In 2011, about a decade before she was arrested by federal authorities and charged with three counts of fraud and one count of conspiracy, Charlie Javice was named one of Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business.” She ranked 99th, behind luminaries such as Elon Musk, Ryan Seacrest, and Scooter Braun.
Javice, now 31, had grown up in New York’s wealthy Westchester County, the daughter of a longtime Goldman Sachs banker and a life-coach specialist. She had gone to a $40,000-a-year bi-lingual private school (she’s a U.S.-French dual citizen), ridden horses competitively, and summered in Thailand and Myanmar.
At the time the Fast Company list was published, Javice was fairly new to business. Then a freshman at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, she had launched her first company just one month prior—a nonprofit corporation called PoverUp, which had a notably ambitious goal: alleviating global poverty.
Javice’s plan to target said poverty was indeed creative, if somewhat vague. According to its mission statement, the company would “connect students, scholars, and professionals around the world to Learn. Connect. INvest [sic] in market-based solutions to help alleviate poverty every day with just the click of a mouse.” The Philadelphia Business Journal dubbed it, in the cryptic pitch-speak endemic to start-up coverage, “the Facebook of microfinance.”
Later that year, she told Forbes that 5,000 students had signed up “within hours of putting its beta version online.” By the end of May, that number had allegedly risen to more than 12,000. The following year, Javice flew to San Francisco to pitch PoverUp to the Thiel Foundation, the Peter Thiel–backed organization that offers $100,000 fellowships to students looking to drop out of school and “build new things.”
What happened next remains disputed. PoverUp claimed on its Tumblr that Javice “took herself out of the running to win because she wanted to stay in school.” But an e-mail from the time, obtained by the Daily Beast, suggests otherwise. “I regret that due to the limited size of the program,” the then president of the Thiel Foundation, Jonathan Cain, wrote to Javice on April 27, 2012, “we are not able to offer you a fellowship.” Eventually, the company quietly disappeared.
More than a decade after Javice’s Thiel pitch, and at least six years after starting her second company—the now shuttered financial-aid-assistance start-up Frank—the founder’s credibility has come under greater scrutiny. The Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and one of the world’s largest banks, JPMorgan Chase, argue that Javice has invented more than minor details about her company.
Specifically, JPMorgan Chase alleged in a civil lawsuit last year that Javice lied about Frank’s “success,” “size,” and “market penetration” to induce the bank into buying the company, for $175 million, in September 2021.
When the bank tried to verify Frank’s claims before the sale, the complaint continues, Javice allegedly got too creative, recruiting an unnamed “data science professor” at a New York school to use “synthetic data” techniques—algorithmically generated data designed to mimic actual data, often used when the real information is sensitive or private—to fabricate “a list of 4.265 million fake customers” out of whole cloth.
Javice, whose lawyer did not reply to Air Mail’s request for comment, denied the bulk of JPMorgan Chase’s claims and responded with a countersuit. As she saw it, Frank had never misrepresented its user base. The “synthetic data” had been commissioned with the bank’s knowledge, to allow JPMorgan Chase—which uses synthetic data often enough to have a dedicated page on its Web site—to analyze customers’ demographics while protecting the students’ actual contact information.
And after the acquisition, she claimed, JPMorgan Chase fumbled the integration process, ignoring the “regulatory environment in which the financial aid program operated,” and retaliating against Javice for having “blown the whistle” on “activity that she believed would be illegal.”
JPMorgan Chase alleges that Charlie Javice recruited an unnamed “data science professor” at a New York school to fabricate “a list of 4.265 million fake customers” out of whole cloth.
The real catalyst for the conflict, Javice claimed, came in July of 2022, when the Department of Education announced plans to require two-factor authentication when submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the form used to apply for student loans, work-study programs, or grants. The regulatory change, the counterclaim reads, “potentially threatened the usability of Frank’s financial aid tool—as a third party submitter, Frank could not verify the student’s identity on two devices.” In other words, she suggests, the financial-aid-service tool that JPMorgan Chase had just bought for $175 million would be rendered nearly useless.
The dueling cases are still playing out in court, but it seems the feds are not sympathetic to Javice’s side. On April 3, law enforcement arrested her in New Jersey over what the Department of Justice called a “brazen scheme to defraud” JPMorgan Chase in the $175 million deal.
The next day, the S.E.C. filed a similar civil complaint, calling for civil penalties and a ruling to bar Javice from future leadership roles at public companies. “Rather than help students,” Gurbir S. Grewal, director of the S.E.C.’s Division of Enforcement, wrote in a press release, “we allege that Ms. Javice engaged in an old school fraud.”
