An Interview with Rebecca Kersch, Founder of TANG app

Founder Visibility is an interview series that highlights founders that inspire us and shares how they found their firsts: co-founder, customer, capital, and confidence.

Meet Rebecca, Founder of TANG app, an international peer-to-peer mobile transaction and payments app. Having recently graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School with a Master of Public Administration, she strives to introduce inclusivity and accessibility in the fintech space starting in the Philippines. Read her story below.

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"Despite being very fortunate to live quite a privileged and international life, I grew up seeing these financial struggles. Throughout my work, my driving force has always been about solving problems in the Philippines and helping to improve lives for Filipinos both abroad and at home. Without my Filipino auntie or my Filipino family, I wouldn’t be where I am today."
— Rebecca Kersch, Founder of TANG app

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your origin story.

I started TANG app a little under two years ago, but the story of how I got there and why I started it starts way earlier than that. I’m half-Filipino, half-Dutch. I was born and raised mostly in the Netherlands, but we went back to the Philippines as much as we could. So the Philippines is also very much home. I was also raised by my Filipina auntie — she helped raise me, my brother, and my sister, and she also financially supports her family back at home in the Philippines. She is very kind, loving, and inspirational, and I saw how she always sacrificed so much.

Sending money home was a broken system. In fact, the financial system was broken for Filipinos both at home and abroad. She would pay an average of 8% for the money she would send home using Western Union, which is about 1/12. To put things into perspective, in one year of working abroad, she was working one whole month just to send home the money she earned that year. That was really painful to see because she is such a good person. She left her own country to take care of her family. Unfortunately, her family back home — her loved ones — are still unbanked. 70% of the Philippines is unbanked. And that means that they can’t earn interest on savings, they don’t have a financial history and can’t apply for things that need a credit history, can’t get a mortgage or a loan in any form, and insurance, in general, is tricky. So it’s this never-ending cycle of people being a part of the financial system that doesn’t include nor work for them.

Despite being very fortunate to live quite a privileged and international life, I grew up seeing these financial struggles. Throughout my work, my driving force has always been about solving problems in the Philippines and helping to improve lives for Filipinos both abroad and at home. Without my Filipino auntie or my Filipino family, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I’ve always done this dance between business and working in the public sector and impact. I went to the Harvard Kennedy School to do a Master’s in Public Administration, where I also met Daniel — a General Partner at Visible Hands and a close friend today. I realized that one of the biggest problems in the Philippines is financial inclusion, but it also starts with including the migrant worker to play a part and co-design the change.

If you move abroad and send money home, but you go home, and nothing changes, it’s a pretty frustrating cycle. So I realized that there’s a way to connect that. When I looked into organizations in the Philippines working on this, I found that many people are working on financial inclusion, but it just wasn’t covering the root causes as much as I had hoped for.

Instead of joining one, I decided to start TANG app. In a nutshell, we’re building the borderless Venmo for the 1.7 million unbanked. Basically, we think sending money should be as easy as texting regardless of where you live, what your income is, or what currency you use, and we’re starting with the Philippines. TANG app allows migrant workers from the US to send money and phone credit home, and the receiver can use TANG app to pay bills or peer-to-peer.

As you mentioned, whether it be sexism in fundraising or bias in fintech, how have you dealt with imposter syndrome?

That’s a really good question. I recognize that saying things like “Be brave” or “Get some grit” are extremely privileged things to say from a personal perspective that definitely didn’t come naturally. I can say that, in retrospect, I wish I had been more like that. But I strongly believe it starts small. If you have a problem, start talking to people about it. Brave is this big, bold word, but I actually think courage and bravery are in the small things you do to get yourself through this day and then keep making progress.

It’s already terrifying when you have an idea of a solution, and you share it with your best friend and hope they don’t laugh. We’ve all been there. And especially friends and family around us are intrigued, but they also tend to give immediate criticism, so that’s already brave. It’s all about taking small steps — taking your idea and testing it in coffee chats with other people, and then turning it into a few PowerPoint slides and continuing by reaching out to target customers and getting an interview or even an informal chat with them.

At the end of the day, being brave isn’t “Oh, quit your job, ignore everything else, and then go out to VCs and try raising $10 million.” I’ve always loved the thrill and the adrenaline that comes with it and knowing that I have this vision of helping Filipinos and other unbanked individuals, but it’s really those small steps that helped me get to where I am today. I’ve dealt with a lot of insecurity along the way — I think many people do, but the key is taking small steps to achieve the comfort and confidence you need as a founder.

By being brave, I am not trying to have people overhaul everything and go through crazy life changes; I think it’s more about getting started on little things that you can feasibly handle and then just keep moving forward. Have a vision, but take it one step at a time.

At what point did TANG app become more than just an idea?

While I was at the Harvard Kennedy School, I decided that when I had an idea, I would go and do market research on the ground by talking to Filipinos in rural areas. Because of my Filipina auntie, I had a little bit of an understanding of the migrant worker life, and I with the area where I thought had way more blind spots, which is understanding the receivers of these funds in the Philippines.

We were interviewing different families on the ground, and one of them had explained how the process at Western Union works. Before I begin, though, I want to clarify that the fact that Western Union provides cash sending services around the world is phenomenal in itself, and I recognize that. But basically, when they receive cash, they have to travel a long time to get this cash, and the fees are huge. Sometimes the money gets lost, gets sent to the wrong country, and lots of other mishaps like that. Companies like Western Union provide a much-needed service but charge exorbitant fees and are focused on cash.

