Mental Health, Finances and Moustaches: SoFi Member JJ Owen, Director of Development for the Movember Foundation Connects the Dots on Men’s Health Issues
For SoFi’s latest member spotlight, we sit down with JJ Owen, Director of Development for the Movember Foundation, to discuss mental health, finances and, of course, moustaches. We learn about JJ’s college days playing baseball, getting his MBA and how refinancing student loans became his first major financial decision, enabling him to take better control of the present to plan for his family’s future.
Name: JJ Owen
Locale: Culver City, Calif.
Alma Mater/Degree: University of Southern California in Los Angeles (Undergrad), University of Oregon (MBA)
By Day: Director of Development, Movember Foundation USA (read: moustache salesman)
SoFi Member Since: 2015
Original Debt Amount/Terms: $32,226/ 6-year term at 6.55%
SoFi Solution: Consolidated under a 5-year variable loan (between 3.3% and 3.6%)
For JJ Owen, there’s a direct connection between men’s mental health, their personal finances, and moustaches. JJ is the Director of Development for the Movember Foundation, a global nonprofit dedicated to improving men’s health. The idea for the organization was spawned in 2003 by two ‘mates’ in Australia, who were inspired by the breast cancer fundraising efforts of a friend’s mom.
The foundation’s primary donation efforts come during the month of November—now known as Movember—when men grow moustaches to raise funds and awareness for men’s health. The money that men raise from growing their ‘mo’s is directed toward prostate and testicular cancer research and treatment, as well as mental health awareness and suicide prevention efforts.
JJ grew his first moustache for Movember in 2009, and joined the organization’s staff two years later. Unlike most development directors, he doesn’t spend his time asking big organizations and wealthy individuals for donations. Instead, he’s focused on building and managing a team to motivate an army of mustaches to raise money annually.
We caught up with JJ to learn how his own health issue sparked his involvement in the foundation and taught him how to be present and “control the controllable.” He also told us how his recent student loan refinance put his family’s financial plan on the right track.
How did you learn of Movember, and why do you think it works so well?
While earning my MBA at the University of Oregon, one of my goals was to get involved with a charity. I did a Movember campaign in 2009 with a couple friends. In 2010, my friends and I conducted a market analysis of Movember college participation for a class we were all in, and we provided that information as a resource to Movember. We ended up raising $15,000 and even got the president of the university involved. I had planned a career in the sports industry, but after the success of our campaign, I found myself taking a job with Movember right after graduation.
As an organization, Movember wants to drive men’s health conversation and enable both men and women to be storytellers. I think that’s why the movement is so engaging. Men sacrifice their faces, so to speak, to fundraise on our behalf. Whether the moustaches grown are awesome or terrible, they spark conversations. It’s like one guy sees another with a moustache, asks if it’s for Movember, and all of sudden they’re having a conversation about cancer. It brings levity to tough topics and opens doors for meaningful interactions.
Your development job is certainly not the standard wine-and-dine big donors variety. What’s challenging about it and where have you found success?
I always say that I have a very easy and fun job that’s made incredibly difficult by its scale. I have a team of five development managers, and we’re the main points of contact for the broader Movember community. Whether we reach out by email or travel to meet people face to face, our goal is to talk to participants and help them build movements of their own.
Ultimately, people donate peer-to-peer, which makes it really interesting from a development perspective. I’m really proud of building out my department. In my first year with the organization, I traveled to 12 cities in nine weeks to meet with Movember participants. At that point, I was a one-man show. Since then, I’ve been promoted to director, and hired my team. We’re based in Los Angeles and tasked with covering participants across the U.S. and around world. Between March and November, we connected with 17,000 individuals. You can do that only if you have the right people and tools in place.
That’s a lot of work for a small team. What’s next on your agenda?
Our first challenge is letting people know that Movember is a foundation, and that it’s a great one. The next is telling people that we’ve raised $90 million in the U.S. since the organization came here in 2009, and that we’ve partnered with some of the world’s top health and research organizations leading the charge to improve men’s health.
You wrote about your own journey with anxiety as a collegiate baseball player. What did that experience teach you?
While I was playing baseball at Cal Poly and later at USC, I developed something known as the yips. Basically, I had performance anxiety around simple tasks, like throwing the ball to the pitcher. Suddenly, I couldn’t do it. So I started working with a sports psychologist.
While I thought my issues were confined to the field, he made the connection to everything else in my life—the stress of moving to a new place, having a new schedule, and making new friends. All the things that come with college make people ripe for some sort of mental health struggle.
Through my counseling work, I learned about controlling the controllables and focusing on the present. If you’ve ever watched Derek Jeter play ball, you might have noticed that he puts his batting gloves on the same way every time. He’s not thinking about the thousands of people in the stands or expectation; he’s focused on what he’s doing in the moment.
The yips stayed with me, but I learned to live with them and work around them. From that experience and with my work with Movember, I’ve realized how much men don’t talk about mental health. After my Medium post was published, over 400 people reached out to say thanks and that they had no idea I had struggled with anxiety. They also shared their own stories. I don’t mind being an open book if it gives someone else the chance to open up and really be vulnerable.
How do you think men’s mental health, finances, and student loan debt are connected?
For guys that think of themselves as providers, debt, especially student loans, can be that 1,000-pound gorilla on their backs. Men have a lot of stress and anxiety that starts to manifest as they hit 30 and realize that they might not be able to do what they want—whether it’s to maintain a lifestyle or buy a home—because of their debt. It’s heartbreaking, and I understand it.
When I was single and living in L.A., I didn’t think twice about the $32,000 I had in debt from getting my MBA. But when I got married in 2015, and my wife and I looked hard at our student loans, we realized that we needed to do something if we wanted to buy a home in five years and maintain a certain lifestyle. My wife has a lot of debt from her master’s program in Australia, and the combination of my debt and hers felt a little daunting before I refinanced.
How does your student loan refinance affect your current situation and your future?
Refinancing was one of my first big financial decisions, and it was really empowering. I knew that by consolidating my six loans into one, and then refinancing, I could pay that debt down faster and save some money to buy a home down the road. We don’t know exactly where we’ll buy yet, but it’s an important goal for our family’s future. It’s also one that feels more pressing because we just had our first baby, a little girl, in September.
And by refinancing, I was able to reduce my interest rate from 6.5% to about 3%, and take on a higher monthly payment in order to pay down the debt sooner. Now I pay about $500 a month, which I can stomach. All of that adds up to about $5,000 in savings over the long run.
Movember is fast approaching. How can people participate?
Go to our website and sign up. Men can start a campaign and grow a moustache, and women can support the effort with their donations. Hopefully, we’ll continue to have great conversations, focus on controlling what’s right in front of us, and make progress toward improving men’s physical and mental health.
Take control of the present and learn if refinancing your student loans can improve your financial future. Check our rates to see if you can save money and get out of debt sooner.