We’re excited to announce the release of a new feature in MyMAF to support clients on their journey toward self-employment.
In September, the MAF Lab launched a new education content module in MyMAF app called How to be self-employed – alongside the launch of our MAF’s new 0% interest loan program to help people formalize self-employment into an LLC. This new product feature and program are both important parts of MAF’s broader efforts to support the innovations our clients develop in order to navigate their financial lives and formalize their business to generate steady income.
MyMAF’s How to be self-employed module combines education with tools to take action.
The new module covers all aspects of starting a small business, including setting a vision for self-employment, building a business model, formalizing self-employment through LLCs, and managing time as an entrepreneur. It’s the fourth financial education content module available in the app, adding to ones on credit, savings, and preparing for emergencies.
Our staff in-house wrote the content building on their expertise in supporting entrepreneurs to start their own business. We also sought the feedback from our peers at nonprofits who similarly strive to support entrepreneurs. Similar to MyMAF’s other financial education modules, How to be self-employed pairs expert content with recommended action items and resources to give individuals tangible tools to get started.
We aim to continue to support the creativity of our clients to create sustainable income solutions.
MAF is excited to announce the launch of its new mobile app, MyMAF. MyMAF is a virtual financial coach designed to help low-income and immigrant families achieve their dreams and help MAF’s clients succeed financially in our programs.
We’ll be celebrating the launch of the MyMAF app, the MAF Lab’s first fintech product, on December 7th. Join us for the launch party to view a demo of MyMAF and learn about the inspiration for its development, from idea to fruition.
MyMAF fills an unmet need for the communities MAF serves.
Since day one, MAF’s goal has been to build pathways that allow hardworking families to realize their full economic potential. MAF’s seminal Lending Circles program has helped clients achieve their financial goals by building credit, but we’ve always had a larger vision to support our clients’ financial lives across their hierarchy of financial needs. We found financial coaching to be one of the most effective mechanisms to help people achieve their goals. However, in-person coaching is often resource intensive (for both coaches and clients) and difficult to scale. We realized that we could use the power of technology to bring financial coaching to more people in our community and serve their needs in a deeper way.
With MyMAF, members of our community are now able to obtain essential financial information and coaching at the reach of their fingertips.
We meet people where they are, not where we think they should be
We build on what people have, no matter the shape or size
We respect the diverse communities we serve and recognize their hidden strengths
These values have informed the development of MAF’s programs and products from the beginning; they are also the foundations of this new app.
To meet clients where they are in their financial journey, we first recognize that our clients’ financial lives are inseparable from their complex backgrounds and personal aspirations. For example, a client without a Social Security Number has to take a different path for doing something as seemingly simple as pulling their credit report or applying for a credit card. An important goal of the app is to remove the stress from financial planning and help clients recognize that this is a tool to help them achieve their dreams. This is done at their convenience, allowing clients to decide when and where they plan and update personal financial goals – whether at home, waiting for the bus, or any other moment in their busy lives. As an added engagement feature, clients can interact with a virtual financial coach and receive financial tips and tricks to keep in mind as they navigate their journey with MyMAF. By building for clients’ unique contexts, MAF sets the stage for personal finance to feel empowering.
To respect our clients as the experts in their own lives, MyMAF gives clients the autonomy to direct their financial journey. Clients decide where they want to begin, whether it’s learning about credit or watching a video about exploring their investment options. The app also gives clients the option of choosing from 70+ action items to work towards, providing clients with a structure to create their own action plan. The app empowers clients to set the agenda based on what is most relevant to them and supports them with resources, tips, and motivation to get to their goal.
To build on our clients’ strengths, the app takes inspiration from what clients are already doing to manage their financial lives. Much like Lending Circles, the tips and action items in the app reflect informal strategies that clients currently use to overcome their financial barriers. This app gives clients the ability to choose from a wide breadth of options that are already working for them, rather than prescribing choices that don’t fit their contexts.
MyMAF was built using evidence-based principles.
The MAF Lab, Mission Asset Fund’s R&D team, is committed to building products using design thinking, the industry standard for product development teams. Based on conversations with clients and MAFistas who have worked in this community for years, we identified the unique painpoints that our clients experience that other products don’t help them address. We then built and tested prototypes of the app’s features with 40+ users in Spanish and English, iterating those designs until we got all the details just right. Here’s the MAF Lab process we followed:
This process helped us identify and build features in the app that distinctly serve our clients. For example, during our user discovery process, we learned that some of our bilingual clients wanted the flexibility of accessing resources in both English and Spanish. To address this, we made the app available in both languages with the ability to easily switch between the two. The process for launching MyMAF app is one we plan to continue following in-house to develop new products and programs.
Lastly, evidence about effective financial coaching influenced the structure of MyMAF. Research shows that financial education is not sufficient to motivate behavior change; education must be tied to action. MAF incorporated this principle into the design of the app by placing action items after educational content to mirror users’ mental models of creating financial plans – and by sending motivating reminders to encourage users to stay on track with their financial plans. These design elements nudge clients to most effectively realize their financial goals.
