Expanding Trust and Access in Africa with Mark Straub (McIntire '04), CEO and Co-Founder of Smile Identity

September 4, 2019

“Never stop learning,” says Lynshay Jules, a Fraud Analyst in South Africa with Smile Identity, the machine-learning company founded by Mark Straub (McIntire '04) that verifies the true identity of people signing up for financial services in Africa.

Over the years as an investor in emerging markets, Straub saw firsthand the difficulties consumers dealt with trying to prove their identity when accessing high-value services, and the risks companies faced trying to stop fraud. The scenarios and countries varied—opening up bank accounts in Nigeria, getting loans in Kenya, buying insurance in India—but the problem of validating one’s identity was universal.

A lack of historical credit bureaus, accurate address information, and universal forms of ID often meant that citizens in developing nations repeated the same verification processes over and over, filling out forms, waiting for manual checks to be completed, and having international transactions rejected simply because of their geography. These challenges continue to prevent many from enjoying active participation in the global economy, but Straub and his team at Smile Identity have found a way to change that.

“We’re trying to make it easy for people to prove who they are regardless of the origin of their ID card or of their IP address,” Straub says. “We do that by letting them take a selfie and enter an ID number, tie those elements together, and have them validated, no matter where they are in the world—whether they’re in Nairobi, Kenya; Lagos, Nigeria; or Los Angeles, CA.”

An Entrepreneur by Necessity

Before launching Smile Identity, the Commerce School graduate and Finance concentrator spent 10 years in venture capital, investing in tech companies in the U.S., India, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout that decade, he routinely witnessed the difficulties many Africans had proving their identity, with online transactions often summarily rejected.

At first, the companies he invested in used Facebook profiles or phone numbers to solve the issue. But after multiple fraud incidents, he decided in early 2017 to roll up his sleeves and tackle it himself.

“The funny thing about my journey in entrepreneurship is that I’m not an entrepreneur by nature. I became one because I cared about a problem so much, and I’d seen it for so long, that I wanted to have it solved,” Straub remembers. “I looked around and saw some really interesting examples that I could learn from. There was a great one in India.”

While working in South Asia, he saw how the Indian government collaborated with talented technologists to create their own identification platform, incorporating cutting-edge biometrics to bring robust identification to one of the world’s largest populations.

“I thought that if we could use that as an example and help build similar systems for other markets and other use cases, that would be worth spending all of my time and energy on,” he says. “And it would solve some of these problems I had seen inside of some of my portfolio companies around fraud and difficulty of access.”

Increasing African Access

Initially focused on consumer financial services in Africa, Smile Identity’s software builds trust between individuals and businesses in Nigeria, Kenya, and other key African markets by confirming the identity of a new user signing up for a service and whether that user is a real person.  In the countries where Smile Identity operates, new digital ID systems are emerging that allow for rapid identity validation. Smile Identity connects to these systems and adds “comparison” and “liveness” checks using face recognition. In partnership with governments and local companies across Sub-Saharan Africa in banking, ride sharing, and telecommunications, Straub’s team uses these software APIs and computer vision algorithms to help large-scale organizations rapidly expand their reach and onboard new users with confidence.

Straub says the transition from traditional brick-and-mortar locations to apps and fully digital online experiences increases the likelihood of customers opening new accounts and accessing new services, since they now have the convenience of doing so right from their phone.

“This is important because, for a consumer, getting access to many services used to involve a lot of time, visiting a place that might be across town, a bus ride, a two-hour wait, or lots of forms,” he explains.

Daily Challenges

Developing new technologies while navigating emerging markets is a complex undertaking. And it’s one that tests Straub’s mettle as an entrepreneur every day.

Entrepreneurship is a constant test of one’s judgment, he says, as conflicting opinions and advice from customers, employees and investors are weighed, usually without all of the facts readily available. Part of his training about who to listen to—and on which topic—came from watching other entrepreneurs grappling with similar situations during his years as an investor, when he was one of the voices offering advice. But the stakes have become much higher now that he’s on the other side of the table.

“It’s very real. The seriousness of the decisions you make affect many people’s lives—your customers, your investors, and your employees,” Straub says. “Making decisions with incomplete information is probably the hardest thing I have to do on a daily basis.”

Another difficult part of the job is overseeing a geographically distributed and operationally diverse team. He credits his McIntire experience as formative in developing his entrepreneurial toolkit, helping him to cultivate a fluency he regularly relies on to advance his company and its mission.

“Obviously the ICE curriculum is a longstanding part of McIntire, and a lot of what I do today as an entrepreneur is tying together different disciplines: engineering, product design, business, negotiations, sales, fundraising.”

The skills he first learned at the Commerce School, then refined throughout his career, have helped Straub to ensure that various specialists in each aforementioned area work well together, communicate effectively, and meet the firm’s goals.

“McIntire prepared me to think about business as a sum of parts as opposed to just a particular discipline like finance or accounting,” he says. “As an investor I tried to look at all the elements of a business rather than just a single functional component. But as an entrepreneur, that multidisciplinary approach is critical. McIntire does a great job of giving people that mental agility to be able to work with teams composed of people with different skill sets and areas of expertise.”

Commerce Continues to Make a Difference

Thinking back on his courses with Dean Carl Zeithaml and Professor Ryan Nelson, Straub remembers that the concepts and case studies offered a very real vision of business.

“That’s what made McIntire unique for me,” he says. “It was applied learning as opposed to theoretical. I value those experiences. Those professors had a big impact on me.”

He explains that much of what he learned at the Commerce School continues to influence him—beyond the coursework.

“When you study finance and business,” he says, “you learn about the time value of money and the importance of compounded interest. But so much of life is actually like that: Relationships are probably the most important compounded interest calculation you can make. It takes some people a long time to figure this out. Investing in relationships early on and throughout your life is the most important human dividend you can give yourself.”

As Straub continues to grow his company, he’s careful to care for those connections he’s made, which of course, include the McIntire community. He says that while he knows both the Commerce School and the University at large harbor a tremendous amount of goodwill, he plans to give back more and strengthen his ties with the School. He remains interested in connecting with recent and soon-to-be McIntire grads interested in entrepreneurship, particularly those with a connection to Africa. He advises people with an entrepreneurial urge to get started as soon as possible. Straub says that working with others who are building their second or third company offers the best way to learn about the process—one that persists throughout the journey.

"One of the things I’m reminded of is the old Jefferson adage of learning doesn’t stop—it’s a lifelong endeavor. I’m certainly a case of that. I keep learning more every day—from every new customer I talk with, every new country I visit, and every new challenge we face inside the company. It’s very humbling, but it’s also consistent with the approach I learned at McIntire, which is to keep your mind fresh and to stay open to new ideas.”