Ask a fintech founder: Jean-Louis Warnholz, Future
On consumption in the age of climate change, the sustainable economy and the future of payments and the planet
Drive instead of bike. Single-use containers. Styrofoam packaging. For consumers, the easy choice has not always been the sustainable one. By incentivizing sustainable behavior through cash rewards, Future is working to make the sustainable choice the obvious choice, too.
“There are changes that we can make that don't break the bank that are also financially savvy and better for the planet,” says Jean-Louis Warnholz, co-founder and CEO of Future, a new Visa debit card that rewards consumers for making purchases with the planet in mind. “Whether that's shifting my family’s clothes to secondhand, which is better for the planet and better for our family's day-to-day budgeting, to taking the train. Often, the things that make sense for the environment are also the ones that are just cheaper.”
Here, we chat with Warnholz about serving as a senior advisor for the Obama administration, being an entrepreneur in the sustainable economy and what keeps him hopeful about the future of the planet.
What is your Future elevator pitch?
Warnholz: Future is building a rewarding way to pay in the sustainable economy. We are rewarding people all across America for making purchases that are better for their wallets and better for the planet.
What was your aha moment before starting Future?
Warnholz: It was really kind of two moments. For context: My first big passion was just moving more investment and business into emerging markets. I had the opportunity to do that as a senior advisor in the Obama administration, working on international partnership and collaborations. I helped launch a company that was essentially building a venture in East and West Africa. I spent a lot of time in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and other places on the continent. We had moved into food production, and were buying potatoes from farmers across Kenya. I saw, firsthand, the kind of repetitive episodes of droughts and floods and heat waves, and it became clear to me that everything I was so deeply passionate about for so many years was threatened by this main shift around climate change and extreme weather. I wanted to dedicate the next part of my life to solving that. That was accentuated by some pointed questions from my kids, who were like, ‘Well, this is really scary. What are we doing to fight climate change?’ At the time, the answer was, ‘Not very much.’ My kids have really motivated me to just become part of the solution and that's what I hope we can do with Future.
What differentiates Future from other debit cards?
Warnholz: The key simple difference is that we give you cash back for everything that's better for the planet. Rather than give you cash back for flying or for eating out or filling up your tank, we give you cash back for taking the train or charging your car or buying secondhand. We are constantly giving you opportunities to save cash and carbon at the same time. I think the focus on climate action as a smart economic choice is what really differentiates us and what has driven our growth here in the U.S.
What keeps you hopeful about the future of the planet?
Warnholz: I'm always a bit of an optimist. I think we really are at a turning point, because the sentiment is changing rapidly. And the kind of technologies and choices that can power a real shift in how the economy works are now readily available. If you look at, over the short time that we've started Future, what innovations happened on electric vehicles, on solar energy, on heat pumps, all the kind of benefits that you can now get as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, to make the shift. I think we're at the dawn of a sustainable economy that is really exciting. The fact that I'm wearing secondhand sweaters that are from my favorite brand, that they sell directly, but are just cheaper and still give me great quality. Or the fact that one of my favorite burgers is a spicy chicken burger, except it doesn't have any chicken in it. I think there is really a sea change underway. Particularly in the U.S., with new legislation, I think we'll see a dramatic acceleration and a new way of consuming that I'm really excited about.
What's one thing you wish you knew as an entrepreneur?
Warnholz: I think being able to constantly adjust and fine-tune your mission to what's relevant for the times is key. I understand this much better now, as we've been reiterating or incorporating feedback. But certainly as I set out, I had a very specific mission, and just being able to constantly refine it as our world is rapidly evolving, I think, is good. There was a period when we were growing Future that I had 90 percent certainty that the now Inflation Reduction Act was going to pass. Then there was a period where I had 10 percent conviction that was going to happen and it did happen. So just being able to really stay on our feet and also inspire the team to do the same and constantly challenge each other has been key for us.
You've partnered with Visa on the FutureCard Visa debit card. How has Visa supported your growth?
Warnholz: I have to actually give the Visa team a lot of credit for inspiring us to come onto the Visa platform. We had an initial conversation, and what inspired me is that there was a really deep commitment, deep passion, deep thinking around how can we leverage Visa to create outcomes that are better for the planet. That really spoke to me.
I was amazed by the amount of hands-on support that the Visa team provided us. I’ve built a company before, and so I know a lot of the ins and outs of hiring and doing contracts and dealing with different regulations, but I was pretty ignorant about the payment space. There's a lot of complexity. I was really impressed by how Visa was able to navigate this, and help us get up to speed in record time. That was a big driver. And then for us, we want to be accessible, and the fact that most families in America have a Visa debit card, that was important for us.
What does success look like to you?
Warnholz: We want to build the most well-known and loved way to pay in the sustainable economy. We believe there's a real opportunity to capture this moment, where a lot of consumers are looking for a differentiated payment product, and one that rewards you for doing the right thing. We want to be in millions of homes and millions of pockets to incentivize a way to live more sustainably, both financially, but also when it comes to your environmental footprint.
What keeps you up at night?
Warnholz: When you start a venture and you're hoping it will hit, you're hoping that you build something and people will enjoy it. What we've seen is just a great acceptance. And what keeps me up at night is now to just not squander this moment and this opportunity, and just be as smart and nimble and fast and thoughtful as we can be to really make the most of it and find a way to inspire more people to do better for the planet and better for their pocketbooks.
What excites you about the future of payments?
Warnholz: First, I think it's an amazing time to build. We have been able to use generative AI in a way that has done amazing things to our productivity. As I look at payments, I think we'll see a complete disruption to the existing payments landscape, because the underlying economic dynamics are changing so much. What happens in a world where you have fewer gas stations, and all these charging stations are popping up? What are the opportunities now, with generative AI, to basically help people make smarter decisions and ask questions of your own spending data and your own purchasing decisions that are just better for your overall financial wellbeing? I'm really excited by what's happening globally and by small, but also significant things, like the roll out of faster payment systems, that just makes the whole payment flow simpler and streamlined across the entire U.S. economy.
Learn more about Future and partnering with Visa via the Visa Fintech Fast Track Program.