This Founder’s Journaling Obsession Made Tala an $800 Million Business
Shivani Siroya is transforming the lending market in developing countries. Just don’t call her an introvert.
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.
Tala’s model is built around what Siroya dubs “radical trust.” Customers share their cellphone data with Tala, and, in return, gives them an unsecured, short-term loan. To get a Tala loan, customers with an Android phone can download the app, fill out a brief application, and give Tala permission to go through their data. Once Tala verifies that the applicant is the device owner, important information is gleaned from the apps they use, bill payments they’ve made, and certain behavioral data like the time of day they make the most phone calls. (For example, in Kenya, nighttime callers are considered less risky because this is the most expensive calling time, so these customers likely have more liquidity.) Once approved, a fee of around 5% is charged and a loan of $10 to $500 (sometimes up to $1,000) is sent instantly to the customer. Loans must be repaid in 21 to 30 days; if customers don’t pay it back, they don’t get another one. But here’s the thing: They almost always do. Tala’s repayment rate is above 90%.
For its part, Tala promises to encrypt the info, not share it with third parties, and to guard against implicit algorithmic bias on factors like a customer’s gender, race, religion, location, or sexual orientation. When the team spots factors that might be biasing, like the number of vowels in an applicant’s name or the number of languages they speak, those factors are discarded, notes Siroya. “There are few regulations around what can be used right now, so we need to set a high bar,” she says.
Siroya has also learned to listen carefully to customers. Things have gone off course when the company failed to do so, she says, such as when Tala launched in the Philippines. Since the app had been an instant success in Kenya, its first market, the team assumed things would work the same way in the Philippines, where 15 million people had mobile wallets. “Had we taken the time to follow these new customers around, we would have learned that 85% of the market is cash,” says Siroya. The program took off only when Tala integrated with remittance centers and retail chains like 7-Eleven to dispense real cash. “It was a huge lesson,” says Siroya. “Now anytime we launch another country, we always start by doing quantitative and qualitative user research.”
Her commitment to listening also includes tuning in to her own voice. Since Siroya’s father gave her her first journal when she was in grade school, she has filled up countless notebooks with her reflections. “I write in my journal every night when I go to bed,” Siroya says. For her, it’s a way to let go of the problems of the day and focus on the bigger picture. “Our brains are continually problem-solving,” she explains. “And if we don’t give them an outlet, we can’t go to sleep, right? By putting it on paper, it almost lets you exhale. And I think this is what’s been really helpful for me. Putting any worries I have on paper is just telling myself, ‘Look, being sad or anxious about this is normal, and you will get through it, and what you’re doing for the next stage of Tala is more important.’”
Each night, Siroya also writes down what gave her joy that day and what she feels proud of. She credits her nighttime ritual with giving her the mental resilience that entrepreneurship demands. “It’s something that you can always go back to, something that’s constantly supporting you and showing you: Yes, there’s something here. I believe in you.”
In Tala’s early years, Siroya journaled her way to making peace with the difficult decision to pull a lending product from India, the very country that had inspired her to create it. “We had to decide at that point where we put resources, and the market was stronger in Kenya than India,” she recalls. “Through journaling, I was able to talk myself through all of the options and feel calmer about what I needed to do. I realized I was being emotionally attached to something at the expense of the bigger vision. I was able to see that we would get back to India when we were ready, and [last year] we came full circle and did that.”
While Siroya doesn’t mandate journaling at Tala, she does strongly encourage it. She has a half-hour blocked on her public calendar every day, from 6:30 to 7 p.m., for “Questions for the Day.” “Everyone sees that,” she says, “and if they ask, I’ll explain that what I’m doing is the simple practice of reflecting on what activities, products, people, and actions contributed to the majority of my results today. What efforts consumed my time that actually led to results? What could I have done better in order to be more productive or focused? Were there blind spots or unforeseen events that I can learn from?” Siroya also likes to point to studies like this one that found that employees who spent 15 minutes a day reflecting on their day were 23% more productive than those who didn’t.
Journaling has also seeped into her interactions with her management team. When Punam Brahmbhatt, Tala’s vice president of programs and operations, started six months ago, Siroya invited her to do something that some execs might find unusual: Collaborate on a journal that the two of them would go over at their weekly meetings and draw upon for larger company planning sessions. Brahmbhatt, who’d already been keeping a personal diary for 10 years, immediately took to the idea. “I was journaling to think about things like, What did that dream mean? But honestly, I’d never recognized how much journaling could benefit my professional self before working with Shivani,” says Brahmbhatt, “At first, I tried to keep it strictly high-level, but she encouraged me to add more detailed reflections. She broke me out of my shell a little bit, and it really streamlined our communication.” Then she pauses and adds: “Only as I’m talking about this right now am I realizing how this is quite special and different.”
On a recent trip to Tala’s Mexico office, Siroya asked her 60-person team there to participate in another journaling exercise. It was October 20, and she asked them to write a journal page as if it were three months in the future, January 20, 2020. The entire office sat down and wrote about the things they imagined their future selves had seen that day on the way to work, what it felt like to walk into the office on that future day, the customers they helped, and the products they were working on. Then Siroya asked them to fold up their pages and open them again in three months. “I wanted to show them that the practice of daily journaling is actually about connecting with something much deeper in yourself,” says Siroya. “The thing that’s going to keep you on this journey.”