Founder and CEO: Kahlil Byrd
Year founded: 2020
We’re proud to be investing in Shur through the Northwestern Mutual Black Founder Accelerator® in collaboration with NM Future Ventures.
Kahlil Byrd has spent most of his professional life building national impact organizations. Many of them were in the political arena and focused on non-partisan ideas to ensure individuals’ access to the kind of services that government can provide. He has collaborated with organizers around the country on education reform, climate issues and other areas. He also ran two national political organizations: one focused on electoral reform and one on education reform.
In 2019, after two years of helping to build a U.S. presidential campaign, Byrd had an awakening of sorts. “From that particular experience, I learned that the American people were really looking for honest engagement,” he says. “At the heart of everything that concerns families, individuals and communities is this: “How financially stable are you? Do you have the ability to provide for yourself, your family, your community? Do you have the agility to make choices about where you want to take your life?”
While considering how these questions applied to his own finances—and through a year of discovery with actors throughout the sector, plus deep consumer data analysis—he and his team realized that the crux of the problem for millions of Americans is directly linked to their student loan debt. So in 2020, Byrd founded Shur, a fintech/insurtech company that works with companies, cities and membership organizations to build financial solutions for graduates with student loan debt.
Below, he shares the challenges he’s faced as a newcomer to the startup world, offers some advice to Black entrepreneurs and explains why he believes mastering student loan debt is the key to achieving economic freedom and building generational wealth.
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What made you want to start Shur?
We live in a country where getting a college degree, like buying a home, is an aspiration. Millions of people and their families—my wife and I included—had to go into debt to pursue higher education. We found that even after earning degrees and creating professional lives of service, we weren’t really getting access to the products, advice, insurance, and other services that are the building blocks to wealth. This is missing in the business environment for millions of people looking for financial services. And even though graduates are working successfully in all kinds of occupations, people still hunger for high-quality financial advice. The sooner you get it, the better off you will be.
What is Shur’s mission?
As a financial services company, we work with student loan borrowers in their workplaces to help them move to financial capability. We connect them to banks, insurance companies and financial advisors much earlier than they would normally find these services. That’s because larger banks and insurance companies often have trouble finding student loan borrowers, mainly because their credit scores are artificially low, they have a negative net worth, or they have high debt loads. But your credit score and those other factors don’t tell the whole story.
Shur has the ability to identify borrowers who are doing the right things but deal with limited access to opportunities to build true financial success. What about those people who paid their student loans during the pandemic even though they weren’t required to? And why not give individuals credit for success and longevity in their jobs—or those who have put in the time and effort to get that higher degree—a master’s or even a PhD? This could signal that you are a striver and have a strong work ethic and service capacity.
Shur has the ability to identify these types of people, tell their stories to banks and other financial institutions, and help accelerate their pathways to financial capability. When we are successful, Shur will help millions go from debt to a strong middle-class life—and even more importantly, toward generational wealth.
What were the biggest challenges you faced getting your new company up and running?
Throughout my career, I have usually worked with companies or individuals who had extraordinary resources to start the project off so you didn’t really have to worry about making sure that you had the dollars. It’s has been a big change to start a venture-backed company because the field is crowded with amazing entrepreneurs with extraordinary ideas who are all trying to get investors. Plus, you have to have a product that resonates with your customers. In our case, that’s corporations or cities and our end-users, the student loan borrowers themselves.
We have an extraordinary team of people who are dedicating themselves to this problem. I have found that the key to building a great team is getting people to work with you who could be doing anything else. Our chief technology officer, our chief revenue officer, our head of data and everyone else all have experience with building at scale. They know how to use data technology and, over the last several years, they have dedicated themselves to the idea that we can build a financial services company that can serve millions of people in a way that they’re not being served right now.
Where are you in the process of reaching that goal?
We started Shur in 2020—and it made a lot of sense to start during the pandemic. We spent a lot of time researching and understanding student loan borrowers using a wide variety of data sources. Our goal was to try to make the connection between the debt that they had, their payment history, their credit score and their ability to create wealth.
From that hypothesis, the idea of building a financial services company emerged and we believe in it. We’ve also been building it since the beginning of 2022. We already have strong revenue from collaborating with companies on our data and insights around student loan borrowers. We have three institutional investors and over 21 angel investors. We are at what’s called the pre-seed stage, which means we need to prove our concept’s viability.
This year, we are looking to go into the marketplace. We are building our technology platform and we’re developing our own credit score. The Shur Opportunity Score will launch next year. We are looking to have borrowers on our platform by the second half of 2024. That means the way we find and acquire borrowers in the places where they spend the most time: through their companies, membership organizations, or the city where they live.
What advice would you give to other Black founders?
You can’t be too specific about what you think is going to happen or what will resonate or be successful. You have to allow for enough space in your work with your team and with the ideas in your environment so you can be open to magic happening with regard to the product or the company that you’re developing. So be sharp, be focused, but make sure that you are staying open to opportunities.
There’s an ocean of negative statistics about how little investment capital is available for a Black founder. While I wouldn’t dispute those statistics, I do worry they could dissuade a person with a great idea from starting the next fantastic company. It is absolutely worth it to make a decision to launch something you believe in into the world.
I’ve been encouraged to find that a lot of people—all skin colors, young, old, in corporations, in the investment community—are really getting behind supporting Black founders and their development. The best example of that was our experience with Northwestern Mutual’s Black Founder Accelerator® program. It provided our team with opportunities to refine the product, sharpen our message and our presentations and introduced us to talent and new ideas.
Plus, they made an investment in us earlier than most—but I actually put that the bottom of my list because of how valuable it was to be in a cohort of entrepreneurs doing slightly or very different things, but all coming through the same experience as a founder. The experience was transformative because the work we did there allowed us to get a clear vision of what success will look like.
How do you envision the future of your company?
Five years from now, I want student loan borrowers to know Shur not only as the place where they can come and find people who care about them and their financial journey but also where they can connect to borrowers who are navigating similar journeys successfully. And by the time their meeting with, say, a new financial advisor is finished, a borrower will understand that having student loan debt is not a lifetime sentence.
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