How SLM Holdings, the New Fintech Startup, Is Shaking Up Chicago's Tech Scene
By David Thompson
Feb 07, 2024 08:09 PM EST
Feb 07, 2024 08:09 PM EST
Gabriel Stone, Andre Battles, and Lester Larry, Founders of SLM Holdings(Gabriel Stone, Andre Battles, and Lester Larry, Founders of SLM Holdings) (Credit: Getty Image)
Four years after the first report of COVID-19, many would describe the initial outbreak of the virus as chaotic and frightening, and rightfully so.
Millions of Americans suddenly found themselves social distancing and quarantining in their homes, waiting in angst for government authorities to deliver some sense of safety and reassurance. As the waiting period stretched from two weeks to two years, many began to find themselves with an excess of life's most valuable commodity: time.
For many of those who commute to work every day, the transition from in-person to remote working created more free time to explore and pursue personal interests that would have otherwise been too demanding to fulfill.
That was the case for Andre Battles, Lester Larry, and Gabriel Stone. In the months prior to the pandemic, Battles and Larry had been exploring an idea for a fintech business, but typical work routines and personal obligations left them with little free time for any sort of side projects.
That all changed in the early months of 2020 when city and state officials began announcing the first wave of mandatory stay-at-home orders. The aspiring pair of entrepreneurs figured there would be no better opportunity to learn the fundamentals of building successful businesses and try their hand at bringing their ideas to fruition.
"There's a great saying, 'In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity,' and that's exactly how we tried to shape our viewpoint at the time," Larry explains. "We realized society wasn't going to return to normal for a while, so we set out to capitalize on our newfound free time by studying all sorts of successful people and applying their insights and practices into our own lives."
Six months after the nation's first lockdowns, the pair recruited their third co-founder, Stone, and the three would band together to form their first company, SLM Holdings.
Based in the heart of Chicago, Battles, Larry, and Stone are building a fintech company specializing in cash management products and payment services tailored for the retail banking industry. The trio's fintech company, established in 2021 and currently operating in stealth under the guise of their private entity, leverages artificial intelligence and emerging technologies to streamline the migration of physical currencies to digital platforms.
"We were able to identify some inefficiencies with traditional cash deposit systems and the challenges they create for everyday consumers simply looking to digitize cash," Battles explains. "Our core mission is to broaden access to digital financial services for everyone by bridging the current gap between physical and electronic forms of money."
In the early 2000s, the emergence of online payment processors like PayPal ignited a progressive shift in consumer payment preferences from paper-based to cashless systems, namely mobile banking platforms and payment applications. Fast-moving fintech trends, further accelerated by the pandemic, have demanded commercial banks with retail branch locations to remodel their infrastructures to deliver sufficient hybrid banking experiences.
As a result of the wide-scale digital transformation, the rapid adoption of fintech products has exceedingly diminished the utility of cash as a form of payment and triggered a dramatic decline in cash-based transactions.
Even so, cash remains an important component of the U.S. monetary system, acting as a backstop for the economy during periods of uncertainty.
Federal Reserve data shows currency in circulation, a direct measure of the overall money supply, reached an all-time high of $2.3 trillion in November of 2023. Furthermore, findings from a 2023 Federal Reserve Consumer Payment Choice Study reported that 1 in 5 consumers prefer paying with cash, along with survey data revealing that nearly all consumers have no plans of eliminating cash as a payment method.
"Cash is still king, but its one-dimensional nature has become impractical for the world we live in today," says Battles. "Reinvigorating cash usage requires pairing it with technology and transforming it into a multi-dimensional payment instrument that can be utilized across different platforms."
When considering where to establish a disruptive tech company, it's likely that Chicago isn't at the top of many founders' wish lists. The remarkable stories of entrepreneurs launching startups out of bedrooms and exploding them into high-flying multi-billion corporations seemingly overnight are often associated with hubs like Silicon Valley and New York City.
Since the early 2000s, Chicago has birthed only a handful of major tech companies that have reached 'unicorn' status—valued at more than $1 billion each—with Grubhub, Vivid Seats, and M1 Finance being amongst the most notable.
For years, the city has faced challenges in its efforts to expand its tech scene, ranging from below-average startup funding and deal activity to combatting public scrutiny stemming from its longstanding issues with crime and public safety concerns.
As the largest metropolitan area in the midwestern region, Chicago has amassed a plethora of resources capable of supercharging its technology industries. Illinois' high concentration of top universities and education institutions produces a deep bench of quality talent for the city's workforce.
Chicago is also home to a large network of incubators and accelerators for early-stage startups, but despite being the third largest city in the US—by population and overall contribution to the US GDP—the windy city falls far behind its peers in terms of its share of venture capital and other private investment.
Across the board, venture capital activity in the US has been dampened in recent years, driven by inflation rates and global instability, but Illinois' deal activity—predominantly transactions involving Chicago-based companies—continues to shrink even after markets have made corrections and rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
According to a recent report from Crain's Chicago Business and data from PitchBook, Chicago companies raised a total of $1.0 billion in H2 of 2023. For comparison, the city's seed and venture investments in local startups reached $2.7 billion in H2 of 2022. Conversely, data from Statista shows in 2022 the annual value of VC investments made in California amounted to approximately $104 billion, followed by New York with nearly $29.3 billion worth of venture capital invested.
"In terms of resource availability, Chicago absolutely has the potential to evolve into a burgeoning hub for tech and innovation, but those resources need to be allocated correctly in order to stimulate any substantial growth," says Larry. "A vital component for building a well-functioning ecosystem will continue to be productive collaboration amongst tech companies, venture capitalists, and non-tech business players in the city."
