Inspirational Woman: Anna Freeman | Founder & CEO, ZavFit

Anna Freeman

Anna Freeman is the Founder & CEO of ZavFit. She was born and brought up near London but now lives in Edinburgh.

Gaining a Batchelor of Science from UCL in London, Anna Freeman went on to enjoy a successful career in the FinTech space, largely in the City. She has worked with multiple start-ups including a role in the founding leadership team at Calastone (2009-2014).

After her move from London to Edinburgh in 2015 and having been on a personal journey herself, Anna identified that a healthy money mindset is a crucial dimension of health and wellbeing. However, it is a dimension that is consistently overlooked as a health issue by the health, wellbeing and finance sectors. In fact, money is the #1 cause of mental health problems around the world.

Anna’s passion for wellbeing, and desire to make an impact, saw the creation of ZavFit with the specific aim of addressing the mental health crisis caused by money stress. ZavFit’s vision for financial wellbeing is called ‘Money Fitness’ and makes financial wellbeing about the person not just their finances. It has been called a game changer by the Health industry.

Anna currently leads a team of ten at ZavFit. The firm is working in tandem with a number of visionary partners on a Money Fitness corporate wellbeing programme that helps companies support their employees with the stress caused by money. Together with our partners, the next phase will be the roll-out of the digital Money Fitness programme via the ZavFit app.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I was born and brought up near London and attended university at UCL where I studied Technology & Management. The most prominent part of my life growing up was training and competing in Sport at an International level – table tennis in particular was my thing. This really gave me a taste for competing – and winning! – but also a life-long passion for health and fitness. Coming from a musical family, music was a big part of home life. I was the lead singer in a Gospel Choir for many years and enjoyed singing regularly.

Ford Motor Company sponsored me to do my degree, which meant working every summer and a year out during my degree, to try out different areas within technology. This did however put me off corporate life for good; there was no way I was going to be able to change the world within the structure and procedures that I had experienced. Instead I quickly became attracted to the idea of getting in at the coal face of small and start-up businesses:  growing something new and exciting, seeing the difference fresh ideas can make, and using my persuasive personality to get things going. I was involved in a number of Tech and Financial Tech start-ups, including being on the founding leadership team of Calastone.

Up to this point my career had all been in Finance and Tech. I then went on what was a very personal and intense journey over the next few years. During this time I took some very deliberate decisions on how to improve my wellbeing, all of which had financial implications, as most decisions do. I started to think about money in a healthier way. Finances feature as a core part of our wellbeing, but nobody sees it that way. Our culture doesn’t encourage us to make spending decisions based on health outcomes. It was from this realisation that the idea for ZavFit, the firm I founded in 2017, was born. My vision with ZavFit is to bring what we call Money Fitness to the world as a health concept. To build a tool that would help people understand themselves better, what makes them feel healthy and happy, and then enable them to make their spending decisions based on this new insight. I’m now CEO of ZavFit and it has very much grown out of my experiences in building Finance Tech, my passion for health and wellbeing, and my continued drive to make a difference to people’s lives.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not really, no! I think it’s fair to say that early on I didn’t really understand what would make me happy in my career. I always had short to medium term goals in mind, and continually pushed myself. So I’m lucky in that I feel like I’ve never had to comprise in a job that didn’t fill my need to take on fresh challenges, build something new, spearhead change and make a difference in the world. But in the past couple of years it feels like the pieces have all come together; being able to bring the fantastic experiences I have had at other start-ups with my personal passion for health and wellbeing. Being able to combine that in a way that can help so many others, at a time when mental health issues are growing at a frightening rate: to me that seems a real privilege.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Always. As a woman in Technology and Finance in the early 2000’s, I feel like I did stand out. There just weren’t many of us. Also, persuading people in my early career that I was capable of achieving more than the box they wanted to put me in. Male chauvinism of course; I have largely managed to work to overcome this but 20 years ago or so in Finance and Tech, it was absolutely rife. Despite my successes I felt I wasn’t treated with the respect I deserved by some of those I worked for. Interestingly, I never found that problem with clients, but being recognised for the difference I made and could make was challenging.

Since founding ZavFit, the tide has really turned on this and it is amazing how different the environment is now. I believe there is still a lot to be done though to truly create an equal playing field.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

What friends and family might expect me to say is representing England in Table Tennis as a teenager, or taking up boxing in my thirties; I had my first competitive bout just nine months later having put in many hours of practice each week. I wish I had found boxing when I was younger as sadly there’s an upper age limit so I wasn’t able to do more fights. With table tennis and boxing I’ve absolutely loved mastering the technical aspects; both have taken a lot of hard work and dedication, but have given me huge levels of personal satisfaction, and kept me incredibly fit!

