Connecting the World, One Mobile Payment at a Time

In Essays on May 10, 2011 at 8:33 am

By Menekse Gencer

How many times have we heard, “Do what you love and the money will come”?  I never believed it. I am a first-generation American and the child of an engineer and accountant.  Pragmatism always trumped passion. I did all the right things: graduated first in my high school class, went to Harvard, then got a Wharton MBA. Yet, I was a corporate nomad, picking up premium employer brands like I picked up academic ones. The problem was, I felt like each of my jobs was an experience similar to taking medicine. It tasted bad, but I knew it would be good for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I worked hard and learned a lot along the way, but I was unhappy. I felt like a hamster on a treadmill. I ran hard on that treadmill, but I never knew why I was doing it. During the dot com boom and bust, I was on the end of the proverbial whip. Years of amazing opportunities gave way to layoff fears prompted by investment freezes, takeovers, and turnarounds. Along the way, I learned that I could survive. And I also learned that when one gets a kick in the butt, one should be thankful. It’s that momentum that helps you move forward. And forward I went.

In 2004, I took a year sabbatical following yet another takeover, this time of Gateway by eMachines. I travelled abroad for nearly a year—soul-searching to find what would make me happy, what would be meaningful. Although I had great travel adventures, I never found my answer. Instead, I ran out of money, so I returned to San Francisco and took a consulting position with Wells Fargo to make ends meet. During this time, by chance one of my projects lead me to stumble onto a new industry, now called mobile money. Oddly, it was a convergence industry that brought together my rather eclectic background in the mobile, high tech, and now financial services sectors. After I was done with that mobile money project, I found myself researching what was happening in that industry. I would make time to read up on the industry and to talk to others about it. It became a hobby of sorts. I realized that if I enjoyed the topic so much, it might make sense to take a job doing it. And so I joined PayPal on January 2, 2007 to head up their North American mobile payments business development efforts. What started out as tremendous passion and optimism for where PayPal could ultimately take the business, two years later became frustration around internal politics. That frustration ate away at me, so I took a much needed vacation to Africa. While I was on safari, I visited a Maasai tribe. In this tribe, they had no running water and no electricity, but they did have mobile phones. After the tour, they showed me their arts and crafts in an effort to make a sale—a sale that I knew that was rare since so few people visited them.

When I returned, I was part of a week-long off-site leadership training class. As if by fate, the trainer called on me one morning to give an impromptu speech about what inspired me about my work. Without skipping a beat, I got up and began to tell the story of the Maasai. And during that story, I told my colleagues that I was inspired by the impact I could someday have on that Maasai tribe by helping them be part of the global economy by selling their wares on an online marketplace using mobile money. It was a metaphor, really, to figure out how I could use my experience to make a real difference. I didn’t know it at the time, but that moment was the turning point for me. I now look back and realize that was the moment when it became clear to me that what I had learned at PayPal, and every other position before then, was a stepping stone for something bigger and more meaningful to me.

I left PayPal soon thereafter and started up my own consulting practice, mPay Connect to help clients launch mobile money services. Along the way, I have worked with U.S. companies and international organizations. I’ve helped non-profits, banks, telecom operators, and high tech companies. I’ve learned about emerging technology and the role mobile money can play in positively impacting the poor. The passion and inspiration I feel working in this industry is the most important marketing tool for my business. It’s this passion that has given me rare opportunities that have led to consulting assignments on amazing projects in Bangladesh, Jamaica, Africa and India. The opportunities are more than I could have imagined, from being invited to participate in the World Economic Forum, to advising the U.S. administration, foreign governments, and Central Banks. Just this month, I’m especially honored to have been invited by The State Department to be one of 38 ‘TechWomen’ to mentor high-potential Middle Eastern business leaders in an effort to create closer collaboration between the U.S. and the Middle East following Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009.

When I look at how far I’ve come, I feel proud that I have been able to develop and grow my own business and earn a better living than I did in my corporate jobs, but more importantly, I am proud that I am inspired by what I do and am a happier person because of it. It’s true that when you love what you do, you don’t make the distinction anymore between your job and your personal life. It just becomes “life.”

Two years after I left PayPal, I received an email from a Kenyan who reached out to me. I had never met him before and certainly had never shared my story with him.  Here’s what he said:

“Happy new year to you. How’s winter treating you? I’m currently in Kenya for winter break working on a venture that aims to create an online market place for the small scale ethnic manufacturers that sell beads and curios at the masai market… For anyone interested in mobile payments this project is interesting as it represents a shift to using MPESA and similar services as a bridge to opening up developing world economies to the possibilities of Ecommerce… Given your vast experience in this area do you know of anyone trying out a similar project anywhere in the world that I should talk to? And If I’m not mistaken this is something you were interested in, any advice you can give is welcome.”

When you speak from the heart, the universe will speak back.

Photo provided by Menekse Gencer.

  1. […] heart’ is crazy talk, especially in a country where health insurance is tied to employment. Menekse Gencer, on the other hand, found that pursuing her passion was exactly the right thing to do: today, […]

  2. On a final note. Two years later, my story comes full circle. As I was sitting at my client’s brownbag lunch in New York, I turned the the person sitting next to me. He seemed to know a lot about mPesa, so I asked him, “Are you from Kenya.” “Yes, he replied. And I’m the one who reached out to you about setting up the mobile marketplace in Kenya.” (True story)

  3. That’s very cool, Menekse! Thanks for the postscript!

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