You can negotiate many things in life, but did you ever think about negotiating for your student loan? Most people don’t, but that’s not what Daphné Vanessa did. Daphné negotiated for her financial aid and was basically getting paid to go to school. Join host Christine McKay and guests Daphné Vanessa and her partner in crime, Shamil Rodriguez, talk about student loan debt and why they started their company together. Daphné and Shamil are the Co-founders of StartNoo. StartNoo allows students and alumni to exchange services for payments towards their student loans. Learn why student loans weigh down a student so much and how a community college is a viable option. Plus, discover how Daphné negotiated with her student loan debt. Learn all of those things today!
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Solving The Student Loan Debt Crisis One Step At A Time With Daphné Vanessa And Shamil Rodriguez
I’m excited because this is a topic that nobody thinks about in terms of negotiation, student loans. Who thinks that you can negotiate student loans, do something creative with student loans, or negotiate your financial aid packages? We’ll be coming back into school and people will be starting to think about how they’re going to finance their higher levels of education.
Some of you know that I sit on the board of directors of motivating our students through experience. We work with young women scholars who have a dream to go to college. One of the big obstacles that prevent them from doing that is financial aid and student loans. I’m super excited to have Daphné Vanessa with us and her partner in crime, life, and marriage, Shamil Rodriguez. They are the Founders of an organization called StartNoo.
They have a creative way of helping people pay their student loans and finance their college education. We’re going to talk about the negotiation of that process and how they came up with this idea which is very novel. I’ve never seen anything like it and where they’re trying to take the whole issue around student loans and student debt in the United States.
Shamil and Vanessa, thank you so much for being here. It’s an honor to have you on the show.
It’s so exciting to be here. We’re happy to be here.
Tell us a little about each of you and then how you met because I love those kinds of stories. I had my 28th wedding anniversary. I love marriage stories. Daphné, we’ll start with you.
We celebrated our ninth.
I remember exactly what we did for our anniversary on our ninth. That’s one of our favorite ones.
We are StartNoo. We started off by finding a solution to the student loan debt crisis. What this meant was that the crisis was huge at that time for our generation. We’re Millennials. We were coming off of two back-to-back financial crises. What that means is that in the first financial crisis in 2008, many may remember 2007 leading into 2008, Lehman Brothers died. There was an entire collapse.
What that meant was that people lost their jobs. People who were just coming out of college to graduate, there were no jobs left. I had my job at a major investment bank rescinded. I summered there, did well, and enjoyed my time there. By the time it was time to graduate, I no longer had a job. I was not the only one. A lot of us in this time frame were in a period similar to the COVID pandemic, a little bit confused and not a lot of clarity.
The world was at this breaking point and we thought, “What’s next? Student loans seem to be the heavyweight on a lot of people’s shoulders. If it weren’t for these student loans, maybe I could work at McDonald’s for whatever per hour, but because I have a five-figure student loan debt, I can’t do that.” We needed to come up with a solution for that problem. Seeing our friends go through it, the second financial crisis a few years later was that Black Monday in 2011.
Let’s say you went to graduate school to defer your student loan payments and then you were in a situation where you were graduating now in another financial crisis, bad timing. It was important to figure out, “What is out there? How are we going to be able to navigate? How are we going to lead the next generation forward as a workforce? If we don’t work, then what is the next generation after that?” In our generation, I know a lot of people hate Millennials. We’ve gone through it. We love Gen Z, too. Gen Z and Millennials, we have to hold tight.
I’m Gen X and Gen X has an issue with Millennials. I always get very jealous because you guys were given the opportunity to set boundaries that we were not given. The expectation amongst Gen X-ers, a lot of them are, “Nobody should get to have boundaries if they didn’t define them themselves.” That’s BS. I’m all about, “I love working.” Most of my friends are Millennials. I hang out with a lot of Millennials.
We have multi-generational friendships as well, both up and down. That’s a little bit about the StartNoo story and how we came to be as an organization.
What path did you take to get here?
I’m a proud Haitian-American born and raised partially in Mississippi. I’ve had a unique experience. Being a person of color in America in the South, people expect a certain experience, but that wasn’t the experience that I had. I had a fantastic experience growing up in Mississippi. People are often shocked to hear that, but I didn’t experience any different treatment until I lived in the Northeast.
