India will be the world's largest digital economy. COVID turned everything upside down, the West had to ask for help, says the founder of India's largest fintech company

Jan Růžička

Lizzie Chapman is currently one of the most interesting figures in world business. Ten years ago, she left prestigious positions in London and went to India where, five years ago, she founded a fintech start-up ZestMoney, which provides financial services to households that cannot use banks and have no credit history. There are currently 300 million such clients. "We hate European plastic credit cards and we are completely against them. Our motto is: 'kill the cards'," she says in an interview she gave to INFO.CZ.

SVĚT — Lizzie Chapman

Lizzie, you have lived in India for many years. You are super successful there with your business, you run a start-up scene, you provide advice to the Indian government on start-ups, you sit on multiple boards of big companies. So, you are living an Indian dream… So, let’s start please, tell us your story: How have you arrived in India and why?

It will sound funny, but I do love Bollywood films. That was the beginning. And through them, I developed a real passion for India. I think it's a fascinating country not just from my own perspective, but also historically and economically. It's charming here, and I love its diversity and complexity. No matter how much time you spend in India, you will never understand it fully. That's just a tremendous challenge.

So, being interested and intrigued by this country from my childhood I actively managed to put my career towards it. First, I was analyzing Indian banks. That was back in London, and I eventually invested in them on behalf of my City companies.  Then, I was quite tactical: one of my companies invested in fintech called Wonga, which decided to launch their business in India. And they asked if I would like to go there, and that was my chance.

That was in 2011. I was a little bit naive and a little bit fresh off the boat and turned up in Mumbai. I meant to stay for maybe eighteen months and well... ten years later, here I am.

Where do you live now? In one of the traditional centers like Calcutta or Mumbai?

I live in Bangalore, which is like the Silicon Valley of India. That is where all the tech companies are. It is an enjoyable and exciting city with entrepreneurs, very digital.

I also have a home in Mumbai because it's the heart of the financial district and I also have a real soft spot for it. It is very historical; it's beautiful. They call it a maximum city because there is 24/7 energy. The city never sleeps.

Before you went to India, you already had had very sexy brands in your CV: Goldman Sachs, Wellcome Trust, DBS. It is quite a shift from a hotshot in London to a digital entrepreneur in Southern India.

Well, I never wanted to go in this direction, I mean finance, stock, investments. My dream was to be in the world of biotechnology. That was also my degree from Edinburgh: clinical microbiology. Then, I got a job at Goldman Sachs as a biotechnology analyst. Great. Then like a week before I was due to start, there was a big reshuffle and they told me that there is no biotech for me, but that I can become a bank analyst.

I come from a family of people who are the opposite of bankers. They are very creative and artistic, and I genuinely had no idea what to think about becoming a banker. So, there was a real shock for me on Day 1. However, I still believe it was the best training I could have ever had. Plus, from that moment I think that putting yourself in challenging situations is the only way to become excellent.

Anyway, I was the only woman in a team of about thirty male bank-analysts in London. A lot of them had PhDs from economics, finance, math... and I had my microbiology. It was very challenging, but I learned a lot.

I understand you a lot when you speak about ending up in finance. Similarly, I spent ten years in health care, and then I ended up in finance. Beginning... well beginning was tough. You mentioned one big brand you worked for: Wonga. Wonga used to be a household name, but it's not anymore. Can you tell us a bit more?

I joined Wonga in 2011. I had invested in the company just before that because it had by far the most incredible technology and infrastructure for automated lending. I believed and I still do that the only way to genuinely drive credit adoption, especially in some of the new emerging markets, was to do that by digital technology, big data, and artificial intelligence.

When I met with the Wonga team and saw what they built, I could see a potential to go far outside of Europe, to make the most exciting and scalable products globally thus driving financial inclusion and financial penetration.

The best way to develop any economy is to provide access to financial products for everybody. That is why I fell in love with the Wonga story. What was remarkable was that at the time, a small team of about fifty people in London in a small house was already serving circa four million customers around the world in countries like Poland or South Africa. It was a fantastic experience with some of the best, smartest minds that I've met ever in my life.

As you know, it finished in tears: company crushed, its valuation as well and we went from being a billion-dollar company to zero. The company effectively was sold in liquidation. It was a great lesson for me, including the fact I got a very healthy respect for the regulatory issues. We all operate within a government and financial infrastructure that we must respect. That was a great learning experience, and I think it has been the secret of our success with the Zest.