How a UN worker turned an insight about the developing world into a global force for good
By Alene Tchekmedyian
When Shivani Siroya worked for the United Nations in 2006, she traveled all over Sub-Saharan Africa and India looking at microfinance programs.
She interviewed about 750 small business owners and micro-borrowers in nine different countries including a 27-year-old tile-maker named Lakshmi who sticks in her mind today.
Laksmi was living in poverty in Chennai, India and for three years had been taking out the same $500 loan from a microfinance institution there.
Without a credit score or data to show to long-term lenders, Lakshmi was considered a risky investment and as a result, unable to grow her business and unable to break through the shackles of poverty.
“If you don’t have data coming in, how do you know who you’re lending to and how do you know how the loan’s being used?” 30-year-old Siroya said, as she sipped on a latte one recent weekend afternoon at Coral Tree Café in Brentwood.
Disillusioned, Siroya returned to the United States, quit her job and returned to a career in investment banking, taking a job as a financial consultant for Health Net. Before taking a job with the U.N. in 2006, she’d served as an equity research analyst for UBS Financial Services.
But the career move was unfulfilling.
“Obviously I couldn’t forget what I’d just seen,” Siroya said.
When she called former mentors at the United Nations to vent about the broken system – “This is what I see, why don’t we do anything about this?” she’d say – they told her that she had to do something about it.
So she went to work.
In April 2011, after three years of brainstorming, getting funding and developing, Siroya launched InVenture, a global credit scoring company that helps small businesses track daily revenue and expenses on their cell phones.
On InVenture’s mobile platform, InSight, small business owners in India can perform basic accounting – track revenues, expenses, profits and savings – through text messaging.
Siroya’s company uses the data it compiles to produce a credit score for each business, giving business owners leverage when negotiating larger loans to grow their companies.
After a loan’s been dispersed, InVenture continues tracking the repayment and how the loan is being used. “It kind of gives a warning signal to banks as well, in case something starts to go wrong,” Siroya said.
Lakshmi was one of InVenture’s first clients – after giving her a credit score, the company linked her to a formal bank.
“She now has the power to go to other banks and say here’s my credit score, here’s what I’ve done to my business – you should lend to me because I’m a really good client,” Siroya said.
With the access to capital, Lakshmi’s hired three employees and can now afford to send her daughter to vocational school.
“What we’re trying to do is give people opportunity,” Siroya said. “Now she not only has opportunity, but she has choice.”
InVenture clients have seen an average 30 percent increase in revenues and a six percent increase in savings, and 66 percent of clients use the program daily, Siroya said.
The company now boasts 2,500 clients in India and about 400 in New York City. Among them are clothing tailors, dairy sellers, brick makers, electricians and convenience store owners.
But Siroya said her work is nowhere near finished. “In India, there are over 400 million people that lack credit scores,” Siroya said. “It’s a daunting task to realize we’ve got a lot to do.”
Shivani Siroya with InVenture clients in India. Photo courtesy InVenture
The Brentwood resident is frequently hopping around the world – five of her teammates work out of InVenture’s Santa Monica office and five more work out of the company’s headquarters in Bangalore, India – but she’s originally from Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Managing two teams operating on a 12-and-a-half-hour time difference means that Siroya’s often working two full workdays in one 24-hour period. At 8 p.m. in Santa Monica, her team’s day in India begins at 8:30 a.m. “From around eight to midnight, I’m working,” she said, with a smile. “Just to make sure.”
Siroya’s frequently traveling, around the nation and to India. She visits InVenture’s headquarters almost every other month, and is constantly invited to speak at conferences and to participate in panel discussions.
In fact, her ears were still popping that afternoon, as she’d just landed in Los Angeles the night before after participating in the American Sustainable Business Council panel of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
For Siroya, it’s a labor of love. “There’s never a time when I pick her up from the airport and she’s not there waiting with a smile,” said her husband, Chet Devaskar. “Because she likes what she’s doing so much, it doesn’t wear her down.”
In Santa Monica, Siroya maintains a vibrant and active team. Next spring, the group plans to run a half-marathon together. “We have competition amongst each other, which is fun,” Siroya said, adding that she also hosts a community networking event in Santa Monica on the last Tuesday of every month.
While her entire extended family remains in India – including her 27 first cousins – she rarely sees them. Her work is based in South India, while her family lives up north.
Both Siroya’s parents immigrated to the United States from India, and from an early age, instilled in her a strong work ethic.
Her father, an investment banker, always challenged her growing up. The two would go on three-hour walks talking about everything – politics, economics, philosophy – and she’d read the newspaper with him every morning. “He’s the person I share everything with, the person I get advice from and inspiration from,” she said. “He made me think all the time.”
Starting when Siroya was eight years old, her father would give her a quarter for every book she read. As she grew older, her father realized he was losing a lot of quarters and upped the stakes. She not only had to read a book, but also complete a book report, and she’d earn 50 cents.
“He thought that would stop me, but instead I just kept on doing it,” she said, adding that she’d put her earnings toward comic books.
Siroya’s mother, who grew up in Udaipur, India, was the first female doctor in her community. She practiced gynecology, but when she immigrated to the United States, her medical training wasn’t accepted. So she redid her residency in endocrinology.
“She did it twice, most people can’t get through it once,” Siroya said, adding that observing her parents growing up strongly influenced her. “That’s really where I get it from.”
When Siroya told her parents she planned to ditch her lucrative career to follow her passion through InVenture, she thought they’d be disappointed. “I was really scared to tell them about it,” she said.
They surprised her. “My dad was like, ‘You have to do it,’” she recalled. “They see this like an entrepreneurial venture. And it’s something that I hope to help people with, but also create a profitable business.”
Devaskar, 30, is equally impressed. The two, who met in college about five years ago at Wesleyan, were recently married.
“She’ll come home from work or a trip dressed like Shivani the CEO, then she’ll go to the back room to freshen up and she’ll come back Wesleyan t-shirt – I’ll be like, there’s the original Shivani,” he said. “She never will change yet has managed to achieve so much.”