GE 193: How TEDTalk Speaker Shivani Siroya Built Financial App Tala That Has Dispersed $50M+ in Emerging Markets to 1M+ Global Customers (podcast) With Shivani Siroya

Shivani Siroya

Hey everyone, in today’s episode, I share the mic with Shivani Siroya, CEO and founder of Tala, a mobile app that is revolutionizing the way that people access financial services. Shivani is also a TED speaker where she’s discussed the smart loans that people can take without having any credit history.

Listen as Shivani walks us through how Tala analyzes desirable customers from the info on their mobile device in less than 2 minutes, why they’ve dispersed funds to 1 million global customers but not in the U.S., and the pros and cons of building an internationally remote team.

Download podcast transcript [PDF] here: How TEDTalk Speaker Shivani Siroya Built Financial App Tala That Has Dispersed $50M+ in Emerging Markets to 1M+ Global Customers TRANSCRIPT

Time-Stamped Show Notes:

  • 00:38 – Review and subscribe to the Growth Everywhere Podcast
  • 00:57 – Eric welcomes Shivani Siroya
  • 01:26 – Tala is a data science, mobile technology company that changes the way people access financial services
  • 01:42 – Tala has developed an android app that gives anyone in the world access to capital and getting their credit scored using data on their mobile
  • 01:58 – Shivani explains how the Tala App works
  • 02:47 – The entire process for 85% of customers takes under 2 minutes
  • 03:06 – The type of data Tala receives is loan information, the amount of money the person is making everyday, etc
  • 03:38 – The Tala app allows them to know the debt-income ratio
  • 04:10 – Tala has set-up thresholds for each feature of your phone
  • 05:17 – Shivani shares the important numbers around Tala
    • 05:22 – It’s not just focused on the credit aspect
    • 05:30 – Tala looks at the number of people who access the product
    • 05:45 – Access of finance
    • 05:50 – They’ve dispersed more than $50M in emerging markets
    • 06:14 – Tala has their own R&D
    • 06:26 – They are owning the risks until their algorithms are set up
    • 06:38 – The technical team is mostly based in the US
  • 07:14 – Acquiring the first 1,000 customers
    • 07:20 – Shivani wanted to design a company that meets the customers where they are
    • 07:33 – They also made sure they did something that is scalable
    • 08:04 – They realized they can do these things by using digital channels
  • 09:27 – There are 70M US residents who are underserved in financial services
  • 09:56 – Tala is talking to a few partners in the US to get through some regulations and licensing
  • 10:29 – Around the world, Tala has 1M individual customers
  • 10:50 – Building an international team comes down to values and culture
    • 10:58 – You need to make sure the person who will run your remote team is ingrained to your head team
    • 11:34 – Members must be aware of problems they try to solve for the system and customer
    • 11:39 – It’s ideal to get people who have worked remotely before
    • 11:54 – There’s no replacement for in-person camaraderie so someone from their Santa Monica office goes to their remote offices at least once every other month
  • 13:01 – Finding good people also comes from word of mouth
  • 13:31 – Define the characteristics and skillsets so you can find those people
  • 13:59 – Shivani connected with Rose, one of Tala’s employees, a year before
  • 14:34 – What’s one big struggle you faced while growing Tala? – What Shivani didn’t realize was that they were acquiring the customer and they didn’t have to forward the data to the financial institution
  • 16:25 – How do you go about learning in general? – “We really like to think outside of finance”
  • 18:11 – TED Fellows are people who are working on enterprises that have an impact around the world
  • 19:10 – Shivani had a few friends who’ve been TED fellows in the past who encouraged her to apply
  • 20:02 – TEDTalk did a lot for Tala; she’s received emails, requests for partnerships and recruiting
  • 21:07 – The TEDTalk has helped bring awareness to the issue that 7B people around the world do not have a credit score
  • 21:23 – What’s one big change you’ve made in the last year that has impacted you or your business in a big way? – “One is just remembering your commitment to the problem that you’re solving…and being unemotional about the journey”
  • 22:38 – Setting the precedent for the fact that leaders are setting the company’s vision helps in being unemotional
  • 24:03 – A “people ops team” in Tala creates fun activities and sets the routines for the team
  • 24:55 – What’s one new tool that you’ve added in the last year that’s added a lot of value? – “It’s not necessarily a tool, but I started to have a morning and evening routine”
  • 26:02 – What’s one must-read book do you recommend?The Undoing Project – “it’s basically, again, about framework for decisions”
  • 26:25 – What’s one publication, blog, or podcast do you tune in everyday? – “I started listening to something called, the Good Life Project”
  • 26:47 – Connect with Shivani on Tala or on Twitter

