Rafa de la Guia jokingly calls himself a “fatino,” short for fake Latino. De la Guia, who helps to oversee Quona’s Latin America portfolio and is based in Mexico City, was raised not in Latin America, but northern Spain. Seeing the economic developments happening throughout LatAm as more people gain access to financial tools reminds him a lot of his home country. During his childhood, Spain went through a dramatic economic transformation, developing a solid upper-middle-class and providing people with access to social safety nets. “You take that for granted in a European country, but it was not the case in Spain growing up. And that’s what I want for Latin America, but the driving force here will be entrepreneurship,” he says.
The power of that transformation has helped de la Guia inform his career ambitions. In college, he studied law and business administration in Madrid while living with his grandmother. Wanting to study abroad in Paris in his last year of college, he knew he’d need to have some money to make it happen. He decided to go into investment banking that summer to save up as much money as he could and acquire a useful skillset to go into economic development.
After graduating from college, he spent a year and a half working at UBS in London. When one of his bosses moved to a private equity firm, de la Guia followed and began working on the buy side, investing in mezzanine debt at MV Credit in the mid-2000s. As the markets crashed in 2008, he had to become a restructuring expert, seemingly overnight. “Making investments was really easy,” he says. “Managing investments when things are not going well is a different story… I remember growing my beard at the time, trying to look older when negotiating billion-dollar restructurings with old-school bankers and lawyers in the city.”
The financial crisis and a near-death experience — his appendix burst and required an emergency eight-hour surgery — shook him to his core. “It was a wake-up call,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do something impactful in emerging markets, and I started reading about early-stage impact investing.” So he started cold emailing, looking for work opportunities in the field… and hearing crickets. He soon learned about the lack of VC funds in Latin America, and connected with New Ventures Mexico, a business accelerator focused on supporting social and environmental entrepreneurs that lacked access to capital. He had never been to Mexico before and knew literally no one in the country. But, sensing the opportunity, moved to Mexico City in 2010 to help launch an early-stage impact investment fund (today Adobe Capital).
While in Mexico, he also applied to business school. Getting an MBA at UC Berkeley gave him the chance to immerse himself in the Bay Area tech and social innovation scene. “I wanted the West Coast experience, but was already laser-focused on impact investing in LatAm,” he says. During his second year of business school, de la Guia worked for Acumen Fund, helping develop its roadmap for expansion into Latin America.
And after getting his MBA, he joined the pioneer impact investing firm Omidyar Network in Silicon Valley. He worked on investments in education, emerging technologies, health, and financial inclusion, and helped establish the firm’s Latin America strategy. With so many people left out of the formal economy, de la Guia understood that financial services weren’t just helpful tools to have, they were crucial for economic mobility. “I see education and financial services as the great enablers,” he says. “No one wakes up wanting a mortgage; you want a house. Or a savings account; you want to get your kids to college in the future. But good financial services fundamentally enable access. And many times they end up being the carrot to get into the formal economy.”
In 2018, his wife became pregnant with the couple’s first child, and he decided to leave Omidyar and take a step back to figure out what he wanted next. Around this time, he got more deeply involved with the education nonprofit Laboratoria, which focuses on giving disadvantaged young women opportunities to work in the digital sector.
Following his interest in human capital, which he’d nurtured at Omidyar, de la Guia also completed an executive coaching certification and founded a firm working with startup founders and non-profit leaders. Executive coaching rounded out his skill set and spoke to him. He found that, in emerging markets, in particular, startup executives often felt an obligation to project a sense of complete control rather than asking for help. “It is lonely at the top. My style is not pretending I am the smartest kid in the room who has all the answers, but actually asking difficult questions and helping entrepreneurs figure them out,” he says. “It’s really helpful for founders to be able to have that space.” That focus on human capital remains integral to his approach as an investor.
In 2019, after learning that Quona co-founder and managing partner Jonathan Whittle was looking to bring someone on board to focus on Spanish-speaking LatAm, de la Guia joined the firm and moved back to Mexico City. It wasn’t long after his arrival that the world was struck by the pandemic.
One positive outcome of the COVID crisis, he says, has been the accelerated digitization in emerging markets. “In Latin America, cash has always been king. There was very little trust in financial institutions and not a lot of value seen in having an account,” he says. But the pandemic disrupted both traditional and informal offline financial services, and some governments decided to leverage fintechs to disburse financial aid, catalyzing a shift toward digital banking. As a result, many people who otherwise wouldn’t have, suddenly set up digital accounts and started transacting online. “The digital financial system has come out stronger and, most importantly, more inclusive,” he says. “There’s a huge opportunity in the mass market and a perfect storm happening right in front of our eyes.”
“Rafa has been an outstanding sounding board for us as entrepreneurs. And he’s always been able to provide actionable advice regarding executive & product decisions, based on a nuanced 360-degree understanding of the circumstances,” says Stefan Moller, CEO and co-founder of Klar.
Working closely with Whittle and colleague Meagan Prins, de la Guia has helped Quona double-down on its Latin America investments. One of the first investments he helped with was Klar, which provides digital accounts and credit to underbanked consumers in Mexico. “Rafa has been an outstanding sounding board for us as entrepreneurs. And he’s always been able to provide actionable advice regarding executive & product decisions, based on a nuanced 360-degree understanding of the circumstances,” says Stefan Moller, CEO and co-founder of Klar. At the start of the pandemic, he invested in Colombia-based Buy Now Pay Later player ADDI. “Our investment committee thought we were nuts, pushing to invest in a consumer lending platform in the early days of COVID,” he admits. And he closed Quona’s first investment in Chile with Global66, a remittances and cross-border payments platform focused on intra-Latin corridors. “Rafa helped us reorganize our corporate structure, how we approached the board, and how we structured meetings,” says Tomas Bercovich, CEO and co-founder of Global66. “Before, we used to go to board meetings with a 100-slide deck and he would say, ‘Let’s keep it simple. What are your key pain points and how can we help you? Focus on that.’”
For de la Guia, working in Latin America has been an incredibly exciting opportunity and one that’s filled with growth potential. “A few years back, a Brazilian company would just be thinking about Brazil and a Mexican company would just be thinking about Mexico. Now these companies are regional in nature and that’s really exciting,” he says. “This is a super interesting region with a very strong economy that is only becoming even more connected.”