Tina is an academically trained neuroscientist turned progressive campaigner and advocate who is passionate about fighting for equity in our community. Inspired by a late-night segment, she co-founded Debtless to disrupt the predatory industry in order to give people an equitable chance at achieving financial freedom.
How do you translate a burning social purpose into a functioning real-life organization? How do you make the biggest dent you can with the limited resources you have? How do you do all this while knowing nothing about your subject or the business when you start out?
In this episode, neuroscientist turned social entrepreneur Tina Tang describes how she founded Debtless and canceled crushing debt totaling tens of millions of dollars starting with just two thousand dollars, how she learned to fundraise, the nitty gritty of starting a nonprofit, how she stays true to mission, and much more. Let’s get Debtless
- [02:15] The surprising world of debt cancellation
- [04:19] How the Debtless idea was born
- [07:55] How to create a nonprofit organization
- [10:18] How to develop a nonprofit’s business model
- [13:29] How to raise funds for a nonprofit from scratch
- [18:40] How to build a strong nonprofit board – from inception to growth
- [21:41] How to responsibly managing a nonprofit
- [23:28] How Debtless strategically pursues its mission to maximize impact
- [33:26] How to get over the low points in the founders journey
- [38:26] What Tina would do differently starting over today
- [41:44] Advice to future nonprofit founders
Links & Resources
Debtless – The nonprofit 501(c)(3) debt cancelation organization Tina founded
Skadden Arps – The law firm whose pro-bono arm assisted Tine’s team with the formation of Debtless
GoFundMe Charity – the nonprofit fundraising arm of the popular GoFundme crowdfunding platform
Debt Collective – Debtors’ union focused on eliminating debt
Shubha Chakravarthy: Good afternoon, Tina. It is great to have you here today! Thanks for joining us!
Tina Tang: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to have this conversation.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, you are a neuroscientist that has trained in a totally different field before turning to address the debt problem in the US. That’s a pretty unconventional journey. How did that happen?
Tina Tang: It’s definitely been a journey. I think at the time when the idea for Debtless was first born I was still very much on the path of becoming an academic neuroscientist and this was just something that I was passionate about.
I was really passionate about social change, politics, and advocacy and at the time this idea was one where I didn’t know if I necessarily saw it as a career path. It was rather just something that I was spending a lot of my free time in and I was constantly trying to figure out to fit all of these things, these extracurriculars, into my regular schedule.
I felt like I was almost forced out of my career in science because it was an environment that was very toxic but looking back I really feel like it was just a blessing in disguise since now I get to do this full time.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Great. So, what is Debtless and what does the organization do?
Tina Tang: So, Debtless is a 501(c)(3) organization. We’re a nonprofit organization and our mission is really pretty simple — we want to fully disrupt the predatory debt industry through debt cancellation and financial education.
How do we do that? We do that by purchasing debt on the secondary market and we discharge that debt for the benefit of the borrower. That is really our entire mission and what we strive for.
I think most of us are familiar with the concept of debt where you borrow money, whether through a credit card or student loans or a car loan, a mortgage, or whatever it is, you borrow money upfront and you pay it back installments, right? That’s debt.
With those installments, you often pay back fees and interest on top of whatever those installments are. Your original creditor — whom you own that money to is now entitled to sell this debt. They can sell it as many times as they like from creditor to creditor and from collector to collector.
That is the marketplace that I’m talking to when I refer to the secondary market — when this debt from the principal gets sold and bought again and again. We come in at this point in the market where people’s debts are being sold, all sorts of different kinds, and we are able to purchase that debt.
The nice thing is that you actually don’t need a hundred thousand dollars to purchase a hundred thousand dollars of debt. Debt is sold for pennies on the dollar. A quick way to illustrate this is with an example — the first debt portfolio we purchased was valued at $2 million worth of debt and we have since discharged all two million of that debt but we actually purchased that for $2,000 or just a little over that.
It was $2,000 and I think a couple of dollars and cents on top of that and we were able to just forgive all two million and even last week I saw a debt portfolio that was on sale on the market for $5,000 and the portfolio was valued at 25 million. You don’t need the face value of the debt to purchase and cancel it — which makes our operations and fundraising a little bit easier.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, not only are you the first nonprofit founder we are interviewing on Invisible Ink, congratulations, but it’s also one of the most unusual ideas. Where did this idea come from? How did you even stumble on this idea?
