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USA Real Estate Blog

This Founder’s Journaling Obsession Made Tala an $800 Million Business

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Shivani Siroya is transforming the lending market in developing countries. Just don’t call her an introvert.

Photos: Graham Walzer

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Shivani Siroya, the founder and CEO of fintech startup Tala, doesn’t need a lecture on how credit works from her Uber driver, but that’s exactly what she’s getting one sunny September morning on the way to her Santa Monica office. “It’s best to spread debt over three cards,” explains the driver, a thirtysomething actor type with a smoky voice who has thoroughly inserted herself into the interview I’m trying to conduct in the back seat. Siroya, 37, who’s as petite as she is precise in gesture and speech, listens thoughtfully while stroking Sadie, the massive goldendoodle who often accompanies Siroya or her husband, Chet Devaskar, a lawyer at YouTube, to work. “What did you do before you worked for Uber?” Siroya asks our driver with genuine curiosity. As the driver launches into a long angry rant about her former work in the wholesale lending industry, Siroya is leaning forward, attentively, despite the fact that she’s practically a lending savant.

Siroya founded her company in 2011 to lend to customers in developing countries who traditional banks won’t help. With backing from heavyweights like PayPal, Chris Sacca’s Lowercase Capital (who bet early and big on Twitter, Instagram, and Uber), and Revolution Growth, Tala has delivered over $1 billion in small unsecured loans to more than 4 million people in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, and has more than 500 employees around the world. This August, a $110 million Series D investment round led by RPS Ventures lifted the company’s valuation to an estimated $800 million. With Tala’s rise to the top of the microloans space, Siroya has become a familiar face in fintech, regularly evangelizing her mission to “democratize finance” at tech and business conferences. On these stages, she stands out, not only for being a rare woman — and person of color — helming a financial startup, but for her unique brand of quiet, introspective leadership.

At work, Siroya’s desk is cluttered with sloth-themed tchotchkes and plushies that employees have given her on birthdays. She calls the slowest mammal her “spirit animal,” which seems an odd choice for the energetic founder of a fast-growing company who likes to do hip-hop yoga in the mornings. When I ask Siroya if she considers herself an introvert, she thinks for two blinks before answering in her measured, mellifluous voice. “I wouldn’t call it that,” she says. “I’d call it reflective and aware. I think if I was an introvert, I’d only sit in an office. I love connecting with our team, and that connection is what makes me extroverted. It’s at once deeply emotional and therapeutic.”

How Siroya has managed to grow Tala into a financial force has much to do with her well-developed capacity for reflection, as well as her childhood, which was split between Rajasthan, India, and Brooklyn, New York. “Growing up between India and New York, I was always aware of how similar the people were, but how one country had so little, the other so much,” Siroya tells me at a shaded picnic table outside Tala’s no-frills office building. “We all had the same potential, just not the same access. So I always wanted to figure out, how do we equal the playing field, give everyone the same tools, so each person can choose for themselves how to direct their life? I was definitely dreaming and thinking about things.” Every day, she would write about her ideas in her journal, a gift from her father.

In 2006, Siroya became disillusioned with her first post-college job as an analyst at the wealth management firm UBS. This was when she took her first step toward solving the playing-field problem she’d been thinking about since high school (between ruminations on possible future careers as a shoe designer, a newspaper editor, or at Doctor Without Borders). Siroya quit her investment banking job and joined the United Nations Population Fund, where she studied the benefits of microcredit programs. Over the next two-and-a-half years, Siroya recorded the habits of 3,500 people across sub-Saharan Africa and India — following her subjects to work, the market, and home again to tally what they spent on food, education, and bills, as well as how much went under the mattress. Siroya’s work gave her evidence to support what she’d believed since childhood: The vast majority of people could be trusted to make smart financial decisions. Yet, Siroya’s study subjects couldn’t get credit to grow their businesses and better their lives because banks saw them as high-risk. So in her spare time, Siroya began loaning her own money to some of her new friends, basing her lendees’ creditworthiness on the trove of information she’d documented about them. The daily life data she was collecting told Siroya everything she needed to know: Did they pay their bills on time? Go to work every day? Invest in continuing education to better their lives? These factors, Siroya believed, revealed more than a credit score about trustworthiness. Seven years and several journals later, in 2013, she launched the precursor to Tala.

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