American entrepreneurship has been slumping for decades, worrying economists, politicians, and business leaders alike. The cause is likely a complex cluster of factors, but part of the story may be that so many young, ambitious Americans are saddled with student debt.

All your life, you're told that an education will set you up to fulfill the American dream. But once you graduate, you're faced with onerous payments that seem to hardly dent the principal. You need a steady job, stat. It's terrifying to forgo a salary to start something new, let alone invest your assets, when you're obligated to make monthly payments that can reach thousands of dollars.

One startup is helping its users get ahead of their debt and start the new ventures that our economy needs to thrive. SoFi (short for Social Finance) is largely known as the startup that will refinance your student loans, though it aspires to encompass its members' entire financial lives. The business, selected as one of Inc.'s 25 most disruptive startups of 2017, already consists of more than student loans: SoFi also deals with mortgages, personal loans, wealth management, and life insurance. A deposit-and-withdrawal product is coming soon, co-founder Dan Macklin told Inc.

Nevertheless, student loans are SoFi's bread and butter, a reflection of the generation of Millennials saddled with insurmountable-feeling debt. That's why, in addition to its unemployment support and career coaching, SoFi has an entrepreneurship program. The benefits include six months of loan deferment, mentorship resources such as connections to investors, and networking with other entrepreneur members. That has been crucial to people like Jennifer Beall Saxton, CEO of Tot Squad, who met her first significant investor through SoFi.

Andrew Dietrich, COO at credit card startup Final, said that business school left him with monthly obligations the size of a rent check. It would have been much harder to take a chance on Final without the cash flow breather that loan deferment provided -- a point echoed by Saxton.

Since Final is also a fintech startup, the SoFi founders' connections were particularly useful. Dietrich also delighted in getting a free pass to attend the 2016 edition of the annual Code Conference, a favorite among Silicon Valley luminaries, after Final won a SoFi competition. The experience would have been out of reach otherwise. Dietrich called it "truly amazing," adding, "I pitched Jack Dorsey and Vinod Khosla in the same day (both turned into follow-ups)."

Pillsy co-founder Otto Sipe explained on the phone, "Without the SoFi program -- and I'm not being paid to say this -- I literally couldn't be here." He recalled, "In May of last year, I was searching on Google 'I can't pay my student loans,' and I was looking for how to default. I was planning to default because at the time I wasn't taking any salary at all." Sipe pointed out, "It's hard to pay student loans when you're not really paying yourself." SoFi's program offered another approach.

Of course, SoFi can't single-handedly revive American entrepreneurship, not least because the cohorts of accepted entrepreneurs are limited, and the types of businesses that SoFi favors skew toward scalable tech startups rather than conventional small businesses. But student loan relief has a definite impact on the participating SoFi members' ability to launch companies.

It's also good for SoFi itself, emphasizing how different its paradigm is from old-school finance. SoFi calls its customers "members," and maintains a variety of programs to encourage engagement. CEO Mike Cagney told Fast Company a year ago, "The real opportunity is in taking traditional banking and recasting it into this concept of money, career, and relationships."

The entrepreneurship program is also straightforwardly pragmatic, just like the unemployment protection option, which functions similarly. SoFi wants members to be able to meet their obligations to the company, and members' financial health enables that. "It makes a lot of good common sense," Macklin said, "but it's something that just wasn't being provided by the industry."

Published on: Jun 13, 2017