MEXICO CITY – Matin Tamizi, who was a small child when he and his mother came to the United States from Iran as undocumented immigrants, still remembers seeing his mom keep the money she used to pay the three employees of her small business in an envelope under her mattress.
And that memory played a role in his decision to abandon Silicon Valley to launch a fintech startup in Mexico.
Tamizi, who became a US citizen, studied computer engineering at the University of Maryland before co-founding Balanced, an online payments company, in 2011.
Balanced was sold in 2015 and Tamizi went looking for a new challenge.
His gaze settled on Mexico, where only 47 percent of people have bank accounts, according to data from 2018, and consumers must choose among just 54 banks to serve their financial needs, compared with more than 8,000 in the US.
“There are many who talk about how it’s the base of the pyramid, and I lived it. That’s not theory for me, for me that was real. So this kind of opportunity, not just financial and economic, but also the opportunity to have this kind of impact, exists more in Mexico than in the United States and Europe,” Tamizi told Efe.
Beyond the material deficiencies of Mexican banking, he pointed to Mexicans’ widespread distrust of banks due to high fees and commissions as well as instances of outright fraud and criminality.
Statistics show that nearly 90 percent of transactions in Mexico are conducted using cash.
In the face of those numbers, and knowing from his own experience of life as an undocumented migrant that lack of access to financial services makes being poor “very expensive,” Tamizi started Cuenca, an online bank whose aim is to become the “only account Mexicans need.”
“Something we understand is that our real competition are not the fintechs, they’re not the banks. In reality, our real competition is cash, it’s the mattress,” he said.
Mexico’s banking and securities regulator, the CNBV, says that 200 of the roughly 500 fintech firms in the country are operating under the rules set down in the legislation known as the Fintech Law, enacted in March 2018.
Because of that law, Tamizi said, Mexico is a “special” market, enabling Cuenca to grow from fewer than 500 clients in May 2019 to more than 75,000 today.
The Cuenca team, which including Venezuelans, Indians and Mexicans returning from the US, among other nationalities, is a reflection of Mexico’s openness to newcomers, he said.
“The migration process in Mexico is very accepting of immigrants,” Tamizi said. “And also I believe in the Mexican culture, but another super-important part for us is the level of talent of the Mexicans. It’s incredible.”
Cuenca, in another policy based on Tamizi’s personal history, differs from conventional banks in its willingness to accept consular documents and residence permits as identification to open an account.
“For us, that is very important. This level of empathy, this level of the culture of the human being, of understanding that Cuenca is for everybody, not for the (most privileged) 5 percent of Mexicans,” Tamizi said.