Inside Amira Yahyaoui’s Claims about Mos, a Student Aid Start-Up

Inside Amira Yahyaoui’s Claims about Mos, a Student Aid Start-Up

As a Tunisian human rights activist within the 2000s, Amira Yahyaoui staged protests and blogged about authorities corruption. In interviews, she described being crushed by police. When she was 18, she stated, she was kidnapped from the road, dropped off on the Algerian border and positioned in exile for a number of years.

Ms. Yahyaoui’s compelling background helped her stand out amongst entrepreneurs when she moved in 2018 to San Francisco, the place she based a pupil support start-up referred to as Mos. The app hit the highest of Apple’s App Store and Ms. Yahyaoui raised $56 million from high-profile traders, together with Sequoia Capital, John Doerr and Steph Curry, based on PitchBook, which tracks start-ups. Mos was valued at $400 million.

In podcasts, TV interviews and different media, Ms. Yahyaoui, 39, ceaselessly mentioned Mos’s success.

Among different issues, she stated the start-up had helped 400,000 college students get monetary support. But inside firm information considered by The New York Times confirmed that as of early final yr, solely about 30,000 prospects had paid for Mos’s pupil support providers. The remainder of the 400,000 customers included anybody who had signed up for a free account and will have gotten an e-mail about making use of for pupil support, two folks aware of the state of affairs stated.

After Mos expanded into on-line banking in September 2021, Ms. Yahyaoui instructed publications comparable to TechCrunch that the corporate had greater than 100,000 financial institution accounts. But these accounts had very small quantities of cash in them, based on the inner information. Less than 10 p.c of Mos’s roughly 153,000 financial institution customers had put their very own cash into their accounts, the info confirmed.

Some workers tried to talk up about Ms. Yahyaoui’s claims, stated Emi Tabb, who labored at Mos in operations and had roles comparable to head of economic support earlier than resigning in late 2022. But Ms. Yahyaoui dismissed and typically disparaged workers who tried pushing again towards her public feedback, 5 individuals who witnessed the incidents stated.

“She created a culture of fear,” Mx. Tabb stated.

Mos is amongst a category of tech start-ups that rose throughout the quick cash period of the late 2010s and early within the pandemic, when younger firms landed hundreds of thousands of {dollars} in funding with little greater than guarantees. Now as the cash has dried up and lots of tech start-ups grapple with a downturn, traders are pickier, prospects are warier of daring claims and workers are extra suspicious of founder pronouncements.

Last yr, Mos laid off roughly half its employees of round 50 and shut down its banking service. The firm reverted to its authentic enterprise of serving to college students discover monetary support and commenced emphasizing its use of synthetic intelligence.

Ms. Yahyaoui referred inquiries to a Mos spokeswoman, who declined to remark. When Ms. Yahyaoui was requested final yr about Mos’s variety of customers, she posted on social media that feminine founders had been typically presumed responsible whereas male founders had been presumed harmless.

“Maybe today we should start applying presumption of innocence to also female founders,” she wrote.

This account of Mos was primarily based on interviews with eight present and former workers, in addition to inside communications, shows and analytics. The inside paperwork go as much as 2023.

Ms. Yahyaoui grew up in Tunisia after which lived in exile in France. After shifting to San Francisco, she raised cash for Mos from traders together with Expa, the funding agency began by Garrett Camp, a founding father of Uber. Mos offered a service to assist college students discover sources of economic support, charging $149 for every college yr.

Deena Shakir, an investor at Lux Capital, which backed Mos in 2020, stated she and the agency’s companions “deeply respect” Ms. Yahyaoui.

“We take pride in supporting companies and founders like Amira whose commitment to enabling access for students gives us hope for the future of higher education,” Ms. Shakir stated.

Mos had a gradual begin, three folks with information of the corporate stated. Some college students who signed up realized about support they already knew about, like a Cal Grant for California residents, they stated.

An investor presentation considered by The Times confirmed that Mos had month-to-month income of $340,000 in December 2019. The start-up allowed customers to pay $1 upfront and the remaining $148 after they acquired their monetary support.

Mos finally didn’t accumulate most of that cash. Seventy p.c of customers defaulted on their funds after the pandemic hit in 2020, Jess Lee, an investor at Sequoia who sits on Mos’s board, later stated in an article in regards to the firm revealed on Sequoia’s web site.

