Interview with Carol Realini
Carol Realini is an imaginative pioneer whose foresight and business acumen have changed the landscape of technology, and whose global vision is providing hope and a future for people in developing countries.
An Interview with Carol Realini CEO and Founder, Obopay
Date: April 7, 2009 Carol Realini: Obopay [intro]
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO for the National Center for Women and Information Technology, or NCWIT, and this is one in a series of interviews with fantastic entrepreneurs, women who have started IT companies. With me is Larry Nelson, w3w3.com. Larry, how are you?
Larry Nelson: Absolutely magnificent, kind of jittery a little bit. We just launched our Internet TV show, so things are going good. Lucy: And the name of the Internet TV show is...
Larry: "Colorado Rising."
Lucy: So everybody, be careful, he's after you for not just audio interviews now but live TV as well. Larry: You bet.
Lucy: With us today we have Carol Realini. She's the founder and CEO of Obopay, and before that a very distinguished career in a number of high tech companies including Cordiant. Obopay is the first truly comprehensive mobile payment service in the United States, and it's really cool. You go on the website and you can basically send money to your kids. If you're kids, you can get money. I'm trying to figure out how to get my parents to do this for me even now.
Larry: Yeah, I've got five kids. I appreciate that.
Lucy: [laughs] And we're really happy to talk to Carol. Welcome, Carol.
Carol Realini: Thank you. Happy to talk to you guys.
Lucy: Oh, great. Why don't you tell us a bit about Obopay. It's a great company and it has a wonderful value proposition.
Carol: Absolutely. First, I just want to say I assume you are all in Colorado today. And I'm a longtime San Francisco-born Californian, born and raised here. But I spent five years living outside of California and that was living in Colorado, and I love Colorado.
Lucy: Well any time you want to come visit us. [laughter]
Larry: That's a deal.
Lucy: That's a deal.
Carol: I love Colorado. So let me just give you a little background on myself, and then I'll talk about the founding of Obopay and what we do and a little bit about the company. I am a four-time entrepreneur, so this is my fourth company from the ground up.
Carol: First one, I wasn't the founder but I was a very early employee at Legato, which became a very large storage management software company which was bought by EMC. That company went public and then was bought. The next company, I was the founder of a consulting company that focused in the early '90s on helping people migrate to distributed computing. And this was when big companies around the world were trying to figure out how to leverage the client server and PC technology that was emerging. And then the next company was Cordiant Software, and I founded that and raised the venture capital for that company and was the CEO until just before the company went public. And it went public in 2000 and is still a public company. And then I retired from that and thought I wasn't ever going to work again. I'd had a fantastic career in technology, really started in the mid-'70s when it was really about mainframe. And I retired thinking I would never work again, and actually moved to Colorado and ended up getting involved in some nonprofits which were focused on fostering entrepreneurship in developing countries around the world. As a result of that, I was traveling in places I would have never normally traveled, places in rural Africa, rural Latin America, and was quite taken in 2002 with the number of mobile phones that I would see in very far away places where there was no electricity, no clean water. You would find that there was a growing number of people that had mobile phones. And this is the year 2002 when there was about a billion phones on the planet. And since my last three companies had really focused on financial service software primarily, and I had spent a lot of my time in the financial services industry building software from the biggest financial service companies in the world, I ended up starting to think about, well if there are mobile phones in all these places, maybe we could use those mobile phones to start delivering financial services to everybody with a mobile phone. It was a real simple idea, but it was exciting for me to think about the possibility that someday most people would have mobile phones, and those mobile phones could then bring convenience and access to banking like we've never seen before. So that idea got under my skin and by 2004, late 2004, early 2005, I funded some research where we went around the world and looked at some of the very early implementations of mobile payments and mobile banking. And once the research report was done, the way I think about it and this is the way it happened, when I started the research report, my career was behind me. When I finished the research report, my career was in front of me.
Lucy: That's great.
Carol: Yeah. And I decided I just had to come back to work and use all my experience as an entrepreneur and technologist to build a company to deliver mobile payments and mobile banking to every mobile phone. So that was 2005, and I've worked almost every day since I made that decision. And I'm sitting in my office in Redwood City where I spend a lot of my time now. And the company is about 150 people now. And we are operating the service in the US and India, and we're in the planning stages to rolling it out in Africa and in Europe. And we get a call almost everyday from different parts of the world saying when can Obopay think about coming to this country or that country. Lucy: How did you choose the name for the company, Carol?
