Q&A with PayPal Ventures' Calanthia Mei

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

Calanthia Mei is an investor at PayPal Ventures, based in San Jose and San Francisco, California. Prior to PayPal, she worked in the Financial Institutions Group at HSBC. You can follow her on Twitter @calanthiamei.

What drew you to venture capital and working with startups?

I have always been passionate about exploring and building the frontier. Growing up, my idol was Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. A fierce woman, she always pushed the frontier, even interviewing dictators in dire war zones. While I am not brave as Fallaci, I hope to find the same joy and thrill from building a global financial and commerce ecosystem that impacts the lives of millions.

This kind of spirit took me to a wide array of adventures. I moved from China to the U.S. alone, at the age of 17. After cold-emailing my resume to hundreds of organizations, I landed an internship writing briefings for President Jimmy Carter as a sophomore. The same relentlessness led me to knocking on doors after doors for Representative Stacy Abrams’s grassroots campaign. Thanks to generous grants, I had the opportunity to do field research in Ghana, Mexico and India.

Throughout my adventures, especially in emerging and frontier markets, one major observation has been how much impact access to capital and commerce can have on individual lives. Particularly for under-represented groups, access to capital and commerce can lead to empowerment, independence, and choice. International politics is one answer to these demands, but I felt that I could make more impact in the private sector, at the frontier of building companies that help tackle these challenges.

Why PayPal Ventures? What was the recruiting process like?

There are many things unique about PayPal Ventures, but it can be boiled down to mission alignment, value proposition, and people.

PayPal is far beyond a pure-play payments company; it plays an important role in global commerce and fintech ecosystem across 200+ markets. At PayPal Ventures, we see investment opportunities across the stage spectrum in almost all major developed, emerging and frontier markets. Overtime, it has been fascinating to develop pattern recognition skills at a global scale – that’s very important to me personally. I admire PayPal’s mission to democratize access – it is fundamental to our investment criteria. The team at PayPal Ventures is also incredible. They give me the space to earn more responsibilities and board roles. They challenge me every day to be a sharper thinker and better investor.

It's been the opportunity of a lifetime to be on the ground floor of a new fund. I joined the team at the very beginning, so the recruiting process was quite unexpected. I came in through Corporate Development team’s hiring channel, and was lucky to land on the Ventures team as its second full-time hire.

How did the skills you picked up at Georgetown and HSBC help you as an investor?

Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service taught me to think big and strategically. HSBC injected a sense of pragmatism in me. Both skills are quintessential to an early-stage venture investor: you’ve got to have the 5-year, 10-year, 30-year vision when you formulate your investment thesis and evaluate investment opportunities, but you also need to be incredibly patient and pragmatic on the roller coaster ride of company building.

Given the legacy of the PayPal mafia, what are some of the ways your firm help port cos post-investment that is unique to PP?

How to be a better value-add investor is something top of mind for us, particularly in today’s crowded capital market. As you pointed out, startups can gain added credibility with prospective customers and investors that comes from being backed by PayPal. But it doesn’t stop there—at PayPal, we have an internal Advisor Network with years of deep fintech and commerce experience at startups’ fingertips. Portfolio companies can gain unique access to PayPal’s partnership teams to explore areas of collaboration, ranging from warm intros to our customers, merchants and partners to deeper level commercial partnership with PayPal. We also connect entrepreneurs, investors, and executives in our rapidly growing PayPal Ventures portfolio to discuss business opportunities and to share ideas, challenges, and best practices unique to the evolving fintech and commerce enablement landscape.

PayPal Ventures has backed a number of startups including Acorns, Tala, Pulsate, Toss, Raisin and Dosh. What areas of fintech are you most excited about?

At PayPal Ventures, we invest in fintech, commerce enablement, and data, security, and infrastructure startups that are strategic to our two-sided network globally. I am involved in the investments in Tala (emerging market micro-lending), Toss (first fintech unicorn in South Korea), DOSH (cashback and in-store analytics), Raisin (savings and investment marketplace), Arkose Labs (authentication and cyber security), Happy Returns (e-commerce reverse logistics), Ellevest (women-focused investment platform), amongst others. This year I also led PayPal's first venture investment in blockchain, identity management software Cambridge Blockchain. On the operating side, I work closely with our portfolio companies such as Acorns (micro-investing), Raise (giftcard), LendUp (consumer lending) and Pulsate (mobile app marketing).

