‘You have one job, woman! Just do it!’
That was me yelling at myself to go over to Matt Flannery and say hello. He was around the Branch office at Nairobi Garage Westlands, and I didn’t know for how long he’d stay. I had Googled him, and I just knew that we had to have him on for the #ZoomIn series. But how do you just walk up to an award winning social entrepreneur? I mean, my biggest accomplishment that day was waking up on the first alarm ring (I didn’t even snooze or anything.)
This guy co-founded Kiva.org, a non-profit that connects lenders to low-income entrepreneurs. From Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, to Oprah, Kiva has been featured everywhere, and for good reason.
Matt, the unassuming guy that was blending in with the members at our Garage, is an Ashoka Fellow, a Skoll Awardee, and has been listed as one of Fortune Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40.
After a long stint with Kiva, he felt the need to grow, and started Branch together with Daniel Jung and Random Bares. They call it a bank in your pocket. With the Branch app, you can access financing within minutes of downloading the app, right on your phone.
So far, we’ve seen the Branch team expand their team so that they have fully colonized one end of our huge Westlands Space. Apart from the visible increase in manpower, Branch recently made headlines when they got $9.2 million dollars in their Series A funding round from Andreesen Horowitz and their original seed investors: Khosla Impact Fund and Formation 8.
With a repayment rate of 95% in Kenya, Branch are following in Kiva’s footsteps by expanding fast. After only one year, they have already expanded into Tanzania.
Knowing all this, I was more than a little intimidated.
With my team shouting encouragement at me, I womaned up and sheepishly introduced myself. I needn’t have worried at all -Matt, as he insisted on being called, was very friendly.
The interview was at the lounge space outside One University Network’s office, and we started by talking about the Nandi Flame trees outside. He talks softly, listening intently as if every word you say is that million-dollar investment he’s looking for.
With my nerves settled, we dived right in.
Matt had the intense energy I have come to associate with founders, having met a few over my time at Nairobi Garage. From his comfortable clothes, to the deep breaths and philosophical breaks he took before answering, he radiated a quiet kind of leadership. You could tell that this is the kind of guy who gives every task 100% concentration, which would explain his successes at both Branch and Kiva.
‘I was brought up in a deeply religious family,’ he tells me, when I ask of his childhood. I imagine a smart, broody child, and as it turns out, I’m right.
‘I always felt this sense that the world was unjust. I felt privileged, and there were so many others in need. I stayed up at night, thinking about these things.’
He says this with a simple air of honest revelation. In this world of humble braggarts, authenticity cloaks this man, radiating off of him as he speaks.
Like many of us, he followed the road well-traveled: school, then a job. Already a smart kid, it was Stanford for him.
‘Everybody was so smart! I felt like I was pretending!’ he says, with an embarrassed laugh.
Stanford, he says, was an intellectual time for him. He met people from all walks of life, but what stood out to him is that there were so many who considered him less privileged.
‘There were all these people from private schools, and who had had extraordinary lives, but they didn’t know.’
This depressing train of thought would dog his life, spurring him to actually do something to lift the life of others. But before that, he sought to find a place he could fit.
‘I actually got into the C.I.A!’
I gasp, my imagination running wild with Bond-esque thoughts. Who would have thought? He probably would have made a perfect spy, what with his quiet, friendly ways. He would have easily fit in anywhere.
‘It just wasn’t for me. And can you imagine, that that’s the reason I couldn’t get into the Peace Corp?’ he muses, shaking his head as if these things happened to someone else. There’s a Swahili methali (proverb) that springs to mind as he makes these off the cuff revelations: usichezee maji yanayosimama. Still waters run deep.
Matt, who loves code, got a job working with the team that made the first DVR. Predictably, his thoughts wouldn’t let him rest easy. He was an 11 dimensional peg, trying to fit in a round hole.
‘It was an awesome job, we were breaking new ground, but what real problems was I solving? What was I achieving in the face of all space and time?’
His answer came when his then girlfriend, Jessica Jackley, volunteered to work with a micro-finance outfit in East Africa. He came along, not expecting that his life would change.
‘We met all these people- people for whom business was the way out of bad situations,’ he explains, getting animated. ‘ For them, these simple businesses were more than a whim. It was doing or die. One chance, and they couldn’t get the big banks to give them even a small loan, seeing as they had no collateral but the strength of their convictions.’
They saw an opportunity to change lives on two literally and figuratively different spheres: the borrower from a difficult background, and the lender looking for a way to help out.
Enter Kiva. The idea is simple. A person of some privilege, such as what Matt came from, can meet somebody for whom a few dollars could mean a life change. The borrower then works on their business and pays the loan.
The repayment rate stands at over 98% at present.
Together, they worked on the idea, he doing it as what we Kenyans call a side-hustle. Nights. Breaks. Weekends. In October of 2005, Kiva was officially launched to tremendous success, and Matt took up the position of full time C.E.O. Finally, he was doing something to make the world a better place. And it worked.
Since it’s launched, Kiva has reached people in 84 countries, lending over $800,000,00.00.
What then made him what to leave?
‘ I was starting to drift off. I had stayed at Kiva for 10 years, and it was just time to try something new. ‘
He tells me that by the time he left, other people close to him had noticed his restlessness. He’s been quoted as calling himself a ‘Start-Up’ guy, reveling in the grunge work of building something from scratch, changing the world from small beginnings.
He traveled for 6 months, leaning all he could about microfinance, and settled in to build Branch. And with how Branch is growing at the speed of light, there’s no doubt that we have to keep our eyes peeled for more.
Fascinated with this man’s work, I prod to find out what makes him tick. What he’s most excited about that’s not work.
Turning slightly red, he whispers, ‘We’re having a baby. I’m going to be a dad!’