‘Anyone Can Be an Entrepreneur’: Borrowell’s Co-Founder Eva Wong On How She Made It

The fintech start-up wants to change the way Canadians manage their finances
Eva Wong (photo: Patryk Adamczyk)

When Eva Wong joined Borrowell in 2014, she had no prior experience working in tech or finance. As co-founder and chief operating officer, she’s helped the credit-education company grow to 160 employees with offices in Toronto, Montreal and Kelowna. Here, she tells CB how she made it happen.

I was born in Lindsay, Ont. and grew up mostly in Whitby, a suburb an hour east of Toronto. My parents are from Hong Kong and I had a pretty typical immigrant family upbringing: There was a lot of focus on education and getting good grades. I never really considered becoming an entrepreneur. It was always about getting into a good school that would get me a good-paying job. But when I was 14, in the 1990s, I got my first taste of entrepreneurship when I started teaching piano lessons, charging $5 for 30 minutes. I made posters with my phone number written on little, tear-off tabs at the bottom. I continued teaching all throughout high school. 

I studied commerce at Queen’s University and ended up loving business. When I graduated in 2000, I landed a job as a management consultant and then went back to school to study international development. I worked as a development officer for a non-profit in Malawi as part of an internship with a Canadian international development agency, and as a consultant for an IT company in Trinidad before moving back to Toronto in 2005. When I got home, I started working as a regional lead for a multi-site church. 

In 2009, I participated in a conference called CivicAction which puts emerging leaders together to solve city-building problems in Toronto. I was put in the same working group as Andrew Graham, who was in corporate development for a telecommunications company. As part of the conference, we dreamed up an organization called Toronto Homecoming that helped Canadians who lived overseas for a few years find work once they returned home. Both Andrew and I had the experience of going abroad and coming back to the city, as he studied in both Scotland and the U.S. 

Andrew and I continued our partnership by turning Toronto Homecoming into a non-profit organization in 2010. We ran that successfully for a number of years as we worked our regular jobs. We hosted an annual conference and had hundreds of people attend and find jobs with banks and different start-ups. Both Andrew and I enjoyed the experience and we’d always say, “We should found something one day.”

In 2014, I was off on maternity leave when I reconnected with Andrew. He had just left his job to start Borrowell, a fintech company that would help Canadians choose better financial products. Canadians were carrying tens of billions of dollars in credit-card debt and paying 20 or 30 per cent interest on it, and he thought there was a better solution. Borrowell would offer prime loans that people could apply for on its website and get fully approved with an interest rate, loan amount and a monthly payment within a minute.  

You don’t need to have an ‘entrepreneurship gene’

I was excited when I heard Andrew’s pitch; I liked the idea of having impact at scale. I was ready for a career change and made a flippant remark about joining his start-up if I didn’t find another job. He asked, “What would you do at the start-up?” and I said, “I have no idea. What do you need done?”

I didn’t have any experience in finance or technology, but I’d worked for enough new companies, in industries new to me, that I felt confident asking questions and figuring things out. I worked for Andrew for free for a couple of weeks, just as a trial. I was given a project to look at who Borrowell’s target consumer market would be. At the time, he had a couple other people on the team, and Borrowell felt like a super dynamic, exciting place to be. 

After the trial, Andrew hired me as a VP of operations while he raised a seed round of funding. We needed money both for loan capital to lend out as well as money to run the business. Andrew had over a hundred meetings and we raised $5.4 million dollars. As we were finalizing our seed funding, in November 2014, Andrew asked if I would come on as co-founder and chief operating officer. There was a risk in joining a start-up and it felt scary having other people trust us with their money. But we were motivated to succeed.

I was responsible for marketing, credit operations, HR and finance. I created the website, set up payroll, found a benefits program and figured out what kind of insurance we needed as a company. I wore a lot of hats. There were times I felt in over my head and times when I was on calls and googling terms that were new to me. It was a hugely steep learning curve in the early days, but we made it to our product launch in March 2015. 

We had a lot of ups and downs after that. We weren’t getting the right customers coming to our website as a lot of people who were searching for loans online didn’t qualify for the loans that we were offering. So, we needed to change our marketing strategy. I came up with the idea of offering free credit scores as an effective way to both attract and educate customers. We figured it’d help bring in the types of people who would apply for and get approved for our loans while bringing more transparency to the credit system.

It would’ve felt very personal to admit ‘I didn’t do this right’

Especially in the early days, there was a lot on the line. It’s pretty existential if this thing that you poured your heart and soul into, raised money for and had outside investors give money to, doesn’t work. The free credit-scores product launched in June 2016 and thankfully was a success. We had tons of people sign up and we were on the news. That was a really exciting moment for the team. 

The company has since grown from about 12 people in 2016 to 160 people today. We just launched a new product called Rent Advantage that enables tenants to self-report their rent to a credit bureau—the first product in Canada to offer this. When their biggest payment isn’t even reported to a credit bureau, it means that their credit score doesn’t benefit from it. People with lower credit scores are more likely to be renters, and it isn’t fair that they may have to pay more for financial services because they don’t have a mortgage.

I never imagined myself as a co-founder or working in tech. I’m not the kind of person who has a thousand business ideas. But I think that anyone can be an entrepreneur. You don’t need to have an “entrepreneurship gene.” My work has been super rewarding and it’s an opportunity to make a difference, even in terms of the company culture we’ve built—we’re gender-balanced and actually have slightly more women than men in senior roles. The impact that we have had on over two million Canadians has been really fulfilling.

As told to Andrea Yu
As told to Andrea Yu
Andrea Yu is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. She writes about life, culture, real estate, business and health with a focus on human-interest stories.