Photo by Agustín Diaz on Unsplash

A youth spent in El Salvador and Spain brings Quona’s Jonathan Whittle to investments in Latin America

Growing up was kind of an adventure for Quona co-founder and partner Jonathan Whittle. “My Dad was a missionary starting churches in El Salvador and Costa Rica when I was young,” says Whittle. “I grew up fully bicultural, very much a part of the community we were in, whether it was the life and culture in Spain, where I spent my 10 most formative years, or even Southern California, where we moved when I was 16.” The moving around required adapting to new situations — something he and his brothers became quite good at, living in more than a dozen different homes before college.

The missionary life affected him in other ways, too. “I always tell my Dad that he’s where my brothers and I got our entrepreneurial bug — we grew up with him starting churches and then moving on once they were established. His example of starting things but not necessarily running them long-term seems to have influenced us all — we really like variety and taking on new challenges and feeling that satisfaction that comes with starting things from a blank slate and seeing them emerge and then looking back and realizing, ‘hey, I was instrumental in making this happen.’”

The jump from being a missionary’s kid to investing for Quona as the lead on Latin America was as circuitous as Whittle’s adventurous childhood, yet lends itself to his current role uniquely well. “After grad school I joined a telecommunications startup focused on Latin America, which subsequently led to a move to Argentina. I quickly realized that access to basic infrastructure is key to people getting ahead, and that to compete globally, companies need to have access to the same modern tools available elsewhere,” he says. As a result, the first three companies Whittle helped establish were focused on democratizing access to telecommunications services, particularly for small businesses. “It’s not financial inclusion, but it’s still about addressing a massive need that improves people’s lives,” says Whittle.

Yet he wasn’t really exposed to financial services until he joined a private equity firm called Darby, where he managed a venture fund for Latin America. “At Darby, I invested in a number of different technology sectors, but two of them were in the financial services space, providing mobile top-up and access to prepaid products through agent networks in Mexico and Brazil,” Whittle notes. Through these investments, he began to meet a lot of other investors involved in the space, and was exposed to what was essentially the precursor to modern challenger banking.

“At the time, prepaid card companies were providing accounts and a digital means of payment to unbanked and underbanked populations in the U.S. — mainly immigrant populations initially, who were being paid by cash or check and didn’t really have anywhere to put it.”

As Whittle got familiar with the leading companies in the prepaid space in the U.S., he saw an opportunity in Latin America, where a huge portion of the population is unbanked, where digital payment penetration was growing rapidly, with significant investments to expand acquiring networks, so that consumers could actually use a card in more and more places, particularly in Brazil. “I concluded that a similar approach could be successful at addressing this massive market need,” he says.

After nine years working in private equity at Darby, Whittle could no longer resist the entrepreneurial itch. Whittle left Darby in 2011 and connected with an entrepreneur he had previously backed in Brazil — the two founded Acesso, which remains one of the largest prepaid companies in Brazil.

After three years as CEO of Acesso, Whittle decided to return to investing, joining Accion in early 2014 to partner with Monica Brand Engel to raise Quona’s first fund. With its focus on fintech for financial inclusion, Quona is a perfect fit for Whittle based on his experience and interests. As a Quona co-founder and partner, his primary focus is Latin America.

“It’s an exciting time to invest in Latin America, with a rapidly maturing VC ecosystem, and a growing number of fintech success stories — including a number of Quona-backed companies,” Whittle says. “We’re seeing real maturity among companies proving they can carve out niches for themselves through marketplaces and platforms.”

“Obviously we’re still seeing most of the VC investments flow into Brazil where the VC ecosystem is the most dynamic — but we’re seeing more and more interesting opportunities and money flowing into Mexico. There’s a lot to get excited about.”

That enthusiasm for the road less traveled when it comes to investments bleeds over into Whittle’s personal life. His family embraces a shared love of world travel, and he’s an avid trail runner who has also climbed to the top of Mount Kilimajaro. “I like tackling new challenges, and I like every day to be different,” Whittle says. “My work at Quona delivers that.”

Quona Capital was formed with a simple idea — that technology has the power to radically improve the quality, access, and affordability of financial services for underserved consumers and businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia. We are headquartered in Washington, DC, but have teams all over the world. Join us!

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Quona Capital

Quona Capital

Quona Capital is a venture firm specializing in financial technology for inclusion in emerging markets. Learn more at quona.com.