Ignorance, Infrastructure, Insanity - Talking transfers, tech and holding her own - An Interview with TransferGuru CEO and Co-Founder Shreya Hewett
May 11, 2016
Fresh from the success of her first conference - Hewett gave a speech at Oxford’s prestigious Holywell Manor Festival on the ‘The 40 billion dollar problem’ in finance - we sat down with the TransferGuru CEO to discuss the future of the project and her experiences as a woman in Fintech. Far from resting on her laurels, we found Shreya in a combative and thoughtful mood, and with plenty to say about where everything’s heading…
Why did you decide to start TransferGuru?
There’s a really pressing need to compare remittances. We weren’t setting out to make a living out of TransferGuru. It was about trying to fix a problem. Rather than thinking about it as a startup idea, or from a purely business point of view, we actually thought about the people we were trying to solve a problem for. There are millions of people sending and receiving remittances, whose lives run quite closely to mine at certain points. I have a family that’s spread across different countries and Omid, our other co-founder, does as well. Remittance charges are a real problem, but once you decide you want to solve a problem it’s much easier to make a business run well.
What exactly were these problems?
It has got a lot cheaper to remit, but a lot of the financial infrastructure still hasn’t caught up. Many people send money abroad via their bank, but banks charge the most. Ten percent, twenty percent of what you’re sending is just a fee. A lot of people don’t realise that there are more convenient options that are dramatically cheaper.
How much does that ten percent mean to people regularly transferring money?
It really adds up. I’m thinking of people I know personally sending money home, and that ten percent can mean so much. Over the course of a year it can be a flight home.
And yet, you still have this black hole in the middle that just sucks up all the revenue instead of getting to where the sender wants it to.
You’ve spoken before about a gender imbalance in FinTech, or finance and tech in general. Is that still on the radar?
Absolutely it is. Science, technology, engineering and maths are the classic STEM subjects, and women are thoroughly underrepresented in them. There are huge conversations going on about ‘the leaky pipeline’ - the further up a tech company you go, the fewer women there are. The industry has made progress, and there are a lot of wonderful people doing a lot to help, by taking new approaches to flexible working and that kind of thing. But the problem persists.
Can you talk about some of your experiences?
After I left university I worked with a social enterprise to help school-age girls get into careers in STEM. I spent loads of time talking to young girls about possible careers, trying to introduce them to role models that they might otherwise not have come across.
One of the things we did was ask girls to try and name ten famous women in science. Try it - it’s hard.
This is important - it’s so much easier to aspire to something if you can see that someone like you is doing it. I was completely shocked that these girls - girls in Primary School - had already completely ruled out the idea of doing anything related to science or tech. But you’d meet them, teach them how to build basic apps and design games, and so many of them were surprised by how creative they could be.
Doing that work set me up pretty well for TransferGuru. I’m certainly more aware of the environment in which I’m working. It is male-dominated, and I’ve learned to recognise instances where my gender works against me. But once you notice these things, you can start to work against them and create a more inclusive environment for women. Unless a man has spent at least three to six months doing research, they’re just not equipped to do this. Yeah, of course you can still go and start your own company. But will it be as inclusive? Maybe not. As a woman, I’m building inclusivity right into the foundations of this company.
Is there anything tech can do, as an industry, to become more inclusive?
Fortunately, in this country, there is a lot of employment protection. But this means that the problems with gender inequality are much more subtle, they occur in tiny details rather than being enshrined in company policy. So it’s often attitudes that need to change.
For example, you’ll get instances where people will assume I’m (Co-founder) Omid’s wife rather than the CEO. This might be because of company culture or personal biases, but people don’t anticipate a woman in a leadership position. I would hate to go into a big pitching day or a selection day, pitch as a woman, and have somebody think “well, the CEO couldn’t be bothered to turn up, they just sent a woman.” That’s really problematic.
The gender imbalance can harm your business in other ways, too. So women remit more than men, right. If your remittance company is 95 percent male, then you’re less likely to understand the needs of your customers. You might hit the wrong note in your marketing, for example, if you have a bunch of men sitting around trying to work out what women with international families need from the remittance industry.
How do you deal with those prejudices - personally?
Much of it just goes over my head. I’ve accepted that this will be a long process of reforming attitudes. Trivial things like people thinking I’ll be left out of a conversation about football don’t bother me - but I understand that they can be troubling for many people. It’s when people make assumptions about my abilities because I’m a woman, that does really bother me.
When people’s personal prejudices compound that feeling of not belonging, that can be really damaging. If you’re a woman in a leadership position, how long do you persist when you’re being made to feel like you don’t belong? There’s a cushty job somewhere else that’s more stable, with more money, which doesn’t require you to constantly swim against the tide in a male dominated industry. That’s one of the reasons why so many women drop off before they reach CEO - that is ‘the leaky pipeline’.