3 Key Points:

  1. As a company, it’s important to lay out the problems of customers and work to solve them.
  2. Hiring remote employees require a specific set of skills and experience—do your due diligence as you choose these team members.
  3. Creating access to a service that is widely lost to a vast majority of the world is one worth pursuing.

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Full Transcript of The Episode

Show transcript
Shivani Siroya: This entire process for about 85% of customers takes under two minutes. Literally from downloading the app, registering, getting scored, and actually getting money into their account, it takes under two minutes.

Speaker 1: Do you want to impact the world and still turn a profit? Then you're in the right place. Welcome to Growth Everywhere. This is the show where you'll find real conversations with real entrepreneurs. They'll share everything from their biggest struggle to the exact strategies they use on a daily basis. So if you're ready for a value packed interview, listen on. Here's your host, Eric Siu.

Eric Siu: Before we jump into today's interview, if you guys could leave a review and a rating and also subscribe as well, that would be a huge help to the podcast. If you actually enjoy the content and you'd like to hear more of it, please support us by leaving us a review and subscribe to the podcast as well. Thanks so much.

All right, everybody. I have a special guest today. Her name is Shivani Siroya. She's the CEO and founder of Tala which is revolutionizing financial services in emerging markets. She's also a TED speaker as well and has spoken on smart loans for people with no credit history. Shivani, how's it going?

Shivani Siroya: It's going really well. Thank you for having me.

Eric Siu: Thanks for being here. Why don't you tell us a little more about who you are, what you do, and go into just generally your story?

Shivani Siroya: What Tala is is that we're a data science and mobile technology company that is as you mentioned changing the way that people access financial services, but more importantly that we are giving them choice and control over their financial lives. We've developed a Android application that allows anyone around the world to actually get scored and get access to capital using just the data on their mobile devices.

Eric Siu: Awesome. How does this score work exactly? Can you go into a little more detail?

Shivani Siroya: It's really simple. A customer will find out about the product either through word of mouth, a referral, see an ad, they'll actually go to the Google Play Store, they will download the app, and we will actually ask them for permission to key pieces of data that are on their phones that allow us to really understand the identity of this individual, to understand their capacity and whether they can actually afford to repay, and then lastly to understand their behavior to understand the likelihood of whether or not they will actually repay the loan. We do that in about 5 to 10 seconds. At the same time a customer is actually filling out about 8 to 10 questions on their mobile device, and that's more about again, demographics, where to send the money, et cetera. Then once they're done with that we send them a loan decision and this entire process for about 85% of customers takes under two minutes. Literally from downloading the app, registering, getting scored, and actually getting money into their account, it takes under two minutes.





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Eric Siu: Wow, awesome. What are these key pieces of data that you mentioned? What are one or two?

Shivani Siroya: Again, we want to understand, do you have loans outstanding? What is the amount of money that you get paid on a daily basis, weekly basis, monthly basis? Are you someone who's really consistent with making your bill payments? A lot of that information is actually sitting on the device, and so around the world, as opposed to email ... When we make a transaction on Amazon, we get an email. In these markets outside of the US, it's actually more likely that you'll get that receipt in the form of a text message, and so what we've done is within our application we have a software that allows us to parse for all of that transaction or receipt level data. That really tells us the income or the debt to income ratio of a customer.

Other things in terms of behavioral stuff, which is more around your character and that likelihood piece, that's really where it gets more interesting. It's the kind of apps that you use. How do you actually use your phone? How many calls are you making throughout the day? How many messages are you sending? What we've done is for each one of these features, we've actually set up thresholds to say when someone has more than 80 contacts that they're in connection with on a weekly basis, or there's a lot of consistency there, we find that those kinds of individuals are more likely to be good borrowers. We bring in about 10,000 different data points per individual, and it's about 90 days worth of historical data when a person actually downloads a device, and so we have a really good sense of the daily life of this customer. So it's not just these random data points but it's really about the context of their daily life.

Eric Siu: Wow, and all in two minutes?

Shivani Siroya: Yep.

Eric Siu: Great. What are some of the big emerging markets that Tala's part of right now?

Shivani Siroya: We are currently in east Africa. We're working in Kenya as our main market there, and then we are also in southeast Asia and we have an office in Manila.

Eric Siu: Interesting. I guess we'll talk about customer acquisition in a second, especially in those markets. In terms of numbers, what kind of important numbers can you reveal around the business today?

Shivani Siroya: Important numbers around the business, the way we think about it is again, because of the fact that we're not just focused on the access to credit aspect, but again it's this entire financial life cycle. We look at the number of people that have actually accessed our product. In east Africa alone, we've already had over 1 million individuals actually access and download the product and get registered. I think other things that are important is around access to finance, and so to date in terms of cumulative origination, we've now dispersed over $50 million in capital to customers in these markets, and that's just been since the early part of 2015.



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Eric Siu: You guys have raised about $14.4 million in financing. What's the bulk of that going towards? I'm just trying to get people some context. When you raise a good amount of money, how do people think about using that money? What are you guys using that money for mainly?

Shivani Siroya: We always do our own R&D, and so we do use our own balance sheet capital to test new markets, test new products, new loan offers, and so it's very important for us I think to really own that risk. We're not putting other people's capital at risk before we actually know that our algorithms are actually functioning in the right way. That's a large part about it. I think another piece is really around the team itself. We do have most of our technical team here in the US. The data science team, the engineering team, and so we have really our own internal operations in that way, and then we do have now local teams that are in Nairobi as well as Manila. Then I think the last thing is that outside of credit, we have actually done a lot of R&D on new products that really enhance that choice and control aspect for our customers.

Eric Siu: Great. In terms of customer acquisition, how did you guys go about acquiring your first, let's just say, 1,000 customers?

Shivani Siroya: I always go back to ... I think something that's really helped us has been we want to design something that is very low touch for the customer. It's really about meeting them where they already are, and products that they already use. I think the other thing is making sure that we're developing something that is truly scalable and can work in multiple markets. In that same way, we could not depend on having local loan officers actually meeting customers in person, getting customers to fill out paper forms, et cetera. If we're truly trying to change the system and make it more flexible and make it more fair, then we really need to think about it as, what are they already using? What we started realizing is the way that we could do that is actually using digital channels. When we launch in a new market, we actually really focus first on digital as a main source of acquisition. In Kenya, we literally started with just a few Facebook ads, Twitter ads, Google AdWords, and then from there as we started really getting traction, the word of mouth and the referral aspect really started to take off for us.

Eric Siu: Got it. It sounds like the bread and butter right now for customer acquisition is mainly around digital ads, whether it's Facebook, Twitter, and then it just blows up because people keep talking about it. Is that what's going on right now?

Shivani Siroya: Yeah, exactly. I think it's again, can you really do good on the value proposition that you're offering your customers? When we really said, "This is completely unsecured, it's instant," customers will tell us in their testimonials that they felt like it was magic. Now, if a customer has that experience, they're immediately going to tell their friends about it.

Eric Siu: Awesome. This sounds really great on paper, and obviously in America this would



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be awesome too. What steps do you need to go through to make this actually become a reality in America? Because there's so much red tape.

Shivani Siroya: I think that when we think about the problem, it is a global problem and there is about 70 million US residents that actually are also underserved from financial institutions even here, so we definitely want to think about ways that we can work here in the US. I think for us, it's more that the speed at which we can work outside of the US has been there because there is just less regulations, less red tape, and so innovation and new forms of financial services can take off faster. But that being said, we want to make sure we can do something here in the US and so we are talking to a few partners that can enable us to get through some of those regulations and licensing here too.

Eric Siu: That's so smart because you guys, with the less red tape areas like emerging markets, proved out the model first and then now people are starting to take notice. Then now it seems like it's much more a possibility to become a reality in America. Was that intentional?

Shivani Siroya: Yeah, exactly.

Eric Siu: Cool. You might have covered this one already, but just so everyone can know again, how many customers worldwide do you have right now?

Shivani Siroya: Around the world, as I mentioned we've had over 1 million individuals actually access and download the product.

Eric Siu: You have people all over the world. You have an international team. How do you go about building a international team? We talk about hiring a lot on the podcast, but most people are in the US, so how do you build an international team?

Shivani Siroya: One, I think it always goes back down to the values and the culture aspect, but it also ... What you need to do is make sure that the person that is actually going to be running that local team is really ingrained with your head team here. Our country manager in Kenya, her name is Rose, and she's phenomenal. Not only did she run a very large banking institution in Kenya, but then also has worked on the Credit Reference Bureau side, so she understands the problem from a very direct customer point of view, but then also understands it from a system and macro point of view to know at a very global scale or regional scale, what's the problem that we're trying to solve for the system as well as for the customer?

I think it's also making sure that the person that is running those local teams has actually worked in remote environments before so that they also know what some of the best practices are and that they can be an independent leader. I think the very last thing that I'll mention is that there is no workaround for in person camaraderie, and so what we try to do is make it so that someone from our leadership team, our product team, our customer service team from the Santa Monica office is actually in one of our countries working with our teams probably at



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least once every other month, if not every month, and then the same thing is that the teams that are there, whether it's engineers, whether it's customer service, whether it's the country manager, they're actually here in the US with us and we're doing wind down Wednesdays. We're doing happy hours. We're doing all hands. Those routines, when they're done across all offices, actually make it so that we all feel like we're one family.

Eric Siu: I remember Chamath Palihapitiya who led growth at Facebook said most MBAs would say you should just hire an MBA and go to these international companies and run the operations there, but it's exactly what you said. It's basically, you should hire somebody that's actually from that area, then it works out better. So how do you go about finding stars like Rose?

Shivani Siroya: I think it's definitely word of mouth. Before I actually started Tala, in order just to get advice on the problem and how to start solving this issue I ended up connecting or trying to connect with about 1,500 individuals on LinkedIn. The aspect of research and I guess you can say LinkedIn stalking is something that I'm familiar with. I think it's if you can really define the characteristics and the skillsets that you want and the background that you want for these people, then I really do think that it's a matter of actually the hard work of you just got to go find it. You can use recruiters, but it's really just having conversation after conversation, getting more clear about who those people are going to be. Then going after it.

With Rose, we actually connected with her about a year before, and it just ended up being that the timing wasn't right then, and it was actually just both her and us keeping in close touch. She was able to watch us actually progress and actually work with us on different projects in the previous role she was in, and then when the position actually became available, again it was like, okay, the timing is right now. You almost need to play a long game for the people that you want.

Eric Siu: There you go, everyone. Hand to hand combat through LinkedIn. 1,500, you got to go even harder than that. What's one big struggle you faced while growing Tala?

Shivani Siroya: I think a big struggle, or let's say if I thought about things that we may want to change had we had the perspective that we have now, it would've been really around this customer relationship side. When we first started the company, we were really focused only on the credit scoring side or the financial identity side, and then we would pass on these scores to financial institutions. What we didn't realize at that point was that we were the ones actually acquiring the customer, getting the data, and then actually passing that on to the institution and giving up that relationship, and when we actually decided to go ahead and lend our own capital against these scores, we started to realize that that customer relationship is the most important thing. Not only are you keeping that margin for yourself, but it's actually this long term data channel and this long term relationship that you can actually make the entire value chain of financial services better.

Now, instead of a customer thinking of a bank or a credit provider as just a utility



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that they keep on their phone, we are now really the number five app in the entire country in terms of Android applications. The mindset of the customer has changed from thinking of us as a credit provider to a partner, to a friend. That's something that actually sustains for the long term, as opposed to just thinking about price and the size of capital that you provide.

Eric Siu: Awesome. A question that just randomly popped up. You guys are mainly Android obviously because emerging markets, they mostly don't have iOS devices, right?

Shivani Siroya: Yes, exactly.

Eric Siu: Got it. Just another out of curiosity. Your background's really impressive. It seems like you're really on top of things. How do you go about learning in general? What do you read all the time? What's your entire process? Sometimes when I talk to someone that's really, really smart, really cerebral, I want to find out what the learning process is.

