Kristin Sadler knows how to navigate unfamiliar terrain. Recently promoted to Manager of Platform and Impact at Quona, Kristin has been building programming from scratch since the start of her career. Whether it’s creating technology training programs in a small village in Namibia or finding ways to connect startup founders around the world during a global pandemic, forging paths for more meaningful conversations has been central to her work. But the path there was certainly not a straight one.
As an undergrad at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Kristin changed her major five times before landing on international studies with a focus on global health. Shortly after graduating from college, she joined a WorldTeach program in rural Namibia for a year, expecting to support public health initiatives and teach English. Instead, she was assigned to a local school in the village of Omeege. A US development agency had built a brand new computer lab for the school but had not provided training to the students or teachers expected to use the equipment. So she developed a curriculum to teach basic computer skills. Building this out for a year and seeing the opportunities that a simple computer lab could provide to both the students and the community ignited a theme that would shape the next steps in Kristin’s career: that technology could play a pivotal role in addressing some of the world’s largest problems.
After Namibia, Kristin returned to the US and spent a few years in Washington, DC supporting the 200+ NGO members of InterAction, the largest alliance of international NGOs in the US. Still eager to learn more about the intersection of social impact and technology, Kristin moved to Cape Town, South Africa in 2017 to pursue an MBA at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (GSB). Kristin was drawn to the program’s focus on social entrepreneurship and emerging markets, and it was through a class assignment focusing on Kenya’s revolutionary mobile banking service, M-PESA, that she started to focus on the impact thesis of financial inclusion. After that, she was hooked. GSB’s MBA curriculum includes a mandatory thesis, and Kristin saw this as an opportunity to learn more about financial inclusion. She spent months researching the topic and shadowing JUMO, a Cape Town-based fintech that, at the time, was offering working capital loans to MSMEs in Sub-Saharan Africa (the company has since evolved into banking as a service, or “BaaS” platform). “Developing this thesis was my first peek into financial inclusion in action,” she says. “I developed a teaching case study assessing the role of digital financial services in improving the stability and resilience of historically underserved populations, demonstrated through my learnings from JUMO. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this thesis really laid the groundwork for my current role with Quona.”
Kristin wrapped up her MBA in 2018 determined to find a job where she could play a role supporting tech-enabled companies driving social impact and, more specifically, financial inclusion. After a slow start to the job search, she got a call from an MBA classmate and friend who had just started a full-time role with Techstars in Austin, Texas, encouraging Kristin to apply to support Techstars’ inaugural 3-month impact accelerator program. She took the short-term role, moved to Austin, and dove into supporting Techstars’ cohort of global impact-driven companies. “My experience with Techstars was a huge learning opportunity in helping me get where I am today,” she says. “It was my first exposure to the broader startup ecosystem, and it clearly demonstrated the power that community and network access can bring to entrepreneurs.” It was through a Techstars mentor that Kristin learned of Quona Capital, and, drawn by the opportunity to build on her work with Techstars for a firm fully focused on financial inclusion, Kristin applied for the open Value Creation Associate role.
When Kristin started work at Quona in the fall of 2018, she hit the ground running, planning Quona’s flagship portfolio event — the CEO Forum — in partnership with Accion Venture Lab. After the event, which was held in The Hague in the Netherlands, she spent a few weeks in Cape Town with Quona co-founder and Managing Partner Monica Brand Engel and Johan Bosini, the firm’s Africa Partner, as the three were trying to think more strategically about the evolution of Quona’s “Value Creation” function. “We started to connect the dots with the shift to platform functions in the broader VC industry,” she says.
As it turned out, a growing number of venture firms were starting to turn their attention and resources toward “platform” functions, which took a number of forms but had a common objective: supporting their portfolio companies in ways well beyond writing a check. “Generally speaking, as capital was becoming increasingly accessible to founders, competition for deals between VCs was also heating up. Platform started to shift from a “nice to have” to a critical differentiator for firms,” says Kristin.
With this in mind, Kristin worked with Monica and Johan to evolve Quona’s “value creation” initiatives into a broader platform strategy that leveraged the firm’s core strengths: a global, fintech-focused portfolio and a set of regional investment teams that have always played a hands-on role in supporting portfolio companies. The team spent the next year building out three core platform workstreams: portfolio services, strategic relations, and marketing/communications.
The COVID Shift
Prior to COVID, Quona had leaned on in-person platform programming — generally via the annual CEO Forum and local smaller-scale initiatives — to support its global portfolio. In March 2020, Kristin was in Cape Town to organize portfolio programming for Quona’s South Africa portfolio when things took a sharp turn. As COVID closed borders and canceled in-person events, Kristin began reimagining what Quona’s platform strategy might look like in a new pandemic world. Even before the pandemic, Quona faced the unique challenge of trying to meet the needs of 40+ different portfolio companies across Africa, Asia, and Latin America — no small feat. Kristin acknowledges that, retrospectively, COVID was a real turning point for Quona’s platform strategy. “All of a sudden our portfolio CEOs and leaders were sitting at home, pausing everything to organize COVID response plans,” she says. “This gave us an opportunity to digitally connect our portfolio companies with each other and with resources in a way that had never before been possible.”
