Shivani Siroya / Tala

8 min read
15 Jan 2024

hivani Siroya is the founder and CEO of Tala, the leading consumer-lending app in emerging markets. She previously held a variety of positions in global health, microfinance and investment banking, including with the United Nations Population Fund, Health Net, Citigroup and UBS. Shivani is an Aspen Institute Finance Leader Fellow, a WEF Young Global Leader, Senior TED Fellow and Ashoka Fellow. She is also on the board of She holds an MPH from Columbia University and a BA from Wesleyan University.

Shivani Siroya, Founder and CEO of Tala

What was the genesis of the idea for Tala?
When I worked at the UN Population Fund, I had the opportunity to interview over 3,500 individuals across nine different markets in West Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. I realized that access to credit was not just a problem in one country but across the board. It was a foundational infrastructure issue. People weren’t getting access to credit, savings or other financial products because we didn’t have the data on these customers to be able to understand their creditworthiness. Many times, we were missing a national ID, we didn’t have a credit score, and we didn’t understand what they were doing with the capital, or what they wanted to do or should do. We didn’t understand their daily life or true financial life.  

I realized there were ways for us to gain that data-understanding and develop a relationship with the customer to build that financial ecosystem. A lot of the data can be gathered through our mobile phones and through our own application. By doing thousands of interviews and living in those markets, I really viscerally understood the creditworthiness of the customer. The second piece was realizing there’s a potential way to solve this problem, and it’s not by just giving people money; it’s by actually solving the underlying root causes and infrastructure problems that exist in financial systems in emerging markets. That solves the system-wide problem and not just the product-access problem

What were your initial steps in moving from idea to startup?

I left the UN and started working in investment banking again. I couldn’t forget about this problem. I ended up emailing 1,500 people on LinkedIn, trying to find anybody else that was trying to solve it. As I talked to more mentors and advisors, people really told me, “Nobody’s solving this; you should do it.” It made me realize there was a hole in the industry. The first piece I always go to is: You have to identify a problem. You have to be proximate to the problem to understand the pain point your customers are feeling. 

The second piece is knowing, does another solution exist? You don’t want to bring something to the market that’s redundant, especially when you’re thinking about solving system problems. It’s not just about creating a better-quality product; it’s actually about solving that underlying issue. 

The next part is, how do I actually do this? I didn’t know a thing about the startup world or venture capital. I ended up learning how to code on the side and building our prototype and actually using my savings to test our models. I worked full time. A mentor of mine told me, “You’ve never done this. As a woman, you need to be independent. You need to be able to actually care for yourself through this process.” She told me that unless I had six to twelve months of rent in the bank, I could not quit my job. So I didn’t. Then, when I was having conversations with investors, things moved very quickly, because I understood why our solution was different, why this would work, what the problem was, the market opportunity. And I could come in with a lot more confidence.

Be willing to take the risk, because otherwise why are any of us doing this? Let’s not play safe.

What were some early struggles you encountered, and how did you overcome them?

One early one was the decision to do our own lending. Initially, when we started, our solution was about building a relationship with the customer. We’d work within these markets and get customers to download our application. The second piece was we would use their data, with their permission, and actually create credit scores for them and work with banks to help them gain access to credit. But it was slow. A challenge was feeling frustrated – we’ve developed these credit scores that we feel confident in, we feel like our customers are creditworthy, and yet they’re still not being treated well. So the challenge was feeling like you haven’t solved the problem. 

We decided to do a 180 and prove to the market that these customers were creditworthy. The best way to do that was to actually own our own destiny and own the entire value chain. So we went to our board and we said, “We’re going to go use our own capital to test the models and show the market that we’re right.” We overcame that challenge by trusting our gut and being willing to take the first risk. Looking back, is there anything you wish you’d known before jumping in or that you might have done differently?

As a small, scrappy startup, so many people are willing to join at that stage because they’re generalists. They’re willing to do anything you need and everyone’s all hands on deck. As you grow, you need to start thinking about specialization. You need to be thinking about the different tracks of work and skill you’ll need in the long term. Something I wish I’d known is to prepare for that a bit earlier – think through the timing of those specialists coming in, how we’re going to recruit them – having my eye on that a little earlier to develop those relationships. 

I think that’s something we don’t all talk about. We’re always talking about thinking one round ahead, making sure you raise more money than you need right now, but I think a lot of this is actually that people make really successful companies.

How has being Los Angeles–based influenced Tala?

It’s been great for us. We’re not in a bubble. We’re not sitting in Silicon Valley. We’re not sitting in New York. We have this amazing environment that promotes a very healthy attitude. There’s no distraction by the competitive nature of the other startups around you. We keep our heads down, we can stay humble and focused on the problem we’re solving and develop an internal culture that’s really strong. I think the community around us is also incredibly supportive because we each want each other to succeed. Because it’s a new emerging community in a sense, everyone is super excited about every startup that gets funded in Santa Monica or LA. It means that all the boats rise up together. I’ve noticed great references coming from other companies. We pass each other referrals. We talk about different investors and bring investors to each other’s companies. 

I think the challenge is that LA is an emerging community. In that sense, the city itself is changing around the startup scene as well. We’re starting to see a lot of folks move here from San Francisco and New York independently of job offers, just wanting to move their families for their own work–life balance. Earlier on, it was a challenge getting people to realize that, hey, if you move to LA and things don’t work out at Tala, there is still a ton of other really great companies here. Sometimes people felt like it was too big of a risk to move, which I think is now changing.

Shivani Siroya, Founder and CEO of Tala

What advice would you give entrepreneurs in the early stages of starting up?

Understand your customers and the issues affecting them. If you can walk in their shoes and really understand what problem you’re solving and internalize what that pain point is, then a solution will come about. You may adjust that solution multiple times, but you’re on the path to it because you’ve at least been able to internalize what you’re solving for. You’ve got that awareness and empathy for the problem. I think a lot of people jump to the solutions or jump to the fact that they want to start a company before actually knowing what the company would be.

What do you look back on as your biggest mistake?

I came into this saying we really want to have a systemic level of impact. We want to actually change an entire system globally. If that’s the case, then we should have been bolder from the starting point. Now we own that entire value chain and we’re fixing the whole thing piece by piece. When we started, we thought we only needed to fix a portion of it to actually have that system impact. A mistake is not being bold. I would tell others, you’re taking on a global problem – be bold about it. Be willing to take the risk, because otherwise why are any of us doing this? Let’s not play safe.

What about your best decision?

Every year that goes by, we push our vision even farther. That’s been really exciting and successful. We are relentless in that pursuit and constantly challenging our limits. I’m really proud of that, because it tells me that we’re not just doing the thing, but the how of how we’re doing it has become just as important to us.

What are you particularly excited about regarding Tala right now?

From the outside, it can look like we’re just a financial-services company or a lending company, but we have fundamentally had to create the entire financial stack to actually do what we do. Everything from thinking about how you identify someone to how you actually score them and how you service them. There’s a large component of infrastructure along with software. That’s the thing I would mention: when you talk to companies or when we talk to each other, how do we get at the deeper stuff that companies are actually solving instead of what we put out there as headlines.

What are your top work essentials?
Laptop, thirty-two-ounce water bottle, notebook.

At what age did you found your company?

What’s your most-used app?

What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Listen and learn. Be curious and constantly be open to change.

What’s your greatest skill?
My ability to believe in people.