But in fact what I feel has really been my greatest achievement is facing and coming to terms with my life when it really took an unexpected turn about ten years ago. It took huge resilience to face my demons, and come out on the other side stronger. That definitely taught me the most and took huge amounts of grit and determination to get through. So for me personally that felt a lot harder than what others from the outside might see or realise.

How did the jump from FinTech to HealthTech come about?

2011 was the year that changed everything for me. I walked out of my ten-year marriage, moved away from the town and community my life was wrapped up in, and into the unknown. It was my wake-up call: my realisation that I needed to become my own person for the first time, and figure out for myself what was right for me.  I went from scared, to liberated, to discovering there was a lot I needed to work on, and quickly, if I was going to make a go of this radical change in direction. I had never been a heavy drinker, but my job in the City had relied on me entertaining with clients and drinking daily. I knew that if I used this to face the tough days, it would only make things worse. I made a decision to support myself in every way possible, and this is where my journey to wellbeing began.

I took to exercising regularly again; this not only gave me something to fill the inevitable loneliness, but it made me feel fantastic. I experienced the mental health benefits of exercise in a revelatory way, although I later realised that just turning up to gym classes in a gym where nobody talks to each other wasn’t going to be the best long-term strategy for a people-person like me!

Another moment of revelation would be when I first picked up Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset’. Everything in that book backed up my desire to grow. For a long time, I had thought about taking up a new sport, but I decided now to make that happen – find a new sport, then a top coach, and ultimately compete again. I had also got such joy from singing, and decided to find myself a coach and learn a new style of singing. I picked boxing as my new sport, found myself a singing tutor, and very quickly started seeing huge improvements in my health and wellbeing. Everything else that had felt hard was falling away. I had found a new purpose and happiness, and life felt joyful again.

In a much better space now I was ready to meet a new partner, and in 2015 I relocated to Edinburgh to be with him. Unfortunately the following year I caught a virus that resulted in my body not being able to absorb food. It took two years to get on top of this and took its toll on both my physical and mental health. But my recovery brought a new dimension to my interest in health and wellbeing, realising how important nutrition is to our mental health.

Once recovered, I knew I wanted to align my passion for health and wellbeing with my future and in December 2017 I founded ZavFit

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

My tenacity and determination.

When it comes to the things I’ve achieved, whether that’s in my career, sport or personal life, I believe in the 10,000 hour rule. In others words, it takes hours upon hours of consistent effort, putting in the hard work, learning from the best and always having a goal you are working towards, before you can master what it is you set out to achieve. I have learned to be flexible in my thinking. This helps with resilience when dealing with inevitable setbacks.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I am a huge believer in mentoring and it’s great that you asked because right now I’m actively looking for a mentor myself! I find it incredibly helpful to hear from others experiences and be able to speak openly without being judged. In place of mentoring, I attend a lot of webinars and listen to podcasts of people that I find inspiring or that have been on a similar journey in the start-up world. In the past, I was involved with a charity called ‘Changing the Chemistry’ that focused on the critical issue of Board diversity.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

I would change the stereotype of the male role in the home and family. In my own experience and opinion, I don’t think we will see true equality until society reframes the role of the male in the home and workplace. Many men are afraid to go against societal norms and the status quo, and as a result we see generation after generation repeating the ‘men work’ and ‘women are at home with the kids’ roles. This is driven by an undercurrent that it’s less than ideal to employ a woman once she has children; particularly in a leadership role. Women often have to continuously reassure their employers that they remain ambitious, whereas that’s a non-issue for men whom it is presumed will be unaffected by having children. This out-dated type of thinking still needs to change.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Trust the journey.

Life has taught me we don’t always understand ‘why’ things happen, or what the future will hold, but we can trust the journey and that things will work out for us just as they should. The path might not always be straight as there are things outside of our control, however, I believe that if we take the right steps, put in the time and keep going, we will get there in the end. And by trusting the process it can help us be more resilient when dealing with the inevitable setbacks that will crop up.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I am currently working to turn ZavFit into a global business that turns the needle on the world mental health crisis. Dealing with one of the major underlying causes – worrying about money. We have the beginnings of a great team and a fantastic culture aligned on our vision to improve health and happiness. This is something I want to nurture and grow as fundamental to our success.

The next step will then be to become an investor and advisor to the next generation of social impact businesses that match my area of expertise and interest in Health, Fitness and Holistic Wellbeing.

WeAreTheCity has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Cherie Blair, Paula Radcliffe MBE, Caprice Bourret, Anna Williamson and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here.

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