Live trees indoors, pets at work and an in-office happy hour. Underground Elephant is very forward-thinking when it comes to how it treats its employees and the benefits it offers.
From its fun headquarters space in the east village of San Diego to its outside-the-box thinking on workplace benefits, the digital marketing company “wants to really create an environment where employees want to come to work every day and feel like they are being rewarded,” says Amy Zebrowski, HR business partner at Underground Elephant. “It is a very challenging and fast-paced environment.”
Underground Elephant, which was founded in 2008, provides marketing and technology services to financial service and insurance companies. It offers staffers healthcare and retirement benefits but wanted to show them that it is invested in their education and their family’s education by offering a choice between three non-traditional benefits. People who have worked for the company for one year can choose between a student loan repayment program through Student Loan Genius; a 529 college savings plan through Gradvisor; or $2,000 in company stock options.
If they choose the student loan or college savings plan options, Underground Elephant will contribute $1,500 a year to the program.
Gradvisor founder and CEO Marcos Cordero had wanted to offer a student loan reimbursement program for a couple of years. The company hires many entry-level employees straight out of college, trains them and helps them build their careers at the company.
“We know a lot of employees with student loan debt. We wanted to help them address that and support their financial wellbeing. We didn’t want to exclude employees who don’t have student loans. Our goal was to create a more inclusive program,” Zebrowski says.
Student Loan Genius’ platform allows employees to explore different loan repayment options and to find the one that best fits their situation. Employees can also have their student loan payments taken directly out of their paycheck each month.
The Gradvisor 529 college savings plan helps parents and grandparents save money for future educational expenses.
The cost of college
Cordero says that his 529 platform is popular because recent Gallup data shows that “for employees with children under 18, this is their number one financial concern. It supersedes retirement and unexpected medical bills.”
He added that the cost of college is rising faster than any other expense in the home and millennials, in particular, are feeling the pinch. Many of them left college with huge student loans and they want to make sure their children don’t fall into the same trap. Baby Boomers are also intrigued by the 529 plan because they have “more disposable income to help grandchildren save for college,” Cordero says.
He believes that this benefit will continue to grow over the next decade, but currently “more employers offer pet insurance than college savings.” That is in large part due to the state-by-state complexity of the programs. Each state offers a different 529 plan.
The Gradvisor platform takes into consideration an employee’s risk tolerance, financial situation and household tax filing when determining the best 529 plan for them. The company serves as a fiduciary so it takes “all of those inputs and recommends the most suitable and best fit investment option and asset allocation for the client. We don’t get any commissions or sales charges from the 529 plan. Our advice is 100% objective,” he says. Companies pay to offer the program on a per user per month basis.
“If you look at our stats, our customers tend to save earlier. We’re rolling out this really intuitive step-by-step platform that takes a lot of that fear or intimidation away,” Cordero says.
The average parent who takes advantage of Gradvisor starts saving when their child is five years old, compared to seven in the general population, which adds a couple more years of compounded growth. They also save twice as much as the average person.
Both the student debt repayment and college savings benefits programs were introduced to the company’s employees in January for implementation in March.
“The response has been great. All of our employees are excited about it. It can be a huge help with financial expenses if you are paying toward a student loan it is reducing the overall interest of the life of the loan. Overall it is very positive,” Zebrowski says.
The company’s primary goal in offering these three benefits was to retain good employees and to “show we are invested in their education and their family’s education and financial wellness,” she says.
Based on the company’s younger employee base, there are more participants in the student loan program, but there’s also a lot of interest in the 529 plans.
“I think a lot of people are conscious of the future and saving for families down the line. We’ve had a good response to both,” Zebrowski says.
The company offers a 1% employer match on all employee contributions to its 401(k) plan. The company employs 55 people currently and has been listed as one of the fastest-growing companies in its industry.
The benefit of perks
Underground Elephant wants to be innovative with its benefits because California’s tech industry is very competitive. Many people want to live in San Diego, so “attracting talent, in addition to that retention piece, that certainly factors in,” she says.
The company’s new headquarters building is unique in that it has live trees in the middle of the work space.
“The idea is to make it more open to give people the feeling of being connected to the outdoors,” she says. It has pool, ping pong and is setting up a new game room so employees can get together and have fun. It also has an onsite bar where the company offers regular happy hours.
Employees can bring pets to the office and it has a snack area where the company provides breakfast or lunch once a week.
For the past couple of years, the company has participated in a forum program where the company is divided into groups of eight to 10 employees and these groups participate in challenges throughout the year, including cultural challenges, scavenger hunts, community and charitable events.
“Each year we reevaluate our cultural programs to see what is working and what isn’t working; what people enjoy. The goal is to create as much engagement as possible,” she says.
Underground Elephant offers a full suite of health benefits, including full medical, dental and vision, long and short term disability and voluntary life insurance.
“We want to prepare people for success here or outside the company. Ultimately, the goal is to give people the skills and experience to promote within Underground Elephant or to transfer to other jobs as well,” she says. “Our people tend to be very successful.”
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