I’m happy to announce that I recently joined Cuenca as Head of Strategy & Corporate Development. After three years focused on advising and investing in startups, I’m making a foray back to the operating side and I wanted to write a quick post on the journey that brought me here and why I am so excited to build the future of inclusive fintech with Matin and the entire Cuenca team.
First, a little about me and how does an American-born Chinese (Taiwanese) end up finding her vocation in Latin American fintech?
My grandparents fled China during its civil war and my parents later emigrated from Taiwan to the US also seeking better opportunities. While my father was able to join his brothers in studying engineering in the US, my mother gave up her university studies as well as leaving behind the rest of her family. Despite starting anew, they figured things out, eventually getting five kids through college thanks to hard work, long hours, resourcefulness, resilience and, not the least of which, financial aid. I attended Pepperdine University on a combination of student loans plus academic and need-based scholarships. It’s always been important for me to be able to pay forward the opportunities that I was afforded to get where I am.
For the first decade of my career, I attempted to scratch this itch for impact through community service projects on the evenings and weekends in addition to my work in large multinationals such as American Airlines (AA) and UBS. One of the more complex projects I worked on was a joint business between AA, British Airways and Iberia, where I ended up learning a bit of Spanish while traveling to Madrid every couple of weeks. Once we finished the project, and having learned a tremendous amount about how to bring together 700 sales people from very strong and diverse national and organizational cultures, I was curious to see what else was out there and was directed towards IE Business School’s 13-month MBA. There could not have been a program better designed for me with its focus on technology, entrepreneurship and social impact, which were areas that I had always been interested in but not had the opportunity to work in directly.
During the master’s program, I participated in a two-month social impact fellowship in Peru. What I learned that summer in 2014 was that there was literally a whole other world and way of working that was completely different to anything I had known. The opportunity to develop new skillsets, challenge my leadership style and explore personal growth while working on a completely different problem set in a distinct cultural setting were intriguing to me. In particular, I was keen to see if there was a way to apply the experience I had gained in the corporate arena in a way that felt more impactful to me. What if there was a way to leverage what I knew in order to help build things that might help provide opportunities for future generations? With this in mind, a couple of months after graduating from IE, I moved to Mexico in May of 2015.
Since then, I’ve worked on different aspects of the Latam startup ecosystem, culminating the past few years in advising and investing in startups via Startupbootcamp Scale FinTech Mexico City, IGNIA and Rally Cap Ventures. Through this work, Matin and I ran into each other a handful of times, first while I was the Managing Director for Startupbootcamp and later on a panel at Lendit Fintech Conference in San Francisco. It was unusual and admirable that an Iranian-born, East Coast (US)-raised, Silicon-Valley experienced tech founder would move to Mexico City just to tackle one of the region’s toughest problems – lack of access to financial services for the majority of the population. So when Matin originally approached me a couple of years ago about joining Cuenca, I was flattered but it wasn’t the right moment. The second time around was just before COVID hit and, as everyone, all plans were put on hold. Third time is a charm – why am I joining Cuenca and why now?
Over the past several years, I’ve been lucky enough to work with nearly 20 early-stage founding teams and what always stands out to me is passion, vision and execution, and here is how I see that show up in Cuenca:
Passion. When a founder has lived through the pain of the problem, you know they will not rest until it is solved. Cuenca is working on a problem that Matin lived through personally, having arrived to the US as an undocumented immigrant at the age of six and not having access to the financial system. At Cuenca, we are all deeply motivated and extremely passionate about building Latin America’s super app to improve access to financial services for the underserved majority. The offer letter I received from Matin opened with “it’s expensive to be poor”. It’s true, and we are going to change this. Not having access to financial services is hard enough. You shouldn’t be constantly penalized with high fees and friction on top of that.
Vision. Cuenca’s vision is to be the super app for the un(der)banked across Latin America. In a region where on average 50% are unbanked and there is high distrust of financial institutions, a bank account is not necessarily something that people aspire to. It is a means to an end. Most of us just want to be able to achieve our life goals and financial services can and should be an enabler of that. Part of my role will be to enable strategic partnerships with other fintechs and financial institutions so that via Cuenca, you can save, trade, borrow and send money – whatever you need to help you reach your life goals.
Execution. Over the past three years, Matin and team have immersed themselves not only in thoroughly understanding the existing landscape as well as how to build a company that challenges the status quo while growing and scaling sustainably. From the regulatory, product and tech aspects, Cuenca has taken an extraordinarily thoughtful approach and executed accordingly, recently becoming the first operating neobank to receive its approval letter from the CNBV for the fintech license.
This is stacked on top of a remarkable strong company culture. Something that stood out to me throughout the interview process was seeing how values such as ownership, accountability, humility, diversity and a passion for Mexico have been visibly integrated in the way of working. I also heard throughout various conversations with team members that at Cuenca, you have to move fast while still focusing on doing things the right way from the outset. I am a big believer that speed, quality and integrity are not mutually exclusive, although to execute upon this well can be elusive. With a team that is aligned to this mindset, anything is possible.
As I come upon my six-year anniversary of moving to Mexico, I reflect upon the very reasons why I came here: to apply my skills and experience in a way that drives impact. It feels pretty amazing that at Cuenca I will be doing just that – working to serve the underbanked population and enabling them to achieve their life goals.
In terms of the sector, as mentioned at the start of this post, so much has happened within the fintech space over the past few years but this is just the beginning! While there are a variety of products in the market, there is also a huge opportunity and long ways to go as we remember that almost 50% of people remain unbanked while incumbents have little incentive to change and the digitalization and e-commerce in the region continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Competition is a forcing function for differentiation and I am positive that when we look back in a few years, we will see 2021 as the inflection point in which the winning companies rose to the challenge of building out concrete and sustainable value propositions for the benefit of our customers.
On a personal note, I’m pleased to mention that I will continue my role as venture partner at Rally Cap, a global community of angel investors focused on early-stage fintech in emerging markets. Working with and investing in startups is what I most enjoy and I appreciate Matin’s support of other initiatives I’m passionate about. As the world of VC is also experiencing a sea change, with a focus on getting more diverse investors into decision-making roles as well as the rise of founder / operator-investors, I am looking forward to how this new adventure with Cuenca will allow me to not only apply what I’ve learned investing in early-stage fintechs over the past few years as well as further honing my abilities to truly add value to for the founders I work with.
Just as my grandparents and parents left their homes to seek new opportunities, of which I was the beneficiary, I’m honored and excited to work with Matin, Bibiana, Denise and the rest of the Cuenca team in building the financial super app for Spanish-speaking Latam so that others might also create new opportunities for themselves and future generations.
Join the Cuenca movement and feel free to reach out if you want to learn more!