Carol: The big idea is everybody with a mobile phone will get access to payment services and banking services through their mobile phone. And if you think about that, it's such a big idea because if you look at traditional banking, it serves let's say a billion and a half people on the planet, whereas already there are over four billion mobile phones. And so you can imagine that the people that have bank accounts and have mobile phones can benefit from it. But there are also a lot of people that don't get access to banking that will now have it because they have a mobile phone and there's a ways for these services to be offered to those people. In addition, people are still using a lot of cash, right, and sometimes checks. And my belief is that mobile payments and mobile banking will eliminate cash from use. And it's such a big idea if you think about it. About $7 trillion of transactions a year are done in cash still today. And I believe that in the future we won't be using cash, we'll be doing electronic transactions between mobile phones. For that reason, when we looked to name the company we said, wow do we relate to this big idea that someday this will replace cash? And we found that obol, O-B-O-L, is a greek coin that has been obsolete maybe a thousand years. And so we took an obsolete coin as a concept that we put in our company name.
Lucy: That's fascinating, and the story of the company is interesting as well. And I would love to follow up with you because I think that the people here at the Atlas Institute at the University of Colorado - Boulder, they're starting an ITC4D program here. So they would probably be interested in having you speak. So that's really interesting. And you've been a technologist for a long time and our first question centers around that. How did you first get into technology? And as a technologist, what are the technologies you see as being especially interesting today?
Carol: I first got into technology in the mid-'70s. I was a mathematician and I was teaching math at a local university, and found the computer science department and decided in my spare time to get a computer science advanced degree. It was a natural transition for me. I was doing math because I was good at it and I loved it but it wasn't my passion. But once I got involved in computers I got very passionate about computers and specifically software. So that's how I got into technology. And you know in the mid-'70s, Silicon Valley was a very small community, so a lot of my professors worked at IBM or Hewlett Packard. Once I started taking classes from these folks it was just very easy to understand what was going on in the industry and I very quickly opted in. And matter of fact, I ended up leaving my teaching position and starting work six months before I finished my degree.
Larry: Oh, good. Well you've had a chance to work for others and the nonprofit experience you had, why are you an entrepreneur and what is it about entrepreneurship that makes you tick?
Carol: I started my career as a typical software engineer and ended up starting to get into management. And I was quite successful in management positions. Something happened to me about six years into my career. I thought when I was working for this big company that my aspiration was to be an executive at a company like that, but I got involved in a project almost by accident. It was an entrepreneurial project within a big company, and it changed me. The company I worked for, which was a hardware company - it's called Amdol - decided they wanted to do a commercial product based on UNIX. Because UNIX was just an internal AT&T Bell Labs technology, and I negotiated the first commercial license for UNIX. And we ended up building the operating system and then providing it as a high-end version of UNIX out into the marketplace. And this all happened very quickly, it was very entrepreneurial, they were a handful of people in a big company and we built a whole business around this new operating system that we built. It was amazing. People would tell us "You'll never get this done," that nobody would ever buy it. And so I got involved in that and I saw about 15 people. We moved a mountain just by saying we we're going to do this. And I had that experience and I said, wow, I really love doing this and I'm good at it. I got a taste of it from that and then, once the project got mature and was mainstreamed, I decided that I couldn't go back into the mainstream, I had to go be an entrepreneur. I left and then I went to work at a company that was just about to go public, which was a database company - I think of that as my transition job. And then I got a phone call about 18 months after that, where somebody asked me to do a company from the ground. So that's how I got into it. I think that I had it in my blood, in my desire. I'm not sure if I would have been an entrepreneur if I hadn't had the early experience of how powerful it is. Also, I managed my career even before I left this big company, I had experience in marketing and sales. When you're an entrepreneur, you have to wear a lot of hats. You especially have to wear a sales hat. You have to go out and get the initial customers, you have to go out and get the initial founders or employees to work with you, you have to get the original investors. That is a sales job. And so somehow I've been able to over the years be quite successful at evangelizing new ideas and bringing on employees and customers and venture capital. And that's been something that I'm just good at and I love to do. Lucy: Well you know those are all UNIX projects. I'm from Bell Labs and we were probably one of your Amdol customers. [laughs] Those were fun times for sure, and it does sound like you have entrepreneurship in your blood. In terms of who influenced you, can you look back - you had an experience that influenced you at Amdol, and another experience at the database company - were there particular people or mentors along the way that influenced you?