I had a fantastic time growing up in the South and then had the privilege to live in many different countries. That included Haiti, my native country, but it also included other countries in the Caribbean and Latin America as well. That taught me that not everybody lives in a country where the government trusts you enough to loan you money to go to school. That’s a privilege and people often forget that. While it sucks to have a large amount of student loan debt, it’s also a privilege that the government trusted you enough to invest in your education. I lived in countries where that was not the case.
It gave me a unique experience. Doing service in all of those countries as well, I met so many different people that I connected with. It was an opportunity and a privilege to be in that many countries. When I came back to America, I, like many others, watched movies, read books, and thought, “New York City is the place to be.” I ended up going to college there and enjoyed my college experience but realized that if I was going to leverage any participation that my parents were going to have in my college education, I needed to be strategic because I planned to have multiple degrees.
For college, I got creative with how I was going to pay for school and ended up transferring from the initial school that I was admitted to so that I could go to another school that paid me to go to school eventually. I got scholarships the traditional way. I also leveraged the donor relations office, which is an office that not a lot of people know about. I also negotiated my financial aid package.
We’re going to talk about that in a little bit. Hold that thought. Shamil, what about you? Tell us a little bit about your path. How did you get to this point?
I was from the Northeast already. I’m from New Jersey. My story is a little different than Daphné’s. I didn’t know much about the college experience or what to do in terms of financing school. All I knew is that my parents were like, “You’re going to college. It’s going to help you income-wise.” It was a very financial decision. That was the way I was trained to come out. It was like, “If you go to college, life changes for you.” I was like, “That’s all I have to do.” “We didn’t cover how you paid for it and what does it look long-term if you don’t have those options, so if you don’t have that stuff figured out just yet.”
When I went to school, it was one of those times where banks had their tents lined up in a row. You would walk down the aisle and they were like, “You need to pay for this. Here, sign this loan. No problem. You have no job or credit history yet because you just came out of high school, no problem. We got you.” Unfortunately, that was my experience. Unlike Daphné, I didn’t know that I can negotiate my financial aid package. I didn’t know any of that stuff. I was happy to be there. I got to work hard, do what I could, and make sure that I locked in my career after that.
That was my objective because my parents worked terribly hard to put me in that position. I was not going to let that go to waste because my parents came from a different perspective where they were in places and positions where the government wasn’t going to give you the ability to go to school for free or pay for a loan and then have them back at for you. I had that mindset that was what I needed to do.
However, going through that experience and seeing what student loan debt can do to you if you don’t have a plan for it or how to finance your education, I was like, “This can’t happen to anyone else unless I share that information with them. It’s great to go to school, but you need to know how you’re going to finance it.” That was my motivation for getting involved with StartNoo. Something that stuck with me as we started to develop this idea and plan was, “How do I reverse the scholarship? Not everyone gets a full ride when they go to college.”
We were like, “What if you’re an amazing person after you go to school? What if you did your thing and now, you’re killing the game and doing what you need to do? Why not have the ability to help pay off your student loan debt while also helping the community?” That was how it came about from my perspective. Daphné and I met in school. That was how, like, “Go figure.” She sat in my seat, but the story is a little different from her perspective. We won’t get into that.
It’s not true. There are no assigned seats in college, ladies and gentlemen. You can sit wherever you want. It was the second day of class.
It gets shorter every time, Christine.
Few days have passed where somebody would say, “This is my seat.” If you can’t tell, I’m a type-A student. I graduated at the top of my class in high school. They call it high school in America. I graduated on top of most of my degrees. When I was in a class where the professor was not paying attention to my intellectual rigor, I noticed that it was because of where I was sitting. I was sitting at the top of the U on the right instead of sitting at the bottom of the U. He kept walking to the middle of the U, which is where perhaps Shamil may have been sitting.
She used to say, “Who is sitting there, this guy right here?”It's great to go to school, but you need to know how you're going to finance it. Click To Tweet
I arrived in class early, which is on time in college. I sat in the middle so that the professor could pay attention to me and it worked.
I’ll just decide. That’s how we met. After that, we started working together on projects and then we started dating and North from there.
