With the help of scholarships and her parents, Elizabeth Henley graduated from an out-of-state university with a degree in engineering, a summer of study abroad, and $35,000 in student debt. She worked for a large construction firm for two years, living frugally and saving carefully. Then she entered a two-year Ivy League graduate program with a $169,000 price tag. She graduated with a master’s degree, two job offers, and a total of $110,000 in student loans.

Her new employer pays well–but Henley continues to live frugally as she struggles to meet $1,700 monthly student loan payments. She estimates she will pay close to $70,000 in interest on her educational debt.

She’s a perfect candidate for the debt-management and retirement planning services offered by Catalina Kaiyoorawongs’ Ann Arbor-based start-up, LoanSense.

Student loans.

The phrase strikes terror in the hearts of parents, students, and college graduates. In the first quarter of 2019, student loan debt in the U.S. rose to $1.52 trillion–more than Americans owed on their car loans ($1.28 trillion) or credit cards ($850 billion).

Kaiyoorawongs has a plan–and a business model–to help address that staggering amount of debt–and the financial and emotional stress that goes with it.

“Very few students understand the loan process or even who their lenders are,” says the 2019 U-M Ross School of Business MBA. “Often they think they’ll be able to rely on a good job in the future to take care of their debt–only to discover their debt is a lot greater than they imagined, and it comes with hefty interest charges. When they do get jobs, they can’t even consider investing in retirement because they’re in such debt now.”

Kaiyoorawongs says that’s why she recently turned down a “really, really nice corporate job” offer. Instead, she’s devoting all her time and energy to launching LoanSense–“a business whose mission resonates with me.”

Her company’s online platform helps employees manage their loans and tap debt-relief programs. It also helps employers get them started toward retirement by contributing to their 401(k) and 403(b) accounts. Her pitch: offering student loan assistance as an employee benefit will help companies recruit, engage, and retain staff.

She’s experienced her share of financial stress. “I was raised by a single mother who only had a high school education and had to work several jobs to support three children,” she says. “When you grow up with economic hardships, you learn how to scrounge and optimize resources at a very early age.”

The middle daughter of a Chinese Thai father and an American mother, by the age of nine Kaiyoorawongs was caring for her younger sister and helping her father in his Bangkok restaurant and billiards hall while her mother taught English classes until late at night. “My parents were largely absent,” she says.

When the Asian economic crisis hit, her father’s business collapsed. In 1996, her mother moved with Catalina and her sisters to Sarasota, where they shared a three-bedroom townhouse with her grandparents and two cousins.

“I focused on two purposes,” Kaiyoorawongs says: “Do well in school. Learn to manage money.”

In high school, she babysat, bagged groceries, managed a pizza franchise, and worked in a kosher kitchen at a Jewish senior residence. After graduation, she was offered full scholarships to four universities. She chose Barnard because she saw more chances to develop leadership skills in an all-women environment.

“I’ve always worked, I’ve always made money, and I’ve always found ways to leverage resources,” she says. “In between classes, I babysat for a money manager’s family; he taught me how to invest. And I babysat for a lawyer’s children; he helped me land an internship with the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.”

Kaiyoorawongs graduated in 2008 and got a job at the Manhattan D.A.’s office. But she soon realized she didn’t want to become a lawyer. Instead, she joined the Peace Corps, which sent her to a remote western highland region in Guatemala.

“The natives expected a woman to come with a man–and they expected the man to direct projects,” she says. “I quickly learned that the ways women do things in the U.S. don’t work in Guatemala.”

She learned the regional Mayan dialect and created a health education program for the residents of twenty-one villages. “The great majority not only didn’t speak English, they didn’t speak Spanish, and they couldn’t read or write. Nor did they want to take advice or orders from a woman.

“I had to teach myself new gender roles and new ways of communicating–I told stories and acted them out. I knew I was making headway when I learned their name for me meant ‘Woman That Wears Pants.'”

Her Peace Corps experience convinced her “I could do anything it takes to achieve the best outcome.” Soon after she returned to Sarasota, she met with the city’s then-mayor, Kelly Kirschner. Kirschner is founder of UnidosNow, a nonprofit that provides opportunities, education, and a voice for the region’s growing Hispanic community.