Tina Tang: I was really fortunate. I had a co-founder and we had this idea together and we were really inspired by a late night segment by John Oliver back in 2016. As I was saying, both of us were really into political advocacy and we spent a lot of time watching late night talk shows. In this one episode, I think in 2016, he canceled 15 million of medical debt on air. It was just a huge TV spectacle as by pressing this giant red button confetti fell and we were really enamored by this idea and it was a really cool TV gimmick.
But what does this say about our entire debt system that a late night host can do this on air? What ins and outs went into making this happen? Is this replicable? Can we do it? Can somebody else do it right? Is this a replicable thing that we can do?
We really started doing a lot of research into how this process worked. Are other groups, people, individuals, and organizations doing this? We did find a couple that have done similar work in the past and then another angle for us as we really dug into this debt cancellation and debt activist space was that as two students of color at the time, to be perfectly frank, we didn’t feel represented in what we saw.
We knew that communities of color were disproportionately shouldering predatory debt — including student loans. We knew that eliminating debt is one of the most direct ways of closing the racial wealth gap but a lot of times that’s not really how debt is discussed. It isn’t talked about in a way that represents how it disproportionately affects communities of color and we really wanted to shed light on that.
We didn’t quite start out thinking that this is going to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It was kind of like, “This is interesting, we all have our day jobs but let’s find time to dig into this more to see what this is about”, and we just really wanted to come up with something that was gonna help the communities that we come from — which ended up being this nonprofit.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, you have the idea and you are excited. I can see why it would be inspiring. What happens next?
Tina Tang: We really then kind of had to dig into the way to making this happen. We figured out that we can replicate it. So what is the next step? We learned that we actually needed to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit rather than any other type of organization because part of the debt cancellation process is that if a creditor cancels or discharges your debt then you actually have to report that debt to the IRS as income. That took us down a whole rabbit hole of learning about how the IRS is actually a huge debt holder and that actually people declare bankruptcy after going to tax debt. I’ve actually heard personal stories from folks as we’ve done more advocacy about how tax debt has affected their lives.
So, we knew that we didn’t want to help people by kind of solving one problem and creating another and the neat thing about us having to be a (c)(3) nonprofit is that we actually operate under what the legal term is called “detached and disinterested generosity”. We actually cancel the debt as a gift. We don’t know any of the borrowers personally. We don’t have people apply to have their debt canceled. We actually purchase portfolios with thousands and thousands of people in it at a time and we don’t know anything about the individuals and we then discharge that debt.
So, we have no personal stake in the matter and because of that we can call it a gift. They don’t actually have to report that to the IRS as income. So once that debt is gone, it’s gone.
It is because of that that we are like, “Okay, in order to do this, we have to be a (c)(3) and we can’t just be two individuals buying and forgiving debt.” We actually were very lucky in that since there is a Chicago lawyers committee and they actually connected us with a pro bono legal team from Skadden Arps who actually helped us with a lot like creating our bylaws and the requirements for creating a board.
We were like, “Great! What’s part of a board? Let’s make a board.”
Writing out what our operations are going to be, figuring out some very early financial projections, filing all the paperwork, both at the state and the federal level — that whole process probably took over a year from start to finish. So, even though we had kind of started this dating process in 2016, we were not a registered nonprofit until the end of 2019. It was a bit of a journey.
Shubha Chakravarthy: It is fascinating how much you had to learn across business — across the tax code and a whole bunch of other things such as the secondary debt markets. How equipped did you feel? What concerns did you have and how did you cross that mountain of learning that you needed to cross?
Tina Tang: I don’t think I felt equipped at all to be honest because my background was in academia at the time. For kind of the first years of Debtless operating, that was still my career path.
I really didn’t have a lot of background in this. I didn’t take any business classes or economic classes or anything. One of the needs that we recognized is that we have multiple generations of people that didn’t receive any type of formal financial education at all. I know that the first time I got a credit card, I was like, “I don’t know what APR is.”
Now I do but I think this is such a new field for us that we really weren’t equipped at the time but I think for us it was about really remembering that we are a mission driven organization so no matter what we did and any decisions we made when we were creating our bylaws, when we were writing out our mission statement, when we were even writing out our financial projections, remembering what is the end goal of what we are trying to accomplish here and having that guide us and all the tools that we can learn along the way.
