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From Sponsored School To $10M Backed Tech Founder

Benjamin Fernandes


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From Sponsored School To $10M Backed Tech Founder

Benjamin Fernandes



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Benjamin Fernandes
Full transcript here

About Benjamin Fernandes

Benjamin Fernandes 

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Episode 108: Amardeep Parmar  from The BAE HQ welcomes  Benjamin Fernandes, Co-Founder and CEO of NALA.

We'll explore his journey from gaining a fully funded scholarship for an MBA in Stanford University, to pursuing his life long desire to make a real world impact on the economic growth in Africa through his FinTECH - NALA.

Message from our headline partners:

From the first time founders to the funds that back them, innovation needs different. HSBC Innovation Banking is proud to accelerate growth for tech and life science businesses, creating meaningful connections and opening up a world of opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors alike. Discover more at hsbcinnovationbanking.com


Show Notes: 

00:00 - Intro

01:42- 08:29 - The Journey of Benjamin Fernandez

12:30-16:21 - From Africa to Stanford

16:25 - 25:30 - TV Career and Entrepreneurial Resilience

25:35 - 32:49 - Imposter Syndrome and Starting a Company

32:52- 37:14 - Y Combinator Experience and Nala's Growth

37:15 - Quick Fire Questions & Answers 

Benjamin Fernandes:




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Show Notes

Headline partner message

From the first time founders to the funds that back them, innovation needs different. HSBC Innovation Banking is proud to accelerate growth for tech and life science businesses, creating meaningful connections and opening up a world of opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors alike. Discover more at https://www.hsbcinnovationbanking.com/

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Benjamin Fernandes Full Transcript

Benjamin Fernandes: [00:00:00] You keep talking about this Africa thing. Why don't you go and do something about it? Because I'll just sit there and complain. I'm like, yeah, this is a problem. This is a problem. Like, so what are you going to do about it? If you look at the region, it's the most expensive region in the world to send money to.

Benjamin Fernandes: It's the most expensive region in the world to trade with. The logistics and planes and flights and transport between each other is really, uh, underdeveloped, therefore making it really expensive. At the end, Africa's Net to lose on paper, like we build a lot of payments infrastructure. And so we operate and send money from the UK, Europe and the US to nine countries in Africa.

Benjamin Fernandes: Um, we've got four licenses of our own and across African continent by solving that problem. Um, you know, if, if we're not a publicly listed company in New York in 10 years, we've done a bad job.

Amardeep Parmar: Today on the podcast, we have Benjamin Fernandez, who's the founder and CEO of NALA. They're all about international payments into and out of Africa. Benji's got an incredible story. He grew up in Tanzania, where he was sponsored to [00:01:00] get a stronger education which enabled him to go to the States to get his undergrad there, where he then became the youngest African to get a scholarship into the Stanford MBA program.

Amardeep Parmar: There he was rubbing shoulders with some incredible people from all across the world, but he was always dedicated to trying to give back to Africa. And that led him to creating NALA, where many people don't know this, had many pivots over the years that we talk about. And how that led to where he is today, where he's got a company with about a hundred employees.

Amardeep Parmar: They've raised 10 million and they're doing so many incredible things. Hope you enjoy today's episode. We're the BAE HQ and I am Amare and we're the number one community for British Asian entrepreneurs. And this episode is powered by HSBC Innovation Banking. So Benji, you've got a really interesting background and you obviously grew up in Tanzania.

Amardeep Parmar: You’ve got this  rich culture all from all different areas. But when you're growing up, like, did you ever think one day you'd be doing what you are today? Like what were your hopes and ambitions? 

Benjamin Fernandes: Oh man, definitely not. I was, you know, I, first of all, I thought I'd be a football player and then I realized, [00:02:00] um, maybe not so good at football.

Benjamin Fernandes: And then I just thought I'd be working and living in Tanzania, working, you know, somewhere there. And yeah, I mean, for, for context, my sister and myself are the first in our family history to go to university. And, um, that was new for our family. It wasn't something that, okay, my auntie, my uncle, historical generations had gone to.

Benjamin Fernandes: I'm so very privileged, um, with that opportunity and that like created these new challenges for us here and there and, and really opened that up for us. So no, I definitely didn't think I'd be doing what I'm doing today. 

Amardeep Parmar: And like during that period, if you and your sister were the first ones going to university, how was it?

Amardeep Parmar: Because obviously for many people today in the UK, they might take that for granted that university is just on their normal path. But I guess you'd have to fight for a lot more. How was that experience? Was it something which your parents thought like, yes, he's going to do it? Or was it where it was almost a surprise?

Benjamin Fernandes: So backstory is, so my name is Fernandez and everyone's like, are you Mexican? Are you American? Like, are you Spanish? Uh, you, you, you look [00:03:00] Indian. You have a Mexican last name and you call yourself African. Like, what are you? So historically, so I'm going East African. So when the British used to rule India and parts of East Africa, they brought a lot of Indians to East Africa in the 1800s, mostly to build the railway, uh, and do a bunch of like labor intensive jobs, uh, during that time period.

Benjamin Fernandes: And then they kind of like told them, okay, you can live here and live in Africa because we're not going to take you back to India. So that's how my great grandparents. Uh, came to East Africa. And so I were a fourth generation East African, uh, Indian East African, I guess. I don't speak any Indian languages.

