Making a Difference — and Making Profits

After several years as an investment banker, and then earning a master’s degree in economics from Columbia University, Shivani Siroya found herself far removed from Wall Street and the Ivy League. She was in sub-Saharan Africa and India, interviewing thousands of people about their financial lives at an intimate level.

It was 2006, and Siroya was working with the UN Population Fund. “These people felt incredibly stuck,” she said. “They couldn’t access credit to grow their businesses or improve the quality of their lives.” When they walked into a bank, they were embarrassed by their clothing. Banks were wary of giving them loans because they lacked formal data, like a credit score, or even digital receipt data from their business.”

Siroya saw this was both a humanitarian problem, and a business opportunity. She launched Tala, a mobile technology and data science company, in Santa Monica in 2011, during the early wave of the fintech boom. Operating now in four emerging markets with more on the way soon, Tala offers instant, unsecured credit for the masses by analyzing the daily-life data on applicants’ phones . The company has also added products and educational tools to help people through their financial journey.

While Tala has a strong mission, Siroya also wants to build a successful, for-profit company. She wants to transform lives and tap into the 3 billion potential customers in the emerging global middle class.

The international impact she wants to make is reflected in the many meanings of her company’s name. In Swahili, Tala means “heart center.” In the Philippines, it denotes “a bright star.” In Hindi, “a lock.” In German and Persian, it translates into “gold.” In Arabic, “tree.” In Samoan, “money.” Tala is also the name of seven cities around the world.