Backed by Kleiner Pekins, former SAPM Tania Aidrus launches digital banking venture

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Backed by international venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, former SAPM on Digital Pakistan Tania Aidrus is set to launch a digital bank and could be one of the leading candidates for an early digital banking license the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), profit has learned.

Tania’s new venture, called D-Bank, is also said to have secured backing from another legendary venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, which is said to be making its first investment in Pakistan in D-Bank. In a recent tweet, Tania revealed that Brazil-based Nubank is also backing her fintech venture through the seed round, without disclosing that her new venture is a digital bank.

Who is Tania Aidrus?

The article continues after this announcement

A Pakistani-born tech heavyweight, Tania holds an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management and a bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University in the United States. She was Chief of Staff and Team Leader for the Next Billion Strategic Initiatives at Google. Tania’s big breakthrough came when she was appointed head of the Digital Pakistan Initiative (DPI) by the PTI government in 2019.

As head of Digital Pakistan Initiative, Tania popularized the slogan “Roti, Kapra, Makan aur Internet”. In February 2020, she was appointed Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Digital Pakistan, a position she held until July 2020 when she resigned from her position due to dual citizenship.

According to a previous report by profit, however, Tania did not voluntarily resign her position and was asked to leave shortly after Jahangir Tareen was ousted from the party due to the sugar crisis. It was Jahangir Tareen who initially arranged the meeting between Tania and Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2019, which materialized into the Prime Minister’s vision for Digital Pakistan.

A conflict of interest was alleged by various parties when it emerged that Tania was on the board of the Digital Pakistan Foundation (DPF). The DPF was created to complement the Digital Pakistan Initiative (DPI) which would report directly to the Prime Minister’s Office, headed by Tania Aidrus. According to a report by ARY, Tania was unable to satisfy the PM on the role and circumstances under which the DPF was created and was therefore removed from her SAPM role.

In December 2020, Tania co-founded Rayn Group as a technology advisory and investment company, which is the parent company of the digital bank she aspires to launch. D-Bank, co-founded by Tania Aidrus and Khurram Jamali, who both worked at Google and later joined the Digital Pakistan Initiative, counts among its angel investors and advisers former officials from Google, global payments company Stripe and of the Coinbase cryptocurrency trading platform.

The license and the central bank

It is pertinent to note that while Tania is a candidate for a digital banking license, she is also a regular at the panels organized on digital banks by the State Bank since the announcement of the digital banking regulations. Surprisingly, however, in none of the panels did Tania or the SBP disclose that she was seeking a license for her digital bank. The inner workings and lobbying involved in the tech space in Pakistan is no secret, and Ms Aidrus is in a position where she does not need to use underhanded tactics to get her foot in the door of the SBP since “She already has a well-established relationship with the central bank since her time in federal cabinet.

At a recent panel moderated by Tania and attended by Governor Reza Baqir, the general partner of D-Bank investor Kleiner Perkins, Mamoon Hamid, was also among the speakers. According to the central bank, the said event, titled “The Promise of Digital Banks”, which was streamed online, had 5,000 registered attendees.

During the panel moderated by Tania, she took the opportunity to ask Omer Ismail, the new CEO of NewCo, a US-based and Walmart-backed fintech company, what type of company should get the digital banking license. Omer dismissed the question saying he would cross his line if he suggested who should get a license and that it was entirely up to the State Bank of Pakistan.

Critics worry that without proper disclosures, the central bank does not appear to act as a neutral regulator and appears to be elevating a certain candidate for a digital banking license.

The central bank is to issue five digital banking licenses this year and since the SBP is required to evaluate each application on a competitive basis, the governor’s appearance before a panel with only one of the applicants is interpreted as a tacit endorsement of that candidate.

Thus, if preferential treatment leads to a digital bank obtaining a license before others, it would allow this bank to wrongly obtain first-mover advantage. “Tania is a wannabe, so if you just put her on a panel, you’re sending a message to the market that she’s stronger, which is not fitting,” a source said.

“The SBP should have invited all the fintech companies and all the wannabes in the audience. Tania or anyone else specifically on the panel feels like a pitch session for that particular candidate only,” another said.

No comments were received from the central bank on Tania’s appearance on SBP’s panels.

Criticism has also been leveled at the central bank for allowing incumbent physical banks to bid for the digital banking license. The full banking license that these incumbents have does not prevent them from expanding the reach of digital banking services.

According to a fintech expert, if incumbent banks are competing for a digital banking license with fintech companies, this limits the space for fintech companies from the start, especially since the license digital bank card will not be issued to all applicants.

Some of the names that have emerged as candidates for a digital banking license include HBL, Bank Alfalah, JS Bank, South African digital retail bank TymeBank, JazzCash, TAG and D-Bank. The central bank declined to disclose the number of applications received for the digital banking license this year, or confirm who the applicants were when contacted by profit.

The regulatory framework for digital banks

In January 2022, the State Bank of Pakistan announced a regulatory framework for digital banks under which it can grant two types of licenses: Digital Retail Bank (DRB) or Digital Full Bank (DFB) license for banking variants conventional and Islamic.

DRBs will primarily focus on retail customers while DFBs can deal with retail customers as well as commercial and corporate customers.

The process of obtaining a digital banking license begins with obtaining a certificate of no objection from the central bank followed by an approval in principle. Qualified applicants will then proceed to pilot launch approval followed by commercial launch after SBP approval.

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