In the summer of 2012, David Vélez moved to São Paulo with a newly minted Stanford MBA and a plum job as a Sequoia Capital partner. Douglas Leone, the head of Sequoia, had recruited the then-30-year-old Colombian to stake the venture capital powerhouse’s claim in Brazil—a youthful, resource-rich country of 200 million that had grown 4% a year for a decade to become the world’s seventh-largest economy. But on October 1, Leone called Vélez with bad news: After considering the uninspired pitches from Brazilian entrepreneurs and hearing that top-ranked University of São Paulo had produced just 42 computer science graduates the prior year, he was pulling the plug. Sequoia’s Brazilian adventure was over.
“It was the day before my birthday and it was a bit of a shock,” Vélez admits. Still, he had always wanted to launch his own startup and saw opportunity in the very dearth of Brazilian innovators that had turned his VC compatriots off. “You want to position yourself on the side of the market where there’s scarcity,” Vélez explains. “In the U.S., there’s an oversupply of good entrepreneurs. Somebody with my experience and background is a commodity. In Latin America, there was significant scarcity.”
Before long, he had a target: Brazil’s big and— to hear Brazilians tell it—bulletproof banks. Yet as Vélez saw it, the banks, with their notoriously high fees, poor service and seeming obliviousness to new technology, were sitting ducks. And they were. Less than a decade after its founding, Vélez’s São Paulo–based Nubank has 35 million customers and is valued at $25 billion. Vélez, who is Nubank’s CEO, retains a 23% stake that Forbes values at $5.2 billion. “What’s happening in Brazil is nothing short of a real revolution. And it’s waking up the incumbent banks, who have had the going really easy for a long time,” says Nigel Morris, the cofounder of Capital One and a Nubank investor.
“David is going to build a $100 billion–plus financial powerhouse in Latin America,” predicts TCV partner Woody Marshall, another one of the investors who have poured a total of $1.2 billion into Nubank. Among the billionaire-backed firms betting on Vélez: Yuri Milner’s DST Global, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Chase Coleman’s Tiger Global—and yes, Leone and Sequoia.
Equally impressive, Vélez built his fintech juggernaut while previously booming Brazil suffered through recession, corruption scandals and Covid-19. And he did so despite warnings from Brazilians that the banking establishment would block him—or worse. “ ‘They’re going to kill you,’ ” Vélez says one friend told him. “ ‘They’re going to kidnap your kids.’ ”
Growing up, Vélez saw how entrepreneurs persevere through adversity. Born in Colombia in 1981 into a family of small-businessfolk (his father’s 11 siblings are mostly entrepreneurs), he watched as his hometown of Medellín was ravaged by drug wars. He remembers leaving a shopping center with his family minutes before it was bombed. After an uncle was kidnapped and rescued, the then-9-year-old Vélez, his parents and his two sisters (both now also entrepreneurs) moved to Costa Rica. There, Vélez’s dad, who had co-owned a small button factory with two brothers in Colombia, built a new one.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
Shout Out for Japan
Digital Money Bags
DANA, one of the country's largest e-wallet platforms, is looking to expand its customer base throughout the archipelago.
Bukalapak’s CEO Rachmat Kaimuddin must battle big rivals and the pandemic for Indonesia’s e-commerce market—with help from a historic IPO.
Already a leading healthy consumer brand in Indonesia, Lemonilo continues to diversify its product range into a healthy lifestyle ecosystem.
Dekoruma Raises $15 Million of Series C1
Home and living platform, Dekoruma has completed a $15 million funding round recently, led by Nexter Ventures by SCG Cement-Building Materials and KTB Network. Existing investors, GDN, OCBC NISP Ventura and Fundamental were also joined the round.
ARSJAD RASJID NAVIGATES INDIKA ENERGY THROUGH CHALLENGING TIMES. NOW HE POSES FOR A NEW ROLE AT KADIN.
CHARTING NEW WATERS
PONTIAC LAND’S EVAN KWEE IS PUSHING PAST THE PANDEMIC WITH A NEW RESORT DEVELOPMENT IN THE MALDIVES, AS PART OF THE KWEE FAMILY’S EXPANSION OUT OF SINGAPORE AND INTO THE GLOBAL HIGH-END HOSPITALITY MARKET.
Human Transformation: Beyond Digital Adoption
Digital transformation coupled with the development of increasingly advanced technology - artificial intelligence, big data, 3D printing, blockchain, augmented reality, and so on – has seen digitalization slowly, but surely, impact almost all areas of our lives, especially over the last five years.
Gold Bullion: To Have and To Hold
The Nappy Winner
With promising growth ahead, Uni-Charm Indonesia prepares to be at the forefront of disposable hygiene products
South African-Swiss explorer Mike Horn has conquered both poles and the Amazon. Here’s how he’s built the fortitude to thrive in extreme environments.
A Different Decoration From the Back
Last days of the Rainforest
The Brazilian Amazon is approaching the point of no return, and the government is fanning the flames
WISE BEYOND HIS YEARS
AS SUPPLY CHAINS FELL APART, STANFORD UNDERGRAD JACK YUAN BUILT A $200 MILLION ONE THAT CONTINUES TO DELIVER LIFE-SAVING PPE
THAT WAS FLEETING: TWITTER KILLS OFF EPHEMERAL MESSAGES
Twitter is disappearing its disappearing tweets, called fleets, after they didn’t catch on.
Bridging the Endowment Wealth Gap
A new venture fund aims to help HBCUs get in on promising startups
2021 SUV OF THE YEAR
Enter the battleground
RANDOM THOUGHTS WITH RICKSON GRACIE
RICKSON GRACIE IS WIDELY REGARDED AS THE BEST OF THE BEST IN BRAZILIAN JIU-JITSU, BUT HE’S SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT. HE’S A WARRIOR, A PHILOSOPHER, A THINKER, AN INSPIRATION AND A ROLE MODEL. WHICH IS WHY WE’RE PRESENTING THESE GLIMPSES OF THE MAN THAT NOT MANY BLACK BELT READERS HAVE SEEN.
The stretch of Monroe Road where you can find little pieces of Brazil
HOW BRAZILIAN GUITARIST PRIKA AMARAL REBUILT HER THRIVING THRASH-METAL JUGGERNAUT FROM THE GROUND UP AND JUMPED HEAD FIRST INTO PERPETUAL CHAOS