Jenny Xia, 28, is a 2008 graduate of Kamiak High School and recent graduate of the Stanford’s graduate school of business. She is co-founder of FreeWill, a website to help people write a will and plan their charitable donations. Here she talks about how that business was launched while she and co-founder Patrick Schmitt were still in graduate school, what it’s like to share responsibilities as a co-CEO, and how her parents have influenced her life. Her advice to women competing for jobs in business: Believe in yourself.
Tell me a bit about your company.
We started FreeWill in 2016. The company is based in New York City, and we now have more than 15 people working for us. About 20,000 people have used our website to finalize (all or part of) their estate, and all together have committed more than $240 million to nonprofit organizations.
How did the idea come about for FreeWill?
The idea was my co founder’s. He comes from a long history of digital fundraising for (former President Barack Obama), and he was making his will, and trying to leave some pretty big gifts to charity, and realized it was harder to make a gift in a will than $7 to a political campaign. He said, “Wow this should not be this difficult.”
At what point did you get involved?
Patrick was mulling around the idea. We met the second week of school and both came in so excited to start a social enterprise. We ended up doing almost 400 interviews with doctors, lawyers, nonprofits, baby boomers and millennials to understand why making charitable requests was so challenging.
Had you ever run a business before?
Yes, I had co-founded a company that basically helped people get money back on purchases when prices dropped and automated the process for you. You signed up for the service, and money would just show up. The whole idea is using data and analytics to even the playing field between the consumer and these big companies.
What’s the “charge” to use FreeWill? Meaning, on many “free” websites, if you want an extra service, there’s a fee.
The entire website is completely free. That is a fundamental value of the company. Access to legal services in the U.S. is way (harder to get) than it should be. Eighty-five percent of Americans are chronically underserved by the legal system.
How do you provide advice or answer potential donor questions?
A really cool feature in FreeWill that’s unique is we make it really easy to find a local attorney, if you do end up with questions. We don’t get paid for the referrals. It’s an add-on service we offer to users.
Is the list of attorneys people who specialize in this work?
Yes, we refer to a couple of databases of attorneys that are auto-searching for attorneys who do this kind of work.
Are the finances of some estates too complex to use the service?
Yes, this is true. One thing we noticed was there are online will providers, and many of them don’t alert you if you are more complex. We wanted to do that. While technology can help a lot of people, it doesn’t solve everyone’s problem.
So how did you deal with that?
We wanted to provide the education on whether technology or an in-person solution was better for their situation. The lawyer feature was part of the flow where you get to the end (of filling in online forms) and you have a large estate. In these situations, it might be better to see a lawyer. That way everyone can start in FreeWill, but by the time they get to the end, they either have a will or have an intake form that documents all your answers and thoughts, so when you see any attorney, you have your thoughts in writing.
You’re saying, a consumer could use the site to prioritize?
Yes, who they want to be guardians of their children, executor of the estate to donate to charity and which ones, guardian for their pets. So all these things would kind of be thought through in advance, and they can take those answers (with them when they) see an attorney. That process saves a ton of money.
How does the business sustain itself?
We provide customized versions of our website to nonprofits who pay us for those websites and help putting together fundraising materials. In that way, we act as outsourced planned fundraising for a lot of these institutions, which have such limited resources for fundraising.
Is your business a nonprofit?
We made a decision to be a public benefit corporation, which is a relatively new type of incorporation. We get taxed like a normal for-profit corporation, but in our bylaws we have a fiduciary duty to also deliver on our mission. It creates a legal structure that makes social enterprises like us viable.
With your company having co-CEOs, who decides who has the final decision?
I’m actually passionate about this question. So being co-CEO is wonderful. I believe in equal partnerships. Patrick and I truly have an equal partnership. We deeply respect each other at work. We really believe you can have two leaders who have the same values.
That said, it’s challenging. You need to have a very clear balance around what is the scope of each person’s decision-making power. But once that’s set, it’s actually great. I do everything on the user side.
Do you still have family in the area?
Yes my parents, Janet Xing and Tom Xia, are in Mukilteo. They’re the most wonderful people. I love where I grew up. I’m hopeful when I do have children and raise my own family, they’ll get to experience the same.
Did you ever imagine, sitting in one of your Kamiak classes, that you’d be running your own business?
No! Honestly I’m not sure I fully understood what a business was. I love math more than anything else. I joined the math club at Kamiak, and I still remember homecoming. I was supposed to be on the homecoming court float, but my math club made these cardboard calculators and Rubik’s cubes. I said, “I can’t leave them!” I remember everyone else all dressed up, and I put on my crown, but then I got my Rubik’s cube and walked with math club.
What did you do after graduating?
I ended up going to Harvard and majoring in applied math. That’s where I started thinking about how we could better understand charities and what we could do to get more resources to them.
What person has most influenced your career?
My mom. She also is a working woman — a professor at Western Washington University. She teaches linguistics Chinese. I just remember growing up, it was never a question I would work. I think just watching my parents’ relationship and how supportive that was was the best example and model for me.
My mom has always been such a strong woman and never felt as though she couldn’t accomplish something, that anything she put her mind to she would get done.
What advice would you give to women about starting a business and generally dealing in the business world?
My experience has been that the biggest gap between having more women and more men in entrepreneurship is a lack of confidence — the confidence gap. There is nothing that young women can’t do that men can. But I think that they just worry, “How am I ever going to learn this? What are these weird financial words?”
I’ve seen it in the people who apply for us — two people with the same resume. A man will declare all these things: “I know three computer languages and these sorts of technology.” Women will come in and they say, ‘I know you have all these things on your job description, but I’m not an expert. I’ve done it for four years.” I say, “You’re crazy. You are an expert.” Young women especially — believe in yourself. The things you don’t know, you can learn really fast. Believe in yourself and work hard, and you can do anything.
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.