Some of the people reading have a definition of what this financial aid crisis is. Can you guys boil it down and make it real for everybody who is reading? I don’t have kids in college anymore. Only one of my kids graduated with a four-year degree. One has a community college degree and one went to a year of school and was like, “It’s not for me,” which I applauded her for that. Put a box around what this financial aid crisis is in the United States.
We’re looking at over $1.7 trillion in student loan debt scattered across 45 million people. That’s the amount of borrowers that are leveraging and shouldering this debt. While not everybody has a six-figure student loan debt, it’s an interesting percentage of people because those make up the professionals that you go to for a lot of your key services like legal and medical services. A lot of those people are carrying a six-figure student loan debt.
There was an interesting article about a gentleman carrying over $1 million in student loan debt from dental school. It is a crisis in the sense that the cost of education has become so high. The percentage of growth has exceeded the percentage of how much people are getting paid in their entry-level jobs. What does that mean? How can you afford to pay for school if the value of your time isn’t worth what the cost of tuition is? That keeps increasing. What that means is that there’s a lot of education inequity that can result from that if we don’t take action ourselves.
Also, there are a lot of accountability with a lot of stakeholders. I don’t want to say that this is only the part of borrowers. It’s not at all. There’s a lot of institutional accountability that needs to be discussed, both on the university side and the government side. This is a complex problem. We’ve tried to unpack it by speaking to different people on the policy side and university side. We’re trying to find a consensus between these groups of people to get everybody on the table agreeing.
Meanwhile, we’re helping the actual people with student loan debt to bring it down because it can be an impediment from you starting the rest of your life. With a high student loan debt, are you going to be able to take out a mortgage to start a home and a family? Are you going to be able to take out that business loan to start the business of your dreams? There are a lot of implications that come from that weight that student loan debt holds. That’s the crisis that we’re talking about.
I offered that there’s another constituent in this whole mix and that’s employers. We’ve got entry-level positions that now say that if you’re going to work as a cashier in the mall, you have to have a Bachelor’s degree. Why do you need a Bachelor’s degree for it? It’s an incredibly complex issue and so is the use of nonprofits as a way of doing that. I sit on a number of boards and I’m very involved in philanthropy. The whole full philanthropic structure in the United States is under fire because of how it is set up. It’s out of whack, too.
You’ve got the nonprofits, students, and parents involved because not all student loan debts sit with a student. A lot of student loan debts sit with parents, too. You have employers and then you have policymakers. I love complex and multivariable negotiations. It’s one of my favorite things on the planet to do. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s motivating each of those constituents and what’s driving them.
Students and parents are probably the easiest ones to unpack because it’s more of a hardcore fiscal component. “I have X thousands of dollars in student loan debt. I mortgaged my house. There’s no more equity left in it. I took what I could to blood what I could out of my property to pay for education, but it still got debt. I don’t have anything left there. I can’t go into that.” Although maybe post-pandemic with real estate price is so high, you could but that bubble will burst, too, and then we’ll be in another situation because that’s the way the cycle works.
In your experience talking to policymakers, what’s driving their thinking around this? When we met, we were at a National Publicity Summit with Steven Harrison. I loved how you guys talked about it. Sometimes you would introduce your media pitch as, “We don’t believe that students should be overly burdened with financial debt, but we also don’t believe the taxpayers should be paying for it.” Talk a little bit about the different constituencies at the policy level and how that comes into play.
We’ve spoken to a lot of people in this space. On the policy side, there are different constituencies, think tanks, and organizations that are dedicated to proposing solutions. People often aren’t aware of how influential those groups are. They are setting the intellectual framework and thought leadership around the solutions that are eventually proposed to government officials.
There are actual constituents themselves and Shamil can talk all about this. Constituents drive. What your constituents want is what you are tasked with delivering to them. Because elected officials want to be re-elected, they are very interested in what their constituents have to say and how they vocalize it in an organized way. Shamil, I would love to see if you could expound on that.
One of the major points is we’ve seen a lot of people on either side of the aisle try to think of, “What are the creative ways that can be done without necessarily making it all a student issue or a government issue?” The middle ground that we’ve seen so far has been the community college level for figuring out how to make that more affordable or free for a certain period of time so that students can leverage that opportunity to take the next step or figure out what they want to do, making sure that they’re pursuing the degree that fits them.
