There were four opponents in the room, and I had to choose which to fight. As I slipped on my boxing gloves, I homed in on the one who had hurt me most: student loans. It felt cathartic to throw hooks and jabs at a punching bag that represented my insurmountable debt that nearly hits six figures, and printed on the bag itself was the fact that, nationally, student loan debt exceeds $1.5 trillion.
After raging on my metaphoric student loans, I stood in the ring with a championship belt over my head, the word "BO$$" spelled out behind me. A woman held my iPhone and diligently snapped photos of me the entire time, making sure I could remember this victory. “Don’t forget to tag Stacks House!” she said as I hit the showers.
The Debt Boxing Gym is just one of many rooms in Stacks House, the newest selfie-friendly museum to come to Los Angeles. A self-proclaimed “pop-up with a purpose,” Stacks House moved into the former home of the Museum of Ice Cream with a mission to help women expand their financial literacy. In each room, women take short questionnaires on interactive tablets to receive tips on subjects like consolidating student loans, monetizing hobbies, or kickstarting their retirement fund via Charles Schwab services—all the while taking memorable selfies in a money shower (make it rain!), a dollar-lined Infinity Mirror Room, or on top of a bucking mechanical piggy bank.
Personal debt is reaching all time highs in the US. According to the Federal Reserve, for the first time in history, consumer debt exceeds 4 trillion dollars. Millennials in particular are burdened by their debts to the extent that some are putting off having children, buying homes, or taking vacations. In addition, women take on more debt than their male counterparts. For instance, women owe two thirds of all student loan debt–and often find themselves overwhelmed with the task of paying it back. Stacks House wants to help women tackle their bills, invest smarter, and build a robust retirement fund so that they can feel confident about their financial future.
After my boxing match, I sat down with Kindra Meyer, Patience Ramsey, and celebrity financial guru Farnoosh Torabi, the three founders of She Stacks, the parent company behind Stacks House. We sat in a corner of the Gold Bar, an airy lounge with plush velvet seating, golden palm fronds, and a large, cozy wicker booth full of pillows–a literal nest egg where you can sip the room’s sponsored drink, Day Owl Rosé, in style. Meyer, Ramsey, and Torabi each channeled their own spin on the modern "girl boss." Meyer complemented her black motorcycle jacket with golden sneakers, Ramsey took inspiration from LA’s bohemian vibe with a flowing floral pashmina, and Torabi’s business casual was pressed and polished head to suede-heeled toe. They exude wealth, success, and confidence; just through their wardrobe, I caught a glimpse of a lifestyle I thought I could never afford. Maybe with their wisdom channeled through Stacks House, I could manifest my best financial life.
“We founded She Stacks a couple years ago on the core tenants of making financial literacy simple, sexy, and social,” Meyer, a former creative director, told me. “Pop-ups are really hot right now, but we’re not into all of them because they’re all style, no substance. But we thought this could be really interesting. What if we apply financial literacy and empowerment—which is often a complicated, emotional topic—to the fun, [sexy] design of the pop-up world?”
With Meyer and Ramsey’s backgrounds in experiential marketing, Stacks House successfully mirrors the millennial-baiting aesthetics and photo ops that has made these pop-ups so popular. There’s plenty of rose gold, neon slogans, and warm gradients to colour every Instagram.
Sprinkled into the mix are “money mantras,” which cull from Torabi’s wealth of knowledge as a personal finance expert with more than a decade of experience and two books under her belt, and deliver upbeat advice that spin financial burdens into money-making opportunities. In the Stacks Salon, a money mantra sells the idea taking on an additional job is “crucial as [women] earn less, live longer, and deal with the dreaded pink tax.” The best way to survive is to “pinpoint your best side hustle. Stack on Sisters!”
In the Bulletin-sponsored gift shop, where public relations manager Jenny Gorenstein told me one could take Stacks House’s vibe and “bring pro-feminist mantras into your home,” custom money clips that read “future millionaire” are sold next to large, red earrings that demand we “eat the rich.” There are Ruth Bader Ginsburg stickers next to keychains that say, “Know your worth. Then add tax.” The contradictory message makes me unsure if I should be questioning the system or thriving inside of it. She Stacks doesn’t seem to know the answer, either.
Stacks House never questions why having one job isn’t enough to pay the bills in the first place. It isn’t concerned with the reasons why women face steeper challenges than men when it comes to achieving financial freedom, or for why Americans, regardless of gender, are carrying so much debt. Instead, it's about staying afloat in capitalism and embracing the “lean-in” feminist culture that contributes to the wealth gap She Stacks is claiming to combat. In a 2013 article for Feminist Wire, bell hooks explains that lean-in feminism "ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged.”
This idea is furthered by the type of woman Stacks House seems to cater to. She is feminine and gynocentric, proud of having a "pussy that can grab back;" and instead of children, she lives with deadbeat roommates (another potential challenger in the Debt Boxing Gym.) She has enough money to pay the $38 admission fee, take frequent vacations, and invest $15,000 annually into her retirement fund. This isn’t the type of woman who has to think about applying for food stamps, Section 8 housing, or unemployment.
It’s unfortunate that these options aren't addressed because knowing about them could deeply expand one’s financial literacy. The founders have firsthand experience tapping into social services, and could use their stories to mitigate any negative stereotypes associated with welfare. Both Meyer and Ramsey grew up in small, rural towns and relied on public assistance throughout childhood. “That’s something I look forward to bringing to the forefront more too,” Torabi said in reference to future iterations of Stacks House, which they hope to take to six other metropolitan markets. “Recognizing the importance of paying homage to your cultural roots and the impact that has on your financial perspective.”
Ironically, it’s the capitalism that She Stacks wants to conquer that holds back their pop-up from addressing nuanced, intersectional issues. Meyer said that there were more rooms they wanted to bring to Stacks House, but couldn’t build because they couldn’t find a financial sponsor. One room would have been devoted to explaining the pay gap between men and women, and further broke down the salary differences between white women and women of color, which shows that even among women, the pay gap is steeper for minorities. Ultimately, corporations steer the direction of Stacks House’s message, and they use their dollars—or lack of—to eliminate uncomfortable conversations about race and class under capitalism.
Though She Stacks has struggled to make the Stacks House experience more intersectional, they have tried to make up for it in other ways. “The people that we hire, the production companies that we hire, our models, in how we’ve staffed our space...we are so cognizant of bringing in diversity. I think 90 percent of our campaign were queer women of colour. It’s critical,” Meyer said.
Stacks House tapped Jillian Mercado, a disabled model and activist who has graced the cover of Teen Vogue; Tess Money, a sex-positive creative director; and Hattie RetroAge, an octogenarian life coach and model for their social campaigns. They point to a world where financial success does not run up against sexist barriers or other forms of discrimination. But they’re still bathing in their riches, sipping martinis, and dripping in jewels. Their goal is not just financial literacy, but exorbitant wealth, and that begins with an Instagrammable backdrop and a mutual fund.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.