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The Next Step: Ashley Crone & Propel9 min read

The Oppy is introducing ‘The Next Step,’ a new monthly series that will feature recent graduates who’ve made exciting moves after Stern. We hope that their stories will inspire you and excite you about what’s next.  

Our inaugural article features Ashely Crone (‘20), Director of Business Development at Propel, Inc., a fast-growing startup that builds software for low-income Americans who are often overlooked by traditional tech innovation. I sat down with Ashley (virtually, of course) on a sunny Friday afternoon to talk about her career, passion for social impact, and advice for soon-to-be graduating MBAs.  

Why did you choose to attend Stern and what were you looking to get out of it?

I was looking for a school that had programs that focused on sustainability and social impact.  At the time, NYU was among the few programs that had a whole track dedicated to that type of business.

I was living in NYC, so I actually only applied to NYU and it worked out. I’m thankful because my goal was to go into social enterprise and sustainability work. And, of course, just living in the city and attending business school was an amazing opportunity. 

Now you are working for a company with a big social mission. Can you give us a quick elevator pitch for Propel?

Propel is a startup located in downtown Brooklyn and we are focused on building technology for Americans with limited incomes. Our purpose is to build technology that is effective, and also dignified and reduces stigma around the social safety net programs. 

We’ve started off focusing on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which you may know as SNAP or the food stamp program, because there are over 42 million people in it and there are a lot of points of friction and aspects of the program that could be improved. Our first product is called Fresh EBT, which functions as a mobile banking app for food stamp participants. So, for example, the app allows families to  check their balance to know how much they can spend at the store and helps them manage their benefits so they can stretch them for longer.   Without Fresh EBT,  people on food stamps have to manually save their receipts and call a 1-800 number to check their balances, which is not a modern or respectful experience.  It’s free for our customers and revenue is driven by our partners and in-app advertisers.

Our long term vision is to serve families with limited incomes throughout their financial lives and through the ups and downs with a suite of tools and services. We are currently working on launching our second product, a debit card, which will serve those who receive food stamps and also anyone who earns around $40,000 a year or less.

I was also struck by Propel’s mission: “We build modern, respectful and effective financial products and services for low income Americans,” and I found the word ‘respectful’ to be so powerful. I would love to hear you articulate in your own words why ‘respectful’ is a large part of the mission.

At the core of this, there is a lot of distrust and misinformation around people who use benefits and welfare programs. People often feel stigmatized when applying for or using SNAP benefits. Our core belief is that our customers fundamentally deserve to have the type of beautiful seamless experience that you would have in any nice consumer millennial branded app. And they should feel good about it. You know, people like you and I have all kinds of conveniences and luxuries designed and for us. Families who are struggling and working really hard deserve that too. 

It sounds like you’ve landed somewhere that aligns with what you were looking to achieve from business school. Tell us more about your journey from NYU to Propel.

How I got in touch with Propel was fairly unrelated to Stern. I was doing some volunteering with a women’s shelter and a lot of the clients at the shelter were using the app. After I’d been introduced to it, I happened to see some job postings for Propel and remembered it.  And then I just reached out.

How Stern really played a role was that I started at Propel as a sales and business development lead.  I needed to build out our sales infrastructure and strategy and I’d never really done anything like that before – my background was in marketing. Just  going through the experience of Stern gave me the foundational business skills and the ability to be resourceful even if I didn’t know how to do something. It gave me the confidence to present myself credibly for this job. Also, my education at Stern helped me understand different social impact models and the challenges of trying to work in a business that’s for profit  but also mission driven.

So tell me more that – are there particular challenges that you faced as you’ve had to strike a balance between driving revenue and fulfilling Propel’s mission? 

We have really strict rules and high standards for ourselves in terms of what kind of partners we will work with, what kind of content we will show to our customers and what we will take money for.  The black and white cases are really easy to say no to, but there are also a lot of things that come up for us that fall into a gray area  – i.e. where we have an opportunity to earn revenue and it’s not that it would be harmful to our audience, but also wouldn’t be helpful. 

So I’ve turned down deals that many other companies would accept because they did not support our customer base. 

It sounds like you have your community’s benefit in mind as your top priority.

The way we see it is that we have over 5 million people using our app and our biggest asset is their trust. They trust our recommendations and that we are there to support them. We wouldn’t risk that just for a lucrative deal. 

I saw on Linkedin that you were promoted to the Director of Business Development. How will your day to day change and what are you excited about doing with this new role moving forward?

I am managing most of our marketplace and revenue generating team and am responsible for making sure we have all the right resources – i.e. hiring people, budgeting, organizational structure. I’ve transitioned from an individual contributor sales lead to the person supporting the whole thing, which is quite different. 

What I am excited about this year is that we’re going to invest more time and resources in product improvements and product optimizations, like proving the delivery and efficiency of how we run our content system and being able to better predict who wants to see what kind of content in the Fresh EBT app. And then of course the new debit card that I mentioned which we will target towards supporting moms and families who will be receiving the new and expanded child tax credits. That is such a huge policy benefit for the families that we support and it will allow us to do more to help them. 

Seeing that our audience is comprised of business school students looking for jobs and your company is  growing, we’d love to hear your perspective on why someone should think about joining Propel.

We have a lot of roles open right now in different functions If you’re passionate about helping people and making a difference in people’s ability to live comfortably in this country this is a great way to do it. We make a real impact on millions of people’s lives and it’s super rewarding. From a cultural perspective, we’re a startup of 50 people and we’re in high growth mode. So, for MBAs there’s so much room to grow and lead, and so much flexibility and autonomy. That’s not necessarily for everyone, but if you thrive in those situations it’s a place where you can do very, very well.

Also, we’re all really nice and cool people and we have a dog-friendly office in downtown Brooklyn. Working at Propel is just something I genuinely enjoy doing every day so I would definitely recommend it to anyone.

When will you be back in the office?

We’re hoping this fall but we’ll see, you know…

Okay, so I also like to do this fun thing, it’s time for our rapid fire questions:

What’s one word that describes you? Curious
Who was your favorite professor at Stern ? Tensie Whelan
Where did you spend the Covid locked down? Partly in New York, partly in Lake Tahoe
What is your go-to New York City restaurant?  Tim Ho Wan
Finish this sentence. At 7am you can find me: reading in bed with coffee
What’s the cause you’re passionate about? Women’s health care and reproductive rights (besides the social safety net which is what I do for work)
What’s one thing you can’t do that you want to learn?  I’m a bad dorky dancer ,which is okay, but I would like to be better.
If you could meet anyone alive or dead, who would it be? Maybe Bob Dylan when he was younger
First big vacation after Covid? Morocco
The most important thing in your life? Family.

Last question, what advice would you give to soon-to-be graduating MBAs looking to break into a new career path like you did?

My advice would be to get involved in that space before you start the job search process. So if there are community organizations, volunteer opportunities, meetups, professional networking groups – take advantage of that and get to know people who are in that industry.  Being able to demonstrate some sort of connection and interest prior to showing up as a candidate really helps and can allow you to ground your passion and interests in real-life experiences. 

That’s great advice, thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Ashley! Sternies, you can find Ashley or learn more about Propel on LinkedIn. 

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