Nicole Van Der Tuin ’07 is the co-founder and CEO of First Access, an award-winning financial technology company that helps underserved people around the world gain access to financial services. As a part of the Kenyon Unique lecture series, Van Der Tuin has been invited to Kenyon to share her presentation on Storytelling and Start-ups, drawing from her time as a student at Kenyon and her current endeavours as a CEO.
What prompted your creation of First Access?
I was working for an international NGO based in France that does work in micro finance … and basically [I] encountered the fact that the financial institutions are trying to reach new customers, and there’s a massive population — really the majority of the population — that has never had access to credit. Financial institutions are trying to reach those people as quickly and efficiently as possible and to offer them credit to be able to grow businesses, [and] basically it’s like a $5 trillion credit gap across emerging markets for small businesses. And so these financial institutions where I was working were struggling to scale and meet the huge amount of demand for credit from customers because they have really manual processes. It was such a consistent problem across emerging markets that don’t appear to have a lot of other stuff in common like language and culture and a certain level of development.
What was the biggest obstacle you overcame in creating First Access?
I think the biggest challenge is just that like you go through a lot of iterations in a business and you will learn a lot — nothing ever goes exactly the way you planned. So I think keeping the message clear and keeping people motivated and inspired when you realize you’ve invested a lot in something.
What do you foresee as the future of First Access, or in what direction do you think it’s headed?
Now that we figured out how the product should be designed in order to maximize the potential that it has, the next stage is really to work on some global partnerships that will help make our platform more accessible in more places while keeping the costs really low.
What do you think are the most valuable skills one can have serving as the CEO of a company?
Communication skills are the most important, because even aside from the execution of various responsibilities, the most important thing is being able to communicate your vision and communicate with your team, your investors, the public, to build as much momentum around what you are doing as possible. Then I think relentless time management and precision skills are probably the second-most important. And the last one is probably being able to conquer your fears and take care of yourself, because generally if you’re building something really innovative, it is scary.
What was your greatest achievement as a student at Kenyon College?
I think the thing that I’m probably the most proud of is actually my thesis presentation, because it felt like this very challenging but satisfying culmination of what I had been studying and, more importantly, sort of a multi-disciplinary, multi-sensory experience of the community that I had been working with, which I had come to deeply love.
What sort of role has travel played in how you see the world today?
I think it constantly reinforces a lesson that I learned studying anthropology at Kenyon, which is that despite all the things that separate us … fundamentally, most people value the same things. And it’s so easy to focus on differences [when] going to a new place and dealing with other languages, other systems of etiquette, just other cultures in general. Because the more places I go, particularly for work where I have a chance to really engage with people, I’m just constantly reminded of all the things that we have in common. The opportunities that I’ve had in my life and the opportunities that Americans have, in general, are something that I would wish for anyone, but they’re not evenly distributed. And so, it is very motivating to remember [this] because it reminds me why I do what I do.
What advice do you have to inspire the entrepreneurial spirit among Kenyon students today?
Invest the time in really learning about the problem and about the customers that you want to serve, whether they are near or far to where you live. It’s really tough to solve a problem that you haven’t experienced yourself. Not just because you won’t know as much about how to do it, but because your willingness to stick with it through the inevitable tough moments is going to be a lot higher. So [my advice] would be to invest in experiencing and understanding problems really well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.