From Political Activist to Fintech Founder: Investing in Mos, and Amira Yahyaoui
Amira Yahyaoui is the Founder and CEO of Mos —a platform that helps students pay for college through simplifying access to financial aid. Sweet Capital invested in Mos’ Seed round in 2019, alongside Khaled Helioui, Garrett Camp, and John Doerr, amongst others: read about it in TechCrunch here. Today Mos announced its Series A fundraising, led by Sequoia Capital, with participation from Zoom’s Eric Yuan, Golden State Warriors’ All Star Stephen Curry, Jay-Z / Roc Nation, and Stripe’s Patrick Collison, amongst others. The company also launched a comprehensive guide for students navigating financial aid, tuition costs, and housing constraints during the COVID-19 crisis — please visit Mos.com and share.
I first met Amira Yahyaoui on a balmy evening in the Spring of 2019, sitting at the bar of The Dorian diner in Pacific Heights, San Francisco. She was wearing a fluorescent pink furry jacket* — hard to miss — and I immediately warmed to her, as she began to tell me about her life before Mos.
Mos does for students what I wish someone had done for me, when I was applying for college. Through its online platform, students are checked against over 30,000 eligibility criteria, enabling them to access and aggregate all $135B in potential government aid — all in one single application.
I was first introduced to Amira earlier that year through a shared friend and investor, Khaled Helioui, but this was our first meeting in person. There was obviously something very special about Amira and the Mos story, and Sweet Capital immediately jumped to invest in her Seed round, alongside Uber co-founder Garrett Camp, his startup studio Expa, and Kleiner Perkins chairman John Doerr, amongst others. I was familiar with Amira’s story, but excited to hear her recount it through her own words.
The following is a little of what she shared with me that evening.
Life before Mos
Prior to founding Mos, Amira was a pro-democracy human rights activist in her home country of Tunisia. Born to a family of political rights activists, Amira’s father — a prominent judge — was placed under house arrest for years after speaking out against the government of former Tunisian President Ben Ali. Her cousin — an economist and founder of the satirical website TUNeZINE — died in 2005, after being tortured for his objections to censorship in Tunisia.
As a teenager herself, Amira protested on the front line against the government’s authoritarian regime and human rights abuses, resulting in her violent persecution, multiple arrests, and eventual exile from the country in 2002. She remained “stateless” for seven years, but through her vociferous protests from afar, became known in the media as one of the prominent faces of the “Arab Spring” movement.
When the Ben Ali regime fell in January 2011, Amira immediately returned to Tunisia ,where she ran in the national elections as an independent candidate. She founded and ran the NGO Al Bawsala (“The Compass” in Arabic), which was designed to hold the new national parliament and constituent assembly to account, by using technology to make information accessible to citizens.
Four years later, Amira was named co-chair of the 2016 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, where she led the summit alongside business leaders including Mary Barra (CEO, General Motors), Satya Nadella (CEO, Microsoft), Hiroaki Nakanishi (Chairman and CEO, Hitachi), and Tidjane Thiam (CEO, Credit Suisse).
2017: Moving to the US, and Amira’s new chapter
Speaking to Techcrunch last year Amira explained: “I always knew that I wouldn’t allow myself to do anything else before solving the problem in my country and today, Tunisia is the only Arab democracy in the world.”
Now, Mos is the latest of Amira’s continued pursuits to improve civil rights — the same calling to which she has dedicated her whole life.
Through Mos, Amira is fighting to lessen the burden of student debt in the US (currently standing at a whopping $1.64 trillion) by tackling the highly bureaucratic financial aid system, and democratising access to a college education in the process. Many of the students applying for aid through her platform come from middle to lower income families, and would not be able to apply to college without some form of monetary assistance.
“Today, the biggest problem is people think they are not eligible for financial aid just because of how the thing is designed.” Amira told TechCrunch last year.
“You’re supposed to just go ahead and fill a form that has 200 questions and then send it like a bottle in the sea and wait for months.”
Amira set up Mos in 2018 and hired a core team of four, including a former Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of State in the Obama administration.
The Journey from Seed to Series A
Amira will be the first to tell you that her journey from Seed to Series A was anything but smooth.
The team spent long days and nights testing and reiterating the Mos model, and exchanging ideas with advisors and investors, before they achieved anything close to product market fit. I recall speaking to Amira during one of our Sweet catchup sessions in the second quarter of 2019. Things were particularly tough, as the company struggled to deal with seasonality. At one point Amira exclaimed bluntly, “Q2 was really terrible for us. The financial aid season finished in March and basically, students don’t want to hear about financial aid any longer.”
The team of five set about using the time to rebuild their app from scratch, and began developing a web portal, where they had identified that many of their users would be.
Despite facing serious challenges in the market and spending many hours discussing what they could change, at no point did the team ever seriously consider pivoting away from their core mission. To this, I attribute Amira’s absolute determination, relentless energy, and obsessive drive to see their goal through to the end. In this regard, lessons learned through her previous life experiences seem altogether less distant.
Amira was generous enough to share some of these most testing moments with other founders in the Sweet Capital Portfolio during our annual founders retreat last year.
During an impromptu “open mic” session after dinner one evening, Amira recounted to the group how her previous life experiences had shaped her into the founder she is today. Parallels that I had never previously considered possible were drawn between her life as a political activist and her life as a founder — throwing the magnitude of her cumulative experiences into harsh reality. Her stories interwove tales of the Tunisian Revolution, “hacking together” pro-democracy protests that swelled from one, to tens of thousands of people, alongside the more familiar struggles of the wider group. Testing and iterating, when nothing is working. Hiring and motivating a team, when you’re working with a vision that feels far removed from reality. And most importantly: being a leader that lights the path for others, when all feels dark.
Somehow a conversation that might have felt heavy, was made to feel light, delivered with Amira’s signature warmth, humour, and radical candor.
It was in August 2019 when the company’s eureka moment arrived, making several key changes to the customer onboarding flow.
Over six months, Mos grew 64x, and cumulatively delivered $200M of financial aid to students in need. And with that, we mark the end of the beginning.
I couldn’t be more thrilled to be on the Mos journey, with a front row seat to watch everything that is yet to come. Thank you to Khaled Helioui for introducing us to Amira, and to Amira and her team for the endless fun that working with Mos has been.
The Mos team is hiring! Email email@example.com for more details :-)
- Most humbling moment with Amira, during the journey from Seed to Series A: Finding out that she is still not allowed to enter more than 30 countries around the world, due to her pro-democracy activism.
- Amira’s advice to other female founders: “Know you are worth 26% more. The gender pay gap is not just a wage difference, it’s a mentality.”
- What Amira is most excited about for this next chapter of the Mos journey: “We don’t really count how many people we helped as how many we did not help yet. And this is what I am excited about, our next chapter in to reach tens of millions of students.”
*Pink furry jacket as below :-)