Gies College of Business alumnus Al Goldstein (FIN ’02) spoke to a crowd of students, faculty, staff, and alumni on November 5 about his career as a serial entrepreneur. Goldstein was the featured speaker for the 2018 V. Dale Cozad Lecture on Entrepreneurship inside Deloitte Auditorium at the Business Instructional Facility. The Origin Ventures Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership, a program within Gies College of Business that helps infuse entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking across every academic discipline of the University of Illinois, sponsored the event.
Goldstein’s presentation, “A Lifetime of Startups: Embracing the Roller Coaster,” detailed his career, including the challenges he has faced and successes he has enjoyed. He is now the CEO of Avant, a company he founded that provides credit alternatives to middle income consumers in the US.
“Fostering entrepreneurship is part of the fabric of what we teach at Gies College of Business, and Al is a wonderful example of what a bright business leader with a bold purpose can accomplish,” said Jeffrey R. Brown, the Josef and Margot Lakonishok Professor of Business and Dean. “Al has remained heavily involved in our College, and our students can learn many lessons from both his successes and his setbacks. Al is an inspiration to many students.”
After graduating from Gies College of Business in 2002 with a degree in finance, Goldstein worked as an investment banking analyst at Deutsche Bank. He says he soon realized the corporate life didn’t suit his passions and began his journey as an entrepreneur. Goldstein co-founded his first business, CashNetUSA (now Enova International), in 2004. He served as the company’s president and CEO before selling the company in 2006.
Not all of Goldstein’s business ventures have been successes though. He spoke in detail about District Bar, a business he started after he sold CashNetUSA in 2006. His plan was to build the next generation sports bar and turn it into a scalable business. He led District Bar for three years, but he quickly realized he had no passion for the industry. He found it difficult to hire quality talent, and too many competitors were opening similar businesses.
Throughout his presentation, Goldstein kept coming back to a Winston Churchill quote: “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Goldstein called it a fascinating concept that kept driving him, even after a major failure.
Goldstein got back on his feet and co-founded Pangea Properties in 2009. Pangea is a Chicago-based real estate investment and management company that has grown to more than 15,000 apartment units since its inception. Goldstein saw a need, and he built Pangea in the heart of the Great Recession. He believed he could build a better housing product for middle income consumers. The business took off, and Pangea now employs nearly 500 workers in Chicago and other markets. Goldstein still serves as Pangea’s executive chairman.
A few years later, Goldstein took another chance. This one didn’t pay off. He joined BayRu as a lead investor in 2012. BayRu helped Russian consumers buy products from eBay. The business grew dramatically until the Russian ruble crashed, which made American goods much more expensive for Russian consumers.
Goldstein learned from every failure, and in 2014 he founded Avant, where he still serves as the chairman and CEO. As Goldstein describes it, Avant is the “near prime digital bank of the future.” The company grew from zero to 1,000 employees in the first three years, but he admits they grew too fast. Avant “very publicly” shrunk down to 500 employees, and today it sits at around 600 employees with $5 billion in loan origination.
Goldstein also started Amount, which provides financial institutions with services designed to deliver a seamless digital and mobile customer experience. With Amount, Goldstein is pioneering a new era in banking, where banks and fintech companies work together to deliver consumers online banking products like personal loans quickly and easily, whether from a website on a mobile device or an app on a smart phone. He envisions a future for banking that looks much like the way people use Amazon today – with products and services available to consumers when and where they need it.
Goldstein was very open about his roller coaster business life and the lessons he has learned since emigrating from Uzbekistan in 1988. He had two over-arching lessons. One is that it’s all about the people. Successful business owners need a team that works well together, possesses unique skills, and has the ability to coexist. The second lesson is to have thick skin. Goldstein was rejected by 350 investors the first time he tried to raise capital for Pangea. But as Goldstein told the audience, he stuck it out, and the rest is history.
About Origin Ventures Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership
The Origin Ventures Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership facilitates entrepreneurial learning and action for all students and supports entrepreneurship research, with a focus on entrepreneurial education, design, subsistence marketplaces, and social innovation. The Academy was established in 2004 and supported by a grant from the Kauffman Foundation. In 2018, Origin Ventures co-founders and University of Illinois alumni Steve Miller and Bruce Barron provided the naming gift for the Origin Ventures Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership.