With a “work-to-learn” strategy, entrepreneur Elizabeth Jose ’12 has developed her business acumen to tackle initiatives ranging from organic farming in India to launching a global financial technology company.
By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11
Born in India and subsequently a resident of Zambia, Elizabeth Jose ’12 spent a considerable part of her childhood in places where trees and foliage are abundant and her family grew much of their food. So moving to the urban landscape of Fort Lauderdale and later Chicago when she was still a girl was, she recalls, “drastic. The buildings were huge and sidewalks were everywhere. I used to tell my mother, ‘I’m going to take seeds and plant them in the sidewalk cracks, and trees will grow.’”
Jose never let go of that dream. Today, she is planting seeds both literally and figuratively that could have a profound impact not only in her native India but potentially around the world.
From an early age, Jose felt an obligation to take care of her family, a commitment that evolved as she got older and began to think about what she wanted to do with her life. When she arrived at Hollins, “I was going to be a doctor. It was the best way I could help people.” But Hollins presented her with some unexpected yet welcome opportunities to ponder other paths she might take that could fulfill her desire to serve others. “The atmosphere was one where I could explore more of those things for myself that I had kind of put aside.”
The summer before her senior year, Jose’s sister died. The loss in part persuaded her to do something bold. She was particularly moved by reports that farmers in India were committing suicide at an alarming rate: Raising crops had become such a hardship that many farmers concluded it would be more of a financial benefit to their families to kill themselves and have their survivors collect the insurance than try to continue to farm.
“Genetically modified crops had been introduced to the area, but no one trained the farmers in crop rotation,” Jose explains. “So people would just push their land until it was depleted.”
Jose concluded that initiating an organic farming and sustainable development project in India would be a constructive way to help address the problem. The decision was not received well by her extended family.
“They would ask, ‘What do you know about this? You’re a 22-year-old woman, you should get married.’”
But during a fact-finding trip to India, one of Jose’s uncles witnessed firsthand her tenacity. “He asked me, ‘What do you even know about digging a hole to plant something?’ And I replied, ‘What do you want me to dig?’ And through dirt and rock, I dug two one-meter-cubed holes for a coconut tree. It started raining and my uncle said, ‘Okay, we can go back in,’ and I said, ‘No, I’ll just finish up and meet you inside.’ Later he told me, ‘No one should argue with you or your ability to do these things.’”
Jose did agree with her family on one count: She would need a source of steady income to support her as she developed the farming project. Returning to Chicago, she took a job with a physicians group that was struggling. “They were about to go under because they couldn’t manage the business side of their practice.” To help turn things around, Jose devised a strategy that would serve her well not only in Chicago but ultimately in India and beyond.
“I visited with a CPA and a few legal counsels, and I said, ‘I want to figure out how to resurrect this company. I’m happy to shadow you or even work for you for free so that I can learn how to do this.’”
The proposal worked. After three and a half months, Jose had the knowledge she needed to restructure the company’s business model and make it profitable. She also automated the company’s general and financial management system so that she could oversee it from anywhere, allowing her to return to her home country to continue her farming project while at the same time continuing to generate a salary for herself.
In India, Jose approached the head of a company that produces biofertilizers and biopesticides and offers training in organic farming across the country. She made the same offer to work for free.
“Their response was, ‘You’re young, you’ve been educated elsewhere, you don’t even speak Hindi well, what are you thinking?’ That’s when I said to them, ‘If everyone did that, if all of your children did what you’re suggesting, then who is going to continue the work you’re doing here?’ The woman who heads the company finally said, ‘Look, if you’re really serious, come back for two to four months.’”
Despite a grueling daily routine that started at five or six in the morning and typically didn’t end until 10 at night, she impressed the company with her commitment to the farming project and discovered what she needed to know to get it under way.
But Jose still faced formidable obstacles. Her family at last agreed to support the project but with one condition: She must farm property they owned in India’s dry belt where water issues are significant. Every bit as daunting was gaining acceptance into the local communities.
“There was resistance because the residents believed I was an outsider coming in to take advantage of them,” Jose says. “They couldn’t accept that I wanted to help them.”
At one point, Jose was confronted by a group of citizens. “They demanded to know what I was doing there. They were threatening to damage my car and even to kill me. I did leave for a couple of days, but I came back. In essence I was saying, ‘I’m still here.’”
Carefully building relationships and establishing trust, she has moved the project forward. Last summer brought the first harvest of mangoes, other plants have been introduced, and the soil is improving. Jose is focused on ways in which local farmers can avoid the economic pinch of middlemen and on building a larger team to manage the project on an ongoing basis.
Jose is more devoted than ever to making sustainable farming a success in India, but now she is also setting her sights on another initiative that could have worldwide implications. She is excited about the potential for blockchain technologies in financial applications that would be more accessible to the average person.
“Bitcoin has interesting technology behind it, but it’s completely decentralized and unregulated,” Jose explains. “If a tool could be developed that allows people to move money more easily, bitcoin could be more fully accepted and integrated into our economy.”
Even though she was now living in New York City, a major monetary hub, Jose discovered that getting a financial technology company up and running would not be easy. Jose used up all her savings, the company’s cofounder withdrew, and she lost her development team. In the midst of these dire circumstances, her car was totaled. But the accident turned out to be the break she desperately sought. “I didn’t need a car, and I got a check for the value of mine. It was exactly the amount of money that I needed to get Flewid [her business] off the ground again.”
Jose also found crucial business and legal counsel. “I’d come back and forth to Roanoke several times and what I liked about it was that the businesses and firms here have this global experience, but they care about their clients and people on a more personal level.”
She met with the Roanoke law firm Woods Rogers and was introduced to attorney Beth Burgin Waller ’04, who recalls: “Here was this young woman, born a world away with our shared Hollins history, sitting on my office couch telling me about how she had an idea for a company. This was an international game-changer that could disrupt the entire financial industry. It had nuances of cryptocurrency, intense software, and serious economics. To everyone else it might sound impossible but to me it sounded like an idea by a Hollins woman.”
Waller connected Jose with RAMP, a regional business accelerator and mentoring program that focuses on startups with high potential. “I’m meeting so many people and getting the help I needed.” She believes Flewid Capital’s global payment system will be particularly appealing to immigrants and international students. “For people to have access to their money back home, or to enable parents to send students money without paying fees of anywhere from 7.2 to 9.4 percent, depending on where they are coming from, that’s huge. I’ve talked to over 200 people in person from around the world who have said, ‘We need a better way for our families to send us money so that we can use it in the U.S.’
“In five years, I want this working for people in the majority of countries, whether they are immigrants, international students, or travelers.”
Jeff Hodges is Hollins’ director of public relations.
Photo credit: Sharon Meador