Zest Finance

Who We Are

ZestFinance was founded by a team of (mostly) ex-Google and Capital One folks who came together with a mission – to save the underbanked billions of dollars. Since then, the team has grown to more than a hundred crazy smart data geeks, mathematicians and computer scientists, all working together to re-invent underwriting and make more credit available to the people who need it most.


Douglas Merrill, Founder & CEO

I started my career with a Ph.D. from Princeton and have done lots of different things since then. I worked as a researcher at the RAND Corporation, a security consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Senior VP at Charles Schwab. I joined Google in 2003, and spent 5 (great!) years there as their CIO and VP of Engineering. I’m a technologist and data junkie at heart, but also love motorcycles, tattoos, and ’80s music. I care deeply about people and animals and support a variety of charities related to drug rehabilitation and animal rescue.

Mike Armstrong, Marketing

I graduated from Duke University with a degree in economics and began my career as a U.S. Army Ranger. After the military, I was fortunate to spend eight great years at Capital One where I held various roles, notably General Manager of Customer Segments. I then spent several years helping startups and financial services companies with direct marketing and credit risk management. At ZestFinance, I've found a unique blend of analytical rigor, advanced technology, and amazingly talented people all focused on saving the underbanked billions of dollars.

Laura Gowen, Legal

After graduating from law school at the University of California at Berkeley, I worked for a San Francisco law firm, representing financial services companies and as many pro bono clients as possible. Representing people who couldn’t afford a lawyer inspired me to start a consulting practice, and for eight years I worked with nonprofit organizations that promote social and economic justice. In my non-work life, I travel whenever possible (31 countries and counting) and try, sometimes successfully, to keep up with my young twins.

Sonya Boralv Merrill, Communications

I’ve been in technology since its dot-com heyday and have managed communications at startups and huge companies alike. I spent 4 amazing years running product and international communications for Google and was ecstatic when the opportunity to help found ZestFinance came along. It’s an amazing feeling to go to work every day and know that what you are doing is changing the game and helping regular people. I spend my time chatting with reporters or plotting how to get more stamps in my passport – occasionally at the same time.

Mike Rasic, Finance

After graduating from Santa Clara University, I went into public accounting with PricewaterhouseCoopers. In my 18 years there (yes, 18), I had the opportunity to work with a lot of fantastic companies, meet tons of amazing people, and obtain an MBA from UCLA. ZestFinance is different from any company I've worked with. We truly want to save our customers money, which isn't something you see everyday in financial services. Outside of work, I love to spend time with my wife and four children and cook from my grandmother’s Italian recipes.

Our Investors

Founder's Note

“I think there's a better way to provide credit to good people with bad credit…”

Like most startups, I founded ZestCash – now ZestFinance – to address a problem affecting my life.

I had recently left Google, and was thinking about what to do next, when I got a call from my sister-in-law, Victoria. She needed snow tires and couldn't get to work without them. She didn't have the money to replace the tires – she was stuck.

According to the National Federation for Credit Counselors, 64% of Americans do not have a savings account of $1,000 or more to cover emergency expenses. About 17% are like Victoria: able to borrow money from a family member. Unfortunately, that leaves the majority of Americans with no family to turn to, and no access to traditional credit. Unexpected expenses can push them over the edge of financial stability.

I asked Victoria what she would have done if she hadn't been able to reach me. Her answer was: “I'd have taken out another payday loan.”

At the time I didn't even know what a payday loan was, let alone that more than 30 million Americans take out at least one every year. Payday loans are very expensive, and are structured in a way that makes paying them off almost impossible.

Payday loans are “fee based,” and as such, payments aren’t applied to the principal. That means borrowers still owe the principal amount when their loan is “paid.” The result is a vicious debt cycle.

Payday loan borrowers paid more than $8 billion dollars in fees last year. That's a lot of money that could be going toward new tires, groceries and rent.

Credit is one of the keys to surviving these financial ups and downs. I believe it's unfair that 50% of the population has access only to high cost credit like payday loans.

I believed there had to be a lower cost way to make this credit available.

I founded ZestFinance to give the underbanked access to lower cost credit, and to help them save billions of dollars in fees and other costs. It’s a big mission for a startup, but if you don't dream big, you end up with a small solution.

My vision was that we could make lower price products possible by turning the world of underwriting on its head, with Google-style big data analysis. We created ZestCash, which offered installment loans that allowed borrowers to pay down their loans a little at a time. Each payment went toward both principal and interest, so borrowers made progress toward paying off their loan with every payment. And, thanks to our big data underwriting capabilities, we were able to charge about 50% less than a typical payday loan. The loans were designed to help people get out of debt — not further in it.

ZestCash helped a lot of people, but we knew we’d need help from other lenders to save the underbanked billions of dollars. Our thinking was that, if lenders could underwrite more effectively, they could do so at a lower cost, putting more money back in the pockets of the underbanked.

After a couple years proving our underwriting technology, we knew it was time to put our foot on the gas and start extending the model. ZestCash became ZestFinance and opened its underwriting expertise to other lenders. ZestFinance also teamed up with Spotloan to provide exactly the kind of loan that ZestCash did, but to a lot more people.

The more people we can help get out of payday loans and into a lower cost alternative, the closer we come to achieving our mission of saving the underbanked billions of dollars. If we can get even 10% of payday loan customers out of the payday loan trap, it will put $800M back in the pockets of the people who need it most. That would be a huge win for people like my sister-in-law, who work hard to make ends meet and need as many pennies to stay in their pockets as possible.

I'm very proud of what we did with ZestCash, and I am extremely excited about the opportunities we see ahead for ZestFinance. By making a lower cost credit alternative available to Americans, and a smarter underwriting platform available to all lenders, our lofty mission feels pretty close at hand.

Douglas Merrill
Founder & CEO, ZestFinance

P.S. If you want to be a part of what we're doing or have ideas on how to help, don’t be shy. I always love hearing from smart people with big hearts and great ideas. douglas@zestfinance.com