So it involved lots and lots of learning.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So you are a nonprofit, but regardless you have to be solvent in order to be around for the long term. For this reason the business model is a pretty critical component as well. How did you tackle this question of the business model — the economic model? What were the most important parts and how did you get those right?
Tina Tang: So, we knew that pretty early on that we were going to be a grassroots fundraising organization. As a nonprofit, what we do is that we fundraise and we use the money that we fundraise in order to purchase debt and then go towards any operations. So I think for us, we made a decision that the bulk of any money we fundraise was going to go directly back into debt purchase and that in terms of operations we were really just going to bootstrap as much as we possibly could.
I mean — the first batch of letters we sent out — we hand-stuffed those letters and hand wrote them. Then I took an Uber and delivered it to USPS to send them out.
We knew early on that that’s where the bulk of our money was going to be spent and that’s how we approached our financial planning. Everything, as much as we can put into debt cancellation, we would and that’s what we were going to do. Everything else, we were going to just be as creative and as scrappy as possible.
I think that’s also the story that we found resonated with people. I think when we talk about grassroots fundraising, so many people get fundraising emails or fundraising asks or whatever it is and there’s this idea with a lot of the big nonprofits where millions and millions of dollars at a fundraiser actually goes back into overhead and operation costs and CEO salaries.
Looking at all of that we were kind of like — that’s not gonna be us as that doesn’t map back to our mission. That’s actually helped us in the way that we’ve bootstrapped our growth because I think that story has also really helped us and we’ve been able to demonstrate to our funders that nearly every single scent coming in has been going back out and canceling debt and helping borrowers and that has made a big impact for us.
We are also really thankful that we’ve been able to demonstrate enough grassroots fundraising and that now we are eligible to apply for some grant-funding and foundation funding. So, that’s kind of the next step — what we are looking at right now. We actually just submitted our first grant application last week.
Fingers crossed! I’m really excited about it.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Congratulations! I will keep all my fingers and toes crossed for you!
I want to address a couple of interesting things that came up in your last answer there. One was — you said you went and delivered the appeals yourself and that presumes that you actually had a list to reach out to. Where did you get this list?
Tina Tang: Let me clarify, what we were actually delivering was — once we purchase debt on the secondary market that we talked about we actually get a list of all the debts that are in the portfolio. So that includes the person who previously owed that debt and their contact information and we are obligated to notify the borrowers that their debt has been canceled.
Then we include the next steps for how they can then contact their original creditor or contact their credit reporting agency in order to update their credit score and things like that. Those are the letters that we were delivering. We were sending out notification letters to borrowers that their debt has now been canceled.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So they were the Santa Claus letters!
Then to go back to your funding, even if it is a relatively small amount it’s still meaningful and presumably you have ambitions to scale. Can you talk about how you got funding? You talked about grassroots. How did that work out?
Tina Tang: It is actually a really wild story. I mentioned that we were incorporated as a (c)(3) nonprofit in 2019 and we had planned for launch in early 2020 — to be exact March, 2020 was going to be our first launch event.
It didn’t quite work out the way we thought it was going to and I believe it was actually a week before the city of Chicago shut down and we got that advisory where it said that today is the last day you can be outside and then starting tomorrow you must go stay at home. So that really threw a wrench into our operations.
We had planned this in-person launch event where we were going to introduce our mission to the community and we were going to do some letter writing of donations and things like that and obviously we could no longer plan an in-person event so we needed to really quickly pivot.
At the time we were really a team of me and the co-founder and our board. So, the easiest and lowest hanging fruit at the time was creating a GoFundMe. We thought, “Everybody’s doing a GoFundMe!”
GoFundMe actually at the time had a platform that was called “GoFundMe Charity”, which is specifically for (c)(3) Nonprofits, where we essentially wrote our story. We made these little videos about why this is important and we were introducing people to the nature of the predatory debt industry and highlighting the impact of even a dollar or $5 or $10 and how that could actually cancel thousands of dollars of debt.
We had a really modest fundraising goal too. We were like, “Let’s just raise a thousand dollars. Let’s see if we can raise a thousand dollars. We’ve never done this before. Let’s see how far we get.” We actually doubled our goal and we raised $2000 and that was the first $2000 that we used to cancel the first 2 million dollar debt.
