Avant CEO talks Chicago entrepreneurship

Eli Panken, Reporter

The co-founder and CEO of online consumer lender Avant spoke Tuesday at Northwestern about what it means to be an entrepreneur in Chicago.

Al Goldstein spoke to a crowd of about 25 students, Evanston residents and administrators gathered in a McCormick Foundation Center classroom. The event was sponsored by the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation as part of the center’s [email protected] Speaker Series.

“Having done Chicago technology and entrepreneurship for the last 12 years, I can tell you it’s pretty exciting,” Goldstein said. “Ten years ago nobody really cared about this sort of thing.”

Avant’s mission statement is “to lower the barriers and costs of borrowing.” Goldstein said he is particularly passionate about giving consumers the ability to utilize a service as easily as possible.

“Today, everyone cares about instant gratification,” Goldstein said. “For Avant, 50 percent of our consumers can apply to borrow and get an answer in real time. They can even manage their entire experience from their phones.”

The company secured more than $1 billion in funding in 2014, making it the most funded company in Chicago. It has issued more than 180,000 loans in 46 U.S. states and in the United Kingdom. Forbes ranked Avant as the sixth most promising company in 2015.

Goldstein said the company’s Chicago location sets it apart from other entrepreneurial projects instead of tech start up-heavy cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and Austin. He said now is the right time for tech start-ups to take root in Chicago.

“We are much closer to having a viral tech community than we were five years ago,” he said. “We need more successes at a big scale and more companies that are shooting for the moon, but that takes time.”

Goldstein also spoke about his path to establishing Avant, including his educational experience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his first entrepreneurial ventures and the effort he put into attracting investors.

“I didn’t do this kind of stuff in college,” Goldstein said.

The 34-year-old CEO double majored in finance and math and worked in investment banking for 14 months before quitting his job to start his first entrepreneurial venture, now known as Enova. The company develops “innovative financial products and services for individuals and businesses,” according to its website.

“With Avant, we were looking to continue to do what we had been doing,” Goldstein said, about his current venture. “At the end of the day, it’s all about being better at data and analytics. Using data better is on the cutting edge, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

McCormick junior Ahren Alexander said he was impressed with much of Goldstein’s advice, but wished the CEO spoke more about creating physical things.

“He made some strong points about success metrics and going after big markets,” he said. “I would’ve loved to hear more about invention rather than organization when it comes to being a successful venture.”

Caitlin Smith (Medill ‘09), assistant director of the Farley Center and a former Daily staffer, said Goldstein’s presentation was important for students aspiring to be entrepreneurs in Chicago.

“His company is a large part of the Chicago entrepreneurial ecosystem and it’s exciting to see them do so well in the environment that we are entrenched in,” Smith said. “He is a great representation of a serial entrepreneur.”

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