A Conversation with Stephanie Eidelman of The iA Institute
Today we have a fascinating interview with Stephanie Eidelman, owner and CEO of The iA Institute, a media company for professionals in consumer finance. Read on for her story and perspective on where the world of fintech is headed:
Tell us about your background. How did you get to where you are today?
This is a long and winding story, which I hope will resonate with different people. Starting in 5th grade, I developed a passion for the theater – behind the scenes, primarily. By 9th grade, I was the primary stage manager at my high school and held that role through senior year. I went to Northwestern because it was known at the time as the place for theater. I even had a professional job as a stage manager during the summer after freshman year at Opryland USA in Nashville, TN. It was quite an exciting experience, and it shaped my early career.
Because of the Opryland experience, I wanted to pursue a career in managing live shows, and after a 10-month stint with a (super boring, to me) first job in an accounting firm, I picked up and moved from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles and had a goal of getting a job at Disneyland. Incredibly (in retrospect) I accomplished this goal within the first year of arriving in LA and had a very rewarding first career in entertainment.
After a few years, I chose to pursue an MBA and went to the Anderson School at UCLA. During this time I decided not to continue the entertainment path (another story for another article) but learned that what I really loved – that stage management fulfilled – was 1) being in charge and 2) operations.
So after business school, I got a job in logistics at Allied Signal (now part of Honeywell), a manufacturer of airplane parts. I worked in a factory, in what’s called Materials Management. The culture was awful, but I loved the job and grew so much from that experience. Within two months, I transformed a manufacturing line from one that rarely made quota to one that hit or exceeded it every month. I created an Excel tool to track kits and trained a team of five expediters to use it in combination with the company’s MRP system to proactively know what they had and what they needed. At the time, this was a unique approach to the plant’s low-batch assembly process. Prior to that role, I led projects to re-engineer the plant’s shipping and receiving processes. This lasted for a few years, and then it was the mid-1990s and the Internet was starting. Literally.
Next I took a job with Citysearch, which was the first online city guide, as Director of Operations and was responsible for working on a team that opened new markets. When the company changed to a partnership strategy vs. company-owned markets, I became a General Manager and led teams that worked with newspapers that used our model to establish their city guides. I then became VP and led a team of 18 people that was contracted by Classified Ventures (a consortium of 8 newspaper organizations) to roll out an internet ad sales organization across three verticals. CitySearch is now part of IACI (Interactive Corp).
After spending my 20s on the west coast and traveling, I moved back to the D.C. area to start a new chapter. I wanted to try working for a small company where I could make a difference. I didn’t need to look past my own family – my parents owned a mergers & acquisitions (M&A) firm. They had become industry specialists and had just launched a website. They were strong in sales and marketing, but not operations, which was my strength. Also, I had just left a job with an Internet company — an experience that was relatively rare at that time. So, I joined the company as the Head of Operations.
This was an incredible ride. I learned about M&A, about family business, about sales and marketing, about being an entrepreneur, and about running a small business. It built my confidence. Out of a marketing initiative there, I helped to build a media company that eventually I spun out of the M&A firm, leading to my current chapter.
What is The iA Institute – what is its purpose, and what is your role there?
Today I’m the owner and CEO of The iA Institute, a media company that handcrafts specialized information, conferences, and membership groups for professionals in consumer finance. I’m an award-winning entrepreneur and change-maker who has identified new opportunities and forged new paths. My passion is to use my position as an industry influencer to get women – particularly women of color – into leadership positions.
Women are overwhelmingly the financial decision-makers in their families and are the primary customers of financial services products. Many women work in consumer finance, but too few seem to rise to the top where products are designed and policy is set. So, in 2018 we launched Women in Consumer Finance, a serious professional development event where we address the lack of confidence, connections, and diverse career examples.
As part of the journey of building WCF, I leaned into getting involved with organizations that support women and girls. In 2021 I joined the board of LIFT (whywelift.org), whose mission is to break the cycle of poverty by investing in parents. LIFT has an incredibly impressive model that builds families’ well-being, financial strength, and social connections to lift two generations at once. The opportunity to do this work and broaden my own perspective has certainly changed my life, and I know our work has changed the lives of many others.
The iA Institute champions supporting women and diversity in the workplace. What are some areas you believe there could be more improvement?
I think the most important issue we need to address is the lack of affordable childcare, which is a huge barrier to advancement for women. At a conference earlier this year, I met a young female entrepreneur who is working on this problem right now. Her name is Siran Cao, and the company is called Mirza. Their model is to provide companies with the tools to offer their employees a zero-interest “care financing benefit” (e.g. “care now, pay later”). Of course, any one entrepreneur won’t be able to solve this enormous problem, so I hope to see many more initiatives aimed at childcare solutions. The same barrier exists for women who care for aging parents – and this may actually affect more senior women than the childcare issue.
As I mentioned before, I also see a problem in the lack of women of all colors in decision-making roles related to product design and policy. Who gets money, how do they get it, under what circumstances, how do they pay it back, and how are they treated when they have a problem doing so? The best answers to these questions differ across populations, and it’s impossible to truly serve a population if you don’t have lived experience on the team and if those with the lived experience don’t have true agency and authority.
Where do you envision the world of finance, business, and technology is headed in the next 5-10 years?
Well, from what I read, we are all headed to the metaverse and will pay for everything with digital currency. I’m not so sure what the metaverse will look like (though it sounds cool) and how widespread that will be on a day-to-day basis, but I do suspect that digital currency will be a mainstream thing.
What I find especially interesting is the “Web3” concept of decentralization of data and putting more control and ownership into the hands of individuals. We have a long way to go to get from here to there, mostly because of the incredibly complex legacy systems held by major corporations and the incentives those corporations have for keeping things centralized. But I do think we’ll begin to see widespread applications using blockchain technology over the next 5-10 years. I’d love to see this happen in the realm of identity management (it does happen already, but not on a broad scale, and especially not in the United States).
If, like Stephanie, you’re also interested in the idea of putting data control into the hands of customers, Pentadata has several products that can do just that! Get in touch with us for more info.