Then obviously we were able to build a lot more momentum off of that since then. We’ve been able to transition out of GoFundMe, which we knew was never going to be a long-term solution, into a more long-term digital fundraising platform and now we actually have a full scale digital fundraising program where we’re doing fundraising emails. Similar to our mission we never want to be an organization that is just constantly asking people for money.
So, we are doing fundraising emails but we also have our newsletter email program that is doing like financial education tips and news — especially now on student debt cancellation as that’s what everybody’s talking about and we are hoping to essentially keep expanding digitally. We want to maybe do social media ads in the future because digital wasn’t necessarily a part of our big plan to start with and COVID hit and we had to pivot and I think this is where we’ll stay.
Shubha Chakravarthy: It’s interesting because everything that you’re doing is based off of this foundational plank of your being a nonprofit. Now, there are other ways that you could do it. For example, you could start a social enterprise venture and you could do a B Corp. Is the tax implication to the borrower the only driver of the fact that it is a 501(c)(3) or were there other considerations that drove you away from a social impact venture or a B Corp towards being a nonprofit?
Tina Tang: I think the tax implications were definitely one of the huge factors because again we didn’t want to solve one problem by creating another and so that was definitely a big part of our decision making.
I think the second part of that for us is that when we talk about finances and financial planning and things like that then people tend to think that they are scams. I think even when we first started we were reaching out to borrowers who didn’t really think this was real and I think for us wanting to be a (c)(3) nonprofit in order to also lend legitimacy to the cause of — “This is for the benefit of you. This is not for the benefit of us.” I think that was also a huge part of our decision.
Shubha Chakravarthy: In addition to the fact that you are a nonprofit, what other drivers or markers of legitimacy did you consciously strategically use to build trust with the people that you were canceling debt for?
Secondarily, did that even matter because I think that this is a unilateral act where you forgive debt and it’s done and you don’t need the borrowers to consent. Is that true? Did you do anything else to build trust further?
Tina Tang: Yes, that is true. This is a unilateral action. We don’t need them to take any sort of action in order to benefit from it — which is something that was really important to us. We didn’t want it to be like, “You have to file a form or something in order to get the benefits.” You believe us or you don’t — this is already done, which is our goal. But I think for us it was also about the evolution of the step we are in now of just building brand awareness and simply awareness around the mission.
We want to get to a place where you say Debtless and people know what we are talking about. So, really building up brand awareness around our mission and around what we are doing and that debt cancellation is actually a useful tool for financial freedom is important and I think that’s been a huge part of our mission now. It is important to build up our messaging so that if people Google us then they see something that makes them think, “Oh, this is believable.”
Shubha Chakravarthy: One other factor you mentioned was getting this board of directors, a board of trustees as a nonprofit. I know that can be pretty challenging, I’m on two boards myself so I understand how challenging it might be. Can you talk about that process, your learnings and what advice you’d give to someone else in terms of recruiting a board of directors, someone who’s starting a non-profit?
Tina Tang: I think for us, when we first started, we went straight to friends and family and we were like, “This is what we want to do. You are all the people that we know. Will you help us?”
There were a lot of pros and cons we learned from that. I think a lot of the pros were that we had a kind of group of people who are a part of our personal network and community, both personal and professional networks that believed in this because we believed in this. So, they signed on to help us get started. Then we hit the bumps of working with friends and working with family when you previously weren’t coworkers and now you kind of are — so I think we hit all of the typical bumps that you would expect there.
Now we are at a position where we can recruit people who weren’t necessarily in our personal or professional networks to begin with but we are now consciously bringing into our network because they’ve bought into the mission and because they believe in what we’re doing and because they bring value to the next step of where we want to go.
But yeah, definitely when we got started, it was kind of like, “Let’s just find people who are willing to put their name on a piece of paper and let’s go from there.”
Shubha Chakravarthy: Can you talk through a little bit of your philosophy of how you put your board together as this non-profit?
Tina Tang: Skills and connections play a huge part into this decision making for me because early on when we first started we raised $1000 and then we said, “Let’s raise the next thousand.” We we weren’t even thinking far ahead in 2019 and 2020 about what the long term connections are going to look like and what the long term five-year or 10-year plan is going to be. It was really just us saying, “Can we keep the lights on for another month? Great. Let’s do that.”