I’m lucky though. We have a great team, but more importantly we’re working on a problem that absolutely needs to be solved. I’m not going anywhere until we’ve brought remittance costs down.
So it’s about the cumulative effect of those individual incidents?
Yeah. I’m super confrontational so I’ll just say, ‘Ha. That’s funny. I actually support Arsenal’, or ‘We’re not married to each other, just co-founders’!
Still, it’s insane to think that in 2016 your business may actually be damaged because of some people’s negative attitudes towards women. Women have to put up with being compared to potential investors’ wives, have to justify being in a boardroom and not at home with the kids. The only way to change those attitudes is to get more women in. And people are doing really wonderful things about that, raising awareness, having women-only pitching days.
Have you been to anything like that? Women only pitching days, for example. What were they like?
I was still a little intimidated - but because the women there are all so incredibly talented. But these events are really important, and meeting women working towards similar goals is great. Being around them really normalises the idea of women in tech.
Turning back to remittances, you’ve said before that they are, ‘the lifeblood of today’s global society’. What did you mean by that?
More people than ever are moving across borders, and something like one in ten people on the planet send or receive remittances. Families are international, the economy is international. The amount of money crossing borders is huge. It’s bigger than foreign aid, it’s bigger than foreign direct investment, it’s often better at aiding development than either.
But the problem remains that for decades there’s been no proper competition in the remittance market, so a few providers have basically been able to operate local monopolies and charge ridiculous fees.
So proper competition has emerged now? Why has it taken so long?
That’s a good question. For a long time there just weren’t enough competitors. The market was dominated by large legacy companies, and people struggled to last long enough to provide serious competition. Real competition - competition with substantial coverage - has only come about in the last five years with new digital companies. You’ll get a digital company starting off in one corridor, and maybe if their marketing is successful then they’ll be able to expand. Suddenly, this competition is proliferating. Rather than having two or three providers in one corridor, now you have ten or twenty.
Generally, the old companies still have the biggest market shares. Their customers often aren’t aware of the newer competition because a lot of people decide where to remit based on habit.
Where there’s money involved, security and trust are also huge factors. I’d be reluctant to trust somebody and change my habits after seeing a single advertisement in my local newsagents. You’ll always think ‘who are these people? What are they going to do with my money? What guarantees can they provide?’ If you have a platform where you can compare providers that you know are trustworthy, then it’s much easier for people to change their habits and get a better deal.
The finance industry bears some responsibility too. If you look at where money is in the world, it’s in finance, it’s in banking, it’s in wealth management. Finance is such a well resourced industry but it’s phenomenally failing a lot of people, and that’s a problem that needs addressing.
When we’ve done market research, we’ve come across all sorts of people with problems with international money, whether it’s paying off your student loans in Sweden, or paying for your daughter’s tuition. Banking and finance just doesn’t provide the right answer, or a good enough answer for such a well resourced industry. It’s a genuine frustration that too many people face, but many just see it as part of being an international family, or think that because they’re a migrant, it’s just their problem. It shouldn’t be like that.
What’s TransferGuru’s role in all this?
TransferGuru is going to be that platform, where everyone has the same say, everyone is presented equally. No voice is louder than another. We are the one place where you can compare exactly the corridor and exactly the amount you’re looking for, and we can tell you who’s operating, how much it costs, how long it’ll take, and provide the assurance that if they’re on our site, then they have FCA approval or the necessary approval from the relevant financial regulator. The idea is that you can know nothing about how to send money home, but can come to our site and within 60 seconds you’ll know what the best way is for you.
Is that still an issue? Impartiality?
It is. It’s something we decided really early on - to commit to impartiality. We’re customer focused, we’re trying to solve a problem, not set up a successful company for the sake of it. The successful company is a byproduct. What the customer wants is impartial advice and a voice they can trust, and that means not backing a particular firm or provider.
That’s where some of our competitors have fallen down - they’ve done deals with the providers they feature and just lost all impartiality. If you do that once, what’s to say you’re not going to do it over and over again? That’s why on TransferGuru there is no way that someone can promote themselves. An equal platform - that’s the key.
And the customer can decide what’s most important to them. Whether that’s the cheapest option, the transfer time, or the trust reviews. We provide everything.
And TransferGuru’s plans for the future?
The big dream is to make international money transfer as cheap and easy as sending money internally. It should be as easy to send a hundred quid to your friend in another continent as it is to send it to your next-door neighbour. We want to bridge the gap between sending money online and sending cash from your local shop, so both are equally quick, fair and cheap.
But really, I suppose remittance price comparison is one small step to a much bigger vision of fixing these leaks where money just disappears into the hands of banks and MTOs.
We just want people to keep more of their money.
Interested in reading more about remittance or gender issues? You can read our special report on women and international money transfers.