For the last 15 years, Shivani Siroya has been laser focused on extending financial services to the world’s unbanked. As an analyst at the United Nations, she interviewed 3,500 people in sub-Saharan and West Africa about how they earned, spent and saved money. In 2011, Siroya used what she learned in the field to found Tala, a fintech company that uses smartphone data to extend loans to people with little or no borrowing history in Mexico, the Philippines, Kenya and India.
In 2020, Tala was inching towards expanded offerings—midway through the year it launched a debit card in Mexico—when the coronavirus pandemic laid bare the need for a better digital infrastructure for the world’s underserved banking customers.
“Because of the severity of the lockdown in the Philippines, people were physically not even able to go and get their cash,” Siroya told Forbes, explaining that Tala customers who were receiving money from family overseas were having trouble leaving their homes to collect the remittances. For Siroya, who is also Tala’s CEO, the moment made clear the need to give her customers “a digital account where they could access their money whenever they needed to.”
In May of this year, Tala took a step towards this goal, announcing a partnership with Visa and crypto company Circle that allows Tala customers to send, receive and hold “stablecoin” cryptocurrency. And on Thursday, the company took another, even bigger step towards the robust future Siroya envisions: Tala is announcing that it has raised a $145 million Series E round of funding, an infusion of capital that Siroya will use to grow Tala’s account offerings and crypto capabilities.
The round brings Tala’s total funding to $350 million and values the company at $800 million (a figure that is roughly unchanged from its 2019 valuation). It was led by fintech company Upstart with participation from the Stellar Development Foundation, an open-source cryptocurrency platform that aims to speed and streamline financial transactions around the world. Existing investors IVP, Revolution Growth, and Lowercase Capital also participated in the round. And as part of the raise, Paul Gu, Upstart’s cofounder, and Denelle Dixon, the CEO and executive director of the Stellar Development Foundation, have joined Tala’s board of directors.
Siroya says she went the operator route with the Series E rather than a traditional venture-led round because of the expertise that Upstart and Stellar stand to lend Tala as the company develops its technologies. Upstart “had an ability to help us on the data science side, on the operating side in terms of thinking about their IPO journey, and on the capital markets and credit experience side,” she said. “That’s why we also brought in Stellar; as we think about the product roadmap, how do we also enhance that?”
Stellar CEO Dixon sees Tala’s presence in emerging markets and mission to increase financial inclusion among the world’s poorest populations as consistent with her own goal to shift the world’s financial infrastructures from serving the few to the many. “Bank accounts are hard to come by,” Dixon told Forbes. “I’ve always thought that having their [digital] wallet be on Stellar—and be able to leverage the fast, affordable, secure payment rails that Stellar offers with Tala’s user base—could expand their reach.”
For all the talk of crypto and digital rails, Siroya notes that Tala isn’t immediately going to ask its customers to start investing in and trading cryptocurrencies; instead, this current phase of development is focused on using crypto technology on the back end to improve Tala’s account infrastructure. An ideal use case, Siroya says, would involve a Tala customer who previously needed to rely on a physical location, like a 7-11, to retrieve a money transfer instead managing the entire experience from their phone. Not only would this be faster—Siroya estimates that retrievals take anywhere between 24 and 48 hours in the current remittance world—but it would be cheaper, too.
“In the future, our customers can actually receive that remittance directly into the Tala account. They wouldn’t have to pay any additional cash out fee,” she said. “And then the last thing is that, because they’re receiving it directly in our account, we can offer them yield.”
It’s an ambitious vision, but Siroya, after watching Tala’s lending volumes dip at the height of Covid lockdowns and then recover to its pre-pandemic level of $60 million per month, is feeling energized.
“We’ve had over six and a half million customers access our credit products already,” she says. “And so at this point, we really feel like we are in a unique position to leverage all of that work that we’ve done on the infrastructure and supply chain side to move beyond credit.”
with reporting assistance from Jeff Kauflin