This Brazilian immigrant CEO thinks that Silicon Valley investors need to do more to help customers outside America, even if their income is lower


Victor Santos

  • Victor Santos immigrated to America from Brazil when he was 12 years old, and by his own telling has a “typical immigrant story:” he worked hard, attended college, and started his own company, Airfox.
  • Airfox provides mobile banking services, aimed at the lowest-income communities in Santos’ native Brazil who typically do not have access to reliable banking or non-predatory credit. Last week, Airfox announced a partnership with MasterCard Brazil.
  • Santos realized the bias he was up against as an undocumented founder with DACA status when he first started pitching Airfox to investors in Silicon Valley and Boston. He said investors were uncertain about him as a founder and CEO, but were also unsure of the market opportunity Airfox was going after.
  • Santos told Business Insider: “Serving low-income customers is not something everyone is comfortable with.”
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Victor Santos comes from a family of entrepreneurs, but his parents wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves that way. Santos’ mother and father started small businesses and odd jobs out of necessity to provide for the family in northern California after immigrating to the United States from Brazil.

Santos was 12 years old, but knew enough to understand why his parents wanted to immigrate to a new country. He said he remembers his mother pawning her jewelry to help finance her travel business — the only way a bank would loan money to a low-income family like his. He described the economic situation in Brazil as “the worst in the world.”

Now, Santos is the founder and CEO of Airfox, a mobile banking startup that operates exclusively in Brazil. On Wednesday, Airfox announced a major partnership with Mastercard Brazil that will help low-income Brazilians access credit without relying on the traditional banks, which he characterizes as unreliable and often-predatory. 

“Credit and access to capital runs the economy,” Santos told Business Insider. “It has not been easy so far, but the biggest takeaway is staying true to the vision and why I am doing this. If this is just for money or glory, I would be done.”

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Santos started Airfox in 2016 after leaving a “cozy” job at Google as a product marketing manager with some savings and a place to sleep on a friend’s couch. Airfox was rejected by TechStars, a startup incubator in Boston, and was having trouble raising venture capital for his company. 

“It was pretty brutal, actually, I got turned down so many times,” Santos said. He started thinking about taking another job and sidelining Airfox entirely, he said. 

Santos estimates that he must have pitched “40 or 50” firms at first, and struck out most times. He had the hardest time convincing American tech investors that it was worth investing in an undocumented immigrant with DACA status, leading a company creating financial services for a foreign market with a lower average income. 

“Serving low income customers is not something everyone is comfortable with,” Santos said. “It’s a very difficult conversation, especially if you look at VCs in general; they tend to be on the older side, white, and don’t really understand the markets we are playing in. I had one VC that didn’t understand how people don’t have bank accounts. These were the challenges, like, how do you not know this?”

Santos was able to successfully raise $300,000 in angel funding and was accepted to TechStars on his second attempt. He moved to Boston and has built out a team in the United States and Brazil. His struggle to get funding is still fresh, he said, and highlights the pressing need for more immigrant and minority investors in Silicon Valley and beyond.

“It’s unlikely we will raise any more through VCs,” Santos said. “Some immigrant founders or early employees are just now leaving to become investors. That shift will happen but it will take time for the old monarchy of VCs to step down and the next generation of investors with a more progressive mindset will take over. It’s happening but not at the pace we wanted.”

SEE ALSO: Bradley Tusk, a former political strategist and now a prominent VC, explains why he invested in a $25 million fund for marijuana, sex tech, alcohol, and e-cigarettes

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