Meet Tala’s new Chief Data Officer!

Tala is thrilled to welcome Kevin Novak, formerly head of data science at Uber, to our executive team. As Tala’s first chief data officer, Kevin will drive Tala’s vision for a mobile-first financial services platform, helping us build credit and other personalized products for more of the 3 billion underserved people around the world.

Ahead of Kevin’s first day on December 11, we sat down to chat with him about data, emerging markets, and why he’s excited to make the transition to fintech.

Q:What most excites you about data science at Tala?

A: Tala is really exciting to me because it’s a cutting edge data problem that has a massive impact in the everyday lives of a lot of people — how can we better utilize the data from our lives to make better decisions about our financial lives? Creditworthiness, how and where we spend our money, and preparing for the financial aspects of our future lives are all incredibly important decisions that data can help us do better. I think the timing is also perfect for something like Tala — smartphone technology and its increasing ubiquity in emerging markets has created this opportunity for customers to better measure an increasingly large number of useful signals, while simultaneously creating an opportunity for us to build an easy-to-use product that’s seamlessly able to reach large numbers of people.

“Tala is working with one of the most exciting data sets imaginable, and with the goal of building financial services that include more of the world’s people. I’m blown away by the team’s passion and commitment and by the great work already underway.”

Q: What do you think financial services can learn from transportation services? Are there any key similarities in the way technology is transforming these sectors? Key differences?

A: I’d say that there are definitely similarities between financial services and transportation services. First, and most important, both are products meant to address some of our most basic needs beyond housing, employment, and nutrition. At Uber, we recognized that reliable transportation is right up there, and we took a lot of pride in Uber’s ability to both create jobs for entrepreneurially minded folks and provide a service to help people in their everyday lives. I’d argue that the ability to access high-integrity financial services is even more important than that — part of what really inspired me at Tala was the idea that we’re creating the foundation for financial systems to work in the first place by giving people a financial identity. Now many of these individuals are interacting with a financial service provider for the first time, using Tala’s lending product to start or grow businesses or pay for their 
basic needs.

I’d say a second point of similarity is the behavior of the incumbents. Just as in transportation, where the taxi medallion system created rent-seeking behavior that didn’t advantage customers and prioritized certain socioeconomic groups over others, financial services have (in my opinion) missed the boat on creating products and systems that help emerging markets develop in a good-faith, high-integrity way. I’m excited to help use my prior disrupting experience on a new challenge.

To me, the biggest difference between the two fields is the ethical stakes. Whereas in transportation, you were able to tolerate the occasional poor product experience for the sake of experimentation or speed of getting a product to market, the financial services sector affords no such luxury. 
If your transportation app didn’t successfully request a ride, you had a minor inconvenience to either re-request or take another transportation option; 
if your financial services provider makes a mistake, you’re unable to pay your bills. Even as me and my team work through the abstract mathematics of some of these models, it’s critically important that we keep those stakes 
in mind.

Q: One idea we’ve heard a lot of this year is that “data is the new oil.” How do you think about data’s potential, particularly for emerging markets?

A: Oof… cliche alert! Not to double down on creating a new buzzy phrase, but I’d actually argue that data is more analogous to water than oil. It’s critical to enriching life in emerging markets, the vast majority of it on the planet isn’t fit for consumption, and a good chunk of it evaporates every day before we can use it. Putting on my entrepreneurial hat, I’d argue that data is probably the only sustainable competitive advantage in an emerging market. The only constant in these markets is change — new ideas come to market every day, institutions and companies rise and fall every couple of months, and capitalizing on make-or-break opportunities requires agility, intelligence, and vision. Data is the platform that underpins all of this — the more we can learn about our customers and our markets, the quicker we can generate insights from that data. And the more we understand the unwritten quantitative rules that power these forces, the better decisions we will make as we navigate Tala over the upcoming years. It’s critically important we’re thoughtfully looking for new signals and integrating them into our existing data ecosystem, organizing our information in a way that makes sense to us and our customers, and pushing that insight and decision-making power as close as we can to the individual markets.

Q: What are you most excited to tackle in 2018?

A: First and foremost, I’m excited to meet and get to know my team better. We’ve got a great group of data scientists, analysts, and engineers who’ve built something amazing, and I don’t want to get in the way of any of that. I want to go deep into the problems we’re trying solve — and even find new problems to solve — and learn from my teammates and our markets. From a customer-facing perspective, our expansion creates an exciting new set of challenges — how do we make the same high-quality decisions that have gotten us this far, while becoming more automated and enabling our scientists to scale themselves? What new methods or products become available as the amount of data we have access to increases? At Uber, I always found that expansion gave us an opportunity to experiment with some of our fundamental assumptions about our customers — how can we use learnings from new markets or new products to improve our existing experiences?

Q: What don’t you know yet that you can’t wait to learn? Which Tala market are you most excited to visit?

A: It’s funny, I always used to joke that working at Uber and staring at the transportation data meant that I became intimately familiar with neighborhoods and rush hour traffic in cities I have never lived in (The Big Dig, brutal at rush hour!). I’m really excited to learn more about how these personal financial markets work all over the world — not in the macro sense (which I feel like I mostly get), but in the everyday, micro sense. How do people use these loans? What are the nonintuitive (to me, anyway) features we could build that would have a massive impact in people’s quality of life? As far as specific markets, I’m probably most excited to visit Kenya, because it’s our most mature one. As a data person, I naturally gravitate to the biggest dataset I can find, and I feel that Kenya will give me the best insight into what Tala can be as a product that’s already found some product-market fit. Having this sort of “north star” is incredibly helpful as we continue to expand and set our vision for Tala’s future.

Q: Last but not least: your thoughts on tech in LA? Are you excited for the move south?

A: Super excited! I have some experience with the LA and Santa Monica tech scene (Uber’s LA office is down here of course) and I’ve been an interested spectator for a while. I think there’s a unique blend of diverse talent from a lot of different backgrounds, some top tier educational and professional institutions to pull talent from, and a compelling scene outside of work that will help us attract and retain great talent.

Want to build with Kevin and #TeamTala? We’re hiring! 
We are data scientists, engineers, customer experience designers, marketers, and finance geeks all passionate about extending financial freedom to the billions of underserved people across the globe. We believe in people from every type of background — around the world, and within our company. 
Come join our global team at Tala.co/Careers!