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An Innovator’s Mission: Financially Empower Immigrants

Immigrants come to the United States with the intention and determination of having a better life and working hard for it. Unfortunately, they face innumerable challenges, including navigating a new country’s financial landscape as well as its healthcare and education systems.

Amir Hemmat, founder of Welcome Technologies, believes that the sooner we harness immigrants’ positive intentions, the faster they can become active participants in society and productive Americans. Instead of relying on policy, which often doesn’t result in practical solutions, he proposes private sector innovation to develop impactful solutions for immigrant communities.

Welcome Technologies’ approach is to provide the tools communities need on a trusted digital platform. This platform offers information and tailor-made solutions that improve the lives of immigrants and their families, whether that’s a guide to building credit, a bilingual bank account or affordable healthcare services.

Most recently, the Los Angeles–based tech company has launched a series of financial services, beginning with the PODERcard, a more accessible bilingual bank account that’s free of hidden costs. The hope is to empower Spanish-speaking newcomers to become more financially independent and avoid predatory financial products.

What was the spark for Welcome Technologies?

My co-founder and I are children of first-generation immigrants. The idea for Welcome Technologies came from our experiences growing up and working with immigrant communities from our previous careers. We had an educational media company that produced print brochures and digital media for the waiting rooms of consulates and embassies. The largest immigrant population in the U.S. is Hispanic, and they desperately needed a trusted advisor to help them obtain the necessary information and services. We were inundated with calls. Families would drive hours just to get a few minutes of in-person time with us. No one was receiving data-driven recommendations for the services they were seeking. Regardless of education or income, it had been a word-of-mouth system. At best, that’s inefficient, and, at worst, it’s highly predatory.

Until now, there hasn’t been a digital Ellis Island. So we developed Welcome Technologies. By solving a problem for this segment of the population, we’re creating a stronger society. The technology and solutions we are building can be an example to the rest of the world for how to better support our immigrant community members.

Are there any inaccuracies about recent immigrants you’d like to clear up?

There’s a false narrative that this community would rather hold cash under their mattress than open a bank account, or they’re not willing to move to digital solutions because they’re too afraid to share their data. Or worse, they’re comfortable paying higher rates of interest. Wrong. Immigrants want to be treated fairly. If you’re not trying to take advantage of them with high fees or poor experiences, they’re happy to bank with you.

These fallacies hurt companies and the banking community too. Immigrants are valuable but overlooked customers. Most tech companies flock toward millennials or Gen Z or some other sexy category. When you consider the amount this demographic contributes to our GDP, leaving their success to chance is crazy.

What types of credit and money problems do they face?

When people don’t have a solid banking service, they’re left in the shadows. It leads to thin credit files and low data. Not having credit scores hurts their ability to get good loans. Consequently, immigrants have often been regulated to expensive payday loans and check-cashing scenarios. Several industries have been generating a ton of money on their backs, taking advantage of them.

Some people think immigrants are afraid to engage or give data, but it’s the opposite. They’re brave and courageous. Imagine how confusing it is for someone who doesn’t speak English and is unfamiliar with new systems. It’s daunting, but they’re doing it.

Immigrants haven’t had enough of a voice or influence at the table. That’s why we’re building such a massive platform. We have more than two million users. With this reach and engagement, many corporate American companies are willing to offer concessions for improved experiences and better pricing. Hispanic immigrants are the fastest-growing segment in the country, so it’s a chance for them to establish lifelong relationships.

It’s also an opportunity for us to be disruptive, to shake things up a bit. We like that.

How is Welcome Technologies addressing these issues?

Deep needs are healthcare, financial services and telecom, so we connect them to those resources. We offer digital bank accounts, loans, debit cards and credit cards. A large majority of our immigrant communities had no banking relationship in their country of origin and certainly didn't have access to credit. We also educate. Building a credit score is hard for people who grew up here, let alone someone coming from another country.

Before the pandemic, our members were accustomed to in-person settings. Since then, we’ve adapted and we’re now hosting Zoom conferences helping people use their bank accounts and explaining upcoming features. We’re seeing a much greater desire for digital solutions that create efficiencies. We’ve made it simple to open a new, more accessible bank account. It only takes a few minutes. Most haven’t experienced that in the past.

Our goal is for consumers to return to the platform every time they think about their next financial service. It’s the best route to long-term brand loyalty. Ultimately, we can positively influence their spending decisions.

We also recently distributed a million-dollar grant to California farmworkers. With that money, they can purchase groceries, pay their utilities and get school supplies. These were primarily families that were overlooked by the stimulus program but are providing frontline, essential work.

In what way does “Saber Es Poder” fit into the company?

Saber Es Poder, which means “knowledge is power,” is our consumer-facing brand and the community platform our technology powers. It’s where immigrants can get answers to their questions and connect to key resources. Many prefer to engage in their primary language, so everything, including links to additional resources, is in Spanish. In a few years, we hope to expand Saber Es Poder so it’s available to other immigrants in additional languages.

This platform delivers information in a way that’s accessible, smooth and easy. The person doesn’t have to do a Google search that will give 30 or 40 outputs that may be irrelevant. We provide all the resources and connections. Like everyone else, immigrants are extremely busy and usually don’t have the time to research a topic. Our users know they’re working with a trusted resource. We spend a lot of time ensuring that the first interaction is strong and positive, regardless of the question. When you solve a problem for a consumer at a critical transition point of their lives, they can be extremely grateful and loyal. We focus on creating that value and moment with our users.

You have a beneficial revenue stream — can you describe it?

We’re building a massive enterprise, not by overcharging consumers but by aligning our incentives with them. Most companies before us have focused on extracting value from this consumer, and we are a company focused on creating value for consumers and being an advocate for their needs. That’s where debit and credit cards come in. With our MasterCard and Visa partnerships, we build products that enhance peoples’ lives. Every time they swipe the card, we receive a percentage of the interchange fee. This way, we can grow while also providing accessible and world-class financial services.

To get the word out, we have a massive digital presence, and we’ve also built a proprietary channel in over 65 consulate and embassy waiting rooms across the U.S. We’ve transformed them into learning environments, with digital screens showing our educational content. Our field representatives are on-site, interfacing with community members and leading workshops. We see about nine million unique visitors a year.

The feedback you receive must be amazing.

It is. What motivates our team and me is that we don’t just get five stars. Our members call and say things like, “I own a small business, and your bank account helped me manage my money better and begin saving more. The process was so easy, and your call center agents were so helpful. I’m so grateful.” This is a pretty vocal community. They’re not afraid to share their opinions. We’ve now had users for several years who continue to stay engaged because they see Welcome Technologies as an essential resource in their lives. That’s really rewarding for us.

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