Carol: Yeah, I think there were. I was aware of what some other people were doing, so I think I was inspired by some of these early entrepreneurs. Famous ones, like Bill Gates and Judy Estrin. Or fhe less famous ones, just people I knew in Silicon Valley - I was inspired by those people. So I think, one thing that happened to me when I ended up becoming an entrepreneur -- if you had met me before I took my first CEO job, you would have said "Well, this woman..." Lone Ranger, I used to call myself. I would take on projects and I would do them, and I would have people working for me, but I didn't need any help. That was my attitude. When I started my first company that was venture-backed, for some reason I decided that I needed to change my style. I said, you know, I need help, because I've never done this before. And raising venture capital seems really hard, building a company from the ground up. I've kind of been involved in it in kind of different ways, but this seemed a really big task. So I decided to change my style and ask for help. I'd been around for a long time so I knew a lot of people, but I had actually never asked anyone for help, never in my entire career. And so when I wrote my first business plan for Cordiant, which is where I first raised venture capital, I sent the business plan to 50 people I knew, who had either raised venture capital or would know how to do it. And what was so interesting about that is that I've never asked for help before, and people were so honored that I had reached out to them for help, I got this wave of help from all these really great CEOs or venture capitalists. And that was the reason I'm here today. It was actually because I figured out that it wasn't just about me doing something. Being an entrepreneur and having a big idea, you need a lot of help. So when I reached out to these people, a lot of those folks became mentors to me and became advisers to me. And I remember, when I was raising my first round of funding, I said, look, if I'm successful at this -- and I thought this is the hardest thing I've ever done, If I'm successful, I'm going to help other people do this. You know, over the years, I've turned around and done the same thing for other folks and helped other people who were trying to raise venture capital or start companies. And something I really like to do is give back, because it was so important to me to have those experienced people help me.
Larry: Wow. Carol, you know you have a number of happy, successful stories, but I'd like to ask another kind of question. If you were to pick the one, single time - I'm sure you had challenges along the way - but one, single toughest decision that you had to make in your career.
Carol: Business decisions?
Larry: Yeah, business-related.
Carol: I'll tell you, there's a lot of tough decisions you make every day. I mean, when you're an entrepreneur, it's important to figure out what you can't do, or what you shouldn't do right now. I think one thing is, at big companies you might have the luxury to do most of the things you think are the right things to do. But in a small company, an emerging company, a new company, you have to choose every day what is it I have to do now, and what is it I can afford to do right now? And you have to make that decision every day, and people come to you and they lobby, or customers come to you. And you just have to be good at prioritizing and saying no. And that is a tough decision, but I can't point out one time I said no. It's just that every day, you have to learn to say no.
Carol: Hire this person, go after this opportunity. So that's sort of the tougher part, the tough decisions I make. Probably some of the more challenging business decisions were really around timing of expansion.
Carol: So if you think about it, Cordiant wouldn't be where it is today if it hadn't made a decision to, very early on in the company's evolution, to expand into Europe. So they made a decision while they were in the US market for six months, they decided to go to Europe. And that was a tough decision to make because it was an expensive decision. But it turned out to be a very good decision. Hard to execute on, but a really important strategic move. Obopay has made that same decision. From the beginning, we decided that, to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish, which is deliver financial services to every mobile phone, we had to be willing to build a service that could work in places like the US, as well as India. And the only way to really know that is to build it from the beginning with that in mind, and then go to those markets and prove that it worked in both markets. That was a very tough decision to make because it's a very expensive decision, and it requires the ability to execute on two different markets.
Lucy: You've given us a lot of pointers that would be helpful to people who are considering being entrepreneurs. For example, you said it became important to you to ask for help. I think you said, "Get to like sales," you know, and, "Learn how to prioritize and learn to say no." And I think the story about expansion into Europe is an indicator as well of taking educated risks and getting out there and really growing the company. What other advice would you give a young person who's considering being an entrepreneur?
Carol: I think you can't learn to be an entrepreneur in a classroom. So I think you have to be willing to take jobs that help you build skills and experience so that you're able to be an entrepreneur and be good at it. You know, some people come out of school, like I was reading about the founder of Facebook, I mean, phenomenal story. He's 24 years old and he founded Facebook. I mean, that's incredible, but a lot of entrepreneurs don't get there that way. They end up having jobs that give them good skills and experience that prepare them to be an entrepreneur. So unless you're like the Facebook founder, I suggest you think about, "OK. What's the next job I could take in the company I'm at or in a different company that will help me get skills and experience I need to be an entrepreneur." So for example, let's say you're not good at strategic stuff, which is like what you need to be good at to raise venture capital, what you need to be good at to go out and get your first set of business partners in your business. If that's true and you're not good at it, you should get a job in an opportunity where you figure out how to be good at that, where you're tested, where you're trained, where you have to do it, because that's going to help you build the competency that you need and better prepare you to be an entrepreneur. I want to say one other thing about that. I knew in my heart I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I remember one time I tried to get a sales job at a company. I won't mention which company, but I tried to get a job being a sales person, because I kind of knew I needed to be better at this. And I remember the person I went to who liked me a lot, said, "Oh, well, you're a girl. Nobody's going to buy a million dollar product from you." [laughter]
Lucy: I'm sorry.
Carol: But, you know, at the time that was their point of view. But I remember thinking, "You know what, that is not going to stop me. That's this person."
