Leadership Edge with Sarah Kirshbaum Levy, CEO of Betterment
I’ve had the pleasure of attending Collision From Home, a top technology conference, and sitting down with Sarah Kirshbaum Levy, CEO of Betterment. Prior to Betterment, Levy served as Viacom Media Networks’ Chief Operating Officer (COO). During her time as COO of Viacom Media Networks, Levy oversaw global strategy, finance, and operations for the $10B division that housed some of Viacom’s iconic brands, including MTV, Comedy Central, and BET. Levy previously served as the COO at Nickelodeon, where she drove the expansion of the business and brand both organically and through acquisitions. She spearheaded Nickelodeon’s entry into new segments generating more than $4B at retail, including digital gaming, resorts, consumer products, Broadway and theme parks, as well as subscription video on demand. Levy is currently a Board Member for The Lucius N. Littauer Foundation (2012 to Present), ACON S2 Acquisition Corp (Sept 2020 to Present), and Funko (2019 to Present).
What is Collision From Home?
Times may be uncertain, but one thing remains true. There’s a simple power in people coming together.
Following in the spirit of Collision, Collision from Home attendees will participate from wherever they are in the world, live streaming talks from tech CEOs, international policymakers, and global cultural figures. They’ll chat and connect through the bespoke Collision from Home app, and they’ll engage with some of the world’s most influential companies and fastest-growing startups.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us about what brought you to your career path?
One overarching theme of my career is that I’ve always been a real believer that we have to truly enjoy and be passionate about whatever we do. We spend a lot of hours at work, and we want to love it. When I think about how I got started with a media career, I had a passion for media. My parents worked in industries of passion—my father was a book publisher, and my mother was an antique dealer. If you ask them what they like to do on weekends, it’s what they do for work.
I wanted to watch TV and movies. So, I started my career at Disney. Following Disney, I went to business school and then spent 18 years at Nickelodeon, where I served as Chief Operating Officer. As a brand and business, we believed that what was good for kids was good for business. The mission motivated me. While at Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, I was elevated to the Chief Operating Officer of the Global Media Networks business. I had a fantastic two-decade journey and learned a tremendous amount at Viacom. However, the growth of our core business—the cable business—was slowing, and it was time to take on a new challenge.
In thinking about my next move, I was looking for something that I could be passionate about and where I believed in the mission of the company. I was introduced to Jon Stein, the founder of Betterment. He was looking for a senior operating executive. Since I’ve spent a few decades in the COO role, we got to know one another and developed a great rapport. I was immediately drawn to the company’s mission around making people’s lives better. He brought me on as an operating advisor and ultimately converted that engagement into the Chief Executive Officer role.
In all the companies I’ve worked for, a common thread is that the product brings more happiness to people’s lives. So, while it might look like a significant leap going from media to fintech, it was more about finding the right opportunity with a mission that resonated with me.
What was your experience leaping from the COO to the CEO role?
In a lot of ways, the COO role is a training ground for the CEO role. In my roles at Viacom and Nickelodeon, I oversaw a range of subdivisions and had a breadth of responsibilities. Two particular areas were very applicable as I transitioned to Betterment.
The first, operations, is where I have experience scaling and building high functioning growth organizations. The second is brand building. Brands are built with great storytelling, no matter the industry. Building Betterment’s brand is a huge focus for me.
I believe that for next-generation financial services companies, storytelling will become more critical as we continue to grow.
Looking back, what are the catalysts or inflection points in your career?
The most significant inflection point was when I shifted from the Chief Operating Officer of Nickelodeon to the Chief Operating Officer of the global multi-brand business. The shift from a day-to-day operation within a division to a corporate role gave me a different purview. I worked with a whole new set of colleagues within a different context. I worked on new things, from setting expectations to organizational design to our investor relations narrative. The exposure to resource allocation and prioritization globally was a key catalyst and training ground for the CEO role.
Can you share what Betterment is focused on? How will this impact the world?
When I started thinking about our priorities, the first thing I asked was, “What’s our right to win? What is our core strength?” I believe our superpower is in providing a trusted, tech-forward investing solution.