As of late 2022, roughly 6,500 of Mos’s paying prospects, or 22 p.c, acquired refunds for its monetary support service, based on inside information. The firm had instructed prospects that in the event that they didn’t get 5 occasions the price of Mos’s providers in monetary support, they might get a refund.

Mos stated it might assist college students entry $160 billion in scholarships, however that quantity included loans, three folks aware of the state of affairs stated. The firm’s pitch was to assist college students keep away from debt.

Ms. Yahyaoui additionally stated college students who used Mos “saved” a median of $16,000. That was the quantity that the start-up decided they certified for and never what the scholars obtained in support, three folks with information of the corporate stated.

Mos’s web site features a shifting ticker of joyful prospects (“Jasmine got $12,237 for Cal Poly,” for instance). Ms. Yahyaoui requested workers to make use of inventory pictures and to make up names, three folks with information of the corporate stated.

By 2021, monetary expertise was sizzling with traders. Ms. Yahyaoui pushed Mos to grow to be a financial institution, making its monetary support product free. That September, the start-up introduced its transfer into banking with a promotion that gave folks $5 to enroll and one other $5 for each referral.

Sign-ups poured in. Mos turned off the $5 promotion on its first day. Two months later, it turned it again on for 3 days and signed up greater than 100,000 accounts, spending round $1 million within the promotion and sending Mos to the highest of the App Store.

The sign-ups piqued investor curiosity, together with from the funding agency Tiger Global. Sequoia’s Ms. Lee wished to see how most of the accounts that signed up throughout the promotion remained energetic earlier than investing extra, two folks aware of the state of affairs stated. Sequoia inspired Ms. Yahyaoui to rent an outdoor agency to evaluate whether or not the accounts belonged to actual folks, the folks stated.

Some workers additionally had issues that many accounts didn’t belong to actual folks, three folks aware of the state of affairs stated. As sign-ups continued, Mos analyzed the accounts for doubtlessly fraudulent conduct in an inside working doc. In November, Ms. Yahyaoui restricted Ms. Lee’s entry to that doc, two of the folks stated.

Soon after, in February 2022, Tiger Global introduced it led a $40 million funding for Mos. Sequoia joined the deal. It isn’t clear what influence entry to the doc would have had on Sequoia’s determination to speculate extra in Mos. Two folks aware of the state of affairs stated Ms. Lee retained entry to a broader information supply concerning the accounts.

In an announcement, Ms. Lee stated, “The most successful founders are the ones who have grit and are willing to test new hypotheses and adapt. Amira is the embodiment of these qualities.”

Tiger Global declined to remark.

Alongside the funding announcement, Sequoia revealed an article on its web site detailing Ms. Yahyaoui’s dramatic previous and entrepreneurial imaginative and prescient. It stated fewer than 1 p.c of Mos’s financial institution accounts had been closed, “an unheard-of statistic for a money-based sign-up promotion.”

Few folks used the financial institution accounts, based on inside information considered by The Times. Of roughly 153,000 open accounts, 95 p.c had lower than $5 in them and a 3rd had a steadiness of zero via 2022, the info confirmed. Just 9.5 p.c of account holders deposited cash into their accounts throughout that point.

Mos instructed its board that 74 p.c of checking account holders had been college students, based on a presentation considered by The Times. But solely round 20 p.c had been 22 or youthful, based on inside information, with about 45 p.c over the age of 30. Mos’s income from transaction charges, which made up the overwhelming majority of the corporate’s complete revenue after it grew to become a financial institution, was lower than $70,000 for the primary 9 months of 2022, two folks aware of the funds stated.

Ms. Yahyaoui typically berated her prime managers and threatened to fireplace them if their efficiency didn’t enhance, based on 5 individuals who witnessed such occasions.

Using expletives, she wrote in a January 2022 message to workers that the corporate’s mission was meaningless “because of how bad we are at getting” stuff completed.

“I need people I can count on to beat my dreams not to lower them,” she wrote.

Ms. Yahyaoui’s therapy of workers — together with staff employed in Tunisia and Algeria — ran counter to her picture as an activist, Mx. Tabb stated.

At an worker gathering in September 2022, a Mos worker requested Sequoia’s Ms. Lee about her largest concern for the start-up, three individuals who attended stated. Ms. Lee initially stated she was stunned by how good morale was given the circumstances, then added that it wasn’t clear what Mos’s product could be.

The start-up was at extra of a “seed stage,” or very early in its improvement, Ms. Lee stated.


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