Shivani Siroya: I don't know. I think of it as, I obviously read all the stuff that's about fintech and what are the trends and what's happening in our markets in terms of the new apps, but we really like to think outside of just finance. So if it is this relationship piece, then a lot of that is centered around I would say things around psychology, around relationship/behavior change, and it's thinking about, who are the apps in that space? Whether it's meditation apps and how they're bringing you back in and actually getting people to commit to these kinds of routines. Whether it's things that we can look at that just make life easier.

When we're thinking about repayment schedules, we should be thinking about smart repayment schedules that are actually designed around when you actually get paid. Because if we just ping you all the time and you don't have money in your account, you're going to hate us and you're going to stop thinking about that as a trigger. It's no longer going to matter to you. I think that's more where I get my information is really thinking about things that are analogs for us, as opposed to just looking at the people that are in our industry.

Eric Siu: Interesting. Again, this actually ties into learning as well. Your TED Talk experience, can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Shivani Siroya: I am really fortunate and excited to be a TED fellow, and so that process was-

Eric Siu: What does that mean really quick? What does a TED fellow mean?

Shivani Siroya: TED fellows are fellows that are either working in technology, entertainment, design. They're artists, they're musicians. They're working on enterprises that really have an impact around the world or here in the US. It can be people working in medicine. It can be people working in biology, physics, anything really. It's more just folks that maybe are a little under the radar right now that TED really feels like, "This is an area that we would like to bring attention to, and the work that this



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person is actually doing." TED fellows get the opportunity to do a TED Talk at the main TED, and so that's how that whole experience came about was that it was really an opportunity that came through the fellowship.

Eric Siu: How did you even find out about the fellowship and become a part of it, because I'm sure there's a lot of people in the audience that want to do a TED Talk. Not saying everyone's qualified, but I'm sure everyone's curious.

Shivani Siroya: I did have a few really good friends that had been TED fellows in the past, and so I never thought about it for myself to be honest and I was on a trip with a friend of mine and she actually said, "You have to do this. Give it a shot. What do you have to lose? Just fill out the application." And she was totally right, and I think what's really great is that when you look through the form, they're not just focused on the work that you're doing but they're really focused on who you are as a person and what is the vision that you have for your work and what you want to accomplish, so it really gets at, what is the root of your own personal mission?

Eric Siu: Your talk was incredible so I highly recommend that everyone checks it out. I think TED Talks are what, 15 to 18 minutes max? Is that correct?

Shivani Siroya: Yep, exactly.

Eric Siu: What has that talk done for you?

Shivani Siroya: It definitely made it so that we're constantly getting emails and requests for new partnerships, which is great. Again, because of the fact that our work is global, getting help from other folks to get into new countries for testing, thinking about ways that we can actually just enhance the product from an automation perspective or new data sources. Reducing the risk just allows us to move much faster and deploy more capital. It's also helped us hopefully on the recruiting side. We've been getting a lot of really great folks to join the team.

Then I think lastly I would say it's legitimacy. This kind of work in some ways, sometimes it can ... Credit scores, while they in my opinion are one of the most important things, still there's not that much awareness of it, even here in the US, and really how that affects your daily life, and so personally for my own personal mission of getting people to be really aware of their financial access and how they make those choices, I think the TED Talk really has helped to bring awareness to the issue of the fact that there are over 2 billion people around the world that currently don't have a credit score and that are underserved. That in itself, if it helps more people get into the space, I'd be really excited.

Eric Siu: Awesome. What's one big change you made in the last year that's either impacted you or your business in a big way?

Shivani Siroya: I think that a very big change ... I think it's interesting. The two things I would mention, one is remembering your commitment to the problem that you're solving.



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If you can always remember that that's what is most important, then your path to actually solving it or the solutions that your company or that you are designing, you can be very unemotional about that piece. Because you're always going to have twists and turns in the path, and I think that's fine because as long as you stay very grounded and focused on what you want to get to, that's the most important thing. I think I have actually been telling our team that and saying it's about learning, it's about testing, and it's about seeing what continues to work and iterating on that, but being unemotional about that journey and actually just being very focused on the end goal. That I think allows you to move very quickly.

Eric Siu: Tactically, what are some things you've done to reduce emotions or be more unemotional about smaller things?

