Von Tobel seeks $200M for new venture. Will Northwestern bite?
LearnVest founder and ex-Northwestern Mutual chief innovation officer Alexa von Tobel is seeking $200 million to launch a new startup venture — one that could receive backing from her former firm.
Von Tobel is exiting Northwestern to start a new venture, the firm said last week. She aims to sell interests in a pooled investment fund called Inspired Capital Partners, according to a Jan. 9 filing with the SEC listing her as its general partner. She and her spokeswoman declined to discuss the venture fund, citing SEC restrictions on public comments.
While a spokeswoman at the insurance giant and No. 6 independent broker-dealer also declined to discuss any potential investments by Northwestern and its affiliates into the new fund, its CEO did hint at future collaboration.
“We plan on working together in business ventures as she takes this next step that she’s chosen to pursue in the innovation space,” Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske said in a statement announcing von Tobel’s departure. He and other executives say LearnVest has enhanced Northwestern’s tech.
Von Tobel's departure is the latest surprise in a saga that began when the firm acquired LearnVest in 2015 for more than $250 million. It came to the forefront last year when Northwestern abruptly shut down the digital investing service’s planning tool.
The saga shows the ups and downs of partnerships between massive incumbents and nimble startups.October 3
The insurance giant and No. 6 IBD made Alexa Von Tobel its chief innovation officer following the closure of the planning startup it acquired in 2015.June 22
The Milwaukee-based insurer reopened LearnVest over the summer as a financial blog after promoting von Tobel and two other LearnVest executives to new posts within its organization. The new venture has not yet sold any interests, for which von Tobel will receive a management fee, according to the filing.
The company tapped Souheil Badran to replace von Tobel as chief innovation officer, leading NM Future Ventures and its two other tech investment funds: Cream City Venture Capital and Wisconn Valley. Badran previously served as president of Alibaba’s Alipay Ant Financial, a third-party payment platform.
Northwestern described the shuttering of LearnVest’s online planning tool — which was an early entrant robo advisor at its launch in 2009 — as “further integrating” it into its structure. Evamarie Schoenborn, president of the firm’s IBD, acknowledges a “learning curve” on both sides after the purchase.
Von Tobel “has an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Schoenborn, who joined the firm in December 2017 after 15 years at Ameriprise and notes her unit is different from Northwestern’s digital side. In October, Northwestern rolled out a digital planning tool called PX for its 5,000 representatives to use with clients.
Northwestern executives reject the notion that LearnVest acted as a source of leads for cross-sales of insurance or wealth management services. They credit von Tobel and the former startup’s tech as laying the groundwork for PX and an advisor-curated offering of goals and other tools for clients.
“She really helped us to transform how we think about client experience,” Schoenborn says. “It’s great to have that kind of talent with your firm, they do help you raise your game and your thinking. And I’m excited for what she does next.”
Von Tobel has made several angel investments through another vehicle called Blue Jumpsuit Ventures, Inc. magazine reports. Inspired Capital would be one of the largest funds ever launched by a woman if it attracts $200 million, according to the publication. She also plans to release her second book this year.
“I love this great company, the amazing people who work here, and everything our mission stands for,” von Tobel said in the statement. “I feel deeply honored to have been a part of that important work for people across America, and I’m thrilled for this next chapter and excited to hand the torch to Souheil."
Northwestern’s tech venture funds include offerings aimed at local and national startups, as well as a four-way, $100-million partnership between it, Taiwan-based Foxconn and health care and industrial firms. The firm also purchased a majority stake in coaching and consulting firm ClientWise last year.