Empowering creatives to take charge of their careers

January 20, 2022
by Michael Callas, SVP, Head of ElloU || Talenthouse

It was a typical hot summer day in Texas, when I walked into the bank for my appointment to open an account with Rosa. The details about the account are a little fuzzy, but what I remember clear as day is the shiny debit card she pulled tantalizingly from the envelope.

As I listened to her, I looked at the small piece of plastic she’d handed me and thought “This is a powerful tool. I must be careful with it.

Little did I know that twenty or so odd years later, it would be me who’d be helping people get better at managing their money and take control of their financial futures.

But that would have to wait.

First, I had a few theatre stages to conquer.

The boy can sing!

When you grow up with one grandmother who calls Bach “the Old Testament” and Beethoven “the New Testament”, and the other believes that Pagliacci (Caruso, only) made her plants grow faster and healthier, a career in music seems like an inevitability. But when I first started singing, it was for much more practical reasons.

I’ve always stuttered, and by the time I was six it had worsened considerably. So, my mom and dad got creative and figured that by learning to sing properly, I might be able to overcome my stutter.

Singing didn’t just help my stutter. As it happened, I also had a pretty decent voice.

But, more to the point, the operas I sang as my grandmother accompanied me on the piano captured my imagination. They were stories of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, and I couldn’t get enough of them.

Before I knew it, I was winning University Interscholastic League competitions, the NATS national competitions, singing with the University of Texas’ opera company, and studying at a few of America’s top music schools in New York.

I then embarked on a career as a full-time opera singer, performing at landmarks like the Lincoln Centre and Carnegie Hall in New York City, the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and Boston Lyric Opera. The plan was clear: move to Europe, hone my craft and keep getting better roles!

Hitting a low note

It was while I was rehearsing and studying in Spain that Lehman Brothers collapsed, sending shockwaves through the global financial system.

With the world’s economy in a tailspin, everyone started tightening their belts, and the arts were one of the first industries to feel the squeeze.

All the gigs I had lined up started disappearing faster than you can say “Don Giovanni“. And with no job, no income coming in, and no prospect of the situation going back to normal any time soon, I had to reinvent myself.

My first thought was to go back to school and study business.

But, through luck and a chance meeting with a Spanish entrepreneur, I managed to finagle my way into a job with StepOne, a company that worked with engineers and entrepreneurs looking to enter the US market and supported Spanish banking giant BBVA on innovation strategy in the face of a crumbling financial system.

If the costume fits…

Opera and fintech had more in common than I thought.

Life as a freelance musician is a constant hustle. During the 13 years I worked as an opera singer, I created my own recordings, built my own website, worked hard to get my name out there, put teams together for performances, took part in fundraising events — all skills I put to good use in my new role.

Far from feeling like a fish out of water, working at StepOne felt like a natural progression. So, after a fruitful two years, I decided to take the big step of moving to London to head Vodafone’s emerging technology arm, followed by a number of roles I took with fintech companies in an advisory capacity.

But while I found my work extremely satisfying, the arts remained close to my heart.

So when Talenthouse’s CEO Clare McKeeve, who I met through a mutual friend, shared her vision of a world where creatives could grow their careers without sacrificing their financial freedom, I knew I couldn’t pass up the chance to get involved.

Adding colour to the world

UNESCO reckons there are around 29.5 million people working in the creative industries worldwide. These hard-working people add $2,250 billion to the economy every year — 3% of the planet’s GDP. But, more importantly, they bring beauty and joy to the world.

When we’ve had a bad day, a musician’s performance can lift our spirits and help us forget our predicament, even if just for a few hours.

Similarly, good art brings life and vitality to our grey streets and subways, to the drab waiting room at the doctor’s office, and to the stuffy airport lounge where we have to spend our layovers.

Yet, despite the huge contributions they make to our economy and well-being, freelance creatives face immense challenges when it comes to being taken seriously as businesses.

A 2019 study found 41% of freelancers were paid late, and 55% had done work they were never paid for. And that’s in the UK — a developed country with a mature financial system and a thriving creative industry.

In other parts of the world, creatives face even bigger challenges: unfavourable exchange rates, complex regulations that cause delayed payments and cash flow issues, lack of access to credit and difficulty getting affordable, quality health insurance.

Unlocking the path to financial freedom, with ElloU

At ElloU, we’re making it our mission to change this. We’re creating a product that simplifies creatives’ finances and gives them the help they need for their careers to flourish.

Our core service is an account with free money transfers, free ATM withdrawals, cheap international transfers and currency conversions at the best rates plus a low 0.25% fee.

But simpler and cheaper banking services are only the start.

As part of our long-term vision, we want to provide creatives with the tools that other businesses already have at their disposal, like fuss-free invoicing, help with taxes, the ability to build a credit history, and investment products that are within reach and don’t have unfair or hidden fees.

“This isn’t your father’s fintech…”

A few months back, I paid a designer I’d hired for the company I was working with at the time.

The money was in limbo for 40 days before it was finally released to him. Forty in which he would have struggled to pay bills or feed his family, all because the traditional financial system can’t — or won’t — cater to the needs of freelance creatives.

When fintech burst on the scene in the late aughts, it was all about disrupting finance and putting customers first.

Making someone wait 40 days for money that is -for all intents and purposes- theirs, is certainly disruptive but not consumer centric.

It’s high time that also happened in the business world, and particularly in the creative industries. The only way I know how to do this is to bring together the world of fintech, traditional banks, and the creative industries with one clear focus: creatives. I’m excited about what we will achieve with ElloU.

We’re going to make it easy for creatives to manage the business part of their job so they can focus on what they love most… being creative. The whole world is their oyster with ElloU.

It’s time to Create Freely.

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