Charlie Javice has been lauded for years as a visionary entrepreneur, with glowing profiles in Forbes, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, and Insider. But when JPMorgan Chase & Co. bought her financial aid startup Frank for $175 million, the bank quickly alleged that the 30-year-old had fabricated almost four million client names and emails.
An investigation by Insider, based on a review of company documents and interviews with 10 former mentors, employees, and others who knew Javice, suggests that she had a history of exaggerating her accomplishments. Javice earned plaudits in the media for projects whose impact she overstated. Glowing profiles missed inaccuracies that could have been caught with a basic fact-check, focusing instead on her youth and status as one of a small number of women startup founders.
Despite a public record that raised questions about Javice and Frank — including warnings from the Department of Education and Federal Trade Commission, and a wage theft lawsuit from Frank’s cofounder — news outlets and investors kept buying into the narrative that Javice spun. Javice gained a degree of finance-world fame while still in high school as a founder of PoverUp, a small microfinance organization with huge ambitions. Her goal for PoverUp was to “save the world. Nothing less,” said Howard Finkelstein, a lawyer who helped her set the company up and served on its advisory board.
Javice earned a spot on Fast Company’s 2011 list of 100 Most Creative People and a complimentary writeup in Forbes. PoverUp was ranked as one of the “11 coolest college startups” by Inc. Magazine, while Wharton called Javice “the voice of a microfinance generation” in a video it has since removed from YouTube.
But Frank didn’t have any kind of magic formula to double the amount of aid students were receiving, student-aid expert Mark Kantrowitz told Insider. All Frank was doing was making it simpler to fill out standard federal financial aid paperwork, a form called the FAFSA. Javice had initially set out to build Tapd — a company that connected young workers with job opportunities via text message. That idea seems to have fizzled and Tapd next pivoted to building an alternative credit score for college students. That concept attracted $2 million in venture capital, but ultimately led to a lawsuit in an Israeli court and, by Javice’s own telling, her firing all her employees after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now JPMorgan is alleging that Javice was involved in what would be the largest exaggeration of all. In reality, Frank never had more than around 250,000 users, the bank claims. Javice has lodged her own lawsuit against JPMorgan, alleging that the company tanked Frank’s value by treating the startup’s customer base as a marketing opportunity and fired her in order to avoid having to pay a $20 million retention bonus. Javice may have been spinning a narrative to gain fame and fortune, but it was the media, investors and institutions that bought it. The story of Javice’s downfall is a cautionary tale for anyone looking to make it big in the startup world.