To be clear, Matt Flannery is not a suit guy. However, Matt Flannery does very suit-y things. Things that have involved a lot of funding, investments, and social entrepreneurship.
For instance, he co-founded a microfinance Kiva.org. He was the CEO for a decade, ending up establishing partnerships in 80 countries and lending over Sh80 billion ($ 700 million) to low-income entrepreneurs.
In 2015, he founded Branch International, an Android-based ‘branchless bank’. It uses artificial intelligence to lend to people through their mobile phones.
In 2011, he was chosen for The Economist “No Boundaries” Innovation Award. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Symbolic Systems and a Master’s in Philosophy from Stanford University.
But you would not know all these when you meet him. He could be anybody you want him to be, which in this case when he met JACKSON BIKOjust another white fellow walking through the hotel lobby wearing jeans, old sneakers, a t-shirt, and the kind of cap you would pick off a shelf in an airport as an afterthought.
He is comfortable in his Silicon Valley uniform.
You studied philosophy, a Master’s degree in Philosophy, what’s your current philosophy of life?
The main thing that guides me every day is to see the best in other people and to realize that we are all connected under one God. That the divisions that separate people are nearly superficial, people are the same everywhere.
At Kiva, I worked in Cambodia, in a war-torn area, worked in Nicaragua and India. Through that experience, I developed a very positive frame of mind towards other people.
I’ve also learned that even low-income people want to save, they want to provide for a future for their families and they’re very responsible with money. And if they get tools to empower themselves and their families, they’ll do great things.
How was your childhood?
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so that would be like Seattle and probably Oregon. My father used to live in South Africa and India, and my family had a big tradition of travel, so I always had a travel lust when I was a child.
I wanted to be like my father who grew up on continents far across the world. I was also quite religious. I was brought up in a very strong church and I developed a passion for service, serving the Lord and people.
I always wanted to do something meaningful with my life but I wanted to combine that with entrepreneurship and computer science. When I graduated from college in 2001, I decided to learn about microfinance. In 2005, I came to Kenya and I moved to Western Kenya.
I lived there with a family in a rather rural place and I developed a passion for microfinance, helping small entrepreneurs get financing. I built a website to raise money for entrepreneurs in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. We raised millions of dollars for microfinance borrowers.
Has your perception or attitude towards Christianity changed over time and age?
I would say so. I am still a Christian but I also see it in a much more universal way. When you’re brought up in a very strict Christian household, you might be taught that Christianity is the only way and if you’re not Christian, you’ll go to hell forever. I’ve become a lot more open-minded about other cultures and other religions.
Has God shown His hand to you at some point?
God has taught me that when things are hard, you wait around the corner for something good. So I developed a faith in resilience to keep going, inspired by adversity. Also, to see the good in people and how we are connected universally even though our skin color is different.
When did you realize that you’re good at what you do?
I do not think I’m good, but I’m good at persevering. It’s just a lot of struggles when you start a company. I’ve become good at fighting through the red tape. That’s all it is. You just have to keep on going.
What do you struggle with as a man?
Where do I begin? [Chuckle] One of the key struggles as a man is we put a lot of our self-worth into our career. I’m sure women do the same thing. It’s like our pride and our self-esteem are often derived from the success of our company or the ability to do a good job at work.
So separating myself to some extent from the company is what I struggle with every day. How do I remember that this company that I started is not me? If it does well, it does not mean I’m awesome. If it does badly, it does not mean I’m bad. It’s a separate thing from my identity.
That when I’m with my children at the playground, pushing them on the swing, smiles on their faces, they’re not worried about the profit margin at my company.
Can one read tonnes of business books and become a good businessman?
Business books are nearly worthless in my mind. I do not read them. I do not like the genre. They’re usually just the title, you can just read the title and you get the whole gist of it.
And there’s nothing like having the experience of doing business every day. That is impossible to capture in a business book. It’s like relationships. You can not get good at having a relationship by reading a book. It’s completely experiential.
Would you still go back to Stanford University if you were to do it all over?
