We Spoke To The Black Female CEO Who's Changing The Lives Of Low-Income Americans

Photo: Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins
We Spoke To The Black Female CEO Who's Changing The Lives Of Low-Income Americans
Self

For those worrying about how to put food on the table or scrape together enough money for childcare, bills often get pushed to the side for more immediate needs.

Government payments from child support to parking tickets that stack up overtime leaves lower-income households in precarious financial situations. These bills also regularly come with time-consuming paperwork that further prevents people from making their repayments.

Not only is this a burden to the people making these payments, but the system itself is also crippled by excessively complicated bureaucracy.

As someone who grew up in a household struggling to balance bills with basic needs, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins knows all too well how government systems create consistent obstacles for those already battling to make ends meet.  

In 2017, recognizing a need to make government and utility payments simpler and more dignified, she founded Promise, a payment platform that creates flexible and accessible payment plans. 

Ellis-Lamkins chatted exclusively to YourTango about her professional and personal values, being a Black woman in tech, and how Promise is making groundbreaking change for low-income Americans. 

Entering the tech industry opened Ellis-Lamkins’ eyes up to how this powerful sector was being massively underutilized. 

“I watched entrepreneurs starting companies that provided on-demand valet parking or dog walking services,” she says, “I didn’t see many examples of technology being used to innovate for working people or people of color.”

She wanted to start a company that could have the scale of these massive tech giants but with a more worthwhile impact on the lives of those most in need. 

“Technology can either dehumanize people or rehumanize people. It is rarely neutral,” Ellis-Lamkins tells us, “We wanted to use technology to give people some power back, help them restore some choice and control and dignity in their own lives.” 

Promise seeks to democratize payments by giving less affluent people the same financial options accessed by those who have the disposable income to spend with ease each month. The platform offers more flexibility for those whose available funds differ from month to month.

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Though many have needed a payment platform like Promise for years, not even Ellis-Lamkins could have predicted how imperative the company would become in the past year. 

With the pandemic creating a massive loss in income for millions of Americans and a massive strain on government funds, Promise’s double-sided platform that makes life easier for people and systems offers simple solutions to many problems.

“Community members need a better way to pay down their bills. And governments need a better way to collect those payments,” Ellis-Lamkins says. “Promise has been able to step into the breach by using technology to simultaneously help people pay their bills and make the government run more efficiently.” 

Unwavering on her ethics, Ellis-Lamkins has never allowed the growth and scaling of Promise to sacrifice the needs of the users of the platform. Fortunately, investors have supported the company’s goals. 

Promise raised $20 million of funding recently which garnered a lot of attention for the company. 

“I get it,” Ellis-Lamkins says of the buzz the funding generated, “It’s unusual for a Black woman to raise that much money in Silicon Valley.”

But she has not diverted her sights from her goals. 

For Ellis-Lamkins, success is not measured in dollars but, instead, in positive impact. 

“When we hear firsthand the difference we have made in someone’s life it reaffirms that we are doing the right work,” she says, “Whether that is someone’s government arrears being forgiven, getting their driver’s license back, keeping their car from being towed, avoiding their water from being shut off or receiving assistance to pay their bills.” 

Even as the company grows, she still makes an effort to work as closely as possible with the people whose lives are changed by Promise. 

“I always spend time answering phones and speaking with our users so I can understand their stories and struggles,” she says, “When I hear a mother break down in tears, learning that her water bill has been paid in full, those are the big moments of pride and joy for me.”

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Tech has been one of the world’s most lucrative industries for years now so it’s rare to see a company placing the greater good of society so high on its list of priorities. But for Ellis-Lamkins, Promise’s primary goal hits close to home.

“This focus came from my personal experiences as a young Black woman who grew up poor. The way that I was treated made me feel bad about myself,” she opens up, “I didn’t want other people to experience that feeling. I wanted to help build a world where people were treated with dignity and respect.”  

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As a Black woman in business, the challenges Ellis-Lamkins has faced remind her just how important it is to improve the systems that create these challenges. 

Awareness of how American society deprivileges women like her came early in her career she says, “From a statistical standpoint, a young Black mother’s chances of starting a successful, venture-backed technology company are low. I understood those odds very well from the start.”

But rather than seeing these factors as a hindrance, Ellis-Lamkins tapped into the benefits her perspective offers. 

“I know how unnecessary, time-wasting paperwork can really overwhelm a struggling family trying to access services,” she says. Raised in a community grappling with poverty, violence, drug abuse, and a lack of resources, Ellis-Lamkins relates to her users better than most.

“I have had to outthink, outwork and outperform everyone around me for my entire life,” she says, “So my understanding of real life, my passion for fairness, and my grit all give me an invisible edge in building this company.”

She says the real-life lessons she learned from a young age have been more valuable in her business than anything privilege and an expensive education could have given her. 

“There is an advantage in being underestimated,” Ellis-Lamkins tells us at the end of our conversation. “The very factors that might lead someone to assume that I would fail [are] the very factors that would help me to succeed.”

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment.