Innovation is the linchpin of a successful company today. Traditional methodologies or approaches are no longer welcomed in the industry—inclusive of all sectors. There is a constant need to innovate or add something to the existing methods to make them relevant in the current scenario. Leaders that understood the value of innovation are constantly striving to break the mold and bring something new to the industry. Similarly, Ksenia Yudina, CFA, Founder, and CEO of UNest, used her experience to tackle the mammoth challenge of student loans.
Ksenia was 18 when she moved to the US and worked as a housekeeper at a hotel to make ends meet and complete her education. She pursued her undergrad and then went to business school and acquired her CFA designation. Ksenia did complete her education remarkably well but was left with $180,000 in student loans. It was then she realized, students loans have turned into a national issue with every other student and their parents concerned about the debts and repay. While working in the finance industry, it became clear for Ksenia that there is no simple and affordable solution accessible to all parents to help them invest and save for their kids’ future, so she ended up leaving the industry to build it herself.
Ksenia’s personal experiences have helped her shape the foundation of the company. Being a parent herself she realized that every other parent’s priority is to save for their kids. While millennials depended on apps like Venmo and Robinhood, the parents would seek financial advice from Ksenia but her 15 pages of paperwork were off-putting for the parents. Despite being a feasible solution most of the parents did not open an account. She knew that a legacy institution wouldn’t move quickly enough to build an app that democratized access to smart financial solutions for all parents, so she decided to build it herself.
“Student debt is hobbling young people for decades, often forcing them to delay major life milestones such as buying a home or having children,” says Ksenia. Stemming from a need to manage or minimize the student loans, Ksenia started UNest, with a mission to help
families struggling to meet the cost of education. UNest started by offering 529s but soon pivoted to UTMAs, which offer enormous flexibility, based on customer feedback. It keeps the customer at the heart of everything they do. The team is constantly seeking feedback and suggestions from the customers. The new products are based on this feedback. Ksenia believes that building something on the basis of the requirements of the customers is better than assuming what they want and building the wrong product. Several companies build products on the assumption of what the customer wants. She adds, “It’s costly and time-consuming to build something only to realize that no one wants it.”
With the unprecedented changes and unforeseen transformations, it has become difficult for parents to anticipate what the future of higher education will look like. As a result, parents are continually looking for options to save for things outside of just education. Additionally, as student debt has ballooned to $1.7 trillion and more classes have transitioned online, families are increasingly considering alternate, more cost-effective paths. UNest has never deviated from its mission to help all parents, regardless of income or background, build a better future for their kids.
The members of UNest have access to a variety of products and features, which makes saving a fun and social event for everyone involved. UNest offers several creative and interactive programs to help parents save for their kids. These include Unlimited Gifting, which allows family and friends to contribute directly to a child’s account for holidays or special occasions; UNest Rewards, where parents can earn more money when they shop with their favorite brands; UNest Learn, an educational component built into the app to answer money questions. The key differentiator for UNest is its focus on saving and young families. The company establishes a relationship with parents and kids from the moment they are born all the way through adulthood.
The gifting feature gained much popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the situation worsened, people were advised to stay indoors and avoid any public meet. This abrupt stop to socializing caused new challenges. In the new normal the adoption of digital tools highly increased. UNest being a virtual platform, the member did not struggle with the procedure which led to the popularity of its features. “Anyone can contribute directly to a child’s account with a simple, sharable link. It eliminates the need for paper checks or cash— plus, you have the peace of mind knowing that your money is actually going to the child,” asserts Ksenia.
As a leader, Ksenia is continually looking for new ideas or upgrades while constantly inspiring the team to fulfill the vision. Sometimes coming up with innovative ideas is easy but the execution is difficult. In such circumstances, it is the leaders’ responsibility to inspire others and be willing to do what it takes to succeed. “Building a company is really, really difficult — it takes a lot of grit. Leaders must be agile. You can always pivot to find the right product-market fit and work harder than your competition to out-execute them,” asserts Ksenia.
Since its inception, UNest is continually addressing the wealth gap in the country. In the coming years, the team of UNest is dedicated to roll out new products and features and also geographically expand the company. The company has recently received the broker-dealer license, so the team is striving to build a product that will allow parents to trade individual stocks and crypto for the kids. Ksenia concludes, “We hope to level the playing field for the next generation. We want to create a system where everyone has the opportunity to participate and flourish, not just a select few.”