Oftentimes, you might say you want a degree, but then once you go see what it’s like to work there, you might say, “That’s not for me.” That’s one area where you can save a lot of money because if you are going to community college and it’s free, then all of a sudden, now you didn’t set yourself back financially just to explore that opportunity. You still have credits where you can transfer it and then pursue a degree that fits your passion or field that you want to go into.
That’s something that I’ve seen that has been a big shift. There has been a common ground where the first two years of school or the idea of giving more financial aid where there’s this combination of government plus the actual motivation of the students to pursue the degree is a good and happy ground of where we are now.
I’m a huge proponent of community college. I was an unwed teen mom and homeless on welfare for almost a decade. I went to community college first and then got into a four-year school and ultimately earned my MBA from Harvard. The community college was the foundation. I live in California where community college is state-funded, which is an amazing thing. Our community college program is incredible here. I put some of our community colleges, Santa Monica Community College and Pasadena Community College, on par with some of the best four-year schools.
They have high successful transfer rates. People get great grades. You get a shocking number of students who are late bloomers. In this college access program that I’ve volunteered for and I’m on the board of, we work with a lot of first-generation students. Some of them are first-generation in the US, but most of them are first-generation to college. They don’t have anyone in their sphere of influence who has ever gone to college.
Community college can be a great alternative for them and their families because their parents are very concerned about their daughters going out of state or moving far away because there’s a cultural difference. We have to respect that cultural difference. They thrive there and then it opens so many other doors for them. I know you sat on the board of a community college.
I did when I was 23. Shortly after graduating from my undergrad, I got the blessing to serve on a community college board of trustees in the county where I grew up. I was able to, in some graduations, see people that I knew and family members and go to their graduations and be a part of it. I got to see front and center the benefits of going to a community college first. That’s why I speak about that subject so much and I’m passionate about it because I spent several years on that board understanding from the two perspectives.
I grew up in an urban environment that was very traditional of what a lot of people try to say about having a difficult time to get to wherever you want to go. What I learned from the board’s perspective and something that we’ve always been told is that education is a great pathway to set yourself up for success outside of whatever situation you were born into. It was great to see because we had a program while I was still there, where we had students that were coming in from high school that were high achievers.
They were recruiting them to say, “We know you’re a top performer. You can go to a four-year school right now and we understand that, but why don’t you come to this community college because, like yours in California, we believe it is a top-performing community college. We can get you a great base and foundation, save you and your family some money, and then you can kick off to all these lists of schools that we have partnerships with that know that you are here to step in that direction.”
That helps with the culture, too, of the community college for everybody else that’s going there that may not have been a high achiever, but they get to community college and realize that, “This is serious and not a joke. I’m here to change my life and make steps forward. No matter how long it takes me, whether it takes me an actual two years or a little bit longer, it doesn’t matter as long as I finish.” They set a good example on the migration from the two-year to the eventual degrees. Some of them got scholarships, if I’m not mistaken. I was not on the board, but I went to all the events and heard all the beautiful stories at these nice dinners.
I can’t remember exactly, but I do know that there are statistics that show that people who go to community college have a higher rate of completion of their four-year degree. They have higher GPAs than the people who start at four-year. They come out of their bachelor experience with a higher-paying job if they start at a community college. There are all sorts of evidence that suggests that community college is a much more effective way to go, but it’s a negotiation.
Our culture tells us in many cases that, “You’ve got to go to a four-year school.” It’s not only that, “You’ve got to go to the best four-year school.” You’ve got parents who are going house-poor and buying property in communities for a great education. That leads to a different debt structure. They’re overextended on their real estate so that they can try to set their kid up for getting into one of these great four-year schools when there are other alternatives.
In negotiation, one of the things we talk about is BATNA, the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. When you’re thinking about where to go to college and where you’re going to live, part of the conversation is, “What are all my alternatives?” Community college is a viable alternative for more people than those that realize it. It gives people leverage which then comes into what we’re going to talk about next.What your constituents want is what you are tasked with delivering to them. Click To Tweet
Daphné, I have to ask you. People get their financial aid packages. They get them in, let’s say, January or February. They’re seniors in high school or whatever it is because you get a new financial aid package every year. You negotiated your financial aid package. I love stories when people negotiate things that people are like, “What do you mean you can negotiate?” Tell us what possessed you to decide, “I’m going to go negotiate it?” How did you go about doing that?