Benjamin Fernandes: I don't speak. And so Indians are like, okay, are you Indian? You know, my first language is Swahili, English, and German. It's a whole separate topic, but you know, for my dad growing up, I mean, he grew up in a tiny city called Tango. It's in rural Tanzania, um, and didn't have much growing up and he had to really fight to, to get to where he was.

Benjamin Fernandes: And then when we were in, uh, we were, my sister, when he got married to my mom, my sister and I were going to go to school, a British family actually, uh, [00:04:00] sponsored my sister and I, uh, to go to this school in Tanzania. And that opened up a whole different channel of opportunities for us because we wouldn't have like,

Benjamin Fernandes: we were going to a local school, then we got sponsored by this British family that my dad met, David Champion and Lorraine Champion who founded this school, um, they're trying to build an international school in Tanzania, they're like, okay, cool, we'll take you to in and that's kind of how we got into this path of going, uh, down this honestly place of privilege, uh, cause like nobody in our neighborhood had gone to that school and that was where it started.

Benjamin Fernandes: By the time I was, my sister, she's a year older than me. Um, she was always top of the class. So I should always like do really well. And when she was getting to 11th and 12th grade, I guess they call it year 12, year 13 or something in the UK. The teacher was like, hey, you're really smart. You should apply to the university in America to my sister, not to me.

Benjamin Fernandes: And, uh, she applied to a bunch of schools, got a bunch of scholarships to go to university in America. And that's how she ended up there. I, on the other hand was, uh, like the troubled child at home. I think I hold. The most, the record [00:05:00] still in my school for the most times of the principal's office, A levels, I scored two U's and two D's and was told to repeat, um, then redo A levels, we're doing the British syllabus, CSEs and A levels, and for me, that was like, you know, just looking back, realizing and knowing, okay, look, I've been taking some of this stuff for granted and really having to, to figure out, okay, what are you going to do next?

Benjamin Fernandes: Um, my dad actually really pushed me hard and he told me, If I don't figure out some stuff within the next year, he's going to send me to a village in Pangani, which is a rural Tanga, and you're going to stay out there as a 17 year old. So I was like, nah, nah, I'm definitely not doing that. So I was trying to do everything to, to, to not be out there.

Benjamin Fernandes: And so, um, I applied to a bunch of universities in America, got rejected and was told that I was going to be given one of the universities. I asked, I reached back out. It's like, Hey, please give me a second chance and begged and the director of admissions, I got on a call with him and he says, hey, look.

Benjamin Fernandes: I'll give you a three month probation period in the U. S. If you [00:06:00] do well, you stay. If you don't do well, you're getting sent back to Tanzania. And I was like, I'll take it. And so that's how I got to America for university for the first time. 

Amardeep Parmar: Wow. And once you're there and the university experience, right, because you had this childhood where you maybe weren't too great at school, but now you're in this opportunity, you're thinking about what can I do in the future, right?

Amardeep Parmar: So was football still on the path at this point? Or what were you thinking like once you got to university, what was the..Then you got that dream. 

Benjamin Fernandes: So, I don't know, fate's been a really important part of my life. You know, I think when I got to, I went to school in Minnesota for undergrad and got there and I looked around and I was like, okay, wow, there's millions of people in Africa who will never be here.

Benjamin Fernandes: Back to your point earlier where you said uni is a part of life in the UK for context, there's 1. 3 billion people in Africa, less than 1 percent of the African population have been to university and will go to university. And so if you have a uni degree or even a college degree or just even a degree, Diploma, you're more privileged than like 99 percent of the African continent.

Benjamin Fernandes: So it really puts into [00:07:00] perspective of recognizing what that actually means. And I don't know. I always believe that too much is giving, much is required. And there's a responsibility that carries for you. So when I got to America. I remember telling my dad, my dad's like, Hey, look, I know you're going to be back in three months because it's probation.

Benjamin Fernandes: Right. And I said, you know, I'm going to prove this guy wrong. So I used to get up in the morning and I said, kneel down on my bed. I was like, God, I used to pray. I'm like, God, please make me the head, not the tail. And make me first, not last. It was a prayer I used to always say, but I never believed that I could actually do it.

Benjamin Fernandes: And so after three months, my results come out and I called my dad. I was like, dad, guess what? He's like, yeah, you're on the next flight home. Right. I was like, actually, no, I've got straight A's. Um, he's like, no. And I was like, yeah, so I sent my results. He didn't even believe me. We had to get the Dean of Academic Affairs to send it to him.

Benjamin Fernandes: And they're like, okay, I can stay on for another three months. And so after four years, uh, did really well academically there, um, but where that pressure comes from was because I knew I had something to lose and I felt that aspect of privilege. And so I said, okay, you know what? I'm going to [00:08:00] try to figure this out as much as I can.

Benjamin Fernandes: I went to almost every tutoring session with the teachers. I would study so hard, um, while trying to balance out like, uh, yeah, I was just trying to be in America that that was, I was in survival mode. 

Amardeep Parmar: And so  once you left university, what did you then go to? What was the next bit of the path? Because it's not a very obvious path to where you are today, right?

Benjamin Fernandes: So I finished university. Um, well, I was getting close to finish. One of my professors came up to me and he pulled me on the side. He said, Hey. Ben, he didn't even call me Ben, he's like, Ben. So I went to his office, I went to see him, and he sat me down, he's like, hey, listen, look, I know you want to go back to Africa, because I, that was always the thing, I wanted to go back to Africa and build something out to help people out there.

