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  • Writer's pictureW.B. King

Women in Technology: Starlight’s Catherine Xu

Special edition celebrating Women’s History Month 2024! Stay tuned for more intriguing profiles throughout the month.

In what is a recurring feature, Finopotamus spotlights innovative women who are positively impacting technology applications in the credit union industry, and beyond.

For this issue, we visited with Starlight Co-founder and Co-CEO Catherine Xu. The New York City-based company’s mission is to build technology that modernizes the social safety net, unlocking the $140 billion in government benefits that goes unclaimed every year for those households in need. 

By W.B. King

From her early days growing up in Silicon Valley, Catherine Xu was attracted to technology. Soon she realized an aptitude for coding and from that point forward her passion for all things tech evolved.

“I wrote my first computer program in high school, something simple to automate data entry tasks in a biology lab. I was interning at the time,” Xu told Finopotamus

Catherine Xu

Years later, while studying at Stanford University, Xu became fascinated by human-centered design.

“I built technology exploring everything from how artificial intelligence (AI) could help us be more creative, to how augmented reality could help kids with autism with emotion expression recognition,” she said, adding that she led studios for Stanford’s introductory design thinking classes of more than 300 students.

Helping Underserved Communities

After graduating from Stanford in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in symbolic systems and a master’s in computer science, Xu was hired by LinkedIn, where she worked as a product manager for AI advertisements and consumer search. Three years later, she was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.

“Up to this point, I had basically spent my whole life in Silicon Valley, and wanted to challenge myself in a new space where problems were visible and large, but few entrepreneurs were tackling,” she shared. “I decided to leave for NYC, joining a fellowship hosted by Robin Hood Foundation (New York City's largest poverty-fighting organization) to explore challenges faced by underserved communities.”

During the fellowship, she met future Starlight co-founder and co-CEO, Shreenath Regunathan. The pair spent the next spent six months conducting “on-the-ground research and running co-design sessions” with various underserved communities. This included gig/frontline workers to young parents.

“Over thousands of hours, we heard repeated challenges around finances, with many households juggling bills to stay afloat,” she said. “When we started helping households apply for various government financial assistance programs to help them with their internet and utilities bills, that’s when we realized how broken our system is for the people that need it to work the most.”

From these experiences, Starlight’s mission was firmly established: Help households find and use over $140 billion in government programs, Xu explained.

The Startup Journey

Reflecting on her career to date, as well as evolution of the fintech industry, Xu told Finopotamus technology teams today have an opportunity to be “much more lean than ever before.” This is achieved, in part, by leveraging AI and a distributed workforce to accomplish more with less and test a greater volume of ideas, she added.

“At Starlight, AI has helped expedite our product development," she noted. “For example, we have used AI to help us efficiently index unstructured data, such as long policies around various government financial programs, and deliver it in a proactive and personalized way to members.”

AI is not the only aspect of the industry that has changed. Xu is encouraged by the number of women entering and thriving in the IT space.

“At LinkedIn, I had a strong supportive community to lean on through our internal ‘Women in Product’ group. After I left to pursue the startup life, I realized how I missed having that community,” she said. “Building a startup can be lonely, and somewhere around 3% of venture capital funding goes to female founders.”

Xu, however, hasn’t been alone on her startup journey and pointed to one of her mentors, Elizabeth McCluskey, head of the discovery fund at Trustage Ventures, the venture capital arm of TruStage.

“I feel lucky to have support from folks like Elizabeth who have dedicated themselves to diverse founding teams who are building solutions for financial inclusion,” she continued.

“In addition, we’ve built valuable relationships with female leaders in the credit union space.

Many small credit unions today are run by women, and are fearlessly dedicated to the communities they serve,” she added, noting role models Linda White, former CEO of Upward Credit Union, and Shawn Wolbert, president and CEO of GHS Federal Credit Union.

Upon further reflection, Xu also singled out two managers at LinkedIn, Mindaou Gu and Alice Xiong. “They quickly became mentors to me. They helped me with the tactical things around building products, from the rigor of running an ads marketplace, to how to launch new consumer products to 500 million-plus users,” she shared. “But beyond that, they never stopped challenging me to grow, take on larger product scope, and pursue new ideas and ambitions.”

Community-Focused Philosophy

When Finopotamus asked what recent technology advancements have caught her attention, Xu said the increase in data accessibility and quality is "opening more doors for credit unions and fintech to form partnerships," which are producing more personalized digital experiences.

“For instance, Corelation’s KeyBridge application program interfaces (API) is a good example of making core data accessible for vendors while maintaining security and control for credit unions, expediting integration time,” she noted. “Other forward-thinking credit unions have also built additional signals on top of their existing data, such as collection propensity scores.”

Ever-evolving AI initiatives and innovations are also of interest to Xu who pointed to, a family of foundational AI models that can be used in a variety of applications. “Claude’s new model can convert design images to front-end code, to improved contextual understanding that enable hyper-personalized experiences, such as financial resources delivered at the right time and in the right format.”

There is a synergy between credit unions and Starlight, Xu explained. This is due to the credit union member-centric, community-focused philosophy.

“They have a history of serving the underserved and are powerful in uplifting financially marginalized communities. While big banks and fintechs focus on scale, credit unions are differentiated in their local approach, bringing depth and understanding to a relationship,” said Xu.

“Meritrust Credit Union’s financial coaching team, for example, has researched local government financial assistance programs that help their members with utility bills, and familiarize themselves with the ins-and-outs of these programs,” she continued. “Technology has the opportunity to amplify this personalized approach and help credit unions deliver it to more members.”

To ensure credit unions are exceeding members’ needs, which today go far beyond checking and savings accounts and home and car loans, Xu said like-minded fintech partnerships are necessary.

“We want to help credit unions show up for members in times of financial need,” she said. “Government programs already play a critical role in many households’ financial picture — over 99 million Americans have previously encountered these programs in some way — but credit unions today miss out on an opportunity to help members in this critical area so that they can make ends meet.”



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