Carol: And, you know, it may have been conventional wisdom that a girl couldn't do this job, but it didn't faze me at all, and I said, "Oh, OK. That's your opinion. I better go find my sales opportunity someplace else." And I think you have to have that in your DNA to be an entrepreneur. You have to be the kind of person that has the kind of vision and direction and drive that when some obstacle gets in front of you, it's not that it's not real, but you figure out how to manage beyond that obstacle.
Lucy: Absolutely, being relentless.
Lucy: We've heard that a lot, relentless, persistent.
Lucy: Yeah, resourceful.
Carol: The other thing I was going to say about building the expertise to be an entrepreneur, I have two other things to say about that. You can never be everything. You can't be all things to all people. There's some things that maybe the perfect entrepreneur would do that I'm not good at. So you also need to understand where your limitations are and surround yourself with a team that collectively has the skills to pull off the business. So you're not going to ever be all things to all people. There are some things you have to be able to do, like raise venture capital, but there are some other things your team may be able to do for you, and you don't have to do it yourself. The other thing that I would say, and one thing I like to say to the people who want to be entrepreneurs and go out and raise money, especially raising money. I said, "If you think about being entrepreneurs, don't think about success being raising money." Because let's imagine you're going to be successful raising money. Success is when you get the money and you've got the company, that you're successful with the company. You have to think less about sort of the, "Oh, I can get a VC to fund me," and more, "I can get the capital I need to build the company I need to build, " and it's a different mindset. And you have to have the mindset of, I not only have to be able to raise the venture capital, I have to be the kind of leader that once I have it I can build the company. So you kind of raise the bar for yourself and what you think you have to be able to do to build the company. You have to raise capital, and you have to make that capital turn it into a successful business.
Larry: Carol, with all the things that you're doing and you're at the office right now, how do you bring balance to your life, both personally and professionally?
Carol: I don't think I have a balanced life. [laughter]
Lucy: Yeah, we're heard that before too. Yeah.
Carol: But I don't know, you know, I think about that I have three children, and I love them and they're all successful. They're grown. They're in their twenties. I love them. I don't see them as much as I want to, don't spend as much time with them as I would like. I have a husband who I've been married to for almost 30 years. I love the outdoors. I'm very athletic. But the fact is when I'm doing this I would say that I don't have the kind of balance that would be the perfect balance, and I just accept that. That's the job. The job is to have a little bit of struggle with balance, because the job is going to be really, really demanding, and I've accepted that. I had five years off, six years off where I was able to spend as much time as I wanted with my kids and my husband. And I biked and hiked and skied 60 days a year. That was fabulous too, but, you know, there's nothing like building a company from the ground up.
Lucy: And that's the case, and we've heard that from some of our other interviewees as well, that it's more of an integrative thing. You know, that you have all these interests and you integrate them, but it's not like every day is balanced.
Lucy: That's really interesting. So, Carol, you've done so much. You're a global visionary. You give back. I wanted to mention to listeners as well that Carol was on the board at the Anita Borg Institute, which is one of the co-founding organizations of NCWIT, really focused on women and innovation and computing. And you mentioned earlier that it's important for you to give back. So across the board you've done some pretty phenomenal things. What's next for you?
Carol: No, I am very passionate about entrepreneurship, so wherever possible I support entrepreneurs, either through my own time or through donating to organizations that support entrepreneurs. I'm passionate about education. There are places in the world where children don't get access to free education, places like Uganda or a lot of places I go in the world. And so my husband and I both donate a lot to programs that get the kids that are left out of the education system access to education. So we do that and that's something we do on an ongoing basis. You know, I'm kind of doing Obopay full-time. It's interesting. I was on boards when I started Obopay, and I got off all of them. And I did that because I just felt like for an early stage company I didn't have the luxury of having time to be a good board member for them, but I think for the next couple years, I'm pretty much full-time doing this. But I don't have a lot of bandwidth to do other things right now. When this period is over for me, I don't know what's next for me and I'm not worried about it, because I love so many things. I have so many hobbies, so many interests, I'm not worried about what comes next. I'm not a worrier anyway. I'm just dedicated to doing this now, and I know when I'm doing this that they'll be something else great for me to do.
Larry: Well, I couldn't agree more, yeah.
Carol: Oh, that's another word for entrepreneurship, fearless.
Larry: There we go.
Carol: There you go.
Larry: Well, Carol, I want to thank you for joining us today.
Carol: Oh, you're welcome.
Larry: And we'll put your link up in the website. That's Obopay.com, but we'll put it up on NCWIT's website. That's ncwit.org, and also at w3w3.com. And by the way, I want to say this to the listeners. Pass this interview along to others that you know would learn from it and would enjoy an interview on this kind of a topic. Thank you much, Carol.
Lucy: Thanks, Carol.
Carol: Thanks, bye.
Lucy: All right. Thanks everybody. [music] Transcription by CastingWords