahead. As I read more about the industry it was clear that minority and low-income communities were particularly hurt by this.
In 2014 my business partner, Nadim Homsany, and I joined forces to found EarnUp. He and his family had similar financial challenges to my own. What we've built is a consumer-first financial technology platform that lets people intelligently automate all their loan payments and get out of debt. We are committed to helping people simplify their financial lives.
The scale of the challenges we face are daunting: Americans owe over $20,000,000,000,000 in consumer debt and interest. That's $20 trillion, with a t. To break that down: For the class of 2016 college graduates the average student loan burden was over $37,000. That is just student loans, not to mention credit cards, home loans, auto loans, etc. We believe EarnUp can help make these consumers' lives better.
The queer community has been incredibly supportive as we have built EarnUp into a national platform. When we started EarnUp I moved up from Los Angeles to San Francisco and quickly met a man named Tom Burke. Tom is a serial entrepreneur and connected me with StartOut, an awesome LGBTQ organization that helped me find a home among other queer entrepreneurs and allies. Through this network I have met mentors, friends, and yes, a few dates.
The queer community also helped me connect with investors who have been vital to fueling our mission. For example, since we started EarnUp I had wanted to connect with David Blumberg. David founded and leads the first gay-owned venture capital firm, Blumberg Capital, which is also one of the preeminent fintech investors. There are few LGBTQ role models like him in the tech community, and he was someone I wanted to meet. However, David, like all investors of his caliber, is exceptionally hard to get access to. As it happened, I was able to meet David at a StartOut event in San Francisco. I was introduced through Mike Sullivan, a gay tech lawyer at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who I met through another gay tech founder.
After a fundraising period of intense due diligence, negotiations, and "redlines" of multiple term sheets, EarnUp had an oversubscribed seed round. The EarnUp team had to make some very difficult and privileged decisions on which investors to partner with.
In July of this year we closed $3 million in funding, including Blumberg Capital as the lead in addition to Kapor Capital, Fenway Summer Ventures, and some of the best industry angels out there. We are exceptionally humbled and honored to have such an amazing group of backers aligned with our mission. I am thankful that the queer community has helped EarnUp get where it is today. It is an amazing adventure.
If you are reading this and not sure of your gender or sexuality, that is fine. You are beautiful.
If you know who you are but are scared, that is fine. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you.
If you are suffering, reach out to someone. Speak. Be heard. We are here waiting for you. We welcome you to this queer and crazy world.
Today my focus is transforming the consumer finance industry. At EarnUp we have an amazing team obsessed with making people's lives better. There is no way I could be part of this journey without my experiences and challenges as a gay man.
MATTHEW COOPER is the cofounder and CEO of EarnUp.com. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @MatthewWins. StartOut is the leading nonprofit organization supporting LGBTQ entrepreneurs through networking, mentorship, access to capital, and education.