As the largest independent digital investment advisor, Betterment has a great jumping-off point to win. Our identity sits uniquely at the intersection of an established investment firm with a decade-plus track record and a tech-first disrupter. No other challenger in the space can make this claim.
We were pioneers in the category that is now known as “robo advising.” As we double down on investing, there are two areas of focus that I am especially excited about for 2021. The first is Betterment for Business, our 401(k) offering focused on retirement solutions for small and medium-sized business owners. The second is how we enable self-expression in investing choice. There is an enormous opportunity for us to increase the personalization of our product. Both areas tie back to the mission-driven principles of our company as they will make a meaningful impact on our client’s lives.
Currently, only 10% of small and medium-sized businesses in the US offer retirement solutions for their employees. As we move forward, we are faced with the question of whether Social Security will be there to support the next generation. It is tremendously important that we get retirement right.
Historically, it has been fairly complex and expensive for a small or medium-sized business to buy a 401(K) plan. We have an easy-to-use, low-cost investment solution for small and medium-sized businesses to help fill that gap, and we’ve had incredible traction to date. We started by providing retirement solutions and over time we have been making strides to offer companies a comprehensive financial wellness package for their employees.
We often ask ourselves two questions. How do we stay true to our core principles and still meet the moment of our time? In other words, how can our clients’ money contribute to the good of the world? And second, how can we introduce personalization and self-expression into our products while maintaining our promise of performance?
Our recent introduction of three Socially Responsible Investing portfolios are a great example. As racial inequality became front and center last year, we launched a social impact portfolio. As we look at climate change as one of the greatest challenges of our time, we’ve introduced an environmentally focused portfolio. These portfolios enable our clients to support companies that commit to more sustainable practices.
We launched these products in the fall, and they’ve already surpassed 1 billion dollars invested in them. I’m incredibly excited about the enthusiasm for these products from our clients. The fantastic thing about these portfolios is that not only are you helping the world, but you are also setting yourself up for a better future.
How has COVID shaped Betterment now or in the future?
I became CEO during COVID. It’s funny- I’ve met very few employees in person, but I’ve been in everyone’s home (via Zoom). It’s an exciting time.
The technology infrastructure that Betterment had in place is impressive. When the world quickly shut down, we didn’t miss a beat. Technology helped facilitate the seamless transition, but I believe the biggest driver of our resilience is due to our mission-driven culture. This is a place where people want to work because they believe in the mission, and whether we are working at the office or home, we’re still contributing to that mission.
From a business standpoint, COVID accelerated the demand for digital-first products. Betterment has been digital-first since day one. In finance before COVID, you had one or two generations that felt extremely comfortable with digital-first solutions. Now, almost everyone has had to embrace digital solutions. The idea of going to a bank branch no longer has the same cachet as it once did.
What are your “3 Things I Wish I Knew”? Can you share a story?
The first thing is the world of hidden fees and costs from banks and investment institutions. I didn’t fully understand this until I came to Betterment. There are hidden fees in many investment portfolios, working against the average person.
The second thing I wish I knew earlier in my career is the value of peer relationships. I think about the connections I made in those early years and how we all grew up in the same professional context. During those early years in our career, we’d pay more attention to our bosses and we, perhaps, underinvested in our peer relationships. There is so much you can learn from peers who are in the same stage of their career.
And lastly, the most important thing I wish I knew was how getting a dog is the best thing that can happen to a family. I’d never had a dog before when we got one a few years ago. It’s transformed our lives. I wish we had done it earlier.
What is the blueprint for success?
Success is defined differently for everyone. For me, the essentials of success are passion, continuous learning, and community. For the first, you spend a lot of hours at work, and the more you love what you do, the more rewarding and successful you can be. For the second, I’ve always aimed to work in an environment where both the people and the industry allow for continuous learning opportunities. And for the third, the community you work in leads back to the idea of passion. You want to love the people you work with because it’s going to bring you more joy.
So, to me, the recipe is passion, learning, and community. If you have that, you can be successful in whatever you choose to do.