So the considerations that went into our board at the time then was about people who had time to actually put into the organization. That was actually my biggest factor, “Do you have five hours a week? Do you have 10 hours a week? If I give you these lists of things to do, can you do it in this amount of time?”
That was really our early stages. I think now what I’m looking at is more, “These are our five-year goals. For example, we’re applying to grants. These are our 10-year goals of wanting to build up name recognition and a huge part of that is going to be our digital strategy. How can I bring in people who already have experience and connections in those areas so that I can pick their brain.”
I don’t necessarily need to ask them at this stage, “Do you have 10 hours a week to actually do the grunt work with me?” But I actually now ask, “Do you have an hour a month or an hour every quarter where I can pick your brain? Are we going in the right direction? What do I need to plan for next?”
So, I think definitely those considerations have changed and evolved.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That brings me to an interesting question. You want this organization to be around for the long term and one thing that’s for sure with a 501(c)(3) is that it does impose administrative burdens in terms of reporting and transparency and then there’s a secondary question of financial management of the nonprofit itself.
To your point you also want to manage the expenses. So, how do you manage those twin responsibilities of financial oversight as well as financial administration of your non-profit?
Tina Tang: I guess one caveat is we hope to get to a point where we don’t have to exist. I think that should be the goal of more nonprofits, to be honest. It’s not that we have to exist forever, it is that we exist long enough to solve the problem and then we can stop existing.
So, that’s the ultimate goal there but until we get there — which is probably gonna be a long time from now, I think a huge part of that is actually just how we are doing financial planning and how we are being realistic about what we are bringing and what the administrative costs versus what the costs for debt cancellation is going to be.
I’ve seen a lot of financial projections that have people who have come to me for help and things like that. I’ve seen financial projections and the thing is that you always want to project the best but that just isn’t frankly realistic based on what your growth is and I think that for me, I’ve always been on the conservative side of things when I’m doing projections.
I think very conservatively, “What we can fundraise this year out of this or this is what I’m gonna budget in for administrative costs out of this and this is what we’re gonna budget in for debt cancellation for the actual notification process.”
We actually just hired our first part-time staff member. So now we’re budgeting in for a compensation for our staff and I think being at every step I’ve been probably more conservative than I needed to be which I think is actually paying off now. We’re getting to a place where we actually maybe have a little bit of breathing room, which is good.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Now turning to your mission, there’s obviously unfortunately so much debt that you can literally pick what you want and have an impact from a strategic standpoint. How do you select the portfolios? The types of debts?
So for example, you go beyond student debt and then how do you pick the specific tranches or packages of debt that you choose to buy and then cancel or forget?
Tina Tang: I love this question so thank you for asking it. So, I talked about it at the beginning, a huge part of our mission was that we felt like people of color’s voices weren’t really represented in this space because people of color are disproportionately affected by predatory lending.
They are affected across almost every type of debt, if you think about it, and we wanted to really focus a conversation on that and also in our actual cancellation efforts, focus on types of debts that we know are disproportionately affecting our communities. Again, we can’t go in and say, “We are looking for X, Y, Z person’s debt” or we can’t say, “Segment this portfolio by race or by gender or whatever it is.”
What I’m looking for when we’re looking for portfolios is one — portfolios that have actually been charged off for a long time, meaning that people who have owed debts for a really long time. So we are prioritizing helping people who have been in debt for longer. I think one of the most recent portfolios we saw had been charged off since 2010. So, it’s over 10 years of somebody who had been harassed and hounded for this debt. So that is the first thing we look for.
The second thing is that we’ve actually recently started with a more renewed focus on looking for debt portfolios that are actually payday loans because if you really dig into the payday loan industry then there is just so much to talk about but it is one of the debts that most disproportionately affects communities of color. It is marketed often as an alternative financial solution in banking deserts, which are areas where there’s not a financial institution for about 10 miles, which are often within urban city centers or rural areas which are predominantly for communities of color.
We’ve been really focusing on discharging payday loans because there is also so little regulation on the payday loan industry. I think interest rates in payday loans in the country can go up as high as over 600% — which is in Texas. It doesn’t sound real and it is actually in Illinois that I believe payday loan interests used to average about 200% and above until 2021, where there was legislation that just passed that capped payday loan interest in Illinois at 36%.
