Two-point-five billion. It’s a big number, and one that is top of mind for Tala CEO and Founder Shivani Siroya. This is how many people around the world don’t have a credit score or are financially underserved, and it’s this number that Siroya and her Santa Monica–based company are working to chip away at each day, with efforts currently focused on the emerging markets of East Africa and Southeast Asia.
Founded in 2012, Tala (formerly InVenture) is a mobile technology and data science startup that has developed software providing these very people with a real-time financial identity, providing a credit score as well as loans to people in emerging markets who may not have been provided access otherwise. Its founder Siroya, 32, originally from India and raised in the U.S., always knew she wanted to do something with emerging markets. After finishing grad school studying econometrics and health economics at Columbia, she headed to the United Nations Population Fund, where she got a firsthand education in how emerging markets worked. She also learned where there was a gap.
Banks and institutions have not created credit products for populations in developing countries, as people in these countries are perceived to be risky since there is no record of their financial history. This is because everything they spend is in cash, in a system based on trust. So Siroya set out on a mission while working at the UN Population Fund: She was going to try to understand what was happening in terms of the movement of money in these markets. “I became a walking QuickBooks,” she says, interviewing thousands of people from morning to night to see how much they were spending each day, and what they were spending it on.
It’s a reoccurring theme with Siroya; exhaustive, extensive research fueled by passion.
LinkedIn to a Solution
Starting a company was never Siroya’s goal. “I didn’t do this to start a company. I did this to solve a problem.” Her approach was to learn as much about this problem as she possibly could, which began with sending 1,500 messages on LinkedIn.
“I talked to anyone and everyone who would talk to me.” After a few of these phone calls she knew she had something big on her hands, with people telling her, “This is a problem. We agree with you. You should start it!”
“I didn’t do this to start a company. I did this to solve a problem.”
And so she did, with Chris Sacca and Lowercase Capital coming on board to lead their seed round in 2013. Fast forward a few short years and Tala already has done over 200,000 loans in Kenya and mapped almost half of the country’s population of 44 million people. The platform collects 10,000 mobile data points per customer to build a credit score and determine whether someone would be a good borrower, taking into account things like what time of day someone makes the most phone calls to how many contacts that person speaks to on a regular basis. “This is daily life data,” she says. “This isn’t the way that FICO works in terms of looking only at your previous payment history from three or five years ago. This is about what you did yesterday.”
In fact, this is what makes Tala’s solution so compelling. So compelling, Siroya says, that “governments are now starting to wake up as a result of the work we are doing.”
“I do think that as companies like ours show that outside the U.S. these types of credit scoring methods are more fair and working just as well, then governments will change them.”
Siroya is grateful that Tala is based in Santa Monica, with its mix of tech and lifestyle. In fact, Tala’s CTO Johnny Lee recently left Apple to join the company. “People in San Francisco are starting to realize that it’s really expensive to live there,” she says, while Santa Monica is a great place to live where “there is really cool, innovative stuff…happening.”
It was not a foregone conclusion that her company would get its start when it did. Elizabeth Clarkson, Managing Director/COO of SAP Ventures, gave her some of the best advice she received when starting out. When Siroya was ready to leave her day job and go full force into Tala, she got her to step back and think about practical matters. Clarkson told her, “You can’t put all of your time and resources into starting this if you’re also worried about living.” She took Clarkson’s advice and made sure to have enough to cover her rent and living expenses before taking the leap.
Westside Workplace Values
Times have changed, and Tala is making its mark in the world. All three of its offices – Santa Monica HQ, Nairobi, and Manila – embrace the company’s credo that includes three core values: care, individuality, and speed. You can see this in the company’s hires as well as its day-to-day workings.
“[G]overnments are now starting to wake up as a result of the work we are doing.”
“We do little things as a startup, including peer bonuses,” says Siroya. She adds that all offices are focused on prioritizing a healthy lifestyle despite long hours.
To that end, the Slack app has become a valuable asset. “Every ten minutes somebody on the team is called out with a workout,” she says. “It’ll say, ‘John, ten burpees,’ and he has to get up from his desk and do ten burpees right at that moment. Then someone else gets called out, with ten sit-ups.”
Individuality of employees is also highly valued. “Our team is really quirky…you’ve got an engineer that plays the guitar and sings, and another who is a badminton champion.”
Everyone in the office is working toward the same goal: giving people around the world the power of choice and control over their financial lives. In fact, one of the comments on the Tala website’s Wall of Love, an unfiltered place for customer feedback, read, “This is the Kenya we want.”
“To hear that kind of praise doesn’t have to do with the service we are providing,” she says. “It has [more] to do with the fact that you feel heard and you feel seen by our product.” And that, she says, is gratifying. “This is that mix of how you can use technology and really serve a local need and make it feel like this is theirs and not a Western company coming in and trying to fix a problem.”
Still, there is certainly a learning curve starting a new company. “The biggest challenge is doing this for the first time and applying best practices and depending on reliable sources who are close to you,” she says.
Siroya is undaunted by gaps in her knowledge; she surrounds herself with those with applicable experience. “I’ve had to level up,” she acknowledges and continues to seek out advisors that are relevant to her work.
She also looks to other female tech CEO, like Payal Kadakia, co-founder and CEO of ClassPass, for inspiration. “Payal followed her passion and turned it into a business,” Siroya says. “She found a problem she wanted to solve and solved it.”
Siroya is just as passionate now as she was when the company was founded, and she will keep going until the problem is solved. “What gets me super excited is that we actually see that our customers’ lives are changing,” she says.
As an added bonus, Santa Monica provides a lovely backdrop to the important work being done. “The sunsets are unbelievable, the fact that we can walk out of our office, and look at that during our breaks … makes us feel pretty lucky that we get to work here while working on something we’re all passionate about.”