In FinTech, I am still on the hunt for financial products that serve the unbanked and underbanked population worldwide. Taking a global view, cash-in/cash-out remains a headache. Lack of financial identity is still a hurdle for access to formal financial system. Transparent and fair pricing remains a concern. Portability of financial and health benefits is lacking as we envision the future of work.

I’m also obsessed with how the next generation of consumers shop. Two trends here excite me the most. First, the online and offline worlds converge: traditional brick-and-mortar merchants are going omnichannel, while digital-native merchants are trying to provide more contextualized offline commerce experience. In the ideal world, I think online data should guide offline procurement, inventory, and supply chain decisions; conversely, new offline retail spaces should be designed to be data-driven and feed offline data back to merchants’ eCommerce engine.

Second, social and community commerce is quickly changing the merchant-consumer relationship: everyone can be a merchant, and every platform can be a commerce platform. With the ubiquity of mobile in many markets, online social networks have extended beyond “friends and family” to communities of common interests, which formed a powerful acquisition and distribution channel that influences shopping decisions. These networks can exist on a wide range of medium, from communications channels like WhatsApp and WeChat, to content platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram. As these channels face increasing pressure to monetize, I expect the future of commerce can be an extremely crowded playing field. As an investor, I’m looking for pick-and-shovel plays in the future of commerce.

We've seen some mishaps with fintech startups like Robinhood's recent cash management program announcement. Do you think much of that has to do with lack of bank charters issued to startups? Do you see that happening, or will these startups continue to rely on banks like Cross River?

Taking a step back, I definitely see the rising popularity of API-based financial infrastructure plays in the market (e.g. Banking-as-a-Service, Compliance-as-a-Service, Payment Processing-as-a-Service, Issuance-as-a-Service, Lending-as-a-Service). Parallels can be drawn between how AWS reduced the cost of launching a software company 10 years ago, and how XYZ-as-a-Service companies enabled this new wave of consumer fintech companies. This new wave of infrastructure players sit on rich data—as long as they’re guided by the principles of compliance and led by experienced compliance professionals, I think they have a good shot to build an efficient and transparent compliance framework and process.

Talk to me about your experiences as a board member for SoGal. How did you get involved?

Glad you asked! A few years ago I got to know Elizabeth and Pocket at SoGal through my best friend Kelly. For those who are unfamiliar with SoGal, we are the largest global platform for female and diverse millennial and GenZ founders and funders. Our growth trajectory has been explosive – when I joined the Board, there were 13 chapters, mostly concentrated in tier-1 tech hubs; now we have 40+ hyper-local communities across 5 continents.

I feel incredibly proud to be part of SoGal. In the past 2 years, we were able to start SoGal chapters in under-served ecosystems: for instance, in the US, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Tampa; globally, Lagos, Bosnia, Nairobi. For a Silicon Valley resident, having a pitch competition might not be a first – but the same cannot be said of other ecosystems. In June, we kicked off SoGal Global Pitch Competition. Hosted in 25 cities across 5 continents, and culminating in a final competition and 3-day immersive educational bootcamp in Silicon Valley, this is the largest global startup pitch opportunity for women and diverse entrepreneurs worldwide (Apply here!)

What kind of mentorship/advice do you receive from your colleagues? From other women in the startup and VC community?

I’m lucky to work with a group of very bright people at PayPal. They inspire me on a daily basis but also make me quick to notice my own shortcomings – so I’d never be complacent. I’m also grateful for my peer network at Bay.VC (i.e. Bay Area Young VC), a network of ~400 pre-partner level VC investors in the Bay Area. As a co-lead of its fintech vertical, I enjoyed hosting educational and social events where we can geek out on all things fintech.

Have you faced major challenges as an investor?

As a 20-something immigrant Asian female with a baby face (☺), people can be quick to underestimate me. I can’t tell you how many times I barely got any eye contact despite sitting across the table from someone. I believe in incremental changes in the ecosystem, but meanwhile, I’ve got to learn to be more concise in my delivery, thoughtful in my interactions, and authentic in my presence.

What advice do you have for young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?

Build your domain expertise in something – it can be a function (e.g. growth; product) or an industry (fintech; commerce; cybersecurity). Think from an entrepreneur’s perspective: Why would him/her take your money at the risk of diluting their own stake? What unique perspective can you bring to the board? Are you the right partner for this journey ahead?

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