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Recalling His Impoverished Past, Entrepreneur Joe Sanberg is on a Mission to End Poverty


When people find out I’m an entrepreneur who’s enjoyed success in business, they’re sometimes surprised to learn my life’s passion: ending poverty in America. But for me, both of these essential parts of my identity go hand in hand. Let me explain.

Like so many in our generation, my mom raised me by herself – in Orange County, California.  And like so many in our generation, my father abandoned our family, after creating a lot of trouble for us. My father put his financial debts in my mom’s name, leaving all the grief of his reckless decisions on the family he left behind.

I remember times when my mom wouldn’t let us leave the house or answer the door because there were debt collectors waiting outside. That was my first experience with bullying — seeing how my father tried to destroy our family to save himself.

But my mom did everything she could to turn me away from the darkness of my father and toward the light of helping others, always encouraging me to think about what we could do to make the world better.

The bullying didn’t stop, however, and my mom would later lose our home to foreclosure. Only through the grace of a ton of government financial aid, I made my way through Harvard. When I graduated, the responsibility of providing for my mom led me to begin my career as an analyst on Wall Street. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I knew the salary would help pay for my mom’s expenses back home in California.

Ultimately, my experience on Wall Street was not emotionally or spiritually fulfilling, but it did teach me skills I could use to solve problems. So I left to move back to California and refocus on building businesses that fix social ills, rather than create them.

I believe socially conscious business can be a major force for good in society. That’s why I co-founded Aspiration, an online financial institution that empowers you to match your banking and spending with your values.

But fighting the biggest bullies who are causing the biggest problems also requires political action.

And the biggest problem we face is that 3 out of 4 Americans could not handle an unexpected expense of $700. In other words, 3 of 4 Americans are just one broken wrist away from a financial crisis. Think about the times in your life when you couldn’t pay a bill.

Remember the anxiety in your gut, the paralyzing stress that you experienced. That feeling is what 75% of Americans experience every month, every week, every hour of every day.

In fact, if there’s one thing that unites our country right now, it’s the common experience of constant financial uncertainty. This stress is the ultimate bully that is robbing us of our humanity, of our dignity and ultimately will rob us of our democracy.

I remember it well and have vowed never to forget the feeling that consumed me as a child. The reality is most Americans are working — and in many cases, multiple jobs — but can’t afford adequate housing, health care, food, education, and transportation. Poverty in America is a crisis that touches everyone who struggles every day to pay their bills.

That’s why I started Working Hero Action, a non-profit organization fighting for everyone who work (and those who want to but can’t) but still can’t afford life’s basic needs. In 2018, Working Hero endorsed 17 political candidates around the country, holding community events with them to elevate the issue of poverty in Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Arkansas, California, and Missouri.

And it’s why I convinced California lawmakers that the Golden State needed something called the California Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax credit for working folks that is one of the most proven tools to bring financial security to those who deserve it. When they agreed but failed to put any outreach money into the program, I created a non-profit organization called to ensure every eligible Californian would get the credit they’ve earned. In the past three years, our innovative ‘surround-sound’ campaign has helped over 3 million CA families get over $6 billion in federal and state earned income tax credit.

So while I’ve come a long way from the struggles of my childhood, I certainly haven’t forgotten them. And I won’t rest until like-minded folks all come together and settle for nothing less than an end to poverty.