My upbringing had a lot to do with that where my parents never accepted the status quo. I was born into a family of negotiators, not in their profession but in life. My mom negotiates everything, typical immigrant mom. If we walk into a store and she sees a piece of furniture called the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, she focuses on that suggested piece, tells the salesperson that there are other pricing options, and then will explain that to them until she speaks to a manager. We can go on. You should probably interview my mom because her stories of negotiation are cringeworthy.
I grew up with my father also not accepting the status quo of life where he lived and practiced, for example, in the United States for over 30 years. People would assume as an immigrant when you come to a country that the number one goal is to become an American citizen. For my dad, he was like, “That’s what you think, but that’s not what I think. I’m here for a specific purpose.” He maintained his citizenship and never changed it because that was important to him.
All of this was done legally. He was still able to exist and operate without accepting what’s told to you as an immigrant coming to the United States. Those two examples were my foundation of you don’t have to accept what’s given to you. Also, as a child, I read a lot of John Grisham. That may have played a role. I’ve read all of his books. I’m a huge John Grisham fan. John Grisham, if you’re reading, I’ve read all of your books and hope to be a co-author with you one day.
We’ll make sure we tag him in this episode.
Please do. I would pass out if John Grisham included me. Reading John Grisham and having my parents as negotiators in their own ways and professions set me up for looking at the world and not taking it as it’s given to me and assessing everything that’s given. I did get into my number one choice university, but the financial aid package was not my number one choice. They only funded me at 50% of the total tuition costs.
For me, because I graduated at the top of my class, I didn’t think that was acceptable, even though this was one of the top universities in the United States. Know your worth is something that we talk about a lot with StartNoo. I thought that my worth was worth more than half of the tuition of this top school. One day, I walked into another university, came in with my transcript, gave it to them, and said, “What do you get for me?”
They gave me something that I then went back to the other university and haggled with both of them until I was able to come out with a package. That package was still not perfect on my end. I leveraged the donor relations office to complete what I thought was complete funding of my education. The benefit of that was that every year, it increased. Eventually, I got paid to go to school.
Tell us about this donor relations element because that is something that almost nobody reading has ever even thought about, heard of, or knows anything about. That’s a cornerstone of what StartNoo is all about. It’s how to leverage community service as a way of helping to pay for your student loans or fund your education.
The donor relations office, which is named slightly differently at every school, is an arm usually of the endowment fund of the school or an alumni foundation of some sort. They are the people who are lobbying or raising money for different tuition and scholarship opportunities. Their job is to manage relationships with donors, whether those donors are alumni or not. My second university, the one where we ended up meeting, had this office. I walked in, introduced myself, and asked, “What scholarships do you have? Who do you have that’s a donor who might be interested in my profile?”
Before going to them, I was very crystal clear on who I was, what my brand statement was, what I wanted to eventually contribute to the world, and why I was a good investment for somebody to donate to towards. They matched me up with specific donors. All I had to do was do well in school, show up at the end of the year at a nice fancy dinner, write a thank you card, and speak to these successful people.
It was a win-win on my part. It grew my network. I’m so blessed to have a strong network of very successful people. A lot of that is due to St John’s University, the donor relations office, and my eventual induction into the President’s Society. Those opportunities that the university gave me and I took advantage of allowed me to create a network and also go to school.
One of the things I talk about when I teach negotiations is that one of the most important things that anyone can do is be clear on what it is that they want and have a clear understanding of what your worth and value are. It’s in that clarity that you get power in the negotiation. That’s where leverage comes from, your ability to say, “I’m so clear on what it is that I want. You, counterpart A, aren’t able to give it to me. That’s fine. I respect that. It’s just not a fit.”
You can go to person B or counterpart B and they can give you a little bit more. Sometimes you can play them against each other and they can eke out some more to give you. Having that clarity gives you the ability and power to say yes and no. When we don’t have that clarity, then we can get moved in any direction or if we are focused on one thing and not clear about the whole picture like, “Am I just focused on the money or are there other factors that aren’t monetary that are also important?”
Having that understanding is critical, which it sounds like that was something that you did because you used some of that language around being clear on what your worth and value are. You operate in New Jersey. You have some stuff in Florida. How are you discovering nonprofits to work with and bringing them into your network?
