From India to Silicon Valley and Back: Quona Partner Ganesh Rengaswamy
Ganesh Rengaswamy has always been a little bit of an outlier. Growing up in Calcutta, the former capital of British India, he went to school at the famous Fort William military capital, taking classes in the King and Queen’s former chambers. The grounds still held tanks and massive libraries, a sharp contrast between military might and intellectual pursuits, in a country rich in all kinds of contrasts.
While Rengaswamy’s family wasn’t wealthy in monetary terms, the family did have a rich history in education and teaching across generations. A good education was highly valued. After completing his engineering studies as an undergraduate in Varanasi — one of the world’s oldest cities — and graduate studies in Calcutta, he joined Infosys. It was while working for Infosys that Rengaswamy first made it to Silicon Valley in 1999. “Within a year, I knew I eventually wanted to be a VC,” he says. “And that’s never changed.”
But he was also convinced he should still try to build something of his own if possible, if for nothing more than perspective as a future venture investor. “Some people say actually being an entrepreneur and becoming a VC makes you soft, but I think it’s better that way than the other way around,” he maintains. He also knew he needed the right foundation he was to be successful as a VC or founder. After working for a few years in the U.S., he applied and was accepted into Harvard Business School.
Not surprisingly, the move to Harvard was met with approval from his family. “But then, a few months into HBS, I co-founded a company,” he says. For him, it was a natural progression, but it probably came a bit too soon.
His family thought he was nuts. “I was three months into my first year at Harvard, and I started a travel e-commerce company called TravelGuru. My mother’s exact words were, ‘“So you go to Harvard Business School, you take this loan and you become a travel agent?”’
Business was not a natural vocation in the family of academics. But he loved it. And eventually, the travel consolidation startup he co-founded was sold to Travelocity.
Over the next several years, Rengaswamy worked his way through venture capital. He helped lead the entry of Greylock Partners, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital fund, into the Asian/Indian market. The 2008 global crisis was a turning point — launching his exploration into the theme of financial inclusion, initially as the Asia Director for Unitus, then as a General Partner at Lok Capital. Between these two firms, he gained experience managing eight of the top 10 microfinance institutions in India and SE Asia. This eventually led to joining Accion to incubate Quona Capital, the first emerging markets-only fintech VC.
Ironically, Rengaswamy expected venture capital to be easier than startup life. “I know how demanding being an entrepreneur is, and wondered if I had it in me to become an entrepreneur again after Travelguru. So, I thought venture was the next best thing and figured it was actually easier. That was really naïve and dumb of me. In some ways, building a venture fund and a differentiated platform is a lot harder than building an operational startup,” he says. “In a startup, hopefully what one wants to build is unique and differentiated, and the entrepreneur knows what he/she is raising capital for. In a fund, we have to raise greater pools of capital than in a typical startup in order to make an impact, and we basically pitch our investors saying ‘Trust us, we will find great entrepreneurs!’ The fact is, Quona is a startup that combines the best and worst of both startup and venture worlds. But it’s a phenomenal opportunity to work with great entrepreneurs, and I wouldn’t trade it.”
As with all startups, there are highs and lows. But for Rengaswamy, the highlight is getting to work closely with founders, and being part of something that’s really making an impact at global scale with a remarkable team, sometimes in surprising ways.
“Building a strong company is not about the numbers, it’s actually about the intent, motivation, perseverance, and character, and how people go about it,” he says. “So, if you can help people do that, hopefully they can help other people do that and that will have a positive cascading effect.”
At Quona, he says, “we’re essentially trying to do a combination of things starting from building a fintech for inclusion platform, which of course entails having the right team, the right regional structures, working with the right entrepreneurs in terms of making investments, of course, getting the right kind of investors and LPs on board. On the other hand, we’re obviously trying to build an institution that serves a broader purpose, which essentially means connecting the impact world with the mainstream world and ensuring that social impact entrepreneurship can actually deliver successful returns at scale, both financially and from an impact perspective.” Rengaswamy sees Quona as the conduit that bridges the gap between mainstream and impact.
Fresh off a slew of speaking engagements including Singapore Fintech Week, he’s more excited about the promise of fintech in emerging markets than he’s ever been. “There’s never been a more invigorating time to be part of the financial inclusion ecosystem in emerging markets,” he says. “The tech is there, the ideas are there — and we are well-positioned to help founders execute in making financial services better for everyone.”
Quona Capital is a scale-up stage venture firm focused on fintech for inclusion in emerging markets. Quona partners have deep experience as investors and operators in both emerging and developed markets, and look for entrepreneurs whose companies have the potential to provide outstanding financial returns and promote breakthrough innovation in financial inclusion. To date, Quona has supported more than 20 financial technology companies expanding access for underserved consumers and small businesses in Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Quona got its start through a strategic relationship with Accion, a global nonprofit with a pioneering legacy in microfinance and fintech impact investing. The firm has offices in Washington D.C., Bangalore, Cape Town, Mexico City and Singapore. For more information, visit quona.com.