From Fred Flintstone to Financial Inclusion: A profile of Monica Brand Engel
Monica Brand Engel likes to say that Flintstones Vitamins paid for her college. It’s not too far from the truth; her Dad worked in licensing, with a focus on brands that had some redeeming qualities. His first licensing deal was Children’s Television Workshop, which produced Sesame Street. From there he moved to Hanna-Barbera, licensing Yogi Bear and Fred Flintstone. After college tuition was paid, he branched off on his own, giving daughter Engel a taste of entrepreneurship up close.
While her Dad was helping millions catch Sesame Street Fever, her Peruvian mother was trying to fit into an American culture she’d dreamed of after meeting Brand when he was in Peru for the Peace Corps. And yet upon arrival in the U.S., she found herself feeling like an outsider — sensitive about her Spanish accent and trying her best to absorb a culture that was quite different from the mountains of Peru where she had grown up. “When my mother’s family would come to the house on an extended visit, my Dad would ask, ‘how long are they going to stay?’ and my mom would say, ‘how can you even ask that question?’” These different view points — in addition to the language barrier — made it hard for Engel’s mom to integrate.
It was from these vastly different perspectives that Monica Brand Engel came into the world, the eldest of four children. From a young age, she was sensitive about inclusion, very aware that people like her mother were left out for all sorts of reasons. “Even though Spanish was my first language, my mom stopped speaking to me for a while so I would learn English without an accent,” Engel explains. Born in Chicago, Engel spent her early years in Peru, followed by teen years in a New York suburb in Central New Jersey. “My parents were always looking for the right place to call home,” she says. “I think that’s where some of my own wanderlust comes from.”
Tragedy struck when Engel, just 15, lost her mom. “Since I was the oldest when she died, I was trying to figure out for myself, ‘how do I take care of younger siblings while still doing well at school?’ I learned early on how to multitask and prioritize in a structured way,” she says. “I was left-brain dominant and tended to problem-solve through a quantitative lens, because that’s what I had to do from a young age when my mom became sick.” The other trait that the experience instilled was a carpe diem approach to life: seize the day.
While Engel had harbored early dreams of being a journalist, when it came time for college, she navigated instead to economics. “I had this very practical side,” she says, “I remember thinking that it was development or economics because I needed to make sure I could provide for myself. Losing my mom drove home the importance of being self-sufficient.”
At Williams College, she found inspirational professors who matched her burgeoning interests in development, questions of why some emerging markets do better than others, and even early elements of microfinance. Her first job out of college was writing case studies for Harvard Business School, where she quickly decided academia was not for her. But Engel did find her way to two adjunct professors at the John F. Kennedy School for Public Policy, who were studying attempts to bring microfinance — an emerging market innovation — to underserved Latino communities in the U.S. Back then, microfinance “was more a story about social capital than financial services,” she says. “It was about trust.”
Inspired by the effectiveness of innovative, private-sector approaches to problem-solving, Engel left Boston for Silicon Valley, where she worked in the alternative lending space with banks and community development financial institutions (CDFIs) in the Bay Area. “I had this perfect job serving overlooked consumers and businesses, but I kept thinking: ‘what happened to my dream to work internationally?’” she says. So she went to Stanford Graduate School of Business, with a goal of going abroad afterward. Those seven years in Silicon Valley made a significant impression on her. “My time there really made me realize that individuals can change things dramatically. And at the time, the ethos was very much a sharing economy — people were open with connections, ideas, to helping others,” Engel says.
From Stanford, she was recruited by McKinsey and sent to Johannesburg, and later migrated to Cape Town, where she went to work for a venture firm focused on previously disadvantaged businesses. Happy in Cape Town, one day a friend in Washington sent her a posting she thought perfect for Engel: a job with Accion, focused on bringing new product innovations to retail financial institutions in emerging markets that were serving informal microenterprises. Engel resisted, saying she wanted to wait 4-5 years before returning to the States. “I had found nirvana in South Africa, and I wasn’t ready to leave,” she says.
But then-president of Accion, Michael Chu, said two things that made her reconsider: “A problem as immense as world poverty requires a resource equally as plentiful to solve it: the world’s capital markets.” Chu told her, “Capital markets are fast…and we can’t be patient with poverty.”
She was sold, and officially joined Accion in 1999 running product innovation for the nonprofit, where she had some notable successes. Still, much of the time it still felt “like pushing a rock up a hill — too much effort for not enough return.”
She figured maybe she needed to be more embedded in the institutions she was trying to help innovate. So in 2003, Engel moved to Mexico to work with Compartamos — then the largest microfinance institution in Latin America — helping them develop new products in individual lending, housing finance, insurance, and savings accounts. The world changed a lot between 2003 and 2008; for Engel that included marriage and the birth of twins Sophie and Isaac, which coincided with the IPO of Compartamos. It was one of the most successful public offerings Credit Suisse ever underwrote in Latin America.
Feeling like she had done as much as she could in microfinance — and with a desire to explore new technologies that were emerging in response to the financial crisis — Engel began to explore other options. But as she was eyeing the exit, Accion was planning ways to re-invest its Compartamos IPO proceeds in a mission-related way and came to her with an offer: “Stay and pursue your technology interests here. Build a fund that catalyzes innovation in financial inclusion beyond microfinance.” So Engel launched Accion’s Frontier Investment Group, a corporate venture endeavor designed to radically improve access and quality of financial services to the unbanked.
Early investments at Frontier caught the eye of two Fortune 500 financial corporate investors—JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Nuveen, a TIAA company—that were looking to expand their financial inclusion investments beyond microfinance. Reflecting on what brought her to Accion originally — to mobilize the world’s capital markets for the benefits of the majority — Engel proposed launching a third-party fund anchored by Accion and financed by private sector players to explore this new world of impact investing.
Knowing she needed partners with tech startup experience and a track record in venture, Engel brought on Jonathan Whittle—and six months later, Ganesh Rengaswamy—as co-founders. While Engel and Whittle led the fundraise from Washington, Rengaswamy built out the office in Bangalore to focus on the broader Asian opportunity — at the same time that the team was investing with the support of Accion, which warehoused initial deals made by the newly spun-off Quona Capital.
The last five years have brought many founders and strong startups into the Quona fold, including several in Africa, still a favorite region for Engel. Today, the Quona team prides itself on its strong portfolio of investments in financial inclusion. Of her partners — Latin America-focused Whittle, Asia-focused partner Ganesh Rengaswamy, and Africa partner Johan Bosini — she’s quick to say, “While we each bring a different background and different points of view to the table, what unites us is powerful. Together, we can connect profit with purpose, financial services with technology, and developed countries with emerging markets for the greater good,” Engel says. “That’s what we’re here to do.”