But even 36% is abnormally high, right? Like a credit card is maybe like 18 to 22? So, I think that’s one type of debt we have really decided to prioritize and another reason for that is that we wanted to plug a gap and fill a need for a solution that didn’t exist already.
There’s already a big national conversation happening around student loan debt and we are part of groups that are doing a lot of advocacy right now for the president to cancel student loan debt, which he can literally do today, tomorrow, or whenever he wants to. So, we’re really hoping for that to advance out there but there’s the sense that student loan debt is debt that you took on to get an education so it is somehow acceptable. Someone who has $300,000 in student loan debt — you view that person very differently from someone that has like even $10,000 of credit card debt. That’s considered somehow more acceptable.
For medical debt there’s actually an organization that has been focused specifically on canceling it but again, medical debt is one of those things that also gives you the sense that if you tell somebody that you are $20,000 in debt because you have to get a life saving procedure then there’s not too much shame around it. However, if you know somebody who took out $500 of a payday loan to pay utilities for the month and rent and put food on the table and then they didn’t pay it back and now they owe this debt 10 years later, then that really can keep a person down for a really long time unnecessarily.
So, we have really chosen to be very intentional about plugging into this need that we identified that even similar organizations are not addressing right now.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Fascinating. This brings up an interesting thought for me, which is, take something like student loans, it’s not a recurring debt, whereas you could make an argument that in the case of a payday loan, there’s a systemic issue that is causing someone to repeatedly access this loan.
So, when you forgive, let’s say I had a payday loan and you forgive me or forgive my loan then it seems like there’s an opportunity to help me on a more systemic basis either by yourself or maybe by partnering with some other nonprofit that has a complimentary mission to you. Have you thought about that? And if so, do you see such opportunities?
Tina Tang: I think that’s really just the second part of our mission statement, which is not just debt cancellation, right? It’s debt cancellation and financial education. One of the things that we really believe in is that if people had knowledge of what they were getting into, when they take out these predatory loans, then you would take time to try to find other options.
So, I think that’s one and that every time we cancel debt, we actually provide people with a list of resources not only to update their credit report but one that also states that, “Here are some steps you can take to stay out of debt” because yes, the rate of someone who takes out a loan, any type of loan, when it’s not a student loan or a medical debt and then immediately falls back into debt — that rate is very, very high. So financial education is a key part of that.
The other part of that we actually see is part of our advocacy work. So, like I just mentioned —Illinois recently passed legislation to cap payday lending, which is great. We support that, however, that actually didn’t address the systemic issue because payday lenders exist in neighborhoods where there are not a lot of banking institutions. They’re often the only option for people in those areas in order to get credit. So, capping payday low interest at 36% in Illinois, actually in parts of Chicago and I’m sure other parts as well, will force payday shops to close, which in theory is great. “Payday lender shut down” is good news but that actually leaves the people in those communities without any option for credit whatsoever and education alone in that scenario is not gonna fix the problem. Right?
So, we really want to grow and expand in terms of advocacy for more reputable financial institutions to be in those neighborhoods to really address the problem of banking deserts head on.
Yes, payday lending is a problem but this is a problem that existed there to fill a need and just because we take away the problem doesn’t mean that need is no longer present. Right? I think that’s the other arm of what we want to focus on going forward and we are constantly looking for other like-minded organizations for doing partnerships with.
We recently did a talk with the Chicago Women in STEM about how debt disproportionately affects women and what are some tools you can use in order to address that. We also recently just published an op-ed in a online magazine called “In The Red”, which is actually run by a group called the Debt Collective. They are actually a debtor’s union and they organize debtors across the country to let them know their rights when it comes to being in debt. Their big focus right now is on student loan debt.
So, we are always looking to partner with other organizations that are aligned with our mission and with what we want to do and how can we all work together to help people.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Essentially the problem you’re eventually looking to solve is financial access, especially on this angle of payday loans in particular.
So, changing gears slightly, what were some of the external challenges you faced from the beginning that continue even to the present day?
Tina Tang: So many challenges, even recapping some of the things we’ve already talked about when we first started — not even not having a background in starting a nonprofit, what we needed to do, we really could not be where we are now without the legal help and we had to be incorporated to fill out the paperwork to figure out what we needed. I think that that was a huge part of it once we were actually operational and trying to figure out, “Okay, how do you fundraise?”
