Ronny Lavie, Managing Editor at The Fintech Times.
This month, we meet Sara Koslinska – founder and CEO of Limitless, a white-label app that allows millennials to take their money out of the savings and current account rut, and instead start investing it for their future.
Having lived and worked in a diverse range of markets, including Tel Aviv, London, Singapore, Poland and the Netherlands, Sara is no stranger to innovation. A seasoned entrepreneur, she has experience with Lean methodology, generating early traction and developing winning business models. She was recently listed in Forbes as one of the top 100 female founders in Europe and regularly gives talks and presentations on the role of women within tech and fintech, and the long road we still have to take.
You’ve worked in a lot of markets and you travel a lot in your role. What have you learned from all of the different experiences?
I think that I had to adjust quickly to new environments and build my networks from scratch, which was very useful. The tech community is pretty similar from country to country, but there are differences in terms of the general efficiency – for example, Singapore is much more efficient than Malaysia. And there are different attitudes to communicating in countries like Israel and the UK – Israel is very direct, whereas London, as you know, not so much. In terms of fundraising, I learned that certain markets are more willing to take risks – for example, in Singapore, there seems to be more capital for fintechs and they are more willing to take risks than the European market.
Which market do you think has the biggest gender diversity issue? Is there a difference between the markets?
Yes, there are differences. I was really surprised when I got into fintech and in certain countries found so few women in the room. I was already a minority when I got into tech, the ratio was about 60/40, and then I got into fintech and it’s more like 80/20, and if you go to InsurTech events, it’s even worse than that – it’s more like 90/10. It also varies from region to region. For example, in Asia, I felt that there was more equality between men and women. In Europe, it depends – the Nordics are different than Western markets. In Central Eastern Europe, there is a lot of equality in the workplace between men and women, even though it’s considered a conservative market. I think that in the US it’s the hardest to break through the glass ceiling, and if you look at the number of speakers in Asia, Europe and the US, it’s hardest to find female speakers in the US and easiest in Asia.
That’s interesting, as you would think that Europe and the US would be more progressive than areas like Eastern Europe and Asia, which are considered more conservative. But you’re saying that, actually, those areas are ahead of the game?
Yes. If you look at China, it matters more what you have to offer, rather than what your gender is. How much profit you can bring to the company, how much of a hustler you are – the Chinese are practical people.
That makes sense. Why do you think there is such a lack of women in the industry and how can we encourage more women to join fintech?
Fintech is not an easy environment, because it’s male dominated – the decision makers are typically white men in their 50s. They are still biased towards people who are younger than them and they are not used to working with that many women, especially young women. It’s still very much a boys club.
Very often I have meetings in which someone questions my skills or my experience – assuming that I’m not the decision maker, that someone else is – for example, my co-founder, who is male and older than me. So it’s about gender, but it’s also a lot about age.
So, how can we encourage more women to join?
I believe that everyone has good intentions, but not everyone has that much self-awareness to understand their biases, so it would definitely help if we had more male ambassadors to share their experience. I think it’s also very important to have female decision makers at VC funds, because a big part of funding goes to companies that are not necessarily better, but are run by men. We see this happening over and over again, it’s to do with the people making the first screening – typically young guys – they just feel more firm about investing in someone who is similar to them. If we get less capital than companies with male founders, then our chances of succeeding in the market are lower, which only strengthens the belief that it’s better to invest in companies founded by men.
What would you say to someone who claims women are less interested in tech and finance because they are ‘wired’ differently?
There are plenty of studies which show the differences between men and women in terms of how our brains work are really minor, and that they are to do with our visual perception of surroundings, but have nothing to do out abilities to perform tasks that require analytical skills. If you look at how men and women perform in maths tests, for example, until a certain age, girls tend to have better results than boys on average, and then, once they are in high school, it changes. Also, in the past we had more female software engineers than male. I think it started changing in the 70s, as a result of marketing computers as toys for boys, So I think it’s definitely not a biological difference that makes women choose science less often than men, but it’s how our society perceives the studies of computers and so on
There are a number of initiatives that attempt to encourage girls to start programming, so I think that it’s definitely changing, and I can’t wait to see the next generation of female programmers.
What made you start Limitless?
I met my co-founder when I was working in Singapore and he had the initial idea. He wanted to create a product that would help millennials invest money because he saw his daughter and nephews struggling with saving and investing. I decided to make some changes to the product and the business model, and we launched the B2B2C app that helps banks and insurers engage millennial customers and turn them from regular customers, to savers, to investors. At the same time, it helps young people to start investing money and put money away for their pension. We’re also seeing interest coming in from other age groups.
What are your plans and goals for Limitless?
We would like to be the default investment product for first-time investors. We would like to have a global partner, either a bank or insurer, which would help us to bring this product into multiple markets. At the moment we are focusing on Europe, but we do have interest coming in from banks in other continents.
Congratulation on being listed as one of the top 100 female founders in Europe. Do you think this is particularly important as a woman – to be visible?
Yes. Every time I get the opportunity to speak at a relevant event, I take it, even if it means that I can’t take weekends off. I want women to be more visible, whether it’s on stage at a conference, on TV, or being interviewed. It’s interesting to me that, even though some of my friends have great accomplishments, they don’t feel like they are great enough to share with the media. And I think it is very important for young girls to have role models – to see that it’s something that they could also be doing. I remember that when I was growing up and looking for role models, I didn’t have that many women around me who were successful in their careers, and that was something I thought I wanted to be like.
What do you think the future of the fintech industry looks like?
I hope that there will be many more women in the industry. I don’t see that many at the moment, and I know some women who are leaving the finance industry because it’s too tough for them, or it’s not what they want, because it’s a pretty aggressive space.
Do you think we will all live our lives digitally? Is everything going to get done online?
Definitely. And I am happy to see more and more millennials as decision makers, as I think that will help introduce new products and more new ways of thinking than before.
What advice would you give to your 18 year-old self?
Assume that you’re going to fail the first couple of times, and accept it as part of learning. And worry less, because many things are not under our control, but there also times where everything works out well in the end. This is what I’m still telling myself.