Benjamin Fernandes: And I didn't know what it would be, I just knew I wanted to build something. And he said, hey, look, background, he says, at this point, I already had began a career in television. So I used to be a TV host and began TV hosting when I was 17, 18, 19. And so he's like, yeah, I know you want to go back to Africa.

Benjamin Fernandes: And he says, well, listen, promise me one thing. I was like, what? He's like, well, if you're going to go back to Africa, promise me, you're going to apply for your [00:09:00] MBA and you're going to go to Stanford and Harvard and nowhere else. And I look at this dude, I was like, dude, I don't know somebody who's gone to do their MBA at Stanford or Harvard or any of these things.

Benjamin Fernandes: And I was like, those schools are like, not even in my league, like not even something I can even think and consider. And he's like, no. You should apply, you'll get in. So, you know when somebody plants a mental thought in your head, it can breathe life, right? I always believed it was really powerful. And so I went home and I sat down, I was like Googling what, what is an MBA?

Benjamin Fernandes: I didn't even know what it was. And so I was 20 years old and I was like, you know what? Let me just apply. And I had to go do this test exam, GMAT exam, which sucks. And then applied for, for both Sanford and Harvard. Harvard rejects me immediately. And then Sanford put me on the wait list and they interviewed me and put me on the wait list.

Benjamin Fernandes: So I was like, Oh, interesting. So at the age of 20 or 21, I managed to get into the wait list of an MBA program where the average is 29. I was like, okay, interesting that I think I have a chance. So I went, you know, then after the wait list, they rejected me and I actually responded to Harvard. [00:10:00] I said, one sentence, and even Stanford, I wrote, I actually have the email, I can show you this too.

Benjamin Fernandes: I said, you've made the biggest mistake of your life by rejecting me. I just wrote that. I was like, you know, whatever. Like it was never going to happen anyway. So I just wrote that. So then I applied again. But before applying the second time, I went to tell my dad. I was like, hey, I'm applying to these universities.

Benjamin Fernandes: My dad's like, well, who's going to pay? And. And for context, uh, University of America, my undergrad was on scholarship as well. So I was like, who's going to pay? And I said, uh, we'll see. And so, so I went to church that it was June 2014. I went to church and I like, I always believe in like seeds. So I took a bunch of money from my bank account.

Benjamin Fernandes: I went to church. I was like, God, this is my seed for my education. If it's your will, it's your bill. You're going to help me come through. So I applied, I prayed and then I applied to Stanford. And, uh, December 10th, 2014, uh, I'm on my way home from work. I get a phone call and it says, hi, is this Benjamin Fernandez?

Benjamin Fernandes: I was like, yeah, he's like, hi, this is Derek Bolton, director of admissions at Stanford. I was like, okay, [00:11:00] so, well, first of all, I want to let you know that, um, we've accepted you to the program and the phone drops. So the call drops. So then I was like, um, okay. So I'm like frozen. I can't even say thank you. I was like, call drops.

Benjamin Fernandes: And I was like, okay, how do I call him back? And then it's like, you know, I don't have a calls, international call SIM, so I'm like, yeah, it's nighttime. So then I go tell my dad and my mom, my dad says, so who's paying? Uh, first, I didn't even say congratulations. Doesn't even realize. Okay. My first, my mom was like, what's that?

Benjamin Fernandes: What's Stanford? And my dad's like, okay, who's paying? So I'm like sitting there. I'm like, okay, sitting in Dar es Salaam, 25 minutes later, I go back to my room. I'm like, God, like remember that prayer I made about like school fees. And then about 25, 30 minutes later, I get another phone call. And it's like, Hey, sorry, the phone dropped.

Benjamin Fernandes: Anyway, what I wanted to let you know is we have this full scholarship that we give to seven out of 17, 000 applicants for the African MBA fellowship. And we've decided to award you the African MBA fellowship, which is a full tuition cover on associated fees and expenses to attend Stanford. It's a 200, 000 program.

Benjamin Fernandes: And I [00:12:00] froze. I was tearing up. I was crying. I was like, wow. And I went to tell my dad and my mom. My dad just froze. You know, Brown parents don't react to anything. Um, and my mom was just like, wow. And. That was like a whole beginning journey, but it was inspired by that one person's thought of like, hey, you should apply and you should go there and you'll get in.

Benjamin Fernandes: And otherwise I would have never even considered. And that's how I went to California for the, yeah. 

Amardeep Parmar: And obviously you mentioned there as well with the TV stuff, right? Because we've kind of skipped over that. It takes a lot of guts to be able to put yourself on national TV. Where did that confidence come from?

Benjamin Fernandes: Oh, gosh. Uh, TV. So I used to play football, as I said, and local TV would come and cover like some of the local sports. And I was called Radio Benji because I'd talk a lot back then, probably still talk too much right now. And they're like, Hey, look, we would like to you to be on a show because if you're able to talk a lot, you can keep people's retention on TV.

Benjamin Fernandes: And therefore, if people's retention is kept on TV, it means more money from sponsorship if more people are watching the show. [00:13:00] So I started off with like kids talk shows, and then went into sports shows.And And then by the time I was 19, my biggest break was the 2012 London Olympics, actually. Um, and that was the first time covering anything at a national scale.

