Amee Parbhoo was born and raised in the United States to parents who were originally Indian. With a father born in Kenya, she travelled between the US, India, and Kenya as she had family in these regions. The experience exposed her to the difficulties that people there faced, fuelling her desire to work on providing solutions to these problems.
"My dad grew up in Kenya so I've always kind of grown up with family in all parts of the world, in India and Kenya and the UK. I spent time travelling to those places, so I've always had a perspective of what it's like growing up in those places and what some of the challenges are. I knew I wanted at some point in my career to be working there and helping to address some of the problems that I'd seen all through growing up."
The first step to achieving this goal was getting an undergraduate degree in political science and economics from Davidson College, a liberal art college in North Carolina. During the summers, she worked with microfinance institutions in South East Asia such as Grameen Bank to understand how microfinance worked.
While the experience offered her insights into the world of microfinance, she soon discovered she wanted business skills that she could offer organisations that worked to reduce poverty in the region. Straight out of college, she joined McKinsey where she spent almost two years before moving to India to get her 'hands dirty'.
"I realised from a career perspective that I wanted to have more of a business background. I wanted some skillset to offer and help organisations that were trying to address really challenging problems around poverty alleviation and economic development.
"Right out of undergrad, I went and worked for McKinsey in the States and felt like consulting would be a great place to really learn how to tackle big challenges, big problems. And I loved that time. I loved that experience. Getting to see very different industries [and] work with super smart people all over the world. Did that for a few years and realised I wanted to get my hands dirty. I think you hear this from a lot of consultants that it's one thing to advise an organisation and another to be in the trenches and build something."
In India, she took up a role with Bharat Financial Inclusion, at the time known as SKS Microfinance Limited. There she worked on building new loan products for the over eight million customers that SKS served. She also got her first experience of the investment process during this time, working on the company's IPO process.
Over the next few years, she worked with startups in Africa, the United States, and Latin America and studied for an MBA. In 2015, she joined Accion Venture Lab where she is now the managing partner overseeing the firm's investments in fintech startups across the globe.
For someone who has worked and lived on three continents, Parbhoo explains that the experience has taught her to respect local realities and how they influence business operations. As Accion's Managing Partner, this means she pays closer attention to what the local founders and investors they work with have to say about the local economic landscape. A good investor, she says, knows how to ask the right questions while supporting founders to find the right answers.
"Any investor who's formerly been an operator or worked at a startup knows you can't know it all. An investor who claims to know everything is not a great investor. I'm not gonna fly into Nigeria or Egypt or Indonesia and claim to know everything about the local market context.
"Now we've done enough investing in those markets to know enough but I think to be a good investor, it's as much about giving advice as it is about asking the right questions and guiding entrepreneurs and teams to go out and find the answers to those questions if they don't know them themselves."
When Parbhoo joined Accion Venture Lab, her goal was to learn how to predict which businesses would succeed, but eight years and more than 60 investments later, the thrill she gets from working with the founders of their portfolio companies has kept her with the team.
"I think what's kept me is just the excitement, the kind of energy I get from working with entrepreneurs every day. We've made over 60 investments to date and I just find the entrepreneurs in our portfolio incredibly inspiring, thoughtful, and very intelligent. They're a joy to work with and I think I've found a spot where I can create a platform to support them in growing what they're doing."
Supporting founders through a downturn
With funding rounds harder to close, investors across the globe are having to look for ways to support portfolio companies and help them stay alive. Parbhoo explains that this process could look different depending on the stage a startup is at. However, she adds that for startups in Accion Venture Lab, the focus is on ensuring they have enough money to get them to the next funding milestone. To do this, they take into account the fact that rounds are taking longer to close.
"It's sort of understanding [the] current situation on the ground. How much cash does a company have [and] how much runway does that give them? Is that sufficient when you line it up against the KPIs [and] milestones they need to hit for that next round of funding? That maths and that kind of lining up are critical," she says.
Fintech for impact
One of the major reasons fintech funding has been prioritised in Africa is because it is the foundation on which most digital innovation is built. eCommerce, for example, would not thrive without online payments. But beyond aiding digital innovation, it can also improve economic outcomes for vulnerable individuals and businesses. In Africa, women struggle to access financial services due to cultural barriers but fintech startups can fast-track their assimilation into the formal financial ecosystem.
For Parbhoo, Accion Venture Lab supports this assimilation by investing in fintech startups that don't just generate huge returns for investors but improve the economies of the regions they operate in.
"The reason we invest at Accion Venture Lab in fintech and financial services isn't just for access to financial services. For us, it's about [aiding] economic resilience, economic prosperity, and economic growth and financial services are fundamental to making that happen.
"When we talk to a company, we have a pretty clear impact screen that a company goes through, it's fairly straightforward. We wanna understand who's the customer that you're trying to reach. Is it an underserved customer? So whether it's a lower-income consumer or it's a small business, we wanna understand who your customer is. The second piece of it is not just about who you serve but how you serve them. We wanna understand the product and we wanna understand how that product is affordable and fair and responsible."
In addition to the product, Parbhoo points out that Accion Venture Lab looks at the team behind the startup to see how they think about their business' impact.
"It's less about the words and more about how you operate and what drives you as a team. We are looking for entrepreneurs and models that are creatively thinking about those customer needs and meeting them in a fair and responsible way."
How to improve your chances of raising capital
Parbhoo has three major tips for startup founders who plan to raise capital. The first, she says, is to begin to build relationships with investors early.
"Start to build relationships with those investors early. We typically come in at the pre-seed stage but we like to know our founders well in advance. I think it's really beneficial to start sending investor updates whether it's on a monthly or a bi-monthly basis, even if it's fairly short. Start doing that now. You're just more top of mind than when, maybe in six months you're going out to raise money."
She also advises that founders stay on the lookout for exceptional talent to join their team while paying close attention to customers' demands. "Be adaptable, be flexible, and be close to your customer because this is the moment to learn what's relevant. As seed investors, that's what we wanna hear from our founders. We wanna hear that they can be the spokesperson for what their customers need."