MAF is built from the community, for the community.
By involving users in every step of our process, we sought to recognize the unique cultural background of our clients through the app.
MAF’s 10 years of serving low-income and immigrant families was foundational to developing the app.For example, our in-house client services team wrote all the content in our app, to address the questions they have been hearing in working with the community. For example, we offered users tips to help our clients answer questions like “How do I protect my finances if a family member is deported?” and issues like what steps to take when sending a money transfer to family or friends outside the U.S.
MAF also designed the app to make our clients feel seen. MyMAF includes avatars, created by a designer from Mexico City, that reflect the faces of the diverse communities we serve. The app also includes photographs of real clients taken by our in-house designer and resident photographer. When we tested the app, the images were the first thing many clients noticed. Many told us that they identified with the people represented on the home screen and in the photos. This emotional connection to MyMAF will likely motivate our clients to continue engaging with the app’s financial tools.
We’re just getting started.
MyMAF is a continuously improving product. We’re excited to get the app in the hands of our clients and hear their feedback as they use the app. We’re also measuring app usage and financial outcomes, to test our assumptions about the impact the app will have. Based on what we’ve learned so far, we’re already working on creating MyMAF 2.0 to give users more targeted tools to help them achieve their financial goals and make MAF’s financial products more broadly accessible.
Our plan is to continue iterating MyMAF to financially empower the low-income and immigrant families we serve nationally.
We also want to thank the philanthropic supporters of MyMAF: JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Tipping Point Community Foundation, Capital One, Twilio, and individual donors across the country.
It goes back to the earliest days at MAF, when Lending Circles was not yet a program available across the nation and when the conversation about financial capability only centered around savings. Our founders knew that to create programs and services that actually made a difference, you had to orient yourselves in the realities of people’s lives. That it matters where and how you design programs.
We get up in the morning to build programs that actually empower clients. To us, that means we don’t see clients as the problems that need to be solved.
What first started as side project – a relatively small participatory action study we called the Immigrant Financial Integration Initiative – has now become a distinguishing approach for the entire organization. This practice of listening is a core principle behind design thinking – a process that ensures that we are addressing users’ needs, building on their strengths, and creating products that will ultimately have real impact for the communities we serve.
That’s why we’re evolving our technology team into a Research and Development Lab: an innovation unit within MAF to build better programs and products to meet the needs of the communities we serve.
The goals of the MAF Lab are to:
Uncover pressing unmet needs of the communities we serve
Understand the practices, relationships, and resources of these communities
Expand the types of financial needs supported through MAF’s programs and products
Improve the relevance and usability of programs and products to address users’ needs
Share our research and experiences with other organizations
Provide research, design-thinking, and technology services to leading nonprofits, foundations, and corporations
MAF’s R&D process focuses on empathy and engagement with communities who are often left behind.
This approach involves conducting research to understand users’ needs and building programs and products to meet those needs. We’re bridging the best of the nonprofit and fintech worlds:
Our clients are diverse. We build products for people who are often left out of tech developments and formal financial markets.
As a direct services provider, we have a close relationship with our clients, so we build empathy with our users quickly and deeply.
We have the skillset to do our own user research in multiple languages, which allows clients to be heard and represented throughout our process.
Unusual for a nonprofit, we have the expertise in-house to conduct rigorous quantitative research – and use these emerging insights to inform our strategy and development.
With a strong track record of using best practices in research and design, launching the MAF R&D Lab will allow us to do more…and faster. Here’s what a typical process looks like for our team:
A virtuous research & development cycle means we research to assess strengths, understand needs, and then build products to leverage those strengths to meet those needs. But it doesn’t stop there. More research helps us assess how well our products are meeting those needs. That’s how we determine what’s missing or what needs to be refined.
For example: immediately following our 2017 DACA campaign, MAF launched a survey to program applicants to better understand the community of DACA recipients. We analyzed the data and are using it to launch new programs to help meet the financial needs that emerged from the survey (we even tested these programs with target community members first to make sure we got it right). We didn’t just use these insights internally – we shared the survey results with our funders and clients for their input. We’ll be sharing them on this blog in the coming weeks. This is the type of work that the R&D Lab will continue to do more of to better serve our clients and help peer organizations get access to information to help them better support their clients.
We’ve made a few changes to the team to help us evolve. The R&D Lab team recently moved out of MAF’s main office and into our own space, which we call Design Hub.
Our new office has helped us carve out a space to incubate products for the long-term (and gives us an excuse to draw all over the walls in the name of ideation). We’ve also increased our capacity to achieve an ambitious agenda that includes releasing a native mobile app this year and launching new loan programs. To shorten the sprints between designing and testing prototypes, we brought our design team in-house and trained ourselves in user research and testing. That meant investing in staff to help us collect and analyze more user data – and to reduce the build time of our tech developments. We have assembled a team of creative and data-savvy MAFistas to build products that matter to our clients.
