Rajesh Agrawal talks about Xendpay, disruptive innovation at its best, a business with a serious social conscience at its core.

Oh haven’t we just been crying out for a positive success story related to migration? Whilst Rajesh Agrawal’s may be long passed (it’s fourteen years and counting since he moved to the UK from India at the precocious age of twenty-four with just £200 in his back pocket), there’s no doubt he fits the criterion. An entrepreneur who has made a considerable success of his life, and affected the lives of thousands, if not millions, of others in the process, via his ‘Pay what you want’ currency transfer service Xendpay, which togeth with Rajesh's other business, Rational FX, has transferred some ten billion dollars since its inception in 2012. A revolutionary idea to offer users (a large proportion of which are migrants themselves) the chance to set their own commission rates on international money transfers, clawing back some of the $600 billion transferred annually, 20% of which is lost to inflated fees and charges. Yes this is disruptive innovation at its best, a business with a serious social conscience at its core, one with a tangible network of influence reaching far beyond the sphere of Agrawal’s personal Venn diagram.

And what a pleasure it is to talk to him, a serene demeanour to his voice, a resonant oneness with the world (inspired by his father), ‘He is very calm, he has a huge amount of patience and I try to learn that from him.’ A man you can just sense would never flap in the face of hardship. ‘It was quite challenging,’ he says of his move to the UK, ‘but all those challenges I saw them as life experiences. People talk about having a lot of problems- the problem is when you see it as problem, but when you see the joy of solving the problem then it’s totally fine. Whatever possibilities came my way, I tried to take them. Be a happy person through the process,’ he advises, ‘I’ve never been miserable. Basically you can either moan about it or roll up your sleeves and try and fix it, that’s the attitude that really works in life and has really worked in my life.’

Whilst trying to ‘give back to society’ has been his raison d’être, he will also say Xendpay is not a charity. ‘We couldn’t make it free because how would you sustain the business then?’ That’s not to say, however, that it doesn't affect society significantly for the better; users are offered the chance to set their own fees, but incredibly 70% of them pay the recommended amount. ‘We suggest a small fee but it’s entirely discretionary, it’s like an editable box; you could choose to pay nothing (I hope you don’t do that!), but you could absolutely do that.’ The idea that came about ‘was very very simple; the cost of sending money internationally, with the use of technology, it had dropped significantly. Whether you send £1 or £100 million, the cost of the transfer remains the same. There is no reason why financial institutions should actually charge so much; they overcharge, they charge on fees, they charge on ridiculous amounts of exchange. This is fine for the people who can afford it, but for the people who are poor, who are migrant workers, people who are sending smaller amounts of money, cleaners, minicab drivers and so on, people who are working sometimes two or three jobs a day, they are losing so much. Those are the people I want to help the most. That’s why we had to do something to lower the cost.’

Agrawal spoke to a number of people and found that most of them wanted to pay something. ‘It’s not as if they expected the service to be totally free,’ he says. Nevertheless ‘Everyone thought I had gone mad,’ he says when he proposed it. ‘But then eventually people realised that I was serious and I’m quite committed so we launched it and the results are pleasantly surprising. We are not going to make millions and millions of pounds out of this business, but we are helping the people who need it the most.’ Which brings us back to the crisis that has left all and sundry (politicians most of all) mere deers caught in the headlights. 'It’s a humanitarian crisis,’ Agrawal says with gravity. ‘These are not economic migrants, these are people who are running for their lives. It’s a terrible situation in Syria, they have no choice. There are taking huge risks in order to leave the country; you can only imagine how bad the situation is for them to take such a risk. They are doctors and teachers and plumbers…’ He sighs, and I can hear the affinity in his voice, he identifies given his own history, though it was markedly different, a decision governed by choice not necessity. ‘I’ve always wanted to travel the world,’ he says of the move, ‘I was working in a small firm in India, I didn’t think too much. I was educated and I had a couple of years of work experience and I got an opportunity and I took it. I had never been to England before and I thought why not?’ Nowhere near as life threatening or harrowing as the situation facing hundreds of thousands of migrants, is the inference.

That’s not to say that setting up Xendpay wasn’t without its own challenges. ‘A lot of problems are the same as for any other entrepreneur; finding the right people for example, but the most important thing in our business, is that we are dealing with people’s money.’ Gaining trust was key, Agrawal attacked this in a systematic way via a very strong affiliate network, ‘When people introduce customers through recommendations via a mutual contact then the credibility is extremely high.’

‘We are different because our business model is very different,’ Agrawal continues, ‘we are not funded by Silicon Valley or very big companies. We are not under the same amount of pressure to turn profitable or have the same marketing tactics, we have a social cause more than anything else. In the process, if we make money, then that's great, it’s a business not a charity at the end of the day, it’s not just about making profits for the shareholder, that’s not how I see it.’ For Agrawal it’s all about significantly increasing the amount of money flooding into the developing world (via lost charges and inflated rates); money that could ‘transform them totally, countries like Nepal for example, 20% of their GDP is remittances, Somalia where about 40% of the population is directly dependent on remittances for their basic needs like food. It’s a hugely important cause.’

Who I wonder does Agrawal take inspiration from given that he himself is so inspiring? ‘My mother,’ he says, ‘I saw in her a huge amount of integrity and hard work, I try to be like her.’ There is also an anecdote that sticks out; ‘I remember once when I was at university, there was a cleaner who was sweeping. He did it with a lot of pride, patience and focus. I saw people littering at the same time, he would just patiently sweep wherever the new litter appeared and I said ‘Don’t you get annoyed? Doesn’t it make you really angry?’ And he said ‘Not really, I only care about my job; that’s to sweep and to clean and that is what I do. If they think their job is to litter then good luck to them, but I focus on my job,’ he wasn’t angry or upset, he was full of happiness. He was doing it almost in a religious way, like he was doing something really great, he took a lot of pride in his sweeping and that inspired me. I still remember it.’

‘Be confident, have self-conviction,’ he says to the young entrepreneurs hoping to follow his example. ‘If you don’t believe in it, no one else is going to, customers, suppliers, banks - perseverance doesn’t come over night, it takes a long time. Try and hire people who are smarter than you,’ he adds, ‘a lot of people don’t.’

All of which brings us to Agrawal’s favourite business book, ‘I remember reading one that I liked many many years ago, the book was called ‘What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard,’ he says. ‘This was when I was at university, I used to work part time and when I finished my job my boss gave me a reference letter which said ‘Rajesh is very street smart.’ I said ‘what do you mean?’ And he told me the word had first been used in this book… It’s what it says on the tin!’ he laughs. Which could just as well be a metaphor for the life of Rajesh Agrawal, a very successful migrant entrepreneur indeed.

March 2016