Zidisha is the first direct person-to-person lending platform for people in developing countries. Our website allows low-income, internet-capable young adults in Africa and Asia to crowd-fund business or education loans from individual lenders worldwide. In developing countries, loans from local banks tend to be prohibitively expensive– 37% is the global average interest rate– and require collateral assets that young adults lack. First-generation crowd-funding microfinance websites such as Kiva or United Prosperity use these local banks as intermediaries to manage the loans on the ground, resulting in the same high cost charged to the end borrowers. Zidisha solves the high cost of traditional microfinance by eliminating the local intermediary banks and connecting lenders and borrowers directly via the internet.
Q: How did your background prepare you for starting your non-profit?
I co-founded the first microfinance organization that was financed exclusively through capital raised online (via Kiva), and spent several years developing small business grant projects in West Africa for the US government. Outside of work, I practice pencak silat (Indonesian martial arts).
Q: Why did you start Zidisha?
I always saw the international wealth divide as the defining challenge of my generation– like civil rights had been for my parents’ generation– and I wanted to dedicate my career to overcoming it. In college I witnessed extreme poverty for the first time while working in India. At about the same time, I read Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat, about how internet technology is leveling the playing field for developing countries by making physical location irrelevant. I realized that it had already become possible to overcome poverty by using the internet to connect today’s internet-capable youth in developing countries with web-based marketplaces, but nobody was trying it because our habits and assumptions hadn’t yet adapted to the new possibilities.
Then in 2005 I heard about Kiva, and thought they had built exactly the kind of “world is flat” platform I had been looking for. I managed to secure an internship with an early Kiva field partner in Senegal, and helped them raise loans and eventually establish a traditional microfinance organization to manage the funds we were raising through Kiva. Though we tried hard to be lean and efficient, the cost of administering loans in the traditional staff-intensive way was so high that we were never able to get our overhead costs below about 40% of the value of the loans we were raising. Even though the capital itself was free, we would have had to charge the borrowers exorbitant interest to cover our costs. And in fact, 40% is about the average interest rate charged for microfinance loans worldwide, including those funded through Kiva. After my work with the Kiva field partner in Senegal, I spent several years working with a US government grant program that spanned various countries in West Africa. I saw the internet become cheap and ubiquitous in the poorest places, and young adults were all going online. I started Zidisha to serve that demographic.
Q: Was being female either an advantage or disadvantage in working on your startup?
It was mostly a disadvantage. I think people usually take women less seriously, often unconsciously. Size, having a deep voice, cultural associations– all these things make it easier for men to project strength and influence people than women.
In addition, I think it’s harder for women with family responsibilities to travel and have demanding careers than men. This is partially cultural: in most parts of the world, it is much more acceptable for men to delegate childcare and housework to their wives in order to develop their careers than vice versa. I think part of it is also inherent, in that babies and very young children tend to fare best when cared for personally by their mothers. Probably the biggest disadvantage, though, is the difficulty in finding a cofounder. Cofounders usually have a close social relationship and spend a great deal of time together. Since I am married, I wouldn’t work this closely with a male cofounder, and the population of potential female cofounders, especially technical ones like Zidisha needs, is very small.
Q: What do you wish someone had told you when you were 15?
I wish someone had told me that learning to program would be the best path to become a startup founder. I don’t think there’s any inherent reason women don’t learn to code. When I was a teenager, I taught myself Latin and read Virgil as a hobby. That is not much more difficult than programming, but the latter was not on my radar screen. I assumed, without ever thinking much about it, that programming was for guys, that it’s dry and technical like algebra, and that it leads to boring careers in the IT departments of big companies.
The late start wasn’t insurmountable, though. I began learning to program after founding Zidisha, and now do the front-end design for our website.
Q: What was it like being a parent and starting a non-profit?
It is incredibly hard to be a good parent and a good startup founder simultaneously. I got married shortly after starting Zidisha, and we now have a three-year-old. To make it work, I’ve eliminated other pastimes and social engagements, such that I spend almost all of my waking time either caring for my family or working with Zidisha. You have to be extraordinarily disciplined with time management, and ruthless about where you choose to spend your time and energy.
Q: What was it like moving from Virginia to Mountain View for YC? And what is it like running Zidisha from Virginia now?
The news that we were accepted into YC came as a big surprise. We were living in Virginia, where my husband has a martial arts school. The three of us were hoping to move to California together for the duration of YC, but my husband was unable to find a substitute teacher for his school. Finally we decided that he would stay in Virginia to teach his students, and I would take our (then) two-year-old, Adam, to California. It was really hard to find housing in Mountain View. I couldn’t afford to lease an apartment. Everyone I contacted at Craigslist turned me down when they learned I would be bringing a toddler. As a married woman, I didn’t want to move into an all-male shared house as the other YC founders were doing, and the few other female founders didn’t have any shared accommodation openings.
Finally I found a place at Airbnb that allowed us to move in. Adam and I shared a bunk bed there for three months. Child care was also a challenge. I had to miss a few YC events when I couldn’t find a babysitter. The partners were incredibly supportive, and I would often bring Adam with me to office hours. Our Airbnb house was about forty minutes on foot from YC, and once a week I would walk there carrying Adam on my shoulders. He loved coming to YC, and the whiteboards during our batch were decorated with Adam’s train drawings.
Now that YC is over, we are back in Virginia. Being away from Silicon Valley is a challenge in that it is harder to physically meet donors and advisers. At the same time, not having to commute or go to meetings gives me time to focus on work. We’ve probably raised less money because of our location, but we also need less because the cost of living here is so much lower. Since Zidisha has a geographically dispersed staff, we’ve never had a brick-and-mortar office.