Benjamin Fernandes: So that's kind of how my TV career grew, but TV is a very dangerous career, especially as a young person. What it definitely teaches you is thick skin at a young age, because I remember almost probably any insult you can tell me, like, I've probably heard it many times over. But I think the hardest part was hearing it when you're 17 18 19.

Benjamin Fernandes: Uh, it really emotionally gets to you. So remember, I'm like this TV star in Tanzania. Then I go back to uni, I'm just a regular student in class. And then you go back to Tanzania, you're this TV show host. So it's this balances of personalities that you're consistently trying to think about. And then you're trying to, trying to like, be calm.

Benjamin Fernandes: And also really makes you question who you trust, um, from a young age, because in TV, there's a lot of people like, you know, obviously the tabloid folks are trying to get you to do something and like, Oh, we got him. Look, Benji's doing [00:14:00] this. And I think at a young age, it's, uh, it's, it's tough. I actually don't recommend television for, for anybody who, who wants to live a sane life.

Benjamin Fernandes: Yeah, it can really emotionally attack you a lot.

Amardeep Parmar: Because I was going to ask it about that transition because having a TV career and seeing lived in the Olympics, what kind of stuff, what that taught you that's helped you today. And I think you've mentioned already about the resilience and the fixing it teaches you because it's a huge skill for many entrepreneurs.

Amardeep Parmar: What people forget there's so much rejection, right? Most people from the race in the first round, you only see how much they raised. You don't see how many people said no to that. 

Benjamin Fernandes: Yeah, exactly. 

Amardeep Parmar: So you think, oh, wow, they've done this. What you miss is that a hundred people said no before that first yes. And history starts to forget that quite a lot, right?

Benjamin Fernandes: Very fast.

Amardeep Parmar: And I think it's really interesting to see people, what they've done before that. That's given them persistence to go ahead and do that. So I guess TV had a big impact on you there where..

Benjamin Fernandes:  Massively

Amardeep Parmar: You, you get a no. And I was like, well, I've had people had say, put me down all the time on TV.

Amardeep Parmar: So I can take that. [00:15:00] No. And I think that other big one that you hear a lot about as well is like say missionaries because they're knocking on doors and trying to do that. They get so used to the rejection and like people maybe being rude to them that when they go to try to raise the capital for a company, they're used to that.

Amardeep Parmar: No, they're used to that trying to change people's opinions. And when did you start to think maybe this startup life or creating a business, because you said you had the idea even when you went to your undergrad about giving back. When did the idea start forming of how that vehicle would work? Like, how would you give back?

Benjamin Fernandes: Yeah. So I never saw myself as like an entrepreneur. Um, I knew I wanted to, my life's work is, uh, across the impact I want to create across the African continent, I think. And the why of where it comes from is there's 1. 3 billion people today by 2050, it's going to be 2. 5 billion. The average age across the continent is 19 today, and it's going to carry a large amount of the world's workforce, but also the world's food burden.

Benjamin Fernandes: And if you look at the region, it's the most expensive region in the world to send money to. It's the most expensive region in the world to trade with the logistics and [00:16:00] planes and flights and transport between each other is really, uh, underdeveloped, therefore making it really expensive. And unfortunately, because of the dollar shortage, it makes trade expensive, and inflation keeps going up across all these markets.

Benjamin Fernandes: So, at the end, Africa's Net to lose on paper. And I started to think, okay, what can we do to change that? Even if it's small things. So I knew I've always wanted to go home. I never knew I was going to start a company. And then when I went to grad school, I was definitely feeling, um, incompetent for sure. I mean, you're going, you're showing up to your first day of class.

Benjamin Fernandes: You're 20, you're 21 years old. Like all these are the people in your class sitting next to you. We had Olympians in our class. We had, you know, billionaires, kids in our class. We had, I mean, folks that I used to read about in newspapers. Now you're sitting next to them. We had an MBA athlete, we had Olympians.

Benjamin Fernandes: And you're asking me, why am I here? Like, how did I get to be sitting in this classroom? And I really had a lot of, what's that, what's that phrase?

Amardeep Parmar:  Impostor syndrome. 

Benjamin Fernandes: Impostor syndrome, yes. Oh my goodness, all the [00:17:00] time to the fact that I was pretty good academically, but in my first semester there, I got an academic probation because I wasn't speaking up enough in class because I didn't want to sound dumb or like, I didn't know the right thing to say.

Benjamin Fernandes: And I was trying to look, I was like, I don't want my classmates to think of me differently. If I say this differently, because I'm the kid in the class, I'm the kid in the program, you know, when I, when I joined the director, it's like, Hey, you're the youngest African student we've ever accepted in our program history.

Benjamin Fernandes: And so I felt this pressure immediately from day zero. But then. I, all these people who had started companies and they were VC at this fund, now they've come to business school and you're sitting in class with them and you're trying to observe and learn. And I was always curious about these things, but being around people who would push you, stimulate your mind to think about problems in a different way was what that created for me.

Benjamin Fernandes: Because my classmates start to come up to me like, Benji, you keep talking about this Africa thing. Why don't you go and do something about it? Cause I'll just sit there and complain. I'm like, yeah, this is a problem. This is a problem. Like, so what are you going to do about it? So what? And being around those people who [00:18:00] tell you, so what so frequently got me thinking, well, why not you?

