Many of us take our credit scores—or the fact that we have them—for granted. Credit is the vehicle to financial stability and growth, yet 3 billion people around the world are currently financially underserved.
Shivani Siroya founded Tala—a tech startup providing micro-loans to entrepreneurs in the developing world—to address this disparity. Not only has Shivani paired her passion for social impact with her tech entrepreneurship, she’s disrupting the entire fin-tech industry with an unparalleled strategy: Analyze credit-seeker’ smartphones with an app that will determine how creditworthy they are. By generating data—texts, emails, GPS coordinates, social-media posts, retail receipts, and so on—Tala’s Android app is able to study a person’s smartphone behavior (literally down to obscure variables like how frequently a user recharges the phone’s battery, how many incoming text messages they receive, how many miles they travel in a given day or how they enter contacts into their phone) and use the data to predict the likeliness of a loan being repaid. Currently Tala’s repayment rate is 92 percent and the platform has reached 2.5 million people globally. Suffice to say, Shivani’s creating the blueprint to something special—something with scale, impact, and the potential to stimulate wealth everywhere. It comes as no surprise that Tala’s 2018 was explosive.
The long and short of it: Add Shivani to your CEO-inspo moodboard STAT.
Can you explain your company and your mission with Tala to our readers?
Tala’s mission is to expand financial access, choice, and control to the 3 billion people who are financially underserved around the world. Through Tala’s Android application, anyone with an Android smartphone in our markets can apply for a loan and receive an instant decision, anytime and anywhere, regardless of their financial history, so they can access customized financial services to take care of business costs, family expenses, and school fees.
And this is only our beginning—our mission doesn't end at opening access, we’ve added in financial tips and will be launching additional products this year to keep putting our customers in charge of their own financial lives.
Tell us a little about the impact Tala has on women and small business owners living in underserved financial communities.
Jenipher, an entrepreneur in her 60s, was one of our earliest customers in Kenya. She ran a food stall in Nairobi’s Central Business District and used Tala loans as working capital, to purchase ingredients in bulk for lower costs. Eventually, with the credit history we helped her build, she was able to walk into a commercial bank and secure a small business loan to support her dream of opening a restaurant. Our mission is to co-build a financial system where stories like Jenipher’s become the new reality. Our lending product opens access to financial services for a class of emerging consumers with potential that only needs to be proven.
If there is one thing you could tell our readers about Tala, what would it be and why?
Building Tala has taught me the importance of knowing and understanding your customers and their entire daily life. There’s a misconception that the people we serve are akin to non-profit beneficiaries and not a viable customer base; in actuality, they are consumers capable of being economic catalysts with significant purchasing power and reading and consuming the same content that we do. But there is no way I would have learned this without spending years living and working alongside them, learning about their personal lives and dreams for their families, and seeing them take action to make their goals a reality.
I’m also excited to share that we’re hiring! If our mission piques your interest, or if you’re ready to fix finance for over 3 billion people around the world, we’re waiting for you. See our global openings at Tala.co/careers.
You’re using your financial background to launch world-changing tech. What is your advice for women wanting to take the leap from an industry like finance to technology?
The opportunity presented by a world like tech is that it is a space where diverse interests can thrive. Though imperfect, this era of “disruption” means that there’s likely a group of people working on solving a problem you’re interested in—do your research and go out and find them! I also encourage you to find mentors that can help you learn the dynamics of the new industry, and join communities you can contribute to and grow with. Most importantly, have confidence in your abilities and your value. Trust that you have something unique to offer your new industry, and work hard to show it!
How important is it for women in tech to build communities surrounding their brands and how has it influenced you and your work with Tala?
For women in tech, starting a new venture can be exciting, yet lonely and difficult. A community can serve as a much-needed constant in a journey that’s likely to be unpredictable.
I fully believe that community is the key to sustainable success. My family taught me the importance of being there for others, and I love sharing ideas and helping others make connections, as I’ve benefited from the help and advice others have given me.