In hearing their story, I asked them, “What do you do if you know that that’s the process and it’s going to take you half a day to go pick up the cash?” And they said, “Well, we take off from work. We sacrifice that time that we could be making money because we need these funds — even if we know that we could show up and the money wouldn’t be there.” That was when it clicked, and I understood that my gut instinct on this relationship between the migrant worker and the person receiving the money is key to help bring about financial inclusion. What I mean by that is, you have ten million Filipinos who live and work abroad; they send home $34 billion every year, which is 10% of the Philippines’ GDP. They are tech-savvy; a lot of them have bank accounts, but it’s their relatives that are mostly unbanked. Instead of us trying to force better solutions domestically, we really need to include Filipinos living abroad to play a part in co-designing this behavior change, which is a big part of our theory of change.

What were some of your first interactions with your team, and what did it look like to build out your team?

I am really fortunate that I got to go to the Harvard Kennedy School and land in this ecosystem where there are so many resources. However, today there are a lot of options for support for entrepreneurs.

I do not have a technical background, and I obviously needed somebody to oversee the engineering element. But I didn’t even know where to start. I didn’t know how to hire or recruit or interview an engineer, let alone know what questions to ask them. So the first thing I did was look for an advisor who had excellent technical experience. That just meant somebody who had experience leading an engineering team and had worked at a successful fintech startup. Advisors are pivotal and can really help prevent you from making big initial mistakes. Similar to Visible Hands, advisors help people find senior team members, mentors, partners, you name it.

I came upon our first advisor, Samantha Whitmore, the former Head of Engineering at a fintech company called Kensho, which was actually based in Harvard Square and sold about two years ago for half a billion. She is very experienced both on the technical side of building a product all the way to scaling it and through acquisition and on a senior startup level. She was able to think very strategically about what decisions to make, so I was fortunate to meet her.

Have you learned any hurtful but beneficial lessons early on?

I think the biggest one is to get comfortable with rejection. Spring 2019—TANG app’s inception—I started applying for any and all grants and accelerators. And I got rejected by all of them. I was so used to applying to something and at least being asked for an interview, and in retrospect, my applications were quite uninformed. I hadn’t even gone to the Philippines yet to do the ground research, let alone gather an understanding of my target customer.

But I also realized that all you need is nine no’s to get one yes. Every ‘no’ you get is actually progress, and you learn so much more from rejections because they are much tougher to deal with and give you a reality check like no other. Rejections also force you to reflect on your idea until you have a solidified one.

Another tough misstep I came across was on the fundraising side. I thought from day one that I was raising my million-dollar seed round from VCs. My big learning from that is to focus on being really scrappy, really lean. Only take on what you need. Once we had a better understanding of what we were building and the sender-receiver relationship, it almost wrote the deck itself, and all we had to do was tell the story. In June 2020, we won multiple grant competitions and went on in February 2021 to close our pre-seed round oversubscribed of $1.2 million from angels.

Finally, this is not a big mistake, rather a prevalent issue within the startup and VC world. Sexism in fundraising, as I briefly mentioned previously, was an obstacle in my journey. I’ve often been mansplained blockchain technology to — often factually incorrectly — and unfortunately, I had to smile and nod. I’ve learned now to ask for help and lean on my advisors and mentors for support. I’ve chosen to accept that I’m jumping into a system that isn’t always going to be friendly to me being an Asian woman in fintech because I care about helping Filipinos, and that care is great enough to make a compromise.

However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a toll on my mental health; I stayed too strong and too proud for too long, which was another mistake. And especially during the pandemic, you notice that you become more lonely, everything is virtual, you don’t get to see your team every day where you could be getting your pick-me-up from. I definitely recommend looking for a mentor, advisor, or coach early on to serve as a support system throughout your journey.

What advice would you share from your journey that would benefit first-time founders?

I was lucky to be able to take so many entrepreneurship classes. The more classes I took on social entrepreneurship, however, you can’t teach entrepreneurship. I would say try and find a problem that you love and are obsessed with solving from my personal journey. A lot of social entrepreneurship, or entrepreneurship in general, you’re changing systems, and that’s always tough. So you have to be obsessed with a problem, and you have to be passionate enough to solve something.

The second thing is to be brave and go for it. Just pick something, because I think in all these crossroads in life, if you don’t pick something, people will pick it for you. If you’re in college and all your friends are going towards a certain career, and you have no idea what you want to do, you’re very likely to say, “Oh, maybe I’ll try it also,” and go for consulting like your friends. And to be honest, that’s how I ended up in consulting. I wasn’t brave enough yet to say, “No, this is what I love.” Even though I knew I wanted to help Filipinos, I don’t regret choosing the strategy consulting path first. It helped me learn everything I needed to start TANG app, and it also gave me the confidence to become the founder that I am today.

Finally, find your tribe. I’ve been lucky to live a lot internationally, and because of that, I’ve never really felt out of place. However, becoming a female founder of color in fintech has been one of the handful of times that I really felt different, and that was tough — tougher than I expected. I think I was a bit naive about it. The sexism in fundraising was a hard hit, and the bias I dealt with was tough. So finding my tribe in other social entrepreneurs was essential — when you’re starting something new and for 100 different reasons you don’t feel at home, you have your tribe to turn to. Additionally, surrounding myself with existing and successful founders who can give you quick business tips and consistently guide you towards that light at the end of the tunnel is unbelievably reassuring.

Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us, Rebecca.

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