Our team is bolstered by the support of our Technology Advisory Council, made up of seasoned leaders from tech companies advising us on all aspects of tech developments. The R&D Lab brings together MAF’s strengths as a direct service nonprofit, a financial services provider, a data-driven tech organization, and a force of social innovation.
Ultimately, the strength of the MAF R&D Lab comes from the trust we’ve built with clients. It’s trust that encourages them to open up about their dreams and fears. We will preserve that trust by continuing to ground our work in MAF’s values of respecting and empowering our clients.
The MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as a “genius grant,” recognizes those with exceptional creativity, a track record of achievement, and the potential for significant contributions in the future. Each fellow receives a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 to support awardees’ pursuit of their creative visions. Since 1981, fewer than 1,000 people have been named MacArthur Fellows. Fellows are selected through a rigorous process that has involved thousands of expert and anonymous nominators, evaluators, and selectors over the years. Past fellows have included notable individuals like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alison Bechdel, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“This award is a high honor that recognizes the ingenuity of people who live in the shadows, who come together to help one another to survive and thrive in life. The award lifts up what is right and good in people’s lives – the trust and commitment they have for one another,” says Quiñonez.
According to the Foundation:
José A. Quiñonez is a financial services innovator creating a pathway to mainstream financial services and non-predatory credit for individuals with limited or no financial access. A disproportionate number of minority, immigrant, and low-income households are invisible to banks and credit institutions, meaning they have no checking or savings accounts (unbanked), make frequent use of nonbank financial services (underbanked), or lack a credit report with a nationwide credit-reporting agency. Without bank accounts or a credit history, it is nearly impossible to obtain safe loans for automobiles, homes, and businesses or to rent an apartment.
Quiñonez is helping individuals overcome these challenges by linking rotating credit associations or lending circles, a traditional cultural practice from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, to the formal financial sector. Lending circles are typically informal arrangements of individuals pooling their resources and distributing loans to one another. Through the Mission Asset Fund (MAF), Quiñonez has created a mechanism for reporting individuals’ repayment of small, zero-interest loans to credit bureaus and other financial institutions. MAF participants are able to establish a credit history and gain access to credit cards, bank loans, and other services, and lending circles focused on youth provide individuals with fees for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival applications and apartment security deposits (which are particularly needed by youth aging out of foster care). All participants are required to complete a financial training class and are provided with financial coaching and peer support. Since the lending circles were established in 2008, participants’ credit scores, collectively, have increased an average of 168 points.
Quiñonez has established a network of partnerships with the financial services industry to enable other organizations to replicate his approach. With Quiñonez and MAF providing the technology necessary to disperse and track loans (a significant hurdle for many nonprofits) and assisting in securing local partners and investors, 53 nonprofit providers in 17 states and the District of Columbia are now using this powerful model in their communities. Quiñonez’s visionary leadership is providing low-income and minority families with the means to secure safe credit, participate more fully in the American economy, and obtain financial security.
She brings her passion for business and community to the MAF team!
Ximena Arias joined MAF as a Financial Services Manager in May 2014. With her passion for entrepreneurship and her multicultural upbringing, she was a perfect fit for the job.
Born in Colombia, Ximena moved to the US at age 12 with her parents and younger sister. After the family settled in Miami, Florida, Ximena struggled to adjust to middle school. Luckily, her English as a Second Language classmates became a support group for her.
“We all related to each other being bi-cultural and gained an understanding of how to relate to others,” Ximena said.
Back in Colombia, Ximena’s parents ran a dental product supply business. Her father was the strategy behind the business, overseeing the operations, while her mother was the face of the business, working to bring in clients and build relationships with dentists in the area. Ximena believes she is a combination of her parents and picked up invaluable skills from both of their experiences.
Ximena loves being surrounded by diversity and describes Florida as a “big melting pot of Latin American immigrants.”
She is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, French and some German. She attended the University of Florida and received a BA in Linguistics and Business Administration and later a Masters in International Business. After she graduated, Ximena taught English and worked with international students.
Coming to the Bay Area, Ximena wanted to give back and follow her passion for connecting people with the resources they need to make better, informed choices. She worked at Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment before coming to MAF. She appreciates the Lending Circles model because it is familiar to immigrants and practiced all over the world. In her role as Financial Services Manager, Ximena oversees small business coaching, the microloan program, financial education and local client management. “I love the way MAF sees a bigger picture, which is critical to make a difference. It’s really accessible and replicable in a way that works with communities and partners, ” she said.
“Replicating this program is an example of how nonprofits leverage technology and I am looking forward to seeing the organization grow.”
Working in the Mission District gives Ximena fond memories of Latin America from the food to the businesses and art. Outside of work, she loves music and hopes to one day compose her own songs. She’s also really great at whistling any song you tell her! Ximena enjoys exploring the thriving community and culture of Oakland, where she lives with her husband.