The nonprofits that we’ve been involved in historically were recommendations a lot from some of our student users. They had done community service somewhere and they said, “We would like to onboard this nonprofit,” and then we have a conversation with them. We’re talking foundation to foundation because we’ve pivoted, but I’ll get there in a little bit.
The other source was pro bono. Perhaps I did pro bono for a nonprofit. I helped form them and I was like, “If you’re interested, there’s this opportunity where you could find help because you’re struggling and you don’t have skills.” That’s another opportunity. When we were smaller, we’ve since pivoted to focus on more of a university model. Shamil can talk more about that. That’s going to be the center of how nonprofits get engaged is by a connection to a specific university. That’s where you’re going to find the specific skillset for your nonprofit. Shamil, go ahead.
We had some presence in South Florida, DC, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. We were scattered throughout the country, but what we have shifted to is a campus-based ecosystem. What we’re doing now is we’ve shifted the model completely. To participate in the program, you have to bring your university onboard to StartNoo because there are a lot of stakeholders here and they’re all involved. We need to make sure that they are all playing a part in this program to make it work because we see ourselves as a tool to have in your toolkit to help you finance your education.
If you’re an alumnus, we also see ourselves as a reverse scholarship to help you pay on those student loans. We’ve shifted the focus to now be campus-based. If you go to StartNoo and create your account, you can search for your university or college and then you can sign a petition to bring them onto StartNoo’s platform. That’s how you’ll get going.
For nonprofits, nonprofits get engaged by finding out, “Which universities are onboarded? Are they in my area?” If they’re not in your area, then you can also petition for them to be involved.
That’s different because I was checking out the website. That’s interesting. If somebody who is reading is running a nonprofit or is a director on a board, they could go to your website and look to see what university is in their geography that are part of the program and then do it that way. With the pandemic and so many people working virtually now, I know in all the nonprofits that I’m involved with, everyone has gone virtual. If you want to talk about not having an organization, so you do not want to have to pay for rent, that is going to be nonprofit. I negotiated, I reduced our rent by 74%. How does that come into play? Are you requiring people to be geographically located with the nonprofits?
Service opportunities are virtual. All opportunities have the option of being virtual. There is no geographic tie for the actual experience to happen, but the connection allows for you to have a better idea of what skillset you’re going to be offered. Any nonprofit can sign up, but you’re not sure if the skillset that you’re looking for you’re going to find. What tends to happen we’ve noticed on the job market is that universities tend to prepare students for the jobs in the area.
As a nonprofit, if you’re located somewhere, let’s say you focus on farming, you’re not going to find the student of your dreams to help you with irrigation in New York City. It’s going to be located at a university closer to you. That’s why we’re encouraging this model. It’s not that nonprofits can’t open up an opportunity virtually and students can’t help from anywhere. That’s still an option. It’s better suited for you, as a nonprofit, to find students in a university close to you. That skillset is most applicable to you.
How do people find you?
You’re starting to launch this new program to increase the number of universities and colleges involved. Tell us a little bit about that and how our audience can help support you.Education is a great pathway to set yourself up for success outside of whatever situation you were born into. Click To Tweet
The best way to get involved with StartNoo is to find out if your university is onboarded. If they are, great, if they’re not onboarded yet, you can petition your school to join. You go to StartNoo, search for your university, and then find them on a listing. If they’re not on board, there’s an option for you to petition your school.
When you finish doing that, if you’re looking for some extra cash, becoming a campus ambassador or campus manager might be a good opportunity for you. If you’re a campus manager and you’re accepted, there’s an opportunity to get $1,000 if your university is onboarded. That’s what we’re offering to the user base. If you guys are interested, visit us at StartNoo.com.
Shamil and Daphné, it has been an honor having you. I have enjoyed this conversation. I want to thank you very much for taking the time to be here. To everyone who is reading, you know that I love you guys. I love doing this show and sharing this information with you. I appreciate those of you who have clicked, subscribed, have rated, reviewed, and are sharing your time with us because it is your most valuable resource.
As you all know, my view on negotiation, negotiation is a conversation about a relationship. You cannot win a relationship but you can get more value out of it. Go get more value out of your negotiations and build those stronger relationships. We will see you next time on our next episode of the show. Have a great day, everyone. Thank you, Shamil and Daphné.
Thank you, Christine.