March 26, 2021
Bhargavi Kamakshivalli on her passion for building a more inclusive financial ecosystem
What is your role?
Describe what you do in a few sentences.
I drive strategic design and user centric product development practices for our international and financial access teams, while managing and helping my product design teams grow.
Plaid's mission is to unlock financial freedom for everyone. What does this mean to you?
It sounds cliche to say that I have a personal mission statement, but I do! And Plaid’s mission aligns perfectly with mine. Money is so integral to every person. Our everyday life is defined by our interaction and relationship with our financial life, so I think it is incredibly important that everyone has equal opportunity, access, and education around how to grow their relationship with money.
What I enjoy most about our business is that we're focused on the impact we can have on every person's financial life and the mark we can leave on the greater fintech ecosystem. I love this holistic approach to improving financial access.
Tell us about the culture of inclusion at Plaid.
As a person of color and an immigrant, I'm very watchful about what I say and the programs that I participate in. With Plaid, I haven't had to think twice about my actions. In fact, I was able to help my colleague, Nell Malone, launch FinRise, our first financial incubator for founders who are Black, Indigenous, or People of color. This initiative is very personal to me because I know how hard it is to get access to resources in a country where I was not born and raised. Getting access to fundamental capital and network resources is challenging in the process of founding a company for anyone but especially founders from underrepresented backgrounds. The fact that Plaid believes in this and is willing to support the launch of FinRise is pretty exceptional.
What do you love most about working at Plaid?
The people. I love that everyone at Plaid is so talented. Everyone's extraordinarily good at what they do, but there's also this humility that they bring to work, which is not something that you see very often. Knowing that everyone is aligned on the overall mission and here to do impactful work is the best part of working at Plaid.
How does Plaid compare to other places you've worked?
Empowerment. Plaid supports and helps people drive impact. The second is the fact that Plaid promotes a “make it better” mindset. If people feel that something is broken or that we could be doing something differently, Plaid actively encourages us to fix it. I am constantly impressed by this.
Let’s rewind to the beginning.
What were you like as a child? What were you passionate about or interested in?
I was a very curious child! My mom's an artist and my dad works in pharmacology. I grew up in a home where creative and analytical debates were free-flowing. My parents were also passionate about teaching my sister and me the basics of financial saving, so family time in our household included playing board games like math magic and monopoly to build on fundamental financial concepts. But, I would also spend a lot of time painting and drawing with my mom. It was really cool to push that creative and analytical muscle as a child.
You mentioned that your parents were both passionate about promoting financial savings. How did they teach you this skill?
Yes! I started taking Indian classical music lessons when I was two, and in this genre we have songs set to melodic tunes and each melodic tune has a unique name. When we were traveling or in the car, my dad would ask my sister and me to guess the name of a melodic tune and for every right answer, he would give us two bucks. At the end of the year, he would take us to a CD shop and we could use the money we “earned” over the year to purchase cassettes and CDs, which created a new inventory of melodic tunes for us to guess, creating a virtuous cycle of learning. Not only did our musical skills improve, but we also learned how to save money through this. I vividly remember a time when we wanted to spend our earnings immediately and he explained how saving for seven months compounded our money over time. Those are topics that you don't usually take time to teach a child, but I think my parents did a great job breaking them down into smaller concepts incorporated into fun little activities in our daily life.
After college you worked with a venture firm in India. Can you tell us about your experience?
Absolutely. After college in London, I moved back to India to work at an impact fund. One of the most interesting projects that I had the opportunity to be a part of, was around providing financial access to the under-banked and unbanked population of India. India is a really fascinating country because its people speak up to 23 different languages and there are numerous cultures within the subcontinent. This same facet also makes it challenging because any solution had to be designed and scaled for millions of people, speaking very different languages. The second challenge was around literacy, in rural India, not only is financial literacy a problem but general literacy creates an added barrier to access.
Nationalized banks did not have a huge incentive to set up brick and mortar facilities in rural towns, so we were trying to solve the financial literacy challenge by building a single app that can be used by millions of Indians to perform simple financial tasks. After prototyping and testing a few experiences, the team identified a key stakeholder in the ecosystem to build this experience around, the Kiranawala. A Kiranawala, who would very loosely translate to your bodega store owner, would source goods from bigger towns and cities and act as a local, multipurpose store owner who serves the whole community, by selling groceries and farm equipment, to pretty much anything the village might need. The Kiranawalas were generally more literate, necessitated by their connections in cities, and interestingly most of the communities had an existing financial relationship with them. The residents would borrow money, and give him money to save on their behalf. There was a barter system in place.
So, we decided to design an application for this person who, again, acted as a connecting thread between the bank and the community. The service we shipped, provided an app for the Kiranwalas to create bank accounts for residents of their community, who could deposit and withdraw money from their personal accounts using biometric identification. The Kiranawala was incentivised for every account created, the community had better visibility and access to financial instruments and the banks could reach remote parts of the country. We had created a virtuous cycle of financial access, centered around a key stakeholder that came out of being embedded within and understanding a community.
Describe your journey into design. How did you choose that career?
I had a huge analytical and creative upbringing and as an adult, I was eager to nurture the creative side a bit more. So, I decided to study design to explore my options and in doing so, found that design was a perfect lens for addressing analytical problems. While in college, I started working with a couple of local tech companies to create brand logos and design user experiences, and reaffirmed my intuition that design was the path for me.
We hear that you have a love for academia, can you tell us more?
Of course! I love teaching and academia in general. In a professional environment, you work to solve interesting problems but you are constrained by business cases. But in a classroom, there are no limits. You have all kinds of blue sky ideas. You don't have to think about profitability. You don't have to think about user acquisition. You're evaluating ideas for the pure joy and impact on users. I love being in spaces where people are encouraged to unleash their creativity. For that specific reason, I will always have one foot in academia. I have continued to have some relationships with different universities. I am an associate research director at the Visualizing Finance Lab at Parsons School of Design and teach every now and then. Last semester, my class and I worked with the CFPB to help older Americans, specifically, surviving spouses improve their access to financial information, in times of grief.
Plaid is a high-performance environment, how do you unwind?
I love to sing. In New York, prior to Covid, I performed with an Indian classical band called Navatman Music Collective. Although the Indian classical music format is structured for solo singing, a bunch of folks decided to come together and created a band. And now we have an Indian classical music band! We are nine singers who try to meet every week to practice and learn new repertoire.
Okay. Last one is, what's the best piece of advice you've received?
Don't be afraid to show what makes you, “you”. As a person of color and as an immigrant, I tend to be overly cautious and prefer to blend into the background as much as possible. When my mentor taught me the importance of stepping outside of my shell so that I could fully own who I am, my perspective shifted. Choosing to bring an identity that is authentic to who I am, allows me to bring the best version of myself to everything I do.