Founder Feature: Fonta Gilliam from Wellthi shares her journey to creating an impact-driven startup and joining CAFE’s fintech accelerator

“Over 46 million people living in the United States were born in other countries, according to a report released from the Census Bureau. From 2010 to 2022, the total foreign-born population increased by 15.6%. In Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia, the foreign-born populations grew by 40% or more.”

Immigrant communities have unique financial needs, including having to start afresh in a new culture and community where they may not speak the language. However, immigrants are not being served by financial services adequately. “Low-income immigrants are far more likely to live in households where no one has a checking or savings account. In 2019, 15% of low-income immigrants lived in an unbanked household, compared to 7% for all immigrants and 4% for the U.S.-born population according to Migration Policy Institute.”

Low-income immigrant communities face exclusion from traditional financial services two-fold, by virtue of being low-income and having an immigrant background. This presents a unique opportunity for financial services and fintechs to create offerings for these groups and increase their customer base. 

CAFE Fintech Accelerator Program is committed to working with innovative fintechs who are building technology to support immigrant, LMI, and other underserved communities. 

To mark the launch of our inaugural cohort of companies, we are featuring founders of our participating companies and their impact on underserved communities. This week, we are featuring Fonta Gilliam, Founder of Wellthi. Inspired by informal social finance traditions ubiquitous in immigrant communities, Fonta founded Wellthi in 2020 with a mission to equip financial institutions with the social finance tools to cultivate the financial health of customers that need support. Here’s a snippet from our chat with her.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you started Wellthi.

“It feels like a former life, before launching Wellthi I worked as an American Diplomat for 10 years. I worked in South Korea, Singapore and in parts of Africa, where I was first exposed to this concept of social banking and finances. Within these cultures, people have been using informal savings and social communities to bank themselves for years.

When I left the State Department, I received an Echoing Green fellowship that allowed me to research and find a way to modernize this concept of social finance. I started researching these traditions and seeing what works. I wanted to investigate introducing this to the formal banking industry. This inspired Wellthi.”

Was there a specific experience or moment that sparked the idea for your company?

“People don’t know this about me, but I was a single mom when I left the State Department. My daughter had a genetic health condition and she couldn’t get approved to live abroad as an infant, which is one of the reasons why I left. Before becoming a mother, I had a super sexy career, and I was very comfortable financially. 

Suddenly, I had emergency medical costs and single mom costs I wasn’t expecting. I joined something called a Susu or a saving circle, which is an informal savings system used in the Caribbean and Africa. I used that group to save for a down payment on a house. It was peer pressure; I didn’t want to be the one to not reach my financial goals. 

That moment got me thinking – why not mainstream this? I did a lot of research and development on how to make this safe and compliant so banks can introduce it to their customers. I tried to formalize this idea by co-creating with Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), community bankers and credit unions.” 

Were there any challenges you faced in starting an impact-driven business in particular?

“We know that millennials and Gen Z Americans, first and second-generation immigrants/multi-cultural populations receive financial advice and save money differently. We prefer open, group forums to learn from peers. Traditional bankers tend to not come from diverse communities and have not heard of informal/social finance.

The challenge is to convince these institutions of our value proposition. I talk to traditional bankers about the value proposition of social banking and teach them how to offer products that appeal to the younger generation – 80% of whom get their financial advice from social networking platforms like TikTok and YouTube, immigrant communities and other diverse groups. We want to show the impact that social finance has, the data of our customer retention and how Wellthi’s approach is higher than bank branches. Our work with Citizens, a large regional bank, won the 2024 BISA technology and Innovation Award. We are working with card network companies like Mastercard, Visa and Discover, to show financial institutions and affinity groups the value of social finances and gain credibility.”

How does Wellthi reach out to financial institutions for collaborations? Are there any challenges you have faced in getting financial institutions on board? 

“Big banks don’t tend to be first movers when it comes to financial technology and innovations. It’s tough for them to get their mind around the fact that marketing to Gen Z and millennials and multicultural populations is different, and they need different financial products. We approach the big banks through partnerships. We say don’t listen to us, listen to Mastercard, Discover, and Visa who are all supporting our company in a variety of ways. It gives us credibility and shows them we are doing this with the right rails and regulatory compliance.” 

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your entrepreneurial journey?

“Seeing this thing come to life, I feel like it’s a second child and it’s great to watch it grow and evolve. It’s so rewarding to start seeing banks actually adopt something we’ve built. We did a pilot with Citizens Bank recently which helped people get access to mortgages, personal loans, and sessions with financial advisors. Hearing people’s stories is really rewarding.”

Has there been a story that stood out to you?

“We did a sweepstakes as part of our Citizens app pilot program with winners receiving a $10,000 boost to the Savings Goal they shared in the Wellthi App. We had one winner that particularly inspired the team. Her submission on the Wellthi App stated that she was an aspiring entrepreneur. However, she shared with us her personal story, in that she used her Wellthi Sweepstakes $10K prize to get out of debt and start the home-buying process, along with her entrepreneurial dreams. She previously was experiencing health challenges and had to leave school. She shared that Wellthi helped her build her life back and gave her the foundation to start over.”

What prompted you to apply for the CAFE accelerator program? 

“Honestly it was timing for us, I needed to build in time to think strategically about generative AI and data with experts and talk with folks about our next round of funding.  We are preparing for our Series A and looking at a strong growth round at the end of the year. CAFE gives us an opportunity to cultivate partnerships with experts in the field and investors.

Tell us more about your goals on networking and mentorship through the fintech accelerator program.

“I am looking forward to the partnerships that CAFE brings. Wellthi has a huge data analytics opportunity, and we need to find ways to leverage it and create insights for banks that we partner with and use generative AI in more innovative ways. I would love to come out of this with more business opportunities with the banking partners that CAFE is introducing us to. We’re also hoping to find ways to partner with CAFE’s partner organizations, like American Bankers Association, and University of Delaware’s Data Science Institute.”

How does your business evaluate the impact you create in underserved communities?

“We have a variety of ways to evaluate our impact, we are a B2B fintech and we have a double bottom line. In addition to profits, we track a variety of socio-economic indicators, how much our users are saving, positive behaviors around financial literacy and their credit readiness and the amount of Community Reinvestment Act activities Wellthi helps banks deploy in low to moderate income communities by using our platform. We look at our users’ access to capital, loans, and their access to financial advisors.”