SXSW Startups: Leaf Supports Refugees

The Forrest Four-Cast: February 8, 2018

50 startups from around the world have been selected as finalists for the 2018 SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event on March 10 and 11. Winners in 10 categories will be honored at the Accelerator Award Ceremony at 7 pm Sunday, March 11, at the Hilton Austin. The SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event takes place within the Startup & Tech Sectors track of programming.

A finalist in the Payment and FinTech Technology category, Leaf offers a safe way for refugees to protect and transport savings while escaping conflict. It provides financial services to the stateless and excluded by creating a virtual bank through blockchain technology. Instead of using a multi-currency cash system that attracts the attention of thieves and corrupt border guards, refugees can utilize the security and convenience of a virtual currency through a mobile phone to secure assets while in flight. By facilitating the movement and storage of assets, Leaf reduces the risk of theft and creates economic identities.

From their home base in Nashville, Tenn., the Leaf team will travel to Austin to make their pitch at 11 am Sunday, March 11, in the Hilton Austin, Salon AB. Interview questions were answered by Nat Robinson (back row, farthest left), the CEO of this startup.

What is the competitive advantage of Leaf?
We have an incredible team with experience across social entrepreneurship, financial services, technology, East Africa, and working with refugees. We uniquely understand the challenges and opportunities of our market and the need for technology to change how people save and move money around the world. We’re equipped to bring financial services to those who the formal banking system typically excludes.

What inspires your team to work harder?
There are two billion people around the world without access to financial services and 165 million refugees and people who could become refugees at any point. That is a big problem with no easy solution.

What does Leaf hope to accomplish in 2018?
Leaf is working to complete a full pilot program in Rwanda in the spring of 2018 to test both our technical platform and validate Leaf’s market. Once the pilot is complete, Leaf will continue to refine its customer acquisition model and fundraise towards an initial rollout of our services.

What inspired your team to apply for SXSW Accelerator?
We thought our mission and dream with Leaf would resonate well with the creative, tech-focused, socially-minded audience at SXSW. Being part of SXSW is an incredible opportunity to gain feedback on our service as well as gain connections with people who can help refine our technical platform and business model.

Since no one from your team has been to SXSW before, what are you most looking forward to?
SXSW is a major gathering of people with a broad mix of backgrounds from music, film, art, technology, business and politics. We pride ourselves on being a team of broad diversity. We want to be in the middle of people who value creativity, analytics, and how lessons learned in one industry can shape another. Also, being from the “Music City” (Nashville), we’re excited to spend time in the “live music capital” of the world!

What session are your team most excited about attending at SXSW 2018?
We’re very excited for the opening talk with hacktivist/COO of Techfugees, Joséphine Goube. We’ll also definitely attend Blockchain for Refugees: Economic Passports with BanQu, Fintech Needs A Human Touch: Lessons from Africa, and African Music Goes Live.

What are the goals for Leaf at SXSW 2018?
We seek to gain useful feedback on our technical product and our business model. Making connections with those who know and use blockchain technology would be a success for Leaf. We hope to meet and network with people who have insights into providing services to refugees, in particular providing tech-enabled services. We’d also love to connect with other blockchain enthusiasts at SXSW! Blockchain is such an exciting technology and we hope we can continue to build our advisory board with experts.

What else can you tell us about your upcoming SXSW experience?
We’ll be flying straight to Austin from Rwanda, so hopefully we’ll be awake! SXSW will be the first opportunity to showcase our pilot work on the border of Rwanda and the DRC, as well as further market validation with refugees in Rwanda. We’re also excited to have a presence at the SXSW Accelerator Demo Day on March 12 to follow up with anyone who might be interested in our Rwanda work or blockchain platform.

Tell us about Leaf’s previous experience at pitch events?
LaunchTN held a pitch competition at the 36/86 conference in Nashville last June. We won our category for the pitch event and received great feedback from the judges about our idea. We made it to the final six teams last September at Denver Startup Week, where we learned more about how to explain our revenue model and the context for financial services in East Africa. Leaf recently also won Vanderbilt University’s Sohr grant through a pitch competition in which we received helpful advice on continuing to refine our tech platform.

