Accelerating Global Fintech Ecosystems — Maelis Carraro, Director of Catalyst Fund
Miguel Armaza is joined by Maelis Carraro, Director of Catalyst Fund and the Impact Ventures Practice at BFA Global. The Catalyst Fund is an inclusive fintech accelerator supporting early-stage inclusive startups with flexible capital, bespoke venture building support, and connections to investors and corporate innovators.
Maelis has a rich background in the world of impact investing and entrepreneurship. Having been a researcher, operator, and entrepreneur, she joined BFA Global after working on her own startup in the remittances space. At BFA, Maelis spearheaded the creation of the Catalyst Fund with the goal of sharing her learnings with other entrepreneurs. Her startup experience helped her realize that while capital and funding is an important side of the entrepreneurial equation, expertise and technical know-how are even more important and often the real barriers to success.
Launching Catalyst Fund
Maelis and team set out to launch an inclusive fintech accelerator with the mandate of accelerating early-stage inclusive fintech startups. As they began crafting their strategy, most investors they talked to argued they were seeing multiple teams of early-stage entrepreneurs in emerging markets, but most didn’t meet the standards of quality these funds felt comfortable with. This is why it was decided the Catalyst Fund would have to provide catalytic capital and invest in early-stage companies while also helping them grow and get them “VC-ready”.
Their mandate helped convince JP Morgan and the Gates Foundation to become the first funders, as their missions were aligned and both institutions were looking to expand the financial health and well-being of low-income populations in emerging markets. In addition, they created an all-star Investor Advisory Committee comprised of experienced FinTech investors, including Accion Venture Lab, Quona Capital, 500 Startups, GrayGhost Ventures, Anthemis, and Flourish Ventures (ex Omidyar). As Maelis explains, “We wanted to have multiple actors in the market, needed for this kind of solution to work.”
Unlike other accelerators, the Catalyst Fund sources companies exclusively through their investment advisory committee comprised of one board member for each of the six investors. Every year, these investors present a selection of companies identified as too early for them but with a lot of potential to accelerate. Each board member is reserved a slot per cohort.
Maelis and her team focus on supporting entrepreneurs in only five markets: Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, India, and Mexico. They have a deliberately targeted strategy to support not only the companies they invest in but also the development and growth of the wider Fintech ecosystem in the country. As such, the Catalyst Fund helps local Fintech markets in three ways:
1. Unlocking capital at the early stage. It’s no secret that emerging markets lack sufficient funds with risk-appetite for early-stage companies. The goal is to de-risk startups at the onset of their journey and work with investors to get them more comfortable investing in startups.
2. Pathways to scale. The Catalyst Fund works closely with local corporate partners and innovators to help drive exit opportunities and familiarize traditional corporations with the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
3. Connect startups with local talent. One of their most important missions is to work closely with college students and showcase to young talent the value and potential of startups and help demonstrate the startup route is a viable professional path.
As the COVID-19 crisis began to unfold, their extremely diverse and international portfolio meant their companies were being affected in different ways. As soon as the challenge became evident, Maelis and her team brought their investors and portfolio companies together and gave them a platform to share experiences, compare notes, and learn from each other on how best to navigate the crisis. In fact, Maelis shared that some of their companies quickly pivoted and responded by adapting their product offering to play meaningful roles in their communities in responding to the crisis.
As the crisis also threatens short-term investing volumes in emerging markets, Maelis is busier than ever ensuring VCs continue to focus on emerging market startups. She urges the investment community not to hit the brake on investing in these communities, but, in fact, double down on supporting and creating the vehicles that allow capital to flow to those markets and their attractive opportunities.
You can find the transcript of this episode here.
Maelis Carraro is the Director of Catalyst Fund and the Impact Ventures Practice at BFA Global. She spent her career working alongside fintech startups, investors, banks, and donors to pioneer tech and data-enabled solutions for underserved communities in emerging markets. She runs global accelerator-Catalyst Fund, supported by JP Morgan Chase & Co and the UK Department for International Development, and helped over 30 early-stage fintech startups create innovative and affordable solutions for underserved populations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Previously, Maelis worked at the International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group), advising financial institutions on digital innovation and responsible financial inclusion strategies across fragile and emerging markets, as well as the OECD and the Grameen Bank, where she researched micro-financing schemes for climate adaptation in South Asia, and impact fund- Global Partnerships, where she designed impact investing strategies to support tech-enabled businesses across Africa. Maelis also co-founded RemitMas, an inclusive fintech startup focused on remittances for savings for Latino immigrants in the US.
Maelis is a Fulbright Scholar and holds a dual MBA and Master in International Affairs from Columbia Business School and the School of International and Public Affairs. She received her B.A Cum Laude from University College London in Political Science and Development Economics.
About BFA Global
BFA is a global consulting firm striving to build inclusive economies for a sustainable and equitable world. Together with partners and clients, BFA works at the frontier of applied research and innovation using finance, data, technology, and behavioral science to build solutions for underserved populations.
About Catalyst Fund
Catalyst Fund is BFA’s flagship inclusive fintech accelerator, supported by The UK Department for International Development (DFID), JPMorgan Chase & Co, and previously the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Catalyst Fund accelerates early-stage inclusive fintech startups with flexible capital, bespoke venture building support, and connections to investors and corporate innovators. It also accelerates the ecosystem by fostering networks of fintech investors, corporates, and talent organizations, to spur more fintech innovation for the world’s 3 billion underserved.
Accelerating Global Fintech Ecosystems — Maelis Carraro, Director of Catalyst Fund was originally published in Wharton FinTech on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.