The search for a career as impactful as it was far-reaching led Malhotra to his newest role as Partner at Quona. Here’s how he got there and what he’s doing.
Varun Malhotra knew he wanted to make an impact from a young age. As a student of economics, he focused on policymaking as a Legislative Aide in the Parliament of India, and on grassroots research in education. He distinctly recalls a survey in a slum in Calcutta: “One of the mothers of the students I was interviewing said, ‘Every six months, somebody comes here with a clipboard asking a bunch of questions and nothing ever changes,’” he says. “There I was, an 18-year-old with a clipboard. That stayed with me for a long time.”
So, too, did his search for a meaningful career. He began taking a deeper interest in finance when in 2008, the global financial crisis captured his attention. “It got me really curious: What are these financial institutions up to that could cause such massive damage?” he says. This curiosity led him to join global investment firm D.E. Shaw, supporting traders in devising machine-learning-based investment strategies. He subsequently moved to Oak Investment Partners where he was part of the founding team in India. “I loved that stint — setting up shop and working directly with founders,” he says. “Being a VC was not only intellectually stimulating but combined the pace and energy of working hands-on with founders.”
Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling of wanting to do something more impactful — working with businesses that could reach those in greatest need. Around that time, Malhotra cold-emailed Ganesh Rengaswamy, who at the time was a partner at Lok Capital, investing in businesses that impact the “base of the pyramid.” Rengaswamy recruited Malhotra to join Lok, where he worked on investments in microfinance, agri-businesses, and healthcare.
It was through these investing roles that Malhotra developed a foundational understanding of financial services and technology, still operating as largely discrete verticals.
When Malhotra left the firm to get his MBA at the Indian School of Business, he felt clear on how he wanted to shape his career coming out of business school. “I wanted to continue as a VC — working with entrepreneurs, helping companies grow,” he says. “But I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in impact investing.”
As compelling as the impact investing model was on the surface, the more familiar with it he became, the better he understood both its limitations and untapped potential. “A lot of these business models weren’t scaling and were forcing an impact model. The industry was operating in a silo,” says Malhotra.
Around that time, Rengaswamy told Malhotra he was co-founding Quona, a firm focused on both scalable growth and impact — an intersection that he, too, felt was missing in the ecosystem. In an industry that felt increasingly binary, Quona seemed to be taking a different approach. “How do you create a cross-section of impact?” says Malhotra.
In 2015, Malhotra joined Quona as an Associate as the firm was just starting up. He was part of a two-person team running operations in Asia. Right away he could see the difference in Quona’s approach. Fintech was just hitting emerging markets, and the firm had a clear focus on how fintech could be a catalytic tool in driving transformative change. “The impact was embedded in businesses, rather than businesses being embedded into impact,” says Malhotra.
During his early years at Quona, Malhotra was closely involved in building Quona’s Asia presence, shadowing on and advising investments in IndiaMART (which IPO’d), Coins.ph (acquired by GoJek), SMECorner, CreditMantri, Fisdom, NeoGrowth, and KoinWorks.
Malhotra used this time to sharpen his toolkit on two imperative skills as a VC: investing with conviction and developing a strong sense of empathy for challenges faced by founders.
The way in which Malhotra works with founders has itself evolved over the course of his time at the firm. “Working with founders has multiple different layers,” he says. “It’s everything from working on tactical challenges like attracting top-notch talent to day-to-day firefighting while being there as their sounding board when they need to talk.” This evolution is perhaps best seen in two recent investments.
Malhotra recently led a $21 million investment round in Arya, an integrated post-harvest agri-tech platform. “Varun has been such a valuable sounding board for me,” says Prasanna Rao, co-founder of Arya.ag, “always there with encouragement, support and constructive feedback, helping me widen my horizons. He has powered my vision and has stood by me as we chart this exciting course.”
And in March of 2021, he led a $4 million investment in Rupifi, a category-defining business at the intersection of credit, checkout & SaaS for SMEs on digital platforms. “Varun doesn’t just make you feel like he’s an investor on your cap table,” says Anubhav Jain, co-founder of Rupifi. “He builds that personal connection very easily. He’s not just concerned about how you are doing as a portfolio company. He is concerned about you as an individual.”
In his six and a half years with Quona, Malhotra has seen the fintech industry transform — expanding across global markets, developing sophisticated solutions, and reaching a broader swath of consumers. He has stepped into the role of Partner at Quona in what he sees as a particularly pivotal moment. “We are at a very important inflection point in how fintech is shaping markets. We are seeing generational leapfrogging of technology and rapid reduction in trust deficit from consumers in using these technologies,” he says.
In particular, he’s excited about the prospects of embedded finance, which helps integrate fintech into non-financial platforms. “It’s really looking at how fintech has increasingly become an invisible enabler across everything people do — how people interact with education, healthcare, commerce, and more,” he says.
Last year, Quona encouraged Malhotra to join the highly competitive Kauffman Fellows program, joining a global network of investors that include several Midas List honorees.
For Malhotra, his new role as Partner at Quona is the next step in what he sees as empowering the next generation of founders using fintech to solve complex real-world problems.