Inside Amira Yahyaoui’s Claims about Mos, a Scholar Help Begin-Up

As a Tunisian human rights activist within the 2000s, Amira Yahyaoui staged protests and blogged about authorities corruption. In interviews, she described being overwhelmed by police. When she was 18, she mentioned, 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 scholar assist start-up referred to as Mos. The app hit the highest of Apple’s App Retailer 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, regularly mentioned Mos’s success.

Amongst different issues, she mentioned the start-up had helped 400,000 college students get monetary assist. However inner firm knowledge seen by The New York Occasions confirmed that as of early final yr, solely about 30,000 clients had paid for Mos’s scholar assist 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 scholar assist, two individuals acquainted with the scenario mentioned.

After Mos expanded into on-line banking in September 2021, Ms. Yahyaoui instructed publications akin to TechCrunch that the corporate had greater than 100,000 financial institution accounts. However these accounts had very small quantities of cash in them, based on the interior knowledge. Lower than 10 % of Mos’s roughly 153,000 financial institution customers had put their very own cash into their accounts, the info confirmed.

Some staff tried to talk up about Ms. Yahyaoui’s claims, mentioned Emi Tabb, who labored at Mos in operations and had roles akin to head of economic assist earlier than resigning in late 2022. However Ms. Yahyaoui dismissed and generally disparaged staff who tried pushing again towards her public feedback, 5 individuals who witnessed the incidents mentioned.

“She created a tradition of concern,” Mx. Tabb mentioned.

Mos is amongst a category of tech start-ups that rose in the course of the quick cash period of the late 2010s and early within the pandemic, when younger firms landed tens of millions 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, clients are warier of daring claims and staff are extra suspicious of founder pronouncements.

Final yr, Mos laid off roughly half its workers of round 50 and shut down its banking service. The corporate reverted to its authentic enterprise of serving to college students discover monetary assist 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.

“Possibly at present we should always begin making use of presumption of innocence to additionally feminine founders,” she wrote.

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

Ms. Yahyaoui grew up in Tunisia after which lived in exile in France. After transferring 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 assist, charging $149 for every faculty yr.

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

“We take satisfaction in supporting firms and founders like Amira whose dedication to enabling entry for college kids offers us hope for the way forward for greater schooling,” Ms. Shakir mentioned.

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

An investor presentation seen by The Occasions confirmed that Mos had month-to-month income of $340,000 in December 2019. The beginning-up allowed customers to pay $1 upfront and the remaining $148 after they received their monetary assist.

Mos finally didn’t acquire most of that cash. Seventy % 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 mentioned in an article concerning the firm printed on Sequoia’s web site.

As of late 2022, roughly 6,500 of Mos’s paying clients, or 22 %, received refunds for its monetary assist service, based on inner knowledge. The corporate had instructed clients that in the event that they didn’t get 5 occasions the price of Mos’s providers in monetary assist, they may get a refund.

Mos mentioned it might assist college students entry $160 billion in scholarships, however that quantity included loans, three individuals acquainted with the scenario mentioned. The corporate’s pitch was to assist college students keep away from debt.

Ms. Yahyaoui additionally mentioned 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 acquired in assist, three individuals with information of the corporate mentioned.

Mos’s web site features a transferring ticker of glad clients (“Jasmine received $12,237 for Cal Poly,” for instance). Ms. Yahyaoui requested staff to make use of inventory pictures and to make up names, three individuals with information of the corporate mentioned.

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

Signal-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 Retailer.

The sign-ups piqued investor curiosity, together with from the funding agency Tiger International. Sequoia’s Ms. Lee wished to see how most of the accounts that signed up in the course of the promotion remained lively earlier than investing extra, two individuals acquainted with the scenario mentioned. Sequoia inspired Ms. Yahyaoui to rent an outdoor agency to evaluate whether or not the accounts belonged to actual individuals, the individuals mentioned.

Some staff additionally had considerations that many accounts didn’t belong to actual individuals, three individuals acquainted with the scenario mentioned. As sign-ups continued, Mos analyzed the accounts for probably fraudulent habits in an inner working doc. In November, Ms. Yahyaoui restricted Ms. Lee’s entry to that doc, two of the individuals mentioned.

Quickly after, in February 2022, Tiger International introduced it led a $40 million funding for Mos. Sequoia joined the deal. It isn’t clear what affect entry to the doc would have had on Sequoia’s determination to take a position extra in Mos. Two individuals acquainted with the scenario mentioned Ms. Lee retained entry to a broader knowledge supply relating to the accounts.

In a press release, Ms. Lee mentioned, “Probably the most profitable founders are those who’ve grit and are prepared to check new hypotheses and adapt. Amira is the embodiment of those qualities.”

Tiger International declined to remark.

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

Few individuals used the financial institution accounts, based on inner knowledge seen by The Occasions. Of roughly 153,000 open accounts, 95 % had lower than $5 in them and a 3rd had a stability of zero by means of 2022, the info confirmed. Simply 9.5 % of account holders deposited cash into their accounts throughout that point.

Mos instructed its board that 74 % of checking account holders had been college students, based on a presentation seen by The Occasions. However solely round 20 % had been 22 or youthful, based on inner knowledge, with about 45 % over the age of 30. Mos’s income from transaction charges, which made up the overwhelming majority of the corporate’s complete earnings after it grew to become a financial institution, was lower than $70,000 for the primary 9 months of 2022, two individuals acquainted with the funds mentioned.

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

Utilizing expletives, she wrote in a January 2022 message to staff that the corporate’s mission was meaningless “due to how dangerous we’re at getting” stuff executed.

“I want individuals I can depend on to beat my desires to not decrease them,” she wrote.

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

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

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

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