The fellowships and communities I’ve joined are spaces where I can safely share ideas and best practices with peers going through similar hurdles. By serving as some of my first sounding boards, they’ve helped me build my platform as Tala and I have grown.
Community was a significant topic for the Tala team in 2018; we incorporated it within our team offsite, in our speaker series, in community events for our customers and also in community outreach events here in Santa Monica.
You’ve raised one of the largest series b by a woman. When did you realize you had a product to pitch to investors? What steps did it take to get you there?
We actually didn’t start by pitching. An investor heard my story and traction and through that process, our round came together. To get to a point where we were ready to take on investment, our small, scrappy team had already spent a significant amount of time in our markets, making sure we understood our customers, their lives, and their needs and tweaking our product offering in response. We each wore the hat of customer service advocate to make sure we were attentive to how customers were experiencing the product. When an investment opportunity presented itself, we knew immediately where we needed to focus the funds.
Since then, we’ve learned to view funding rounds in relation to our learnings goals, from developing our data models in series A to scaling the business in series C. I always think of funding rounds as a mirror to what’s happening internally—it is the best way to get lots of feedback on your business at once. It’s important to listen and ask for feedback even if you get a no—because you’ll always come out stronger.
Any advice for women looking to take their tech to the table to raise series A or B? What was the biggest difference between the two series for you?
My advice is to do your homework and own the narrative! I cannot overstate the importance of knowing your business’s unit economics, knowing the ins and outs of your market, your customers, and your approach to the opportunity you’re addressing.
Our fundraising strategy always parallels what we are looking for in board members and advisors, and plans for the capital.
What is one app you can’t live without and why?
Whatsapp. I know it’s one that everyone uses—but for me, it’s my lifeline to keeping in touch with my family in India. We have probably over 50 different groups WhatsApp chats going at a time and it always makes me feel like we’re connected even if we’re not seeing each other in person for months.
When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find a new road + switch gears to find success?
I remember the problem our team set out to solve and the people we’re solving it for. Our customers and our mission are my consistent north star, and honing in on them are extremely helpful. I have also embraced the importance of taking time off to recharge and spend time with friends and family—last year, I hiked Mount Batur, and the rigor of the experience and doing it along with close friends provided refreshment and energizing clarity.
What are you most excited for in 2019?
Our team experienced a significant amount of growth in 2018—new teammates, new product features, new markets, and increased fervor and clarity towards fulfilling our vision. In 2019, I‘m excited to see how the 2018 foundation that we set will help us create more momentum globally and excited to see us take on some very new audacious experiments and product launches!
What about your job makes you feel the most fulfilled?
I’m most energized by meeting our customers, hearing their stories of what they’ve been able to accomplish with Tala, and getting their feedback on the product.
It’s just as rewarding to hear that someone used their Tala loan to open a cyber cafe in their community, as it is to hear that same person ask us to create a forum so they can trade entrepreneurial tips with other Tala customers. This tells me that what our team has built is not only working but that our customers trust us enough to share their ideas with us and with each other.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Before founding Tala, an earlier boss encouraged me to “figure it out” after I shared that the data I needed for a four-month project did not exist—and I was already out of the country and needed to return to our team with answers. Being confronted with an information gap that needed to be closed led to me starting Tala and finding out about the problem that we’re focused on solving.
What’s been the biggest surprise or highlight of your career to date?
I never expected to be an entrepreneur – I set out to solve a problem and this was the right path to get to my goal. This perspective has helped me keep a clear focus on our mission, though I occasionally have to pinch myself when I see how fast our team is growing.
What’s your superpower?
Challenging my limits. I love high-intensity workouts and strength training because there’s power in learning that I’m capable of lifting two or three times my body weight—it all comes back to believing that you’ve got that power within you to take on something new. It’s a lot easier to walk into a daunting meeting with potential investors or speak at a large conference when you’ve started your morning by accomplishing what once seemed impossible.
Photography by Annie McElwain Photography
Photoshoot skincare provided by Dermalogica