Rajesh Chokhani has been around the block a time or two in his life, if by block you mean the globe. In a 30-plus year career with Welspun, the native of India brought the global manufacturer to Arkansas.
Once here, he blended the corporate cultures of the east and west as seamlessly as the pipes still cranking out by the trainload from its massive Port of Little Rock factory. Along the way, he completed his MBA at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, raised an active family and, like everyone else, weathered a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
He’s seen some things, done some things, man. Yet, all it took was a simple question by a colleague to make him ponder the arc of his professional life and his family’s future.
“Rajesh,” asked his friend Uday Akkaraju, CEO of BOND.AI. “Do you have a FIRE plan?”
The question was stunning for its simplicity — basically asking if there was a “Financial Independence Retire Early” endgame to his lucrative business career — yet the answer put Chokhani on his heels.
“I was taken a step back and after a minute, I said, ‘Really no, I’ve not thought about it,” he said. “Yes, I want to be financially prepared to retire early, no question about it. But honestly, I’d not thought about it, and I didn’t have a very concrete plan.’
“That kind of shook me up a little bit. I was very happy doing what I’m doing, I’m in a great job, great position, 28 years with the company. I have no regrets, no complaints at all. But still, whatever I’m doing for my retirement was not enough, and that would make me drive myself until 65 or 70 years of age to maintain my standard of living. And forget about retiring early. If I work till 70, I am letting my prime years go by.”
Looking at his own situation led Chokhani down a logical line of thinking about how many other people were in the same financial boat.
“I said, ‘OK, if I don’t have my FIRE plan, I’m sure many people like me who are very well-established may not have a FIRE plan,” he said. “And there are possibilities that many people may not have even thought about it or have thought about it, but not much. And that’s where I jumped on it, and I said, ‘Let’s do something different. Let’s organize this whole financial world.’”
Chokhani’s response was to leave Welspun to lead FIRE, a new venture from BOND.AI, an artificial intelligence platform that learns the user’s behaviors, strengths and needs as expressed through financial goals and decisions. Unlike BOND.AI, which is marketed to banks and financial institutions, FIRE targets consumers enabling them to move towards financial independence.
One part advisor, one part watchdog, FIRE presents opportunities to retire early by optimizing a consumer’s financial health, and by extension, relieving stress over the future, improving physical and mental health. The app, which is expected to undergo beta testing in December and go live early next year, leverages BOND.AI’s Empathy Engine to build a custom profile of user behaviors that negatively affect their financial posture and future.
“Basically, this is like having a GPS for financial independence. It will be so easy to log in to the app; it will go into your financial world, do the data crunching, build your financial personality, show your inefficiencies and try to help you optimize for retirement,” Chokhani said. “The problem is, today’s retirement platforms are broken. They do not look at your life holistically. Take any of them, they project you to retire around 65 or 70 years of age. We should do much better than that for humanity’s future.”
The customization, combined with the immediacy of feedback, fits well into today’s 30-second attention span and emphasis on instant gratification that has driven consumers’ digital interaction with service providers. Where banks, mortgage lenders and financial planners were relatively late to the technological party — in part because of entrenched consumer habits — such is no longer the case.
Among respondents to the latest Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s annual National Financial Capability Study, 84 percent used online banking and 65 percent used mobile banking products. Nearly four in 10 used websites or apps to manage their finances, more than a third used a mobile phone for payment at point of sale, and 37 percent used it for transferring money to another person. And that doesn’t even begin to address the pandemic’s impact on consumer behaviors via Zoom, MS Teams and other media.
Interestingly, as technological tools have advanced and information is more accessible than ever, financial acumen among the American populace has continued its divergent arc. According to multiple studies cited by PossibleFinance.com earlier this year, roughly four in seven Americans are financially illiterate, nearly 12 percent of adults wouldn’t be able to pay monthly bills with an unexpected expense of just $400, and almost 20 percent report spending more than their income in the past year.
And, the problem appears to be getting worse. Only 24 percent of millennials in one study demonstrated understanding of basic financial concepts, while 63 percent said they feel anxious thinking about their financial situation. All of which appears to carve a favorable niche for FIRE to boil the process down to its essence: Spend on this, save on that and earn more along the way.
“It is a very, very right time after this COVID thing happened that we should go for it now,” Chokhani said. “I think everyone realized that they need to focus on quality of life and live in the present. The quality of life is the key behind these things. I feel this is a very, very good time for us to launch this so people start looking at the benefits that this offers.
“This is more about change of behavior. Motivate the change in the behavior of a person, how the person is spending, how the person is building the financial stability, and going toward financial independence and the plan to retire early. Somebody needs to guide them toward that now.”