The Single Mom Behind the Technology Changing How We Handle Child Support
Everything changed for Sheri Atwood when she learned her seven-year-old daughter needed emergency brain surgery in 2011. Atwood, a divorced single mom, was working around the clock and flying 200,000 miles a year for a job she frankly wasn’t passionate about.
Atwood and her ex-husband had had a relatively painless divorce not long after their daughter was born, but navigating the constant back and forth of child support expenses was an ongoing struggle – when her daughter had surgery, it became even more of a strain. “Everybody talks about how bad divorce is,” says Atwood. “What I didn’t realize is the complexity of child support after divorce.”
When her daughter’s health came into question, so did a lot of other things. Atwood realized life was too precious to squander time on work that wasn’t meaningful. What’s more, she knew this was a problem that needed to be solved. How could that crucial exchange of money between her and her ex-husband be less of a burden?
Atwood was no stranger to the traumatic toll divorce can take on children of separated parents. She was five when her own mom and dad divorced – a separation so nasty, she and her siblings were sent to Child Protective Services.
That experience has very much carried into Atwood’s adult life. As a single mom, she quickly began to feel like a bill collector, only interacting with her ex-husband around the topic of money, as many divorced parents do.
Not long after her daughter’s surgery, Atwood began exploring solutions. She left her job and devoted her time to finding a way to simplify child support payment between divorced parents. “For the next year, I did a ton of research, interviewed thousands of people, and tried to find every reason not to do this,” she says.
But the need was simply undeniable and bigger, in fact, than she’d ever imagined. Atwood found that $200 billion in child support and expenses changes hands each year between parents in the U.S. alone, with an estimated 55 million parents living apart. While 60 percent of child support comes from a fixed monthly payment, that still leaves another 40 percent of costs that vary month-to-month, which means, for example, if your child needs emergency brain surgery, you and your ex will have to handle splitting those costs on your own.
A former vice president at Symantec, Atwood taught herself how to code and built the first version of her app, SupportPay – a mobile platform where parents can report, document and transfer money relating to child expenses without ever having to interact face-to-face. Since launching at the end of 2013, SupportPay found 90 percent of its users are more likely to pay money toward child support through the app because it validates how their money is being spent. “The person paying says, ‘I have no problem paying; I just want to know the money is going to my kid and not to support my partner’s lifestyle,’” says Atwood.
While the need for such a product in the market was clear, securing funding for the project was a struggle. Atwood worked full-time for two years without a salary and health benefits while growing and developing SupportPay. In 2014, she finally raised $1.1 million, her first round of funding. To date, the startup has raised $2.6 million, including $250,000 from FinLab.
But more than the money, having access to JPMorgan Chase executives and the community of fintech startups has been a massive boon. “Being part of a small group of companies who – while focused on different things – all have similar challenges; we all learn practices from each other,” says Atwood. “I was in Corporate America. I’ve been to a million events before the FinLab. Compared to any other group I’ve been in, they are incredibly responsive and supportive.”
It’s that sense of support and community that’s foundational to the very ethos of SupportPay, which is part of a larger brand Atwood created called Ittavi, short for: “It takes a village.” Atwood’s goal with Ittavi is to expand the platform so that modern families of all stripes can have an easy way to exchange and document how money changes hands.