Kaiyoorawongs taught financial literacy as a volunteer with UnidosNow then became its first paid staff member, and ultimately, its director. She raised funding for a summer academy, where first-generation American high schoolers were tutored and encouraged to consider continuing education.

“I grew up between two very different cultures, so I relate to anyone who doesn’t fit in,” she says. “And I’m passionate about education. I feel I have to give back to people who come from a background like mine.”

At the advice of her mentor, a Guatemalan with a Harvard MBA, she chose U-M for her graduate work for two reasons: the renowned Ross School and the School of Education, where she also studied. She earned her MBA this year and married fellow entrepreneur Roy Han.

Though Han’s company is based in New York City, “I can’t possibly think of leaving Ann Arbor,” Kaiyoorawongs says. “I’ve discovered so many opportunities here and a generous community of people I can reach out to for help and advice.”

She developed the concept for LoanSense–originally called Dough–during her MBA program. Now, she says, “I can continue the work I was doing before Ross–but on a far different level.”

According to a 2019 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, the number of employers offering some sort of benefit addressing student debt doubled this year, to 8 percent. Recently, Abbott Laboratories, the Travelers Companies, and Raytheon have either launched or announced plans to match student loan repayments with contributions to their 401(k) plans.

Though some companies offer their employees help to consolidate debt, Kaiyoorawongs strongly believes that’s not the best way to go. “We are not a refinance company,” she emphasizes. “I don’t believe in debt consolidation. Federal programs may actually save your workforce more money than refinancing.

“My competitors are pushing refinancing, but refinancing isn’t right for 50 percent of Americans,” she says. For instance, those who work in the huge nonprofit world–which includes hospitals and universities–can get debt forgiveness in ten years.”

Elizabeth Henley’s brother can testify to that: when he graduated from law school, he chose a job with the government rather than in the private sector because the government agency promised to assume his student debt after an introductory period.

LoanSense’s algorithm uses the answers to six simple questions to determine whether the company’s services can save clients and their employees money and speed debt reduction. The company first enrolls and educates corporate employers, then educates employees about appropriate programs and offers debt-repayment advice.

“High-level corporate leaders don’t understand the pressures and dilemmas facing young employees,” Kaiyoorawongs says. “But the IRS does. It allows for corporate investments in employees’ 401(k)s without any employee contributions–if the employees are conscientiously repaying their student loans. The idea is to offer a means for people to save for retirement even when they’re under pressure to pay off student loans.”

As she fine-tuned her business plan at U-M, she caught the attention of entrepreneurs and potential investors. Last year LoanSense won the grand prize in the Detroit Fintech Challenge, which included an equity investment of up to $50,000. It also won the grand prize and audience choice award for Innovation in Action, and grand prize in the U-M’s Dow Sustainability Award. This past August, it won the Audience Choice Award at Ann Arbor’s New Tech and TechArb Demo Day.

Kiayoorawongs is now working to raise $500,000 in seed money to get her company on its feet. “We’re on the verge of finalizing our software and becoming revenue-generating,” she says. “It’s time I turn my attention to marketing and publicity and sales.”

The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that by 2021, one-third of U.S. employers may offer some form of student debt assistance. This past January, financial services giant Fidelity announced a 401(k) program similar to LoanSense’s–though Kaiyoorawongs says hers is more customized.

As more companies recognize the need to help their college-educated employees cope with crushing debt loads, Kaiyoorawongs hopes to carve out a niche. She believes wholeheartedly that the course she’s charted is the best way for employers and employees alike, because stress from debt hurts employees’ well-being and ability to focus at work.

Elizabeth Henley is one of the millions of indebted college grads who could benefit. “I love my job,” Henley says, “but if another employer in my field offered me a comparable job as well as help with my debt, I would definitely consider accepting.”

A startup can’t match the pay of the corporate job Kaiyoorawongs passed up. But when LoanSense takes off, it will be far more important. And she’s not afraid to tackle a big problem with a small company.

“I’m not afraid of going outside my comfort zone,” she says, “because I’ve never had one.”