I had only done student groups up until then so the extent of my fundraising experience when we were first having this idea was having bake sales and I was like, “Well, that’s not gonna fuel us to where we need to go. So, how do we move past bake sales and into actual fundraising tactics?”
I think I’ve taken a lot from different parts of my life since then and that informs how I run Debtless now. For a brief period I worked at a venture backed startup in Chicago and learned a lot about customer acquisition and funding and even analyzing KPIs, which I didn’t have a background in. So, I took a lot of that experience into how I run Debtless today.
I also now work in politics. I made the pivot because of COVID into politics and a lot of my advocacy work that we do with Debtless is really rooted in the things that I learned from political campaigns and from working with other nonprofit organizations.
So many different challenges that I think really for me was just about kind of faking it till you make it and taking it one step at a time while always being willing to learn about what’s next. I think I went into this with a really open mind because I knew I had so much to learn and really knowing that every day no matter what I’m doing outside of this — it is going to be somehow applicable to what I’m doing.
Shubha Chakravarthy: All of this places a huge demand on your personal resources, right? Did you have any memorable dark moments where you really came close to calling it quits? If so, how did you find the strength to get through that?
Tina Tang: Yeah, there were a lot of low points, which one do I name? So many different low points. I’ll talk about one example that’s coming to mind right now, it is actually about the time after our first initial round of fundraising, I talked about the $2,000 and how we were off to a really great start and it was kind of like, “Oh wow! We had $2,000 and we canceled all of this debt. We’re great!”
Then we kind of hit a wall of thinking, “Where does the next $2,000 come from? We can’t keep doing GoFundMe. How do we evolve past that?” I think that was a very early and very low point for me — of just really feeling like I was not equipped to continue to run this organization and I think for me personally it took a lot of time away, a lot of rest, a lot of therapy to kind of really get myself focusing on the fact that if you take care of yourself you have all the tools you need to succeed. You have to access it. I know that I might not know everything but I know that I’m capable of learning anything I need to learn.
That’s been a really powerful reminder for me. Even today because there’s still so many things that come up where I’m like, “Wow, I, I didn’t know this before today but I have the tools of how I can find this information or who I can go to in order to get the answer” — reminding myself that you don’t have to have all the answers and that you just take some time away, take a nap, have a coffee, come back and that you have the tools you need to get there.
Shubha Chakravarthy: One thing that kind of plays into my mind was that there’s a wrinkle to this challenge — which is your heritage.
You and I share an Asian heritage and I don’t know to what extent this is true but it’s certainly true where I come from, which is the idea that women are to be seen but not heard. There’s this question of being submissive and not rocking the boat and I could argue that everything you’re doing is all about rocking the boat.
How has that played into your journey? How have you integrated that into your overall journey and into what you’re doing in the next phase?
Tina Tang: I’m a Chinese immigrant — first generation. I was born in China and the culture that I grew up on was very collectivist. It is about valuing the whole over the individual. It’s really not the best precursor to entrepreneurship because it’s not really about doing something on your own and standing out on your own.
A lot of what I’m doing now has not always been supported by people in my family or people in my culture who are kind of like, “You gave up a relatively stable career in academia, which is also respected and comes with some level of the graduate degrees and all of those things to join a political campaign and run a nonprofit? What is that gonna do?”
There’s no stability involved in what I do today and that is really terrifying sometimes because I definitely see the value in stability but I also think that a lot of my influences of growing up here are also about really valuing what I’m passionate about.
I think for a huge chunk of my life, I made decisions because it was the “right decision” to make, or the one that my family was going to approve of, or one that was, like you said, not going to rock the boat or make anybody uncomfortable or was easy to explain, like “I’m a doctor”. Right? That’s a very easy thing to say. “I’m a nonprofit founder who does this”, when people hear this they are like, “I don’t understand.”
I think I made too many decisions in my life like that and it has been really freeing to now start making decisions that actually wake me up in the morning and that I’m excited to do every day. I think I was definitely hitting a point in my career where I just wasn’t excited anymore to wake up and do the things that I was doing.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And talking about being excited, has there been one moment in this journey that really lit you up and that said, “You know what? This is why I’m doing everything. This is why I’m putting up with everything.”
