Letitia is co-founder of Finanshria, an online marketplace to match make the Islamic community with Islamic finance solutions. She has a background in investment banking and lives on the South Bank, on the borders both Southwark and Lambeth.
Tell us about your business and where the business idea came from?
Finanshria is an online marketplace to match make the Islamic community with Islamic finance solutions. We are building the equivalent of Go Compare. The business model is business to business and then to the customer. We’re covering the B2B side by bringing a lot of those offline providers of Islamic finance online on our platform. Then finding customers for them and matching customers with those products.
My cofounders and I all separately went to the STRIDE OneTech Startup 54 event in February 2020 with our individual business ideas. One of the other team members is from the Islamic community and she told us her experience of trying to buy property in the UK. She couldn’t find an Islamic compliant mortgage provider so they invested in Pakistan instead. She also explained a lot of other difficulties around finding 100% Sharia-compliant finance solutions. When we interrogated the problem, we realized that there is a huge gap. There are providers in the UK market, but it’s not a transparent market, so it’s very difficult to find the solutions. People easily invest overseas because it’s a much bigger market in the Middle East and Asia. So we asked what could we create as a minimum viable product that could add value to the Islamic community in the UK-a marketplace where people could find solutions according to their Islamic faith which also retains investment in the UK.
What stage is your business at now?
At the moment we’re developing the first version of the product from a technology and functional point of view. None of us has a tech background. I have an investment banking background. The other co-founder is an architect, the third co-founder is a lawyer. I have some experience working in the digital transformation which is useful to guide us through the product development stages.
Have you thought about your investment strategy?
We are self-funded right now and applying for some innovation grants in the UK and from the European Commission. Later we’ll look at private investment opportunities.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and if and how it influenced your business journey.
I worked in investment banking for 15 years. I always thought about starting a business but I didn’t know-how. When I was at university, business courses were very much about business administration. Fast forward 15 years later we’ve got organizations like OneTech to provide accessible support for people to generate an idea all the way through to starting a business.
In 2012 I started my own side hustle with a mentoring and consulting business in the fintech space and through that, I learnt more about the innovation and startup ecosystem. I left banking in 2018 to focus on my consultancy.
So when this opportunity came up I knew I could do it because I have a compliance and product background in banking, I’ve worked in digital transformation and I understand that the technology needs to support the business. Now I am a fintech founder! There is so much support so it’s a fantastic time. I’m very excited about it.
Can you tell me a bit about the challenges that you’ve faced along the way and how you’ve overcome them?
Our main challenge is being non-tech specialists, really understanding the technology stack that we need to build. Whilst I do have some experience from my previous jobs working in digital transformation it’s quite different to build something from scratch yourself. We have to go through that learning curve, understanding how we can monetize our products, and recruit the right tech talent. The impact of COVID 19 means there are a number of graduates coming out of university with a lot of technical skills we require, in this environment, that gives us an opportunity to hire some really good talent.
Do you feel that there’s anything in your background that’s been either an advantage or disadvantage in your career generally, but also in the startup journey?
I think something that has been an advantage could easily be a disadvantage. I was born in Ghana and came here to the UK when I was seven years old. I had a very fluid identity and I was able to compare the benefits of both societies. Going through the education system, through various institutions, to working in a predominantly white male environment. In investment banking, I felt that my background gave me a lens to always be able to compare and have a critical analysis.
My co-founders and I are all female immigrants coming from different continents and different religious backgrounds. I am black African. One is from Pakistan, the other one is Indian. We are working together in London, which is a very diverse place, and these diverse experiences we bring together give us an advantage. The niche we’re working in terms of Islamic finance is very male-dominated, we think that our experience, our backgrounds, our individual and collective insights will add a unique lens.
Will your product target women?
We’re targeting both men and women. But what we’re finding is that women are looking for lifestyle financial products, for example for weddings, nest building, etc., and we can bring that into the product mix. Equally, when speaking to males they also will have their financial priorities.
Tell me a bit about the STRIDE OneTech programme. How did you hear about it and how did it support you?
I heard about it through Capital Enterprise. I first went on the Start-Up 54 programme then it made sense to go on a longer program, the pre-accelerator, together with my new co-founders.
I found the program really useful, in particular, the mentoring and coaching aspect of, which helped us to think about our journey. The speakers provided good coverage on product development sales and so on. We found it very informative and structured, what we learnt and built is a good foundation to continue our journey.
It’s provided us with a community of peers and experts we can reach out to as well.
Do you think you have developed new skill sets as a result of being on the STRIDE OneTech programme?
