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Personal Finance Web Site To Debut

By William N. White, Crimson Staff Writer

After the 2008 subprime mortgage meltdown revealed widespread unfamiliarity with the intricacies of personal finance, one former Harvard Business School student is on a mission to educate young people about managing their money.

On Nov. 15, Alexa L. M. von Tobel ’06 will launch LearnVest.com, an interactive financial information Web site geared toward women.

The start-up features personalized information on credit scores, mortgages, and retirement savings, among other fiscal topics. Von Tobel, who is taking a leave of absence from HBS to work on the project, calls it “the Cliff Notes for personal finance.”

“The bottom line is most people don’t know what the difference between a debit and a credit card is,” said von Tobel, adding that most students at Harvard will graduate without ever having taken a class in personal finance.

Von Tobel—who first envisioned the Web site during her senior year at Harvard—said that LearnVest aims to be more personalized than other financial Web sites. It walks users through financial milestones from getting a first job to paying off student loans, then offers gift cards and other rewards when they complete units on the site.

The Web site is designed for women under 30, though von Tobel emphasized that LearnVest is open to anyone.

Brian C. Pfeifer, a second-year HBS student who worked at LearnVest over the summer, said that the female focus is appropriate, since “a lot of finance in general is catered to men.”

“What [LearnVest] is doing is creating an environment that’s welcoming to women, making women feel comfortable,” he added.

The startup has already exceeded fundraising expectations. In September 2009, LearnVest sought to raise $750,000 from venture capitalists and angel investors, according to von Tobel. They ended up raising $1.1 million.

The Web site won early support from start-up experts. The technology business blog TechCrunch selected it as one of the year’s top 50 Web startups.

Those who have worked with her said that von Tobel has been a visionary leader for LearnVest.

Von Tobel was accepted to HBS when she applied as a Harvard senior—but she deferred admission to work for a hedge fund owned by Morgan Stanley and entered HBS in the fall of 2008. She took her leave of absence that spring.

“Alexa is one of the most driven people I know,” said Chelsea L. Ono Horn ’10, one of two Harvard seniors who interned at the company this past summer. “She knows how to motivate people, and she has a clear vision of what she wants.”

To prepare for LearnVest’s November launch, its 10 full-time employees in New York are now “working tirelessly” to put the final touches on the site after feedback from beta users, von Tobel said.

Meanwhile, Ono Horn and other former interns from Princeton and Duke are busy spreading the word about LearnVest to students preparing to enter the workforce.

“As soon as you leave college, you’re sort of stranded,” Ono Horn said. “Often, you don’t know what you don’t know, but LearnVest does a good job of walking you through.”

—Staff writer William N. White can be reached at wwhite@fas.harvard.edu.

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