“My mother and I lived in what Americans would call ‘the projects,’” said Nealon, now the CEO of Austin-based Vyze Inc. “People usually divide society into white-collar and blue-collar working classes. I’d describe my inner-city neighborhood as ‘no-collar.’”
His mom and dad separated in the early 1980s when Nealon was 10, so mother and son got by on part of his father’s income.
“We were living on something like $4,000 a year,” Nealon said.
No one in Nealon’s family had ever earned a college degree, but “mom always had that vision for me, so that became my vision,” he said.
Compared to the United States, college acceptance in Ireland during the late ’80s was difficult — especially for those in Nealon’s social and economic situation.
“The common outcomes were blue-collar job, prison or drug addiction,” he said.
To get in required, at minimum, the American equivalent of As and Bs. The standards were even higher to earn one of the few academic scholarships offered. Getting student loans or athletic scholarships weren’t on the table, either.
And to be accepted to Ireland’s most prestigious school — Trinity College, University of Dublin — was even harder.
But Nealon did it. And he got the grades to earn an academic scholarship, worth about $2,000 U.S. annually, which paid for tuition and books.
Seeking to make her son’s financial path as smooth as possible, Nealon’s mother, Teresa, who’s now 81, researched and found a philanthropic organization that supplied grants for underprivileged students like her son.
“That’s when I first realized having access to capital allows people to unlock their potential,” Nealon said, which is why he and Vyze appear to be a particularly good fit. The 9-year-old fintech company connects multiple lenders with retailers to offer consumers several options to finance their purchase at the point of sale.
Historically, retail businesses have partnered with only one lender, Nealon said. That means consumers often confront 50-percent credit rejection rates in stores and rejection rates online of as much as 75 percent, he said.
With Vyze, however, consumers can apply for a loan in the checkout line. Nealon said approval rates have skyrocketed to almost 80 percent.
“I like thinking about financing a computer for a first-time entrepreneur,” he said. “That can change that person’s world.”
Or, Nealon thinks about what would happen if the refrigerator belonging to a single mother, like his mom, broke.
“She’d be in trouble; she can’t afford $2,000 for a new fridge,” he said. “But she can if she has access to financing.”
What’s the toughest job you had when you were a kid? When I was 14, I began delivering coal on weekends. I did that for two years. I’d come home black head to toe, covered in soot. Even taking a shower didn’t get rid of it all. My pillow would be black the next morning. There’s nothing like delivering 100-pound sacks of coal in the middle of a Dublin winter to make you realize an office job wouldn’t be so bad. It gave me inspiration.
Tell me about the Dublin company you co-founded and led. It was a systems-integration company called Nebula Technologies. I was 25. Being that type of an entrepreneur in Ireland was unusual. The internet was new and we helped businesses adapt to the new technologies. As CEO, I grew the company to about 100 employees, then sold it in 2002.
What are some of the most important lessons you learned about being a business leader during that time? Since we were caught by the downturn after the dotcom crash, and right after that we had September 11, I learned that being a leader is easy in the good times. But your true test of leadership, resilience, wisdom and experience comes in dealing with the hard times. As such, since I didn’t have the experience back then, it humbled me and I’ve become more of an ongoing student of high-performance and a life-long learner since then.
Another thing I realized in the early days was that it’s easy to become enamored with a resume. But a resume only tells me what you are, not who you are. I’m interested in who you are, as this tells me how you will react under pressure, how you will assimilate into our company’s culture and the nature of your character.
How do you apply that second lesson at Vyze when you’re hiring people? I ask job candidates to tell me about some of their formative experiences, when they had to overcome obstacles. I’m looking for intellect, passion and resilience. People who can take pressure and turn it into an advantage, adjust and be flexible are well-suited to the tech industry. In our sector, we’re asked to grow 50 to 100 percent year-over-year. I need people who can handle those types of expectations.
How do you relax when you’re not working? I spend time with my family, work out, see movies and meditate.
If you and your family could live in another country for a few years where you could work, where would you choose? Italy, specifically Tuscany. It’s filled with ancient Roman architecture. It’s hot. And Italian food in Italy is second to none. It tastes richer there.
Speaking of food, what are a couple of your favorite Austin restaurants? Red Ash Italia and ATX Cocina.