Thijs Mathot, CEO & Founder of Brighter Investment, stopped by the SVX office at MaRS Discovery District in downtown Toronto for a quick Q&A about his journey from aerospace engineer to CEO of a social enterprise. We were excited to learn about the start-up journey of Brighter Investment, its current activity and offering, and what’s next for the team.
Tell us a little about your background and your journey into social entrepreneurship.
My journey started with me doing aerospace engineering in the Netherlands. We’re talking about a pre-Musk, pre-SpaceX era, and space projects were slow and bureaucratic, much less exciting than I envisioned as a student. So, I went back to school and got a business degree. After graduating I hoped I would land a job in New York, as one does after getting a business degree. But, there was work in the sustainable real estate industry for me in Mexico. So Mexico is where I went. And Mexico is where I started my social entrepreneurship journey.
What sparked the idea of Brighter Investment/providing loans to students in emerging markets?
Well, while living in Mexico I decided to take a beginner’s Spanish course so, one evening after hopping into a cab, I struck up a conversation with the driver to practise those skills and ended up going to his house for a BBQ (warm, generous Mexican culture for you!). There, I met the cab driver’s younger brother who was incredibly bright — he was at the top of his class in school but unfortunately didn’t have the capital needed to pursue further education, which was an absolute shame. With the help of my colleagues, it didn’t take long pull together that capital for him. And, as we kept in touch, I noticed how great the return on investment was on the small donation we made into his education — it outpaced anything I was doing in my sustainable real estate work. That was when I realized that my resources should be going to value-creating opportunities and that was the very first seed that was planted in me, which would later bloom into Brighter Investment.
So, why Ghana specifically?
After returning back to the Netherlands and working for a private public partnership project, the OECD came out with a report that described the high ROI on higher education in developing countries. The problem is that high inflation in developing countries and a wide range in quality of degrees and students make it very difficult to sustain the tradition student loan model as one, for example, would see in Ontario with OSAP. I decided to pursue Ghana specifically because it is a stable, democratic state, I found a great business partner, and any transparency issues are manageable.
What are some of the greatest problems you face working in a developing country?
I think one of the greatest problems we face is that there’s a common misconception that African countries are all extremely underdeveloped and impoverished. That is certainly not the case in Ghana. While poverty is still a prevalent problem, there is everything from a flourishing agricultural economy to engineering firms and software start-ups. The problem we see in Ghana is that those jobs are just out of reach to much of the population and that’s where Brighter Investment fits in — we help move students from the informal economy into the formal economy. It is hard to understand what this looks like when a lot of the Western world’s exposure to Africa is limited to the notorious images used by large charities. Not to say that poverty does not exist — it certainly does. But there is a huge potential to grow their economy, which is not as difficult as it may seem from Ghana’s portrayal in the Western world.
I’m sure there is a lot of interest in this type of education financing. How do you select your loan recipients?
In order to decide who gets a loan, we have a specific algorithm in use that gauges early predictors of success above and beyond our application process. A problem we face is that poor students often don’t have even the basic support or resources necessary to get good marks. They face greater financial challenges, which can also detract their time from studying. So, while they don’t have the best marks in school, it doesn’t necessarily reflect on their abilities and potential, which is why our selection, besides grades, looks at many other factors like personality traits and family circumstances.
What are your methods of outreach in Ghana?
We have a few methods of outreach in Ghana. The first way, and possibly the most unsuspecting, is Facebook Ads. Although they don’t use tech the same way we Canadians do here in Ghana, they are still just as invested in their social media presence. Many women in Ghana rent out smartphones so people are able to get onto Facebook for their updates, which is a great way for us to reach out to our target demographic en masse. The other two ways are through our partner universities and high school teachers; as education providers, they have access to and are able to identify potential loan recipients and are able to share our service with those who need it most.
Is there anything exciting currently in the works for your team?
We are currently doing a capital raise round on SVX.ca which we are very excited about. This is our fourth round, having raised capital through crowdfunding and from friends and family in previous rounds. We are reaching out to accredited investors for two separate offerings including: our student loan fund and an equity investment in the business. We are seeking capital to help provide hundreds of new loans to high potential students, and to support the scaling of our business and impact. We were also just recently able to tell our investors that our first 21 graduated and repaying students are outperforming our original projections and we are talking to different potential partners to help us expand beyond the borders of Ghana.
What’s next for Brighter Investment?
Because we work with degree programs that offer students the best career prospects, we support a lot of STEM degree students but find that the percentage of women in this field in Ghana is low. So, we have started to encourage women participants at the high school level to enter the STEM fields. These students, based on their performance, will then become eligible to apply for a Brighter Investment loan so this actually a fourth method of outreach to attract potential recipients.
As previously mentioned, we’re really excited for our current round listed on the SVX platform to help us bring our operations and resources to the next level. We’re eager to connect with investors who are interested in supporting more accessible, quality education, reduced inequalities, and developing emerging markets to help us take that next step and are excited for the students, their families, and the larger community that will benefit from it.