Benjamin Fernandes: Why don't you start the company? Why don't you try? And I think that is what pushed me the most, just being surrounded. So it was never the full idea about Nala. I started working on Nala when undergrad, I'm sorry, in, in grad school. And, um, I was really trying to think about how can I build this company out?

Benjamin Fernandes: And then I had all the excuses I had. Oh, I have no money. I have like, oh, I don't have the ability to hire people. I'm a young, you know, I don't have a license, every excuse. And any entrepreneur goes through, I said myself, and then I talked to another founder and I told him all the excuses I had. And he's like, you're a joke.

Benjamin Fernandes: Uh, he's like, how much do you need? I don't know, 20, 000. He's like, you're an absolute joke. He's like, if you can't find 20, 000 between like your, your 15 friends to give you like 200 bucks here, 500 bucks there, a thousand dollars there to get to 20, 000, he's like, you're not serious about what you're trying to build.

Benjamin Fernandes: He's like, so he said, he asked me, he's like, I would go home and think and evaluate what your choices and then come back again, [00:19:00] I think a person like that to really ask you those questions. And maybe for an entrepreneur watching somebody looking at quitting their day job. That push is, is, is, it's high risk, but also realizing that experience of starting a company and even potentially failing at it is way more valuable than sitting in that same job for one year.

Benjamin Fernandes: ‘Cause the experience you'll have in the learning is exponential in a short period of time. And companies are going to value that way more and probably hire you for a much higher salary if it doesn't work out. So that, that's the feed that. So anyway, looking back that that's kind of how I got into starting to even build  Nala.

Amardeep Parmar: So once you like took the first steps then, So you're that 20, 000, right? Did you raise that? Hopefully, right? That was sage. Or how long did it take you to actually get that? Did your friends support you in that? Or ..

Benjamin Fernandes: See, I was, I was so scared of asking my friends for money. So I don't come from a culture like, I don't know, a lot of Brown culture, African cultures.

Benjamin Fernandes: Okay. Your wedding, you go and ask people for money. Like somebody's funeral, you go donate money to the funeral, but we never do it for business. And the question is why? Why not? Like it's, we should be the first people chipping in for each other's business, [00:20:00] not just the wedding ceremony. The business is going to create longevity.

Benjamin Fernandes: It's going to create jobs. Obviously there's a high chance of failing, but the wedding, it was a high chance of failing too. So like, you know, I think more Brown people and like, I really need to start like, yo, support and really do this, this whole. Uh, you know, it, it doesn't mean a lot of money, but I think, you know, really look at, I always tell my friends who started companies, I was like, what's the easiest, fastest, simplest, and cheapest way of starting and testing an idea out without building anything.

Benjamin Fernandes: What's the laziest way we can test this idea out and see if it has legs. Like that's the mentality I have. So as I was leaving grad school, I'm seeing all my classmates get these high job offers and I was working at the Bill and Melinda Gates foundations. And so obviously, you get an offer coming back and you're like, wow, like I remember when I got my job offer, I asked him, is that an extra zero?

Benjamin Fernandes: ‘Cause for context, I was getting paid maybe 480 a month as my salary in Tanzania working in TV, and then you go to America and then you post MBA, you know, you're like seeing these figures. They're like, wow, um, I didn't. You know, so [00:21:00] you really start to question, like, should I just go and do this for like three, four years, go and start a company.

Benjamin Fernandes: I think that was a tough decision, probably tougher with family at home because family be like, wait, why don't you go obviously work at that company and, you know, this organization, but I made the call. I moved back home to Tanzania. I moved back into mom's house, got that free, um, East African pilau, which is fire, maybe slightly better than Indian biryani, but to be discussed and debated later.

Benjamin Fernandes: Um, and then, you know, I was staying at home and then was trying to test out stuff. So the first thing I did was I interviewed 656 people over three months just to identify patterns. And in that time period, I'm living in Tanzania. I'm like, okay, who do I aspire to be? Like, who do I admire in tech? And so I wrote down on the spreadsheet all the tech companies in the world I admired, I wrote down Monzo in the UK context.

Benjamin Fernandes: I've never lived in England. Okay, this is like 2018, 2017, 2018. I wrote down, um, Revolut. So [00:22:00] Nik from Revolut, uh, in Jonas and Tom from Monzo. I wrote down David Velez from Nubank, all the FinTech companies around the world that I admired. And I was like, you know what? I wanna meet all of them. And I would just, and I can show you a cold email I wrote to Jonas.

Benjamin Fernandes: I wrote to Jonas, the co founder and CTO of Monzo. I said, Hey Jonas, this is a long shot. My name is Benjamin. I'm trying to build the Monzo for Africa.  I had nothing. And I know you're super busy. And I got your email. ‘Cause I watched this, I watched almost every single Monzo video, by the way, on YouTube, and he drops his email on one of the videos.

Benjamin Fernandes: And I was like, Hey, I know this is a long shot, but I can't win a race. I haven't started any, I'd love to connect for 15 minutes. And he would reply. He replied actually within the same day. And this is the CTO of a unicorn in England. I don't even live in England. I'm in freaking Tanzania responding to me and nobody reaching out to him cold email.