Has Leaf been involved with previous tech conferences ?
SXSW is Leaf’s first big tech conference. We couldn’t be more excited to network with people who have experience rolling out brand new ideas and technologies in complex environments. We hope to inspire others to think about how to include traditionally-overlooked markets (like the financially excluded) as technology continues to shape global culture and connectivity.

How long has the Leaf team been together?
The Leaf team officially came together in June of 2017, but many of us have known each other and worked together longer than that. We’ve continued to attract top talent and interesting individuals as we’ve gotten the word out about our services and needs.

Have team members previously been involved with other startups?
I started a for-profit rural microfinance institution in Kenya and helped start an SMS survey and analytics company also based in Kenya. Both companies are generating profits while helping tens of thousands of people across East Africa to earn more money and take care of their families.

Other than Leaf, what is world’s the most exciting startup right now?
We are big fans of Branch.co that provides hundreds of thousands of people with loans across Africa through its app-based lending platform.

Leaf is based in Nashville, Tenn.. We know that music is big in Nashville — but how is the startup scene there?
Nashville has a fast-growing and vibrant startup scene. Other than the music industry, Nashville is home to over 300 healthcare organizations and prides itself on being a center for innovation, with over 500 active startups affiliated with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. Nashville is also home to many top-tier universities that all have resources dedicated to entrepreneurship.

What technology does your team think is most overrated?
Augmented VR. While extremely cool, it seems like humanity has potentially already lost touch with reality in a time in which we need more connection than ever before. While there are great potential applications of VR technology, most of the progress we’ve seen so far has been pointed towards entertainment and the commercialization of isolation.

How about underrated?
We are clearly fans of blockchain technology. While cryptocurrency applications that sit on the blockchain are probably overhyped at this point, we believe we’re still scratching the surface of the positive characteristics of the underlying technology. There’s been good thought leadership in the space but we’re excited to see a move towards implementation across various industries.

What podcasts are your team listening to now and why?
Industry Angel is a great and entertaining way to stay up on all the fast-moving trends. Also, Serial: Because it just sucks you in. Finally, StartUp, which is a podcast that takes you through the in’s and out’s of getting a business off the ground

What do you like best about the startup experience?
The excitement of working on a challenging problem with limited resources. Bootstrapping pushes us to be more creative in developing solutions. Also, it’s such a wonderful environment to dive deep into teamwork and network with experts in various fields. The startup community is very generous and always eager to help.

What about least?
The amount of money pumped into the startup community attracts people looking to make a quick return instead of those interested in solving difficult problems. Sometimes, it can be difficult to differentiate yourself as a sustainable organization.

For what happens on a day-to-day basis at Leaf, what does work-life balance look like?
Most of our time is focused on our Rwanda pilot program in early March, which means we’re interviewing potential customers, building the technology, and establishing early partners. Some of our team members live in immigrant and refugee communities, so work-life integration is probably more accurate than work-life balance! We take time individually and as a team to relax and try to take advantage of flexible work hours to stay healthy.

You can invite any three living people from anywhere in the world to dinner. Who do you invite and why?
The first would be Muhammad Yunus. He is the founder of microfinance, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Vanderbilt grad. Second is Satoshi Nakamoto, who devised the first blockchain database (yes, he could be a person or a group, currently anonymous). The final invite goes to Mwavita Mlasi. She is a Congolese refugee and community leader of the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania. This would be an interesting conversation about the role social business and technology can plan in addressing the daily challenges faced by refugees everyday who are fleeing conflict around the world.

What do you know now that you wish you had known before you began the startup journey with Leaf?
How incredibly supportive and helpful the Nashville refugee community would be in exploring our idea. We have made some wonderful contacts who are passionate about helping family and friends facing exploitation or violence in a home country.

What has the startup experience taught you about life?
Persistence overcomes all barriers. Never stop learning!

Look for interviews with other SXSW Accelerator finalists in this space between now and March. Startups already profiled as part of this series include 70MillionJobs, Bluefield, Cambridge Cancer Genomics, Commutifi, DashTag, Goalsetter, HealthTensor, Instreamatic, Pawame, PolyPort, Sceenic, Switchboard, and UPGRADED.

Or, click here to browse the full lineup of startups for SXSW Accelerator 2018.

Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.