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Upasana Taku gave up the high life to help the financially underserved

MobiKwik's Upasana Taku gave up a promising career at PayPal in the US to start from scratch in India. Her goal: Financial access for the underserved

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Mar 16, 2017 06:53:42 AM IST
Updated: Mar 15, 2017 09:46:11 PM IST

Upasana Taku has faced gender biases. For instance, financiers have told her they had expected to deal with a man. Her self-respect didn’t allow her to work with such people anyway, she says
Image: Mexy Xavier

About four months ago, Upasana Taku, 37, went up on stage at a hotel in Delhi to talk about MobiKwik Lite at a launch event. The event was streamed live on the video streaming app Periscope; the lighting was poor and the audio wasn’t of high quality; also, the slide presentation in the background was lost on those tuning in.

Taku, however, was in her element. After all, she believed that what was being launched had the potential to solve a major problem for a large number of people in this country, well beyond the smartphone-toting, English-speaking set.

MobiKwik Lite is a version of the popular mobile wallet that Taku and co-founder Bipin Preet Singh (also her husband) introduced in 2011. The light version takes up only 700KB of memory and works on the cheapest feature phones. It doesn’t need more than intermittent connections to the internet and functions on 2G networks as well. Soon, says Taku, it will work with just text messages.

 “I wanted to solve a really big, first-generation problem in a large country and India turned out to be the place to do it,” says Taku, who had evaluated other markets with large underserved populations, including other emerging economies. The market is only growing: There are currently over 700 million feature phone users in India, a market in which feature phone sales have gone up over the last two quarters. The majority of the users are either from areas that have indifferent internet connectivity or from low-income segments.

Taku came back to India from the US in 2008, “much against the wishes of my family”: Her physics professor father and musician mother were in Africa—her father was teaching at the University of Asmara in Eritrea; they returned to India in 2009—and an elder sister was settled in Canada.

They were all concerned about Taku eschewing the “socially approved, safe path” of pursuing a stable corporate career in the land of milk and honey.

After a post-grad degree from Stanford University, and a stint with the US operations of HSBC, where she was part of a fintech startup the bank had bought, Taku joined PayPal. There, “I was on the fast track,” she says, a statement of fact—no bragging.

After around 18 months of joining PayPal, she was elevated to the position of senior product manager, and played a strong role in a $200 million acquisition of an Israeli startup. Had she stayed on, or moved to another company in Silicon Valley, she would have, most likely, quickly progressed to position of director of product development or perhaps more. “I had a good place, a car, a bike,” she says, looking back at her life in the tech capital of the world. “I was taking a risk coming back.”

Instead, she found herself on passenger trains to Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, working for the rural microfinance NGO Drishtee, while she figured out her next logical step.

She was propelled by a determination to get her own way. And this is something young Taku recognised in herself fairly early on, she recalls. Her Kashmiri parents had moved to Gujarat in the 1960s. After finishing his studies, her father found a job in Surat and Taku was born in Gandhidham.

Her persistence manifested in, well, interesting ways. For instance, as a high school student, she remembers going out into their balcony and cutting the cable television connection. “I was trying to study, and my father and sister were watching TV and even after I asked them three times they wouldn’t reduce the volume,” she says. This explains why Taku had never failed at anything and managed to stay on top of her studies, although “I was never first”.

Taku urges women to chase their startup dreams—the hurdles, she demonstrates, are surmountable

The no-nonsense Taku was, therefore, taken aback when she moved to Jalandhar to study industrial engineering at the Regional Engineering College (REC) there. (The RECs are now called National Institutes of Technology.) There was a dress code for women: The salwar-kameez. Taku and her father had to scramble to buy her a few sets to replace the jeans and T-shirts her suitcase was full of.

Worse, sexual harassment, which in India is still coined “eve-teasing”, was an everyday occurrence, she says, recalling how a friend had to be hospitalised after being assaulted by some men outside a movie theatre.

All this was such a shock that “for the first time in my life, I failed in one subject”, Taku remembers. That her parents never scrimped on long-distance calls, phoning her every day at her hostel to keep her morale up, and offering emotional support, was a big deal, she points out. “In Gujarat, I or any girl could safely cycle home from after-school tuitions at 9:30 pm, so for me it [the new lifestyle] was a shock,” she says.

Of course, she adapted fast, got a move on and did well enough to get herself to Stanford University, from where she got her master’s degree in management science and engineering. Her work history includes a two-year stint at the Stanford University Linear Accelerator Laboratory—a facility used to study particle physics.

Taku’s ability to confront tough choices and make solid decisions also benefited her husband Singh, 37. He met her at a play in Delhi in late 2008; one of the friends he was with knew Taku. “The thing that struck me most about Upasana was that she was quite straightforward and also independent-minded in her pursuit. The strength of her conviction was also obvious—easy to chat with but hard to argue with!” Singh tells Forbes India. “It was clear that unlike a lot of other expats, she had not returned to an easy life in India.”