It is not clear what happened to Javice’s first company, PoverUp, but its Web site—which, much like poverty, still exists—has not been updated since November 2012. By September of 2015, according to LinkedIn, Charlie Javice had moved on and begun working on a new company: TAPD Inc. (It’s unclear what the name referred to.) The aim of Javice’s second start-up was similarly opaque. One early version of the Web site claimed to offer job opportunities to young professionals by text message; later, per Insider, it proposed “building an alternative credit score for college students.”
Neither of those goals panned out. In June of 2016, as she told BareMinerals in a since-deleted article titled “How to Put Yourself First—According to Five Female Founders,” Javice fired her entire staff, including her co-founder. (In 2017, that co-founder, Adi Omesy, sued Javice in Israeli court, alleging wrongful termination and wage theft. He won in 2021 and was awarded 120,000 shekels, or about $35,000.)
After a few false starts, TAPD rebranded in 2017 as Frank, a financial-aid-assistance platform, so called, as Forbes put it, “to conjure up a trustworthy uncle or cousin you can turn to for advice.” Frank “kind of represented that as a name,” Javice said in a YouTube interview, “because it just meant ‘honest.’”
The business, which Javice billed as “Amazon for higher education,” attracted prominent backers, including the edtech company Chegg, Israeli venture-capital firm Aleph, Silicon Valley V.C. firm Slow Ventures, and Marc Rowan, the C.E.O. of Apollo Global Management, who personally invested in Frank and became, per the Financial Times, a “mentor of sorts.”
Frank received frequent and generous media attention. Unlike many of her peers mired in millennial tech controversy, Javice did not tout an interesting backstory or adopt any obvious gimmicks. She did not lower her voice or dress like Steve Jobs; she did not dabble in crypto or polyamory.
“Rather than help students, we allege that Ms. Javice engaged in an old school fraud.”
She was white, thin, young, and a woman, and the latter two came up often in coverage of her success. Javice was hailed, variously, as a “female disruptor,” a “female founder,” a “woman founder,” a “woman making quality education affordable for all,” and “a half-French equestrienne.” She was also confident at regurgitating entrepreneurial truisms in the language of social impact—a quality that frequently earned her spots on TV, marketing gurus’ YouTube channels, and podcasts to explain why “rejection is a numbers game” or “empathy is the most important trait” in new hires.
But her economics jargon didn’t always go unexamined. In late 2017, for example, Javice wrote an editorial for The New York Times’s Opinion section about financial aid; two months later, it was appended with a paragraph-long correction—rivaled in length only by the correction The Wall Street Journal added to an interview with Javice around the same time. Errors ranged from misstating regulatory changes to using outdated information about FAFSA forms.
And not everyone found Frank so trustworthy. In 2020, four members of Congress wrote a public letter to the Federal Trade Commission, cautioning that the company’s online application for pandemic aid misrepresented the details of the program, and called for a “temporary restraining order” against their “deceptive practices.” The F.T.C. opened an inquiry and sent Frank a warning four months later.
Javice rebranded her financial-aid-assistance platform as Frank, so called, as Forbes put it, “to conjure up a trustworthy uncle or cousin you can turn to for advice.”
Frank, in other words, had more than a few red flags. But over the summer of 2021, one of their principal investors approached JPMorgan Chase about acquiring the company. (When asked about the investor, a spokesperson for JPMorgan Chase claimed to not have the answer to that question.) At the time, the bank was in the midst of an “acquisition spree,” making some 45 investments and purchases in 2021 alone, according to the Financial Times.
The “aggressive” push—which has since triggered plans for an audit from U.S. regulators eyeing JPMorgan Chase’s due-diligence process—took off earlier that year, after Jamie Dimon, the C.E.O. of JPMorgan Chase, allegedly said the bank “should be scared shitless” about the threats posed by emerging financial companies. In court documents, Javice claims that Dimon personally lobbied for Frank at JPMorgan Chase, calling for the bank to “get the deal done.”
Frank’s primary selling point was its audience. It had attracted an impressive user base of college students, whom JPMorgan Chase wanted to target as customers, as younger clients often remain loyal to banks as they age. The question of how many people, precisely, that audience consisted of is the crux of the dispute. JPMorgan Chase, along with the D.O.J. and the S.E.C., argues that Frank claimed to have 4.265 million “users”—meaning students who had signed up for the platform with their names, phone numbers, and e-mails. JPMorgan Chase decided to acquire the company through a merger in September 2021—a move they attribute primarily to this data point.
At the time, JPMorgan Chase was in the midst of an “acquisition spree,” making some 45 investments and purchases in 2021 alone, according to the Financial Times.
