“It has been the most valuable partnership I've ever had”
As the Female Innovators Lab Fund celebrates its first birthday, we speak to two innovative founders about their experiences of starting their fintech startups – and how the platform can make a difference to women-led businesses.
Growing up, Kaeya Majmundar had no idea what it took to be an entrepreneur. “I'm the daughter of two doctors and had no bearings in the startup world,” she explains. “I would dress up as a doctor for Halloween.”
Today the 27-year-old is the Founder and CEO of Swaypay – one of the first companies to be supported through the Female Innovators Lab Fund by Barclays and venture capital firm Anthemis.
It was a friend’s bad moving experience that set her on the path to starting her own business at just 19. “I was helping my friend move out of her dorm room in college, and her boxes kept breaking. I reconstructed a storage box that wouldn't need assembly or any sort of tape.”
Encouraged by her first taste of entrepreneurship, she took her prototype to reality TV programme Shark Tank, the US equivalent of Dragons’ Den. The viral exposure made her a trending topic on Twitter and, she says, was “the kernel for what I realised to be the power of that kind of platform”.
“All of a sudden, there was overnight demand from some of the largest retailers in the world, just because I was on TV,” Majmundar says. “I realised that social media has this tremendous power to turn anything into an overnight sensation, and really grow demand for your product.”
It has been the most valuable partnership that I've ever had. I forget, quite frankly, that the folks at the Lab Fund are not my co-founders
Founder and CEO of Swaypay
This was the inspiration for Swaypay, a payment plugin for online retailers that allows shoppers to earn the best discounts by using their social media influence as currency.
The plugin works by allowing shoppers to split their payments into both dollars and social media posts that feature their order, offering consumers discounts while enabling retailers to have a cost effective and scalable presence on social media.
“The ubiquity of social media continues to give everyone a new form of capital or ‘sway’, and retailers clearly value this capital,” Majmundar says, describing the motivation behind the business. “We’ve created an efficient, affordable way to facilitate this transaction. We’ve cut out the waste and passed the savings onto actual customers, who are the most valuable influencers of all.”
She quickly realised that help would be essential to grow. “I was designing a fintech, but I'm not necessarily a fintech person. I've been rooted in ecommerce and social media for a really long time. I was looking for a partner to fill that gap and bring expertise from the financial services industry.”
Her search led her to the Female Innovators Lab Fund, a New York City-based studio that helps early stage fintech founders bring their companies to their first rounds of fundraising, by providing business advice and mentorship.
Similarly, for Eli Polanco, it was the opportunity to grow her company Nivelo and reach more customers that attracted her to the Lab. Drawing on a decade’s experience of working on payment systems in Wall Street, her fintech helps protect digital payments against cybercrime, and potential fraud and losses.
“As society moved to digital ecosystems, I saw that companies were embedding account-to-account payment features in faster and sleeker web applications that improved access to money for users,” she says, explaining the motivation behind the business.
“I was happy to see this shift because lack of access to fast, cheap payment systems is still an issue for many. But it came with vulnerabilities related to cybercrime and costly losses. Nivelo was born out of the realisation that without protection against these issues, the promise of seamless digital payments would never happen.”
A key challenge was making the infrastructure product – which to a mainstream audience could seem “esoteric and abstract” – accessible to investors. By developing a prototype version and signing paying clients, she was able to highlight the potential of her idea.
The Female Innovators Lab opens doors to women with a strong ‘why?’ and the willingness to back that up with execution. It’s a wonderful door to go through
Founder and CEO of Nivelo
Polanco says that support from the Female Innovators Lab has helped the company go from strength to strength: “When we were welcomed into the Lab, Nivelo’s main focus was on growing the team to help scale our product and reach clients. The team at the Lab has helped us with recruiting, bringing technical teams to bear to help us reach and assess candidates at scale. They’ve also been a great sounding board for team architecting decisions during COVID-19. We’ve learned to adapt quickly to the needs of virtual team-building.”
Likewise, Majmundar adds that the programme has not only helped her learn about investment, hiring talent and effectively using funding, but has also given her access to an exclusive network that few early stage founders can make use of.
“It has been the most valuable partnership that I've ever had. I forget, quite frankly, that the folks at the Lab are not my co-founders. It has been amazing to be able to tap into a huge system of resources. I feel a lot less like a solo scrappy founder and more like part of a massive team – I almost feel like I have the advantage of people at companies like Facebook because I have so many tools at my disposal.”
Closing the gap
In the US, less than 3% of venture capital funding goes to teams with all female founders, a statistic which illustrates the need to tackle the gender gap. This is where initiatives like the Female Innovators Lab, which targets businesses at their earliest stages, can make a real difference.
“It’s all about fairness and equal access,” says Polanco. “There is a lot of value in supporting underrepresented founders at the idea stage. No one should have a higher bar to entry – it’s anti-competitive and leads to lower quality products for society.”
Asked what she would say to founders thinking about applying to the Lab, Majmundar is enthusiastic: “Don't think twice.”
“Even at an early stage, firm up the ‘why?’ of your business,” adds Polanco. “The ‘why’ that is driving you to take the leap; the ‘why’ that is telling you that no one can build it better than you.
“You’ll start to understand that you’re doing a service to others by sharing your passion and doing what you can to build it. The Female Innovators Lab opens doors to women with a strong ‘why?’ and the willingness to back that up with execution. It’s a wonderful door to go through.”