I think I have. I think I could now call myself a co-founder of a tech company and that is a skill in itself. It can be very daunting. But this programme has helped me step into that role. Thinking about how to create something from scratch, going through that process of product development myself, thinking about how to fund the business, how to create revenues. So there are definitely new skill sets I didn’t have before.
Where will you go for the next stage of support?
We do recognize that we still need support and for that, we really need to have an MVP. We’re thinking of applying to fintech specific incubators and accelerator programs over the next three to six months.
Do you have any views on South London as a place to build a tech business?
The tech ecosystem is known to be in Shoreditch and the financial district. I don’t think South London has had the same opportunity to develop. That’s why the STRIDE program is really important because there are top talents and diverse talents here. There are people who live in South London who commute to the city or Canary Wharf and lots of professionals and young people as well. So I think South London has been maybe a little bit of a neglected neighbour.
There is a lot of opportunities and by investing in South London we will start to see local economic growth which becomes especially important with the impact of COVID 19 where people’s jobs and livelihoods have been put at risk. Traditionally in crisis, people think about starting businesses and becoming self-sufficient. So I think it’s an opportunity to help south London residents to start that entrepreneurship journey.
In terms of the impact of COVID and recent events on the global black community I feel that it’s a fuel in a fire to resolve challenges of social justice and us in the black community to build opportunities for ourselves. It’s a time of self-reflection but it’s also a time where people are getting their heads down and doing things and making changes.
Do you plan to base your business in South London?
Yes, absolutely. There is a growing ecosystem in south London of co-working spaces and support. So I see no reason to leave.
What are your dreams and plans for the future?
We believe we can be a fintech market leader. We are the only fintech Islamic marketplace. We want to grow our market share, grow our presence. In 3-5 years’ time, we’ll think about expanding to other parts of Europe and the Middle East. Our dream is to look at an IPO for the business and possibly offer banking products rather than just being a marketplace.
The vision is also to think about how we can lever alternative finance into tech platforms. That could help certain parts of society or certain segments of a business journey. Other communities have money systems like in the African community we have what we call Susu which is a form of community lending. The potential for growth is enormous.
Are there any entrepreneurs or businesses that you particularly admire or who have been a source of inspiration for you personally?
Foundervine is inspirational running this One Tech program and addressing barriers for founders like myself. Izzy Obeng, David Fosayo, Cecile Adjalo. I’m a generation older than them and it’s reassuring to see a younger generation that are so headstrong, so focused and actually making real step changes in terms of change.
There are a number of businesses in our space in terms of Islamic finance that are quite inspirational like Wahed. There’s one called Insha, which is backed by a larger bank.
In general companies like Revolut, Monzo, and Starling bank are inspirational in terms of how they listen to their customers. They develop products that people want and that solves a problem. So for us, they are good role models as well.
Is there anything you wish you’d known before you set off on your founder journey?
I wish I’d done this before!
I wish I had known that it’s actually very easy to start something. You don’t need to spend six months on a huge business plan. You can literally start from the idea. Build the idea in a lean way. It’s a journey and it doesn’t have to be perfect from day one.
Is there any advice or message that you would have in particular for underrepresented founders?
Sometimes as underrepresented founders, especially when we think about our population size and serving our community specifically, it may feel like your idea is already being done by somebody else. But that isn’t a reason not to start. Don’t be deterred just because someone else is doing it. In general, the market likes to have competition. It likes to have a choice. What makes you different is how you execute. Another thing is the fear taking that risk, the first step to overcome that fear is to rationalise, which will help you to realise that it’s not as is as fearful as you think. Create a financial buffer for yourself to plan your transition from part-time to a full-time founder.
There are a lot of resources out there in terms of access to finance. There are grants, angel investors and VC firms and PE funds that recognize the potential of underrepresented communities and are specifically investing in them.
Is there anything else that you think you’d like to add that that’s important either in your personal or your career background or journey that’s key to your story.
Going and working in the industry actually gave me skills that I have now transferred. First and foremost running my own consultancy and now this fintech startup. So there are many potential founders out there who might be thinking ‘I don’t have an idea to start with’. But your skills are so relevant in the market that you could actually create a business based on your skills. There might be a problem in your profession that you face on a day to day basis at work that, could potentially be the genesis of a business idea.
There is still the time and the opportunity to start a business. Becoming a startup isn’t only for young people who are rolling out of university. It can happen at any life stage.
Letitia is a speaker at London Tech Week’s “How I Started: Meet the South London Founders Scaling New Ideas” on Thursday 10th September at 2 pm. Register now – https://londontechweek.com/event/how-i-started-meet-the-south-london-founders-scaling-new-ideas-diversity-and-inclusivity