Benjamin Fernandes: And I was like, Oh, interesting. So I jumped on this call with Jonas and I asked him [00:23:00] four to five questions. I was like, Hey, what do you wish you knew when you started? If you were to start over again today, what would you do differently? What are patterns and that you're identifying where the industry is going?

Benjamin Fernandes: And I would ask those same questions to all the top tech CEOs in FinTech. Then what I'll try to do is identify patterns for markets that relate to me. So like a market like Mexico, India, Brazil, I was like, okay, pretty similar to where Africa will be in maybe five or 10 years. What are patterns I can identify for things that might be interesting.

Benjamin Fernandes: And then I go and ask customers about it locally in the ground. So that's kind of how we were starting to build our first version of Nala. We didn't even raise, so I was staying at home. So cost was like near nothing. My co founder, um, was the person who like, we ended up winning a grant. So I never even raised money.

Benjamin Fernandes: So the grant we won was 20, 000. And that, that was the grant we used until we got into Y Combinator. 

Amardeep Parmar: We hope you're enjoying this episode so far. Quick note from our sponsors who make this all possible. From first time founders to the funds that back them, innovation needs different. HSBC Innovation [00:24:00] Banking is proud to accelerate growth for tech and life science businesses.

Amardeep Parmar: Creating meaningful connections and opening up a world of opportunity, entrepreneurs and investors alike. Discover more at HSBCinnovationbanking.com. Back to the show. 

Amardeep Parmar: So for people who don't know obviously Y Combinator is one of the biggest accelerators in the world, right? And it's a huge deal for many people because not only is the money, but also the network that comes with that.

Amardeep Parmar: How was that experience of applying? Was it something which having come from your background and done what you've done already? You kind of feel like, yeah, I'm definitely going to get in. Or was there nerves around that too? 

Benjamin Fernandes: So I applied, I think five or six times to Y Combinator. I was interviewed four times and got in once.

Benjamin Fernandes: That's across three years. So most people apply once and then give up. I was applying, I was applying while I was a student. I was applying after finishing and I like applied and kept applying until we finally got in. And most people were like, oh yeah, now that, like at the time where people were saying, so when we got in, we were like the [00:25:00] first East African company to get into YC.

Benjamin Fernandes: Uh, they traditionally had done Nigerian companies. It's like, okay, cool. Like now that was the first one to get in. People are like, Oh yeah, it's because Benji's background. And so I'm like, okay, well you should also see all my applications that I applied with the same background and still didn't get in.

Benjamin Fernandes: And so it wasn't the background thing. It was more how much traction, what was the key insight? What was the learnings that you're taking away and how has your product evolved in that same time period? And they're also probably assessing, am I dedicated to building this? Versus is this like, Benji's on a vibes thrill and just wants to like do a quick break from work and, you know, try to test something out.

Benjamin Fernandes: The Y Combinator experience was incredible. Um, I think, you know, the real focus on building something people need and really asking yourself, are you focused on that, talking to customers. Consistently today. I mean, if I show you my, my WhatsApp on my phone has, I think, 1400 unread messages. Um, and when I opened this, I, sorry, 1324, you can see that very far.

Benjamin Fernandes: Yeah. 

Amardeep Parmar: 13, 000. 1324. Yeah. 

Benjamin Fernandes: So most [00:26:00] of those are customers. So every morning I wake up and customers like, Hey, this improve this, complaining about this feature, complaining about that feature, but it allows me to stick so close to the customers. My, my team thinks I should get a new phone, but. I actually like holding this phone because I, I get to see and learn from customers directly.

Benjamin Fernandes: And then I know what we're prioritizing and our roadmap and why we're building things or what we're building. So I think Y com really teaches you to focus on the problem and fall in love with the customer, which it's such a basic thing. But when you're building in tech, most people don't do or forget about doing when the company hits a certain stage.

Amardeep Parmar: Well about that point as well. So where are you today? Right. Where is Nala got to? What stage are you  at? 

Benjamin Fernandes:Well, we went through a couple of pivots, such most people don't know. So like people see now the last year and a half, I've been working now for like six plus years, you know, maybe seven, actually seven this year.

Benjamin Fernandes: And yeah, 2017 to 2024, yeah, seven this year. You know, our last pivot was when we moved to international money transfer that was during the pandemic and that's the business that is our big one today. And [00:27:00] basically, uh, the last 18 months, um, have been tough, but like a huge learning curve for me. I came into the UK in my first flight here back, uh, was 2021, uh, August.

Benjamin Fernandes: So I, uh, the pandemic had ended or whatever, and I was trying to get to the UK to meet customers cause our first permission country were allowed to send money to UK to Kenya, and I tried to fly, Uh, Tanzania was red listed, so I couldn't even, I hold a Tanzanian passport, I couldn't get to the UK. So I tried to go through Uganda, I was sent back.

Benjamin Fernandes: I went through Amsterdam, I was sent back. I went through Doha, I was sent back. The only way I got to the UK was flying, um, getting a US visa, flying to the US, spending 14 days there for the 14 day quarantine outside of a red listed country, then flying to the UK, which passport privilege is a whole separate topic, which I feel very strong about given how many times I spent in the immigration lines.

Benjamin Fernandes: But, get to the UK, and I call those customers who had [00:28:00] tested our product, I'm like, Hey, let's meet up. And 60 of them showed up at our first meetup and I was like, Oh, this is cool. This is interesting. And I've never formally lived in the UK before I was doing that on a tourist visa and I didn't have a work permit in the UK, which I don't know if HMRC is going to give me an interview for this interview.

