Rohit Agarwal of Kiva US: “Be honest”

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who […]

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In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rohit Agarwal.

Rohit Agarwal is the Head of Kiva US, where he is responsible for the strategy, business development, P&L, team management, and deployment of Kiva’s crowdfunded and impacted invested capital (Kiva Capital — 100M+ dollars) towards American small businesses that have been traditionally financially excluded and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Prior to Kiva, he was a consultant in McKinsey’s San Francisco office where he focused on strategy and operations across the education, public, and energy sectors. Rohit is credited as one of the founding leaders and country managers of the McKinsey Social Initiative, McKinsey’s 501c3 non-profit focused on tackling youth unemployment. Prior to McKinsey, Rohit taught high school History and Economics at a NYC public school via Teach For America and worked for Teach For India and Rocketship Education helping train new teachers, advance the use of blended learning in the classroom, and develop a new classroom teaching model.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I was born and raised in Jacksonville, FL — it was a small, relatively Southern town with some of the nicest people in the world, and both of my parents had immigrated from India in the 70s. They were small business owners running a dental practice together, and as immigrants, they lacked what I like to call “system know-how or rather, social capital” and a credit history which in turn caused them to struggle to obtain the proper funding in order to grow the business more quickly. My parents and childhood experience have been incredibly influential in my life, and have really shaped my perspectives and decisions in both my personal and professional lives.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Directly out of undergrad, I conformed to the herd mentality of wanting to pursue something prestigious and lucrative — so I went into investment banking. But soon, it became very clear that this was not the path for me. While I did learn a lot and appreciate the experience, it brought me no sense of purpose and I realized that doing something impactful meant so much more important to me than money or prestige. So I pivoted and worked for Teach for America for two years. There, I worked with 11th and 12th graders and gained exposure to a whole new level of inequity and the multiple layers of underlying causes driving inequities across our society.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Yes, my father. My father moved to America specifically to provide his children with more opportunities — talk about the incredibly selfless act. He worked a minimum wage job while studying to become a dentist here in the States, and sustained the highest level of perseverance and optimism through the obstacles of starting his own dental practice. His sacrifices and resilience really put me where I am today, and I am always thankful.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”

Ultimately, we are responsible for our own satisfaction. During my stint as a high school teacher, we often talked about “locus of control” and that really resonated with me. There are a lot of external forces that contribute to an outcome, but we should focus on what is controllable, prepare for it, and own it. We have to live with our own decisions and take control of our happiness. I think this particular quote fully embodies that concept, and I’ve been able to apply it in my career, transitioning from investment banking into a path that gives me greater fulfillment.

As a successful business leader, which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Adaptability — Things change. If anything, this past 1.5 years has taught us that. For me, I think the nature of the modern workforce is people are constantly changing jobs making this character trait essential for success. It has served me quite well throughout the years.
  • Character — Character matters. Period. In general, across multiple jobs whether it be here at Kiva or somewhere else, character shines through by always working to elevate your team and give credit where credit is due versus trying to garner the limelight for yourself.
  • Curiosity — This is probably the most important one as a core skill of a good leader is asking good questions, which you can only do if you are inherently curious. In myself, I think this trait was nurtured and developed during my time at McKinsey, where a lot of times, success on a project was determined by taking a sincere interest in learning from the clients on what is working and what is not.

With the tech tools that you are helping to create to make a positive social impact on our society, what problems are you aiming to solve? How do you think your technology can address this?

Kiva’s mission is to expand financial access globally, so that all people have equal opportunities to improve their lives.

More than 1.7 billion people around the world are unbanked and can’t access the financial services they need. Kiva offers crowdfunded loans and unlocks capital for the underserved, improving the quality and cost of financial services, and addressing the underlying barriers to financial access around the world.

Through Kiva’s work, students can pay for tuition, women can start businesses, farmers are able to invest in equipment, families can afford needed emergency care — and more. In fact, the Kiva community has funded over 1.6 billion dollars in loans on Kiva’s platform.

With 100% of Kiva loans going directly to the field, we’ve supported:

  • 300,714 borrowers in conflict zones
  • 1,020,661 farmers
  • 1,265,846 borrowers in least developed countries
  • 72,155 education loans
  • 252,000 borrowers gained access to clean energy

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

This stems back to my childhood story, where I experienced first-hand the difficulties of financial inequity. When my parents immigrated from India in the 70s, they had no credit history and therefore, it was incredibly difficult to secure funding for their dental practice. The business would’ve grown so much faster had they had greater access to capital, and now I am in a position to help bridge that gap for other people.

Additionally, working at Teach for America reinforced the systemic inequality in my mind. Many of those students were already entrepreneurs, but the information and capital gap was the primary obstacle to turn those dreams into a reality.

There is such a need to increase economic mobility — put more money in people’s pockets and help create wealth through equity ownership.

How do you think this might change the world?

Financial inequality creates divides, hinders growth and limits opportunities for so many people today — and it has for many years. By taking steps towards eliminating the access gap, we will truly change the world by improving millions of lives and the generations that follow.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Technology in general will always have potential drawbacks — we’re seeing a lot of discussion and concern around consumer trust and data privacy, for instance. But, as long as companies are operating responsibly and honestly with their users, the drawbacks can be limited and outweighed by the benefits.

Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

  • Understand the end user. It’s important to do your research and truly understand the nuances of their lives, as well as the pain points you are aiming to solve
  • Be comfortable scaling. Every technology exists partially because of the ability to automate and scale. You have to be comfortable scaling in order to make a larger impact.
  • Be honest. Be honest about the impact your technology can achieve — what it can do, for whom and why.
  • Utilize holistic partnerships. It is essential to be comfortable and able to identify and facilitate strategic synergies with other entities, to maximize impact.
  • Be aware of drawbacks. There are always risks, so it is critical to stay ahead of those potential consequences.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I read once that there are two things that truly matter: income inequality and climate change. I think this really speaks to the areas where people can make the greatest difference in the world. At the end of the day, we want to feel fulfilled and grow as people — and we accomplish that by serving a greater social purpose.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

Barack Obama. Probably a cliche answer — but for me, I was at Teach for America in 2008 when he was elected. I was teaching a group of black and brown children in New York, experiencing their reaction and really reflecting upon disadvantaged youth who deserve a fair shot at the American Dream. That will always stick with me, so I’d love to be able to sit down with and learn from Barack Obama.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

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