Altogether, the nature of Chicago's obstacles to attract new business deals and spark considerable growth suggest that any groundbreaking momentum will need to be fueled by natives with a vested interest in diversifying the city's economy and creating avenues for long-term growth in its tech sector.
That's where SLM Holdings comes into the picture—the three co-founders have profound connections to Chicago and are closely linked to some of the city's who's who. "Given our backgrounds and being born-and-bred in the city, we felt it made the most sense to tap into our networks and plant the roots of our venture here," says Battles, 27.
He and Larry, 28, are both from Chicago and were high school classmates, although they've been close friends since elementary school. Stone, 28, is from the North Shore and would later befriend Larry while attending the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.
Before having any interest in the world of business, Larry was a talented athlete and often tipped off against future NBA prospects hailing from some of Chicago's notoriously competitive high schools and AAU basketball programs. While studying consumer economics and finance in college, he first gained exposure to banking through summer internships at Chicago-based Attucks Asset Management and SkyBridge Capital, the New York City hedge fund founded by Anthony Scaramucci.
Upon completing his undergraduate degree, he moved to New York City and spent two years as an analyst at Citi before leaving to join forces with Battles in building a disruptive fintech startup.
When pondering whether to stay in his corporate job or pursue their business plan, Larry says, "The pandemic had just hit, and I was sitting at home preparing for interviews, and I just kept thinking about how big of an opportunity this could be. Ultimately, I was confident in our skills and our vision, so I decided to go for it."
The seeds for Larry's pivot into entrepreneurship were planted long ago, as his family lineage is intertwined with Chicago's business and civic history. His grandfather, Lester H. McKeever, made history when he was appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago in 1997, in addition to serving on the Finance Committee under Chicago mayors Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley.
Larry's uncle, Steve McKeever, is a Los Angeles-based music executive and founder of Hidden Beach Records, an independent music label representing several Grammy-nominated artists. In the late 90s, McKeever was an executive at Motown Records and played an instrumental role in the label's sale to PolyGram Records. Aside from his music career, McKeever sits on the board of Los Angeles-based Ares Capital Corporation, a subsidiary of leading alternative investment firm Ares Management Corporation.
Larry's father, Jeffrey Larry, previously founded Chicago-based buy-out fund Onyx Capital Ventures, and his mother, Susan McKeever, was a well-connected estate attorney until suffering from early onset Alzheimer's during Larry's teenage years.
At 17, his mother's illness drastically altered his worldview, saying, "Facing that level of adversity forced me to be resilient in confronting fears head-on. It inspired me to take on bigger risks in life."
When brainstorming what the name of their first venture would be, he hoped to find some way to pay homage to his mother and needed to look no further than her initials, SLM.
Similarly, Battles boasts strong connections to Chicago's legacy in academia and the arts. As a youth, he attended the University of Chicago's Laboratory Schools and excelled as a young musician.
At the age of 9, Battles auditioned to join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Percussion Scholarship Group and went on to spend the next decade studying at preeminent music institutions and performing alongside critically acclaimed musicians.
After opting out of a career in music, Battles attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study business and spent his free time working as a part-time software specialist for the UW's Division of Information Technology.
"Ever since I can remember, I've always had an innate fascination with all types of technologies, so after leaving college I knew that I wanted to somehow make the leap from finance into tech at some point." Soon after returning home to Chicago to pursue a career in banking and real estate, Battles would do just that.
At the age of 22, he met Eric Vassilatos, co-founder and former CEO of Vivid Seats, and developed a working relationship while employed at a boutique real estate private equity firm owned by Vassilatos. The following year, Vassilatos tapped him to help with developing and operating a new technology company formed under the umbrella of the former ticket executive's private firm, SkyBox Capital.
Battles credits this opportunity as a major catalyst for launching his own venture, saying, "I was ambitious to learn everything about business, so being able to work alongside Eric and his team was an incredibly rewarding experience. He's a fellow Chicago native and has experience bootstrapping a homegrown tech company to 'unicorn' status, so his mentorship was truly an invaluable piece of my development as an entrepreneur."
As for Stone, he's also had his fair share of entrepreneurial experience prior to this venture. Growing up, Stone was surrounded by business owners in his family and even had first-hand experience in high school and college assisting his mother in launching her own local food business.
After receiving his bachelor's degree, he made his way back to Chicago and worked in commercial banking before launching his own personal protective equipment (PPE) distribution business during the outbreak of COVID-19. As the sole proprietor, in his free time, he scraped together resources and managed to source lucrative deals with international manufacturers to service a large client base ranging from local healthcare organizations to Fortune 500 companies.
"Being able to start my own small business during the pandemic was exhilarating and really compelled me to make the transition into running a personal venture full-time," says Stone. Shortly after starting the PPE business, an oversaturated market and falling demand for protective equipment would prompt him to optimistically close its doors to join Battles and Larry in starting SLM Holdings.
With plans to emerge from stealth and launch their product in 2025, the three co-founders are currently raising seed funding to hire and advance the development of their intelligent banking system.
Since inception, they've been backed by Davis Bancorp, a Chicago-based cash-management firm rivaling the likes of Brink's and GardaWorld, along with securing undisclosed funding from a handful of notable investors.
One of their earliest supporters and advocates, Peter Thompson, said, "I've known Andre and Lester their entire lives and think the world of them. They are the types of young entrepreneurs we can all admire." Thompson currently sits as Chairman of Midwest Advisory at Lazard and is a well-respected banking executive in the business community.
As they chart their path forward, having already assembled a dynamic blend of innovative technology, illustrious backers, and a diverse team with strong ties to the city, the up-and-coming co-founders of SLM Holdings are poised to have a hand in penning the next chapter of Chicago's technology scene.
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