Shivani Siroya: A big one is really setting the precedent for the fact that leaders are really setting that vision and strategic path of saying, "Here are three large priorities for us, but we are not going to come up with the what and the how. We are actually just going to set that as schematic pieces for us." And then really allowing creativity and the more tactical prioritization to happen from teams. Because I think it's actually really bad sometimes when people are going in and getting into the weeds too much, because then you've got a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Instead what you want to do is actually set it at the high level, and then from there say all priorities, all tactics, all projects should actually revolve around these three main things, but that's it. It just makes it much more simple for people to really then understand the why to each one of those things, as opposed to having 70 different priorities.

Eric Siu: How are you guys tracking that? Are you guys using OKRs and then just letting people define their own?

Shivani Siroya: Yeah. It's not necessarily that people define their own, but we do have KPIs that then tell us whether we're on track for those three major areas.

Eric Siu: Got it. Then as the CEO, you're flying around. You're doing all these different things at once. Culture starts at the top, but I'm just curious. You talked about you guys doing a lot of happy hours, things like that, all these events. Who typically plans those events for you? Because it seems like you're super busy.

Shivani Siroya: We do have a people ops team at the company, but I would say that we're actually all involved in some ways. While we're large, we're about 82 people, we're not that big yet and so these routines are things that people really take pride in and they get excited about. Whether it's doing a lunch and learn, somebody from the team or an expert will actually present every single Tuesday at 12:30pm, and we record it and the other teams in Nairobi and in Manila are also doing their own, exact same time. Someone can be planning it, but the person presenting is actually doing a lot of the work. I don't think it's just one group of people. I think everyone's got to have a hand in it to make it really successful.

Eric Siu: Awesome. I'm totally stealing that. What's one new tool that you've added in the



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last year that's added a lot of value? Like an Evernote or it could be a Fitbit or something.

Shivani Siroya: I think a really good tool for me has been ... It's not necessarily a tool but I guess maybe it's an activity. I actually have tried to start having a little bit more of both a morning and evening routine. I've noticed that having those things set in stone for yourself just makes getting ready in the morning more efficient and going to bed more relaxing, and they only are at the most maybe 10 to 15 minute routines. I think that's been really, really helpful.

Eric Siu: Awesome. Have you seen the Tim Ferriss videos on how he does his morning and his evening routines?

Shivani Siroya: I haven't yet. I'm definitely going to go check that out.

Eric Siu: Oh, yeah. You totally got to check it out. Just for context for everyone, Tim Ferriss basically when he goes to bed he'll go into a spa and he'll drink this crazy tea and then there's all this ... It's a checklist that you can basically follow and duplicate, and then he has his morning routine too. It just totally reminded me of that, so that's cool. What's one must read book you'd recommend to everyone? Could be business, could be fiction, whatever.

Shivani Siroya: A really good book that I just finished was The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis.

Eric Siu: Interesting. What's that one about really quick?

Shivani Siroya: It's again this idea around framework for decisions and new ideas, and so I think that was a really good one.

Eric Siu: Got it. Cool. We'll drop that in the show notes. Then, final question from my end. What's one publication or blog or podcast that you tune into everyday?

Shivani Siroya: I just started listening to something called the Good Life Project.

Eric Siu: Oh yeah, that's a good one.

Shivani Siroya: Yeah, it's a good one. I really enjoy it. I don't know much about it yet because I've only gone into two, but I thought that was a good one.

Eric Siu: Shivani, this has been awesome. What's the best way for people to find you online?

Shivani Siroya: Well, you can definitely look up our website which is just Tala.co. It's T-A-L-A.co. Otherwise you can look me up on Twitter, and it's just instead of Shivani it's Shivs, S-H-I-V-S, and then my last name, S-I-R-O-Y-A, and I respond to everything.

Eric Siu: Perfect. Shivani, thanks so much for doing this.





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Shivani Siroya: Sure. Thank you for having me.

Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to this episode of Growth Everywhere. If you loved what you heard, be sure to head back to GrowthEverywhere.com for today's show notes and a ton of additional resources, but before you go, hit the subscribe button to avoid missing out on next week's value packed interview. Enjoy the rest of your week, and remember to take action and continue growing.