Thanks to writer Caroline Shifke for contributing this piece.
First-year MBA student Santiago Pezzoni never planned to become an entrepreneur and still can’t quite believe he gets to run his own company while attending Berkeley Haas. “My grandfather was a butcher in Milan who moved to Argentina so his children could have better lives,” he explains. “With all the opportunities I have here, I feel lucky to wake up every morning and take advantage of everything I can.”
Before coming to Haas, Pezzoni grew up in Argentina and worked at LatAm ecommerce giant, Mercado Libre. While there, he and two co-workers realized that the financial industry in Latin America was ready for disruption.Approximately 60% of Latin Americans have limited access to financial services. On the consumer side, there’s a lack of financial education, no such thing as a standardized credit score, and a widespread belief that being rejected from a bank means being on a government blacklist. On the banking side, most financial institutions rely on old technology, spend $20B annually in customer acquisition, and lack the capability to provide simple digital solutions.
Looking to consolidate the fragmented market and democratize access to financial services, Pezzoni and his friends co-founded Digiventures, a platform that bridges underbanked consumers with financial institutions. The company works in four stages. First, it generates awareness and provides free financial education. Second, it analyzes a customer’s specific needs to determine which institution is the best fit, such as matching schoolteachers with credit unions that specialize in teacher loans. Third, it provides an automated, online process for banks to onboard new customers. This is Digiventures’ “secret sauce,” a frictionless process that not only allows financial institutions to comply with regulations but also makes the process of signing a financial services agreement easier and faster. The fourth and final step is “closing the loop.” Digiventures follows up with all customers to see how they’re being served, what their experiences were like, and if they need any additional support.
Founded three years ago, Digiventures was bootstrapped and is now profitable. With operations in Argentina and Uruguay and expansion beginning into Peru and Colombia, the company has over 4,850 daily users on the consumer side and 35 financial institutions on the banking side. Far from the recent pandemic slowing growth, the mandatory move away from in-person business has been a boon: Banks that previously resisted going digital now want online offerings.
Last year, Pezzoni came to Haas to scale up Digiventures. He was one of 22 teams selected to participated in the UC LAUNCH Accelerator, a cross-campus program supported by UC’s Blackstone LaunchPad. In May, Digiventures won first place, and $30k in non-dilutive funding, at the accelerator’s Demo Day.
In addition to his work scaling his own venture, Pezzoni also ran the Berkeley StEP Pre-Accelerator, an 8-week program that connects UC Berkeley engineering, computer science, business, design, and law students to get a taste of the founder experience. Created several years ago by Haas MBA students, StEP was able to expand its reach last year as a result of the new partnership between the University of California and the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars network. As Pezzoni says, “You have engineers with no understanding of business models and MBAs who can’t code… The first thing to understand is that there’s no need to compete with people from other Berkeley schools. There’s room for everyone — the law school, engineers, post docs and PhDs.”
According to Pezzoni, StEP’s success is due to Rhonda Shrader, the Executive Director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship program who oversees and coordinates student opportunities, such as the Blackstone LaunchPad and the UC LAUNCH Accelerator. “Rhonda was one of few people who said yes to StEP from the beginning.”
Shrader, on the other hand, says all credit goes to Pezzoni. “He’s one of the most exceptional students I’ve ever worked with. He was tireless in scaling StEP across campus and making that first “step” into entrepreneurship more inclusive to all students. I was not surprised when he won top honors at LAUNCH’s Demo Day. I was surprised, however, when I saw his stellar GPA—that he accomplished any of these three things as a first year MBA student is remarkable. Combined together, they’re extraordinary.”
When asked if he ever sleeps, Pezzoni laughed and shrugged. “People tell me I’m a workaholic. But as an international student coming to the U.S., I can’t miss this opportunity.”
Looking back, Pezzoni realizes that growing up in Argentina instilled in him the resilience that’s critical to entrepreneurship. “70 years ago, Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world. Now, there’s a new major economic crisis every ten years. You have to be prepared for everything to fall apart from one day to the next. You have to learn to be flexible and resourceful.”
This attitude has helped him stay optimistic in the face of COVID-19. “The pandemic doesn’t shift the way I think. I’ve learned to see opportunities in place of problems. I know I’m blessed because I’m in position to leverage opportunities here at Haas that 95% of people in the world aren’t able to access.”