She wanted to make an impact, he says, and had started out by working with an NGO, even willing to do difficult field work by going to rural areas in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. “It was no CV she was creating [by working with the NGO]; she already had a stellar one,” says Singh.

“When a small group got together after the play [where Singh met her for the first time], both of us found the idle chatter a bit flimsy. The rest, as they say, is history,” he recalls. “We became really good friends quickly after we met.” They got married in February 2011 and now have a one-year-old son.
They had met towards the end of 2008. By that time, Singh had already started thinking about MobiKwik and was in the process of putting together some kind of a plan. “I was not happy with my job and my conversations with Upasana bordered on frustration,” he says. “I also used to complain that I have to support my family so I can’t really quit my job.” He had even tried his luck at a few short-term consulting gigs just so he could make some money in case he quit his job.

“Upasana and I had a heated debate one day where she asked me to focus and pick the one thing the pursuit of which will make me really happy and stop everything else,” Singh says. She had bluntly asked him, “If you aren’t going to do this now, when do you think you’ll be able to do it?”

Once it was clear that MobiKwik was that pursuit, Taku urged him to identify what was needed to start a website, to hire the people to do the specialist tech work required and assess how much money would be needed for a launch. She remembers saying: “If our job-market value at the time was say Rs 3 lakh a month, could we make Rs 50,000 instead, and focus on the startup?”

Despite setbacks, she persevered and developed a user-centric product loved by millions.

Singh adds: “Upasana gave me the confidence that MobiKwik could become a real business and not just a hobby and her confidence led me to quit my job and start formally.” He started One MobiKwik Systems Pvt Ltd in August 2009, and by February the following year, Taku too dived in full time as co-founder.

India’s tech landscape is constantly evolving and startups are drawing significant attention from overseas investors. In that context, Taku has actively urged other women to chase their startup dreams—the hurdles, she demonstrates, are surmountable.

Consider that her obvious achievements notwithstanding, Taku has publicly admitted to have faced gender biases; for instance, on approaching a bank or an investor, officials have told her they had expected to deal with a man. “My answer would be, sure I’ll send a male, but he wouldn’t know how to answer any of your questions, but I do, so what will it be?” That said, her self-respect wouldn’t allow her to work with such financiers anyway, she says.

Taku’s involvement helped MobiKwik stay bootstrapped all the way to profitability in its first three years; in 2013, the company raised $5 million in its first major funding round. It has since attracted marquee VCs including Sequoia Capital and Tree Line Asia as well as corporate venture investments from Cisco Investments, Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek and Japan’s GMO Payment Gateway.

Today, the MobiKwik wallet is used by around 45 million users, and a million merchant establishments accepting payments via its platform.

The burgeoning digital payments market—and changing consumer habits (some of it a result of government policy)—has provided players like MobiKwik with an unprecedented opportunity. However, it has to contend with the Alibaba Group-backed Paytm, India’s largest mobile wallet provider, with a user base that’s over three times as large. Then there is the upsurge in mobile wallet offerings from banks as well as other players such as telecom company Bharti Airtel, India’s biggest wireless provider.

Simply put, it isn’t a sleepy market.

Ask Preety Pandey, who joined MobiKwik recently to head the startup’s finance department. “I joined MobiKwik at a time when it was in the thick of action due to demonetisation,” she tells Forbes India.

Pandey, an MBA from Chicago University’s Booth School of Business, has previously worked at Flipkart and Grofers. She joined MobiKwik because she wanted to help accelerate India’s adoption of digital finance. “Upasana is a go-getter, a high-energy person and someone who is putting sincere and meaningful effort to add value to the payments ecosystem in India,” she says. “And I believe MobiKwik will help me play a significant part.”

Taku and Singh want to increase the number of merchants accepting MobiKwik to five million by the end of this calendar year, and take their wallet user base to 200 million over the next three years.

The company has raised about $85 million so far and continues to add new lines of related businesses and additional features for consumers who use its wallet and app—bus ticket booking is a simple example. At the expected growth, Taku expects MobiKwik will be profitable again in three years.

“When we met Upasana the first time and heard about her journey, a few things struck us—her deep knowledge and interest in the payments business, her passion to return to India with a vision to evolve India’s digital payment ecosystem and her tenacity,” Gautam Mago, a managing director at Sequoia Capital in India, tells Forbes India. “And despite initial setbacks and facing family opposition, she persevered and developed a product which was user-centric and loved by millions. We are glad to be in partnership with her at MobiKwik and hope she will continue to motivate another generation of women entrepreneurs in India.”

Taku can take genuine pride in the transformation of MobiKwik from a payments platform to one that offers financial access. She points to how, unlike more advanced economies, credit is still out of reach for millions of honest borrowers in India. People should have “credit for anything and everything”, she says.

Indeed they should. For every one borrower looking to buy a fancy smartphone on credit in India, there are probably 500 others simply looking to improve their meagre-to-modest earnings, away from the clutches of loan sharks. If Taku has her way, this search will no longer be a struggle.

(This story appears in the 17 March, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)