Julia Kurnia: Zidisha founder. Maverick. Black belt.

Zidisha founder Julia Kurnia spoke with TechRepublic about her journey as a startup founder, what technologies are taking off internationally, and why she thinks every founder should learn to code.

Zidisha founder Julia Kurnia speaks with a microloan applicant.
Image: Julia Kurnia/Zidisha

Julia Kurnia was hunched over a creaky old desktop computer, in a cockroach-infested office, frantically translating loan applications into English and posting them online.

It was the mid-2000s, and Kurnia, a graduate student, was working as an intern with one of Kiva's first field partners, an NGO in Senegal. Kiva, a microloan organization, just got its first big news break and asked field partners to then post as many loan applications one the site as fast at they could.

"I posted about 30 of them and finally went to sleep and woke up a few hours later and every single one was funded," Kurnia said.

Overnight she and her team raised $20,000 for entrepreneurs in nearby villages and Kurnia saw how powerful microfinancing could be. It inspired her to make a career out of it, and Kurnia is now the founder of her own microlending platform Zidisha, which allows direct-to-borrower loans with lower interest rates.

After moving back to the US and finishing grad school, Kurnia went to work for the federal government managing grants in West Africa. She traveled to countries like Niger, Liberia, Guinea and others over the next several years, and saw the internet explode in those markets.

At the same time, peer-to-peer lending was taking off. She had the idea to build an eBay-style auction platform that would directly connect borrowers and lenders. Traditional microloan organizations often have to charge very high interest rates (sometimes up to 80%) to keep up with overhead. By eliminating the intermediary, Zidisha could offer them at a much lower rate.

When direct electronic payments to individuals in developing countries became possible with M-Pesa in Kenya, that was the final missing piece of the technological puzzle that helped them circumvent the middleman.

It took four months for her to get an M-Pesa account. Then the next challenge came in finding someone to build the website, and she eventually found a firm in India to build it for $2000. They sent the first payment to a Maasai nomad and it grew from there.

Kurnia admits she was a rebel and a maverick from a young age, but entrepreneurship wasn't on her radar until she went to Senegal and met the founder of the NGO she worked for, who started from nothing. That helped her realize, she said, that she could do the same.

In starting her company, Kurnia said she relied on the Lean Startup philosophy, popularized by Eric Ries in his book of the same name. The Zidisha team constantly tests and iterates. Through her experience getting the platform off the ground Kurnia has a simple piece of advice: "Learn how to program."

She'll be the first to admit that she learned to code belatedly. Kurnia wasn't happy with their original code base and, when Zidisha went throughY Combinator last year, she realized their code was "a time bomb" because it wouldn't be able to handle many more users. So, the team decided to rewrite their entire code base.

Although it's not typically recommended, she said it was a necessary task for the team. She spent weeks learning what she needed to while running the company. Now, she enjoys working on the front end of the site, and she said that knowing how to program helps her in the hiring process as well.

"You can't recognize a good engineer if you don't know how to program yourself, you don't know what good code looks like," Kurnia said. "You can test the website and ensure that it works, but you don't know they're not building a timebomb with an architecture that's not going to scale."

Since the company's founding, the technology that borrowers are using to access the site is changing rapidly. Kurnia said that smartphones were unheard of in the poorest countries a few years ago but, in the last year, they've seen a dramatic increase. They are seeing 20% of Zidisha borrowers connect via smartphones and they expect that to keep growing.

Another major trend Kurnia has noticed is the ubiquity of social media in developing countries as well.

"Facebook is the killer app for developing countries in that it's almost synonymous with the internet," she said. "When people go online, they typically just learn how to use Facebook."

This helps Zidisha, as the company now uses Facebook for identity verification, and borrowers can use it to put up a business page. Also, she said, WhatsApp is huge and a lot of folks in the countries she works in are using it to communicate.

As she looks back on her life and what she has built with Zidisha, Kurnia said she has realized a lifelong goal.

"I think I always knew, from an early age, that the international wealth divide between wealthy and developing countries was the defining challenge of my generation, kind of like civil rights had been for previous generations," she said. "And, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to that battle."

In her own words...

What do you do to unplug?

"Two things: My family and [my] hobby [which is] Indonesian martial arts. They're kind of intertwined because my husband is one of the few instructors of Indonesian martial arts in America. I met him while practicing martial arts in Washington DC. We got married soon after I came back from Kenya. We now have a four-year-old. He was two at the time I did Y Combinator. My husband, having a martial arts school here on the East Coast, actually couldn't leave it, so I ended up moving out there for three months by myself with our two-year-old. We couldn't find housing. I kept getting turned down by everyone on Craigslist when they found out I would be bringing a toddler. We finally found an Airbnb place where I just stayed in a bunk room and shared a bunk bed with my two-year-old for those three months and walked with him on my shoulders to Y Combinator a couple times a week. He loved it. He became best friends with Paul Graham and the partners were really supportive about it. So, my family is one. The other thing is the Indonesian martial arts. I have a black belt in that and I'm on of the few female practitioners in the United States."

What's the best thing you've read lately?

"I spend a lot of time reading. I've read most of the books on the 99 Best Business Books list, the teach yourself MBA website that's kind of popular. I never had an MBA, so I decided I needed to get an MBA education and ended up reading this huge MBA reading list.

"Lean Startup Was really helpful. I liked Rework by 37Signals. Work the System, that helped a lot -- it's about setting up procedures for your organization so that it runs itself. Zidisha has about 50 volunteers and interns all over the world and they pretty much run the organization so that I can focus on growth and developing the system that supports them rather than managing it myself. The way we're able to do that is to have really disciplined, detailed, written procedures and step-by-step instructions that anyone can jump in and start following."

If you weren't working in tech, what other profession would you love to try?

"The one thing I could do that's completely different is teaching martial arts like my husband. He has a school for mostly children and I always enjoy going there and teaching sometimes. But really what's at the center of my life is bringing better opportunities to people in developing countries. If I weren't doing Zidisha, I would be doing some other startup in that field. Something like Watsi -- there's so many different areas where you can help."

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