“All of a sudden our portfolio CEOs and leaders were sitting at home, pausing everything to organize COVID response plans,” she says. “This gave us an opportunity to digitally connect our portfolio companies with each other and with resources in a way that had never before been possible.”
Quona’s first jump into digital portfolio programming happened in April 2020, when Kristin received a text from Monica suggesting they try piloting a virtual roundtable for the MSME lenders in Quona’s portfolio, which, due to the nature of their business models, had initially been hardest-hit by COVID. The first virtual roundtable was so well received by participating companies that Kristin built a broader roundtable line-up for the firm’s MSME lenders, with sessions focused on urgent, COVID-related topics like building scenario analyses, innovating to meet the new reality, and navigating relationships with debt providers. For Kristin and Quona, the MSME lender-focused pilot was a jumping-off point for a full calendar of new virtual programming for the broader Quona portfolio including thematic CEO roundtables and expert-led sessions.
Kristin has continued this cadence of virtual sessions for the full Quona portfolio in 2021, while also launching new initiatives, all of which are focused on intra-portfolio network building and knowledge sharing. For example, she struck up a partnership with executive coaching firm Reboot to offer cohort-style peer leadership support to portfolio CEOs. Recognizing that Quona’s portfolio had grown enough to justify smaller, more focused discussions, Kristin also piloted a thematic working group for the CEOs and functional heads of Quona’s B2B Marketplace portfolio companies, which now meets every 1–2 months. “Quona’s focus on fintech and fintech-enabled models is a huge differentiator. When joining the Quona portfolio, a company has immediate access to 40+ fintech leaders across Africa, MENA, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, many of which have similar experiences and challenges. So my driving question is always, how can I position Quona’s network of companies to add value to each other?” she says.
“Quona’s focus on fintech and fintech-enabled models is a huge differentiator. When joining the Quona portfolio, a company has immediate access to 40+ fintech leaders across Africa, MENA, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, many of which have similar experiences and challenges. So my driving question is always, how can I position Quona’s network of companies to add value to each other?”
For Mehmet Memecan, founder of Tarfin, a Turkey-based startup offering quick and flexible point of sale financing options for underbanked farmers to buy inputs they need each season, connecting with fintech founders from other parts of the world was an invaluable resource, particularly during the uncertain early days of the pandemic. “Quona has a lot of fintech founders from emerging markets tackling problems similar to ours,” he says. “These founders have already solved a lot of the issues we were struggling with on day one. Many of these virtual initiatives saved us much time, effort, and money in not doing the wrong things and picking up best practices. That’s invaluable.”
In addition to building out Quona’s platform offering, Kristin also took over leading the firm’s impact management strategy in late 2019. Taking on Quona’s impact workstream was particularly meaningful for her — not only because the firm’s dedication to financial inclusion impact is what drew Kristin to Quona, but also because she had studied various approaches to measuring financial inclusion as part of her MBA thesis years ago. “So much of the general financial inclusion narrative focuses on creating access — i.e., increasing the amount of access a given population has to financial services — but I’ve always been impressed with Quona’s more comprehensive approach, which accounts for not only the quality of the services provided to that same target market but also the demonstration effects on the broader ecosystem,” she says.
Quona has always played a leading role in the impact investing industry, and Kristin has helped further this leadership. In 2020, she drove Quona’s adoption of the Operating Principles for Impact Management — a framework designed to bring greater discipline and transparency to impact investing — and the subsequent independent review of the firm’s impact management systems by BlueMark, the industry’s leading impact verification provider. She spent 2021 focused on two key initiatives: developing and launching an impact performance framework to more systematically assess the impact of Quona’s portfolio companies, and partnering with lean data provider 60 Decibels to more deeply understand the impact Quona’s portfolio companies are having on their customers.
60 Decibels uses phone surveys to collect data from a representative sample of a company’s customers — something that the majority of startups do not have the ability to do on their own given privacy restrictions and capacity constraints. Kristin had been pushing to launch a pilot with 60 Decibels for years, as she felt that the customer insights that each project could produce would not only reveal the type of outcome-level impact data Quona was seeking, but could also provide participating companies with critical, strategic information on their customers. Kristin was granted the budget to launch a three-company pilot in 2021 and decided to focus on a selection of embedded finance companies within the portfolio. So far, the results have exceeded expectations. “We felt like 60 Decibels gave us an opportunity to provide portfolio companies with deep customer insights, and we plan to expand this offering in 2022,” she says.
While COVID has accelerated the need for virtual programming, some parts of the world are beginning to open up their borders again. Kristin is looking forward to adding in-person programming back to the mix as well. “I see myself as a dot-connector at Quona,” she says. “One of the best feelings is putting something together — whether virtual or in-person — then sitting back and watching all these connections you knew would be so valuable happen.”