Startups

Black History Month: Celebrating the success of Black founders with Google Cloud: Zirtue

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February is Black History Month—a time for us to come together to celebrate and remember the important people and history of the African heritage. Over the next four weeks, we will highlight four Black-led startups and how they use Google Cloud to grow their businesses. Our second feature highlights Zirtue and its founder, Dennis. Specifically, Dennis talks about how the team was able to innovate quickly with easy to use Google Cloud tools and services. 

I’m sure many of you have loaned money to your family and friends—and experienced the awkwardness of asking for that money back. While we all want to support our loved ones, we also want to ensure the money is going toward the right causes and that we will get paid back as promised. I founded my startup Zirtue, to provide a simple, easy and non-threatening way to formalize the loan process between friends and family.

Predatory lending—low-income communities and the military 

Growing up in low-income housing in Monroe, Louisiana, I witnessed predatory lending practices in my community firsthand. Check cashing establishments take 20% of checks, or up to 400% for some payday lenders. I personally was targeted by predatory lenders after my military service. Lenders would set up shop next to military bases and charge interest up to 300% on short-term loans. The recent Military Lending Act helps mitigate this by capping the interest rate at 36%. While this is a good start, there is still more we can do to help those who have served, as well as other targets of predatory lending, such as people of color. Low-income communities have fewer resources to begin with and lenders take a portion of their already minimal earnings. 

Our goal at Zirtue is to help these communities and provide them with alternatives to the aggressive lending practices of the past. We aim to give people a hand up to help them continuously thrive, as opposed to a one-off hand out. 

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Zirtue—a fair and equitable lending option

Zirtue is a relationship-based lending application that simplifies loans between friends, family, and trusted relationships with automatic ACH (automated clearing house) loan payments. Everything is done through our app: the lender sets their payment terms, receives a loan request from a friend or family member, the borrower gets the funds, and the lender is able to easily track payments. The app also handles reminding the borrower to stick to the agreed upon terms and gets you paid back—avoiding that awkward follow-up call or text. 

Currently, both parties must have a bank account to set up a Zirtue account. However, approximately 25% of our target market is unbanked or underbanked and thus, ineligible for a loan. So we’re proud to be launching a Zirtue banking card this summer, to empower customers to link their transactions to our card instead of a bank. Funds will automatically load onto the card, and can be used to direct deposit paychecks, as well as a form of payment for goods and services. Using the card will help users graduate to other banking products in the future. Good Zirtue performance metrics can function as an alternate credit history, giving banks the data they need to confidently provide additional services and ultimately help break the cycle of  predatory lending. Our recent infusion of $250K in funding from Morgan Stanley, as part of the Rise of the Rest Pitch Competition, and $250K from the Revolution Fund will help us achieve this major goal.

Google Cloud technology for the greater good - Building Trust & Security

Financial transactions happen almost entirely online these days, so Zirtue relies on Google Cloud technology, including reCAPTCHA to make our app work day in and day out. Since we are handling sensitive financial information, security is top of mind. We are very proactive when it comes to protecting the integrity of the application and user data, including the use of bank-level encryption (AES-256), tokenization, hashing (SHA-512) and Two-Factor Authentication throughout the application. Further Google Cloud helps with security by encrypting data at rest and in transit.

Our customers rely on us to send and receive money quickly, so it is vital to keep interruptions in service to a minimum. Firebase Crashlytics provides us with realtime crash reports that allow us to quickly troubleshoot problems within our app. Currently, we are growing 45% month over month, so there is no shortage of data to train and build out our AI/ML models. We are utilizing Cloud AutoML, which has the ability to train our ML models with a wealth of data from Zirtue borrowers using video to fill out their loan applications. The speech to text API transcribes the videos that are used to train our ML models to provide a more seamless user experience. This will also be used as an accessibility feature through the translation API, allowing customers to speak in their preferred language throughout the application process. 

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Google for Startups Black Founder Fund

First, came the struggle of getting investors to believe in the app and—more importantly—believe that they should invest in a Black-owned business. The Black Founders Fund illuminates the struggles Black-led startups face when competing against their white counterparts, and proves what we can do when given access to the same resources.

Next, it was difficult to take Zirtue to the next level. Hardcoding the front end of the app and outsourcing the back end meant that it was all hands on deck from every member of the team, 24/7. 

The $100K in non-dilutive funding from Google for Startups Black Founders Fund has been incredibly valuable for Zirtue, but the access to subject matter and product experts in AutoML and Google Cloud Team is priceless. Mentorship in marketing, SEO, and engineering—in combination with technology and the experts to implement it—has allowed us to deliver on our product promise and increase the impact we can have with our customers (special shoutout to Chandni Sharma and Daniel Navarro).

It is an honor to be able to help those who historically have been viciously targeted by predatory lending practices—and an honor to help redefine what it means to be a successful founder while doing so. The Black Founders Fund means that we will be able to reach even more people with our efforts, and pave the way for future Black founders to come. With Google’s ongoing support, the financial technology industry—and the startup landscape—will never be the same. 

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