It’s very expensive and a waste of four years. You can learn everything by just studying life. I would just tell my children, ‘have a dream, think about what you want to do, start small and start today.’ I had to study for four years to realize that.
Is dreaming like a Rubik’s cube or a rabbit hole? You dream and you achieve it. Then you want a bigger dream and you achieve that. It’s like chasing your tail. Is that your experience of the world?
I think so. That’s why the dream can not be materialistic because that is fleeting. For instance, I’ll raise a hundred million dollars, or I have a thousand employees, or I’m profitable.
Once you achieve the materialistic, then the mind just is hungry for more. More money, more success, more fame … Then you start feeling a great sense of emptiness.
But certain things are timeless, like relationships, serving others, impact-related things that transcend material goals.
When you help others, do you find that you’re also helping yourself in some way?
Absolutely. We crave connection and serving others is the same as serving yourself because you realize you’re not very different from them. So when you help them you’re helping yourself. And that’s a paradox, but a lesson a lot of people have to learn the hard way.
When do you feel like you started distancing yourself from materialism?
Everyday. But I think I had a big epiphany when I started Kiva in Western Kenya because I was super happy yet I was not making any money. I had no bank account, but I was as much happier. You know a lot of times you interact with low-income people, people in poverty, and you get surprised by how joyful they are.
And you get jealous of that. I know life is a struggle but often-times you find a lot of joyfulness in low-income areas or amongst people in poverty because they’re connected to their family in a way that people in the West often aren’t.
What’s your poverty – and not in the financial sense?
Worry. I worry about things. I worry about the security of my company. I worry about the jobs, people’s jobs, and the lives that they have. And my main struggle is to step back, meditate and stop worrying.
What’s the secret of making money?
Focusing on long-term goals and having a vision that transcends any day-to-day trend. You see lots of youth entrepreneurs striving to make quick buck. What they lack is the long-term vision.
And lucky for me, I feel like I’ve been given a long-term vision that does not change despite the ups and downs of regulations or trends. A lot of tech entrepreneurs right now are focused on ponzi schemes.
What do you spend your money on?
Sending my children to school, having a nanny, and paying rent. After that, there’s not much more.
You pay rent?
Yeah, I rent.
How do you make sure you have a small life, modest life?
Well, I do not like having a lot of things; things end up being a burden. So just having very few things and not surrounding yourself with gadgets or possessions.
Are you successful?
Yeah. I’m successful.
How did you find success?
Well, first of all, I’m very privileged. I came from a wealthy family, I went to school at Stanford where I got a great education, studied computer science, I did not pay for my education, my dad paid for it so I do not have student debt.
So I entered the business world with no debts and a great education, coming from a rich part of the world, near Silicon Valley. Being a white man, and I realize that that’s the attention I carry with me everywhere I go. So here I am, coming from all this privilege, able to raise a lot of money.
I meet entrepreneurs every day, they can not do that. Just before this meeting, I was meeting a Kenyan entrepreneur. He was like how did you raise $ 100 million to start your company?
I was like well, first of all, I’m very lucky, I did not grow up in Kenya, I grew up in the US, so I had access to wealth you will never have, but I want to help you, and I want to bridge that gap. So my mission in life outside of work is to bridge the financial gap for passionate entrepreneurs here in Kenya and all over Africa.
Are you married with children?
Yeah, I’m married. I have two children, a five-year-old and a three-year-old. Outside of that, I love sports, I play basketball. I love golf, snowboarding, skiing, and scuba diving.
I’m curious about how you strike a balance between following your passion, being a spouse and a father.
That goes to what we were saying about having to separate your identity as a human from this artificial thing called the company. Companies come and go. It might fail, it might succeed.
But that does not mean I’m failing or I’m succeeding. So how do you achieve that mental balance? Relationships, spending time with your children and looking them in the eye. These help you forget the day-to-day worries.
And meditation is amazing. I’ve been lucky to learn how to meditate. Nothing is better to cure anxiety, I think, it helps you get your mind off the anxious thoughts. I recommend doing it if you do not do it.
How do you feel when you’re in a suit?
I do not like it. It just does not feel natural. Very stiff.