Amardeep Parmar: We can cut that out of the interview. 

Benjamin Fernandes: Um, And I was trying to, to be honest, I actually applied for a work permit, I just didn't get it and it was very frustrating and then I kept applying and I applied for a global talent visa and I kept applying and I still wasn't getting it, I was just like pending, pending, oh send your passport to South Africa, I'm like why can't I just send it in Dar es Salaam and so I was coming in and out of the UK because I don't only stay here for like two weeks and then I had to leave two weeks, I had to leave legally.

Benjamin Fernandes: So that was, so 2021 started building and then a UK VC fund gave us a term sheet. And I was like, Oh, interesting. And then that was obviously 2021 when tech market was peak. So four other companies, uh, VC [00:29:00] funds in the USgave us a term sheet. Um, and then we, that was when we raised a 10 million round and then we're like, okay, go back to work.

Benjamin Fernandes: And so the last 18 months we grew from seven people to just under a hundred today at the company. We operate and send money from the U. K., Europe and the U. S. to nine countries in Africa. Um, we've got four licenses of our own across the African continent and we've applied for eight. Um, and then next month, we're expanding to two more countries, uh, Egypt as well as Morocco, sorry, Egypt as well as Africa.

Benjamin Fernandes: But I think that whole, the last 18 months has been, it's been tough because every function at the business broke and that as a leader, you also have to evolve and change in such a short period of time, and your style has to change, your teams have to change, people who are like junior in the company, you have to like, okay, do I make this person a manager or keep them as an individual contributor?

Benjamin Fernandes: But we need a manager now because we have to hire somebody under them. And that function became big customer support. We used to have one person. Now we have like [00:30:00] 15 people. Okay, who's the manager? We don't have a manager. No one's qualified to be a manager. Do you promote within? Do you bring somebody else out?

Benjamin Fernandes: So all these questions in a short period of time starts to come and that's been tough, like navigating that and your role as a CEO adjusting, um, you know, you go from like, Oh yeah, we're just seven of us, you know, to nearly a hundred now. The way you speak has to change as well in front of the company.

Benjamin Fernandes: You can't, there's certain jokes you can't make anymore. Like, you know, it's, it's, it's, it's, it's been a good learning experience. I think what's helped me the most is talking to other founders at larger stages than I have. Um, and they just advised me, okay, cool. Like this is, this is normal, by the way. I'm like, oh, okay, cool.

Benjamin Fernandes: I thought it was just me. 

Amardeep Parmar: So it's  incredible to see where you've got to already, but I know your dreams are so much bigger than that too. So can you let the audience know what's the dream? What's the dream for NALA? 

Benjamin Fernandes: Look, I think the problems across the African continent are endless. We as NALA will never be able to solve all of them.

Benjamin Fernandes: And, you know, I would love to build a mix of, you know, a WISE plus visa [00:31:00] for like collections and disbursements of payments across the African continent. And like we build a lot of payments infrastructure. And so by solving that problem, um, you know, if, if we're not a public illicit company in New York in 10 years,

Benjamin Fernandes: we've done a bad job. Because I think there's so much for us to do and the scale of it is massive. The world's going to continue trading with the African continent and we're going to be, we should be responsible for part of that trade and enabling that those new economies to be created across the African continent, for example, here in the UK, you can be paid as an influence on Instagram and tiktok or whatever in Africa, there's so many talented people who can never get paid on tiktok.

Benjamin Fernandes: So who's going to build in payments infrastructure for a tick tock or Instagram to connect and disperse into like, so those are the new new economies of like new types of jobs you're creating for people. So those are the kinds of things with payments where we, it's not see ourselves getting deeply involved in.

Amardeep Parmar: Awesome! So  just before we get to quick fire questions, I just want to address that typical identity, right? Because you [00:32:00] live in England one week a month, or two weeks a month, and then you go to Tanzania, then you go to the US. And like you said, you, your family comes from India four generations ago, but you were born and raised in Africa.

Amardeep Parmar: So how does that all fit into your identity? And like, what you feel inside about how you relate to other people. 

Benjamin Fernandes: Yeah. It's always  hard. You know, this topic is like, you know, a bit frustrating sometimes to me because I'm only Tanzanian when I win an award, I'm only Tanzanian when Nala does something great and then otherwise I'm not Tanzanian, I'm Indian.

Benjamin Fernandes: Otherwise, and then Indians don't call me Indian because I don't speak any Indian languages. And so you're like, who are you? Like, and then you come to England. Actually, yes. Uh, my first, last week this happened, I was like pulling up at, at this, uh, office building. And this guy at the desk, Indian dude looks at me.

Benjamin Fernandes: He's like, are you Deliveroo ? And I was [00:33:00] like, uh. I was like, sorry, what he's, are you delivering? What are you delivering? And I was like, pardon? He's like, what are you delivering? I was like, oh, Deliveroo the delivery service. I'm like, no, no, I'm not deliveroo. He's like, oh, okay. Cool. Just checking. So off. You know the worst part.

