Founder-to-Founder: Emily Luk, CEO of Plenty, on The Human Side of Scaling a Company

Emily Luk is a dynamic entrepreneur with an impressive track record. She led finance, strategy, and business operations at the fintech company, Even and was a founding member of Stripe’s GTM and Finance & Strategy teams. Today, Emily has returned to her fintech roots to build her next company, Plenty, with a big mission: to make it simple to build wealth.

We sat down with Emily recently to discuss her background and get her thoughts on building her company, Plenty, using the lessons she learned at Stripe and Even.

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Hi Emily, it’s a pleasure to have you here today. Can you tell us about your entrepreneurial journey and what led you to your role today?

My story begins with my family. I come from entrepreneurial parents who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong. They started a textile manufacturing business in their mid-20s and learned what they needed to know by borrowing books from the library.

I spent my childhood at the factory. My parents taught me to ask thoughtful questions and create something valuable at the intersection of want and need. Eventually, my parents sold their business, but its legacy of lessons and memories will last a lifetime.

Being around entrepreneurs building businesses felt familiar, so when I graduated early at 20, I immediately started working with founders at BDC Venture Capital. During that time, I was curious why so many Canadian startups were working with this SF-based payments company, Stripe. So, in 2015, I joined their team and had the chance to grow with the company as they scaled to 1600 employees.

At that point, I was thinking about returning to my entrepreneurial roots, and I began looking for a mission-driven company where I could build out my fintech experience. I was introduced to Even, a financial benefits platform seeking to end the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle by selling employers a PFM tool that helped employees budget, save, and get early access to their paychecks. I joined as the founder’s right hand – initially as chief of staff, eventually becoming his VP of Strategy and Operations.

Even’s product worked. We had 50% DAUs, scaled to over 1.5M members and moved billions of dollars. It was so rewarding that we were measurably able to help, but it also became apparent that other systemic changes were needed. 

Whether at a $20K or $200K household income, making sound financial decisions and accessing great financial products was out of reach for many people. We aren’t taught financial literacy in school. If you don’t grow up in a family that talks about finances (most people don’t!) or have a friend group which does, where do you go? To someone who charges thousands for potentially basic answers? Or someone who may convince you to buy whole life insurance when that might not be a good financial decision? The “financial planning” industry felt broken and predatory for those in the middle.

Today’s financial plan is for future financial health; it could be the difference between living abundantly or living paycheck to paycheck one day. The term “personal finance” is still floating around, but personal finance has never been genuinely personalized. That’s the space we want to play in at Plenty. We want to make it dead simple to make significant decisions and take action toward people’s dreams – big or small – while bringing them access to the same financial products that high-net-worth individuals have access to.

Why do you think it’s essential to make financial tools accessible to everyone?

I often think of my parents in the early days of their business. All of the money my parents made went right back into their business. When they began to break out of that cycle and had more to work with, they had to figure their finances out on their own. It was more complicated than it needed to be. When I started thinking about it as an adult, I was shocked that the industry had barely changed in decades.

You were a part of the Stripe team as it grew from 300 to 1,600 team members, and part of the Even team as it grew from 30 to 120. What were the biggest lessons learned about scale that you’ll think about with your new company?

Channing (Plenty co-founder) and I have been in startups for most of our careers. As we think about foundational things like our values, culture, and internal processes, we’ve integrated the best from each place we’ve been part of. 

  1. Building a culture of trust and transparency is critical. It starts with trusting your team. When you do, it makes transparency possible. Then transparency reinforces trust within your team. At Stripe, this transparency was crucial. For your A-players to execute maximally, they need context to operate like owners and understand the complexity/nuances of a decision and how interrelated it may be to the other parts of the company. A-players love this amount of freedom and availability of knowledge; someone’s attitude towards transparency/info availability usually tells how suitable they are to startups. 
  2. Giving your team time and space to recharge is invaluable. One of the things we’re setting up–even though we’re early–is before someone starts with us, or within their first six months, they need to take some combination of three weeks off. Even though we’d love our new hires to start as soon as possible, we know there is so much value in them taking some time off between roles and coming in fully recharged.
  3. Caring about the people we work with and getting to know their values is critical. We want to understand what’s important to each team member so we can enable and empower them to do their best work and live their best lives. That deep connectedness will allow us to create a team we want to keep going with for years.

My parents saw their role as more than just employers. They cared deeply about the lives their team members were making for themselves and their families and viewed it as a privilege to have that trust and responsibility. For them, success was watching their employees’ children go off to college or purchase their first home.

So many of these values are why we’re building Plenty. How can we help people, families, and households reach all these milestones – knowing that these milestones are the substance of lives and dreams? And how can we build a team that will be excited at the opportunity to support them in their journeys? I’m ready to spend the next set of years building that.