When NewsCred co-founder and CEO, Shafqat Islam, heard about Gradifi’s student loan repayment benefit program, he knew instantly that it was something that he wanted to bring to his workforce. After all, when your company has earned the reputation of being one of the top places to work in New York City, it’s important to stay at the forefront of unique employee benefits. Even better, Islam was confident that this particular benefit would be a great way to illustrate how much the company cares about its employees while showcasing a key pillar of NewsCred’s culture: compassion.

Gradifi connected with Islam to hear about his experiences with Gradifi so far, how it’s helping ease the burden of student loans for his employees, and what’s to come in the future.

Why did you decide to offer a student loan repayment benefit to NewsCred employees?

I realize how lucky I am personally that I didn’t graduate with student debt. But I do understand that I had a head start in my career and that lasts for a long time. It can impact how you think about decision making in your career and your life. So when I heard about Gradifi, it really resonated. I didn’t know student loan repayment was even a benefit that existed in the world. Initially, I was just amazed by the creativity of it as a solution and the obviousness of it, and I said we’ve got to do this.

How do Gradifi’s benefits fit in with NewsCred’s employer culture/values?

As employers, we have a responsibility to look after our employees in all aspects of their lives, not just their work lives. The people who work at NewsCred, we often refer to them as the NewsCred family. So helping them is the right thing to do. The feeling of having debt and feeling you’re limited in terms of choices is an unfortunate situation. Anything we can do to alleviate the burden on our employees is important to do from a mission and value standpoint. It’s much more than just another perk.

What do you mean by that?

A lot of startups mix culture and perks interchangeably so if you ask them what’s your culture like, they say things like we have ping pong, cold brew, happy hours. Those things are mildly interesting, but that’s what I put in the category of perks. But to me, culture is much more related to mission, vision, values, people. The best way to create a great culture is what you have when you take away your perks and the awesome people you’ve hired still stick around for each other.

But getting back to the list of benefits, there are certain ones that speak more to mission, vision, values, and culture. One example is parental leave. At NewsCred, you can take as much time as you want and it’s paid. We don’t think of that as a perk – it’s just really important to us that if you have kids, every hour and minute is precious. Everyone’s circumstances are different. Some people have help at home or a difficult childbirth. It feels odd for us to dictate how much time is right so it aligns with our culture and mission to provide unlimited leave for parents.

I would put that in the same class as the Gradifi program. Maybe monetarily they impact us differently, but they are both super important, and go beyond what I’d call a perk.

How does this benefit enhance your overall benefits package?

Again, I think of this program as being important from a culture standpoint because it aligns with our values and speaks to who we are as a company. I value education and grew up in a family that values education. But we also have values around compassion so if we are in a position to alleviate the burden that student debt places on people, we should do it. From a value standpoint, that’s the primary driver. But it also shows up near the top of our benefits list because it’s something that impacts people in their day-to-day life. 

Would you say student loan repayment is something your staff struggles with?

My initial instinct was ‘this is awesome, we have to do it.’ But on the pragmatic side, we had to ask,’is this a problem with our workforce or not?’ We did a survey and it was clear that there was a need. Just in our U.S. office, there were around 30% of employees who were carrying student loan debt. Everyone’s reaction was very positive. Most people were as surprised as I was that this was even a thing. The day we announced that we were rolling it out, the number of heartfelt messages from people where they said they felt appreciated, felt gratitude to the company, and they felt aligned with the mission and the values were pretty overwhelming. More so than any other benefit, perk, promotion, or anything we’ve ever given. As of now, over 90% of eligible people are participating.

Why did you choose Gradifi as your partner?

Full disclosure, Gradifi is a client but this actually all happened unrelated to that. I heard about Gradifi even before they became a NewsCred client. It was when First Republic acquired Gradifi and I got on a call with them. At that time we were halfway through the year, so we didn’t have the budget to do it right away, but I committed and a year later we wound up implementing it. When I see banks doing things that are different, more humane, it makes them more attractive as institutions to work with.

What was the process like to get Gradifi set up and offer it to employees?

I checked with the head of HR, but he said it was as easy as one call with an onboarding specialist. Then we sent an email with instructions and put it on our website.

Why do you think a benefit like this is resonating so well?

I think all employers have a responsibility that is much larger than just providing employment, income, or salary. That’s an outdated view. Employers need to think about the impact they have on the people, their communities, on societies at large. Some companies do it better than others. Salesforce is a great example – they give a percentage of revenue to charities. There are other companies that support the city/neighborhood they work in and that’s another level. And the final level is committing to the people who work at the company, the whole self, not just the work self.

Do you think student loan repayment benefits will catch on with more employers?

It’s going to be needed and may be something that is more obvious in the future, but right now it might still differentiate us. But I’ll also say I’d rather have every employer do it and lose it as a differentiator because that would mean that as a society we won’t have massive amounts of people struggling as much with student debt.

Also, the world is way more competitive nowadays. As employers trying to attract the best talent, that’s how you do it, by investing in them. People won’t stick around just because they get titles, or we pay more. People stick around for things like culture and mission, and if they feel like their employer actually cares about them. As there are more options, employees are more empowered than ever before, it’s up to us as employers to make sure we’re creating great places to work.

A benefit like this helps us with recruiting. That’s not the reason we did it – that’s a cherry on top. But it’s a huge bonus if we can get people to choose us because of that, even though it wasn’t the actual driver.                                                             

What about College Save Up? Is this something you see being added to your benefits package in the future? 

A way for employees to take care of their future children? That’s awesome for a number of reasons. It helps our employees pay it forward to their children and I personally think investment in education is the most important thing we can do for our kids. We need to be cost efficient and cost-conscious as a company, but the one area we’re not going to touch is values-driven benefits and perks that we have, so this is something we will be looking into.

Although NewsCred employees are just beginning to enjoy their student loan repayment benefit, Islam is confident that it will help support their financial wellness for years to come. On a practical level, it will mean more money in employee’s pockets to help them work toward their other financial goals. From a business perspective, Islam hopes it’s another way to show current employees that NewsCred is there for them for the long haul.