Benjamin Fernandes: That guy was brown too. So then I asked him, I was like, why did you ask me about it? He's like, cause most delivery drivers here are Brown. I'm like, okay, got it. So, so in every country, uh, you know, there, there's new things that you have to adjust to and there's new, and so for me, the topic of identity, I, I, I believe I'm Tanzanian and you know

Benjamin Fernandes: when I come here. Okay. You're Indian. Okay. You're South Asian. Cool. I would love to, I, I think, you know, there's a lot of things about South Asian culture I really admire and love. Um, I go to my friend's Indian weddings and so on, and I think that the topic of identity is a, is a tough one. It’s for me, Tanzania is my home, my land, my love.

Benjamin Fernandes: And it's, it's, it's a region that has impacted so much of how I think about the world. Uh, India, my first [00:34:00] time India was like eight years ago. So I've never even been to Goa, uh, so I'm going, but I've never been to Goa. So, um, yeah, I look, uh, I think that's a hard one. I think it really sometimes emotionally gets to me, um, especially, you know.

Benjamin Fernandes: Uh, I get sometimes trolled on Twitter and so on, and he's not in, he's not Tanzanian, he's Indian.  Indians like, you're not Indian, you're African. And I'm like, okay, I'm Tanzanian. And you have to like, wait for somebody else to like approve. I'm like, wait, what? What am I waiting to approve? And so at this point I just like, look, I'm Tanzanian, if you like it.

Benjamin Fernandes: Or not deal with it. Yeah. But it's definitely a, a topic I think, not just me, but I think probably a lot of Indian East Africans or Indian Africans face wherever they go around the world, because there's no box you fit in directly. 

Amardeep Parmar: Yeah. And one of the things we do as well with this is that it's called British Asian in many ways.

Amardeep Parmar: It's. Asian heritage in Britain. It's just, that's just too long a name and it doesn't have the same pun as the BAE HQ. Right. So [00:35:00] what we tried to do is like, obviously people listening to is like a lot of the people who've been on this podcast weren't born in the UK, but it's kind of just more about the inclusivity, right?

Amardeep Parmar: Because like I said, it doesn't matter where you're born. When you go to the desk, people are going to view in the same regard, right? So we're trying to bring people together rather than put people together rather than put many different boxes in some ways. So we're going to move on to quickfire questions now for time.

Amardeep Parmar: So the first one is who are three British Asians or Asians in Britain that you'd love to shout out that you think are doing incredible work?

Benjamin Fernandes: Tough question. I would love to shout out one of them. Uh, and it's Rishi Sunak, even though people have many different talks about thoughts about politics. Um, so the reason why is he is, his mum is, uh, Tanzanian.

Benjamin Fernandes: His dad is Kenyan, Indian, so Indian, Tanzanian, Indian, Kenyan, and he moved as a migrant here. I mean, he was born here and I think he's really changed the narrative for what being brown in, in, in Europe, in the UK, around the world looks like. And I think it's really inspiring to [00:36:00] see, of course, he's got a lot of challenges that he's inherited and he's trying to try to fix, but yeah, I think he's probably the one I would really say I'd really admire beyond all.

Amardeep Parmar: And then for people listening right now who want to find out more about you, find out more about Nala. Where should they go to? 

Benjamin Fernandes: If you want to find out about me, I don't know. Instagram, you'll get a different Benji versus Twitter, you'll get a different Benji. Instagram is more hanging out, chill, my personal life.

Benjamin Fernandes: Twitter is, I tweet sometimes about tech, mostly about food. And, uh, my email is benjamin@nala.com. 

Amardeep Parmar: And is there anything you're looking for help right now or NALA needs help with that the audience might be able to help with? 

Benjamin Fernandes: Yeah,I'm hiring a lot. We've got about 24 roles we're looking to fill in the UK, from head of compliance to Uh, FinCrime, FinCrime engineers, FinCrime machine learning, uh, engineers for like building a lot of the work we're doing for cross border payments, uh, looking at hiring a consumer PM, um, looking at hiring, I mean, there's a bunch of roles, um, looking to fill out.

Benjamin Fernandes: So definitely I weigh recommendations way more than. Um, people applying, [00:37:00] but yeah, if there's somebody you'd really strongly put your name out for, only if you'd put your name out for them, don't send me random people, only if you put your name out for the person and tell me why, I would love to have a chat with them.

Amardeep Parmar: So thanks so much for coming on today. Have you got any final words  to the audience?

Benjamin Fernandes: I don't know. I think many people are probably listening with different aspects and areas of life, probably a lot of challenges that they're going through. And if you're looking at starting a company or even at a workplace right now and looking for that promotion, one thing I always tell my team is, look, if you don't take responsibility, you take orders.

Benjamin Fernandes: And that's the principle of life. So, if you really want to get that promotion, like really take responsibility to step up and really own as much as you want in that organization, if you want to build that company, take responsibility, decision's in your hands.

Amardeep Parmar: Hello, hello everyone. Thank you so much for listening. It means a huge amount to us. And we don't think you realize how important you are. Because if you subscribe to our YouTube channel, if you leave us a five star review, it makes a world of difference. And if you believe in what we're [00:38:00] trying to do here, to inspire, connect, and guide the next generation British Asians, if you do those things, you can help us achieve that mission, and you can help us make a bigger impact.

Amardeep Parmar: And by doing that, it means we can get bigger guests, we can host more events, we can do more for the community. So you can play a huge part. So thank you so much for supporting us.

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