Tina Tang: Yeah. I think the obvious one is every time we’ve canceled the debt portfolio and those letters go out, it just feels like, “Wow, this is real. These are their physical envelopes that go out into the world and somebody’s going to touch and open them and the earlier batch of those I hand stamped and I closed those envelopes.”
It felt very much like, “Oh wow, like I touched this and now somebody else is going to and it is going to touch their lives.” I think that’s always going to feel special no matter how many times we do it.
Another moment that comes to mind is related to the fact that we recently hired our first staff. She is part-time staff and she’s our fundraising director. She’s helping us with fundraising and is a really valuable addition to our team. She told me recently that after working with Debtless for just over six months and working with debts has really changed her view on the entire financial system and how she feels passionate now about this work.
I think that’s always going to feel really special to me — that interpersonal connection we’ve made and also just getting us to a point where we are able to have staff, even if it is one part-time staff then that’s huge. It counts and I am really excited about that.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Looking back, is there anything that you wish you’d done differently?
Tina Tang: Yeah, I think looking back now had I had the foresight I think I would’ve tried to do more long term planning earlier on. I think that was a big pivot for us. Actually at the end of last year where we really operated for a full year of “Let’s see where the next month gets us” We were kind of in that constantly, “Let’s just go and let’s see what happens” mode and then really at the end of last year, which led to our hire now is slowing down and really evaluating where we are at making a one-year plan, a five-year plan, a 10-year plan.
Had I had the room and the foresight to do that earlier I think that would’ve helped that first year not feel as scrambled and maybe helped that first year have less of those low points that we talked about earlier but I also do think that the scrambling was really valuable too.
I learned a lot very quickly — even with the first time we did mailings with USPS, leading up to that, I probably spent maybe five or six hours over the course of a week, just at the USPS in Chicago, at the main USPS center just being sent from this office to that office and trying to figure out all that mailing stuff because our letters had to go out and we didn’t have enough money to hire a mail vendor.
I was like, “We are gonna do this on our own and had I had the foresight to do a lot more planning then that definitely would’ve been less hectic but I think also just me physically being there and running around for that whole week taught me a lot and now I really know the ins and outs of USPS that otherwise I never would’ve and you know how to figure out what the nonprofit pricing is and all of that stuff.
So, I think there is definitely a lot of value to be had there but a lot of stress and anxiety too.
Shubha Chakravarthy: What would that planning have covered in retrospect?
Tina Tang: I think we would’ve done probably better financial planning for the whole year and would have had a goal of what we want to fundraise and how we’re gonna get there. I think early on it was very much just the fact that we need as much money as we can get without really a solid goal of like, “This month, we want to raise $2,000 and next month we want to raise $2,500 or whatever those numbers should have been at that point in time.”
And then how do we map back to that? Which is where we’re at now. We are now at a point where we have distinct fundraising goals that we wanna hit. At the monthly, quarterly, and yearly mark we can really evaluate progress and change and be strategic about, “This is working. We should keep doing this” or “This isn’t working. We should stop.” It sounds really simple, but early on it was kind of like, “Let’s do everything because something just has to work and something has to stick to the wall” and we weren’t very strategic about how we were fundraising and how we were allocating that and I think that would’ve been really helpful had I had more of that experience early on.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Last question. What advice would you give other aspiring women entrepreneurs who want to start a nonprofit?
Tina Tang: Honestly, I think just go for it. If you identify a need that needs to be filled, which is what we did, then you should go for it. I think that for most of this journey, I had been really scared and really insecure about my abilities to be able to operate an organization like this because this wasn’t my background and it wasn’t part of my culture to do this. I didn’t have any entrepreneurs in my life to look up to or know anybody who is working in the nonprofit world.
Really just trust yourself that you have the tools in order to make that happen and if you don’t then you can learn and I think that’s why for us it was really important to always to be a mission driven organization in the sense that if I didn’t — if we were doing email fundraising and if I didn’t know how to code an email for an email fundraiser then that’s okay because I can watch a YouTube video and I can learn but if I didn’t believe in the mission of what we were doing, then that’s not gonna get me up to do anything.
So, trust that the technical things you can learn. You can learn to do the paperwork and you can learn to fill out forms but making sure that it is a mission that you are actually passionate about and fills the need is really important.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Thank you very much, Tina. This has been an inspiring and an informative conversation for me and I’m sure for many others as well. Thank you very much for your time.
Tina Tang: Thank you so much for having me! Thank you!