According to the civil complaint, after the acquisition, the bank sensed something was wrong when they sent a test e-mail to a “random sample” of “approximately 400,000 purported customers of Frank.” Out of the nearly half-million e-mails sent, the bank said, only 103 were opened. Upon further investigation, JPMorgan Chase claims, they found Frank’s customer accounts had in reality never exceeded 300,000.
Frank, meanwhile, alleges that JPMorgan Chase had always known this was the case. Javice argues that she had always defined “users” as “unique visitors who interacted with or landed on the site”—the metric by which she calculated the 4.265 million number. The countersuit differentiates “users” from “user signups,” or students who had “provided Frank with certain contact information, either through filling out a FAFSA® application on Frank’s site or by creating a user account.” Frank had been transparent that the number of its “user signups” was much lower than that of its “users,” Javice said. “By January 2021—six months before JPMorgan Chase purchased Frank,” the counterclaim reads, “Frank’s Web site stated publicly that ‘We’ve helped over 350,000 people access financial aid resources.’”
After the acquisition, the bank sensed something was wrong when they sent a test e-mail to a “random sample” of “approximately 400,000 purported customers of Frank.” Only 103 were opened.
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of the Frank transaction is the two details that are not under dispute: First, that during due diligence Javice provided JPMorgan Chase with a list of data on the 4.265 million “users.” Second, that this list was fake. JPMorgan Chase, the D.O.J., and the S.E.C. claim that Javice fabricated this list to obscure the fact that Frank never had 4.265 million users. As their side tells it, Javice, alongside her chief growth officer, Olivier Amar, had asked Frank’s director of engineering to “create fake customer details using ‘synthetic data’ techniques.” When he declined over legal concerns, they claim, Javice outsourced the task to the unnamed data professor, for $600 an hour.
The evidence for this does not look great for Javice. The plaintiffs’ complaints cite e-mail exchanges in which the professor says things such as “I can’t seem to find addresses in my raw files…. Should I attempt to fabricate them?” To which Javice allegedly responded, “I just wouldn’t want the street to not exist in the state,” perhaps suggesting an indifference to the veracity of the data. Elsewhere, per the complaints, Javice discussed whether the fake e-mails would “look real with an eye check” and, in an early draft of users, the same phone number appeared 676 times.
For her part, Javice insists this was not shady or deceptive but entirely in line with the terms of the acquisition. She claims that, because of consumer-protection laws, JPMorgan Chase understood that it could not monetize Frank’s existing data. The purpose of acquiring Frank, rather, was to gain access to its future users, assuming the company continued its rate of growth. The fake list, in other words, was essentially a simulation—a dataset designed to mimic Frank’s customers as closely as possible so as to both protect the “sensitive or private information” of Frank’s existing clients, while providing the bank with “deeper insights into [future] consumer behavior.” This was not an unorthodox approach for the bank, Javice points out, as JPMorgan Chase is a “leader in the space with a dedicated team focused exclusively on synthetic data.”
“I just wouldn’t want the street to not exist in the state.”
Even so, it’s unclear why, for example, she opened a shell company in Nevada called Chariot Holdings X LLC last fall, shortly after the bank placed her on administrative leave. According to an April 10 filing from JPMorgan, Javice transferred “several million dollars” related to the merger into the shell company, just eight days after the bank suggested it might take action to claw it back.
As incriminating as the evidence against Javice may seem, her countersuit does raise some questions about JPMorgan Chase’s due diligence on the purchase of Frank. The size of Frank’s user base should have been obvious from its valuation, ad budget, and any comparison to companies with a similar market share. “How could one of the most powerful and sophisticated companies in the world fall for such an alleged scam?” wrote Javice’s lawyer in the countersuit. “The answer: it couldn’t have. And didn’t. JPMorgan Chase knew exactly what it was getting when it bought Frank.”
In the meantime, Javice has been released on a $2 million bond and returned to her home in Miami Beach, where she is forbidden from contacting potential witnesses. She seems to be spending her days getting photographed at Target or the beach with an unidentified male companion, while still meeting a court-mandated 11 p.m. curfew. It remains to be seen whether she will serve any prison time, but her present setup seems to be a punishment on its own. Javice said as much herself back in 2020, when a Medium contributor asked about her favorite “Life Lesson Quote” in a since-deleted interview.
“Emile Zola said: ‘I’d rather die of passion than of boredom.’ I’m someone who’s always needed to work towards something that improves the lives of many,” Javice told him. “I’d never be satisfied working a nine-to-five, rushing to the gym, and whiling away my evening drinking wine and binge-watching Gilmore Girls. There’s too much I want to accomplish.”
Tarpley Hitt is a freelance reporter and an editor for The Drift