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Winston Damarillo: Building Banking-as-a-Service for Asian Americans

May 12, 2022

Filipino-American entrepreneur and venture capitalist Winston Damarillo talks inclusivity and his Asian American experience.

The term Asian American is a large umbrella term that often fails to adequately capture the nuances of the different cultures that fall under it. For instance, Asian Americans have the highest household income in the United States, but they also have the greatest income disparity within a minority group. Within the Asian American community, Indian Americans have the highest annual household income of $100,000, and Burmese Americans have the lowest of any racial group, at $36,000.

Filipino-American entrepreneur and self-described inclusive venture capitalist Winston Damarillo aims to close that gap in the Asian American community—starting with their unique financial needs. We talk with the founder of Talino Venture Labs and BayaniPay about his start in the tech world, his experience as an Asian American entrepreneur, and how he wants to help Asian Americans by bridging the gap between communities.

You first moved to the U.S. when you were 19 years old and knew you wanted to be in tech early on. How did you first discover your passion for that industry?

My background at school was industrial engineering. I was obsessed with finding a better way. By the time I graduated—this was in the ‘90s—I thought that IT was the biggest productivity tool, so that really attracted me. Computerization was becoming a bit more of a thing and the internet was just starting out.

I actually taught myself computer science here in the U.S., like I wrote code so I could work at Intel. I keep telling people 90% of the reason I moved to the U.S. was to chase my girlfriend, but that was just the beginning. I was fairly ambitious. I wanted to be able to work. I mean, I literally had this list on my wall that said I'm only going to work for IBM, Microsoft, or Intel. I wanted to be in tech early on, and I wanted to be in the titans of tech in Silicon Valley.

At the time, I didn't know what that meant, or what it took to do that. I was competing with Stanford grads, MIT grads. It took me like 20 or 30 tries to get to any one of them. I finally decided that I'll never out-resumé my competition, so I wrote code, and I told Intel, “Hey, if you want my code, you got to hire me with this.” And that was my way into Intel.

You founded Talino Venture Labs, which focuses on inclusive fintech in Asia and the Middle East, and describe yourself as an inclusive venture capitalist. What does that word “inclusive” mean to you, and why is it particularly important in venture capital?

Number one, because inclusivity is needed, especially in the finance space.

For example, people are intimidated to open a bank account, especially if they just arrived in the country. What we can do as an inclusive venture capitalist is go to a traditional bank and negotiate like a zero opening, zero maintaining balance bank account. Simply doing that, we can now include a new set of customers who wouldn’t have gone to that bank, or that the bank would not otherwise have considered. So, we accelerate their participation in a formal market, give them the best deal, and get them on to credit building so they can get lower interest rates a lot sooner than if they did a Macy's card and all that stuff.

This mindset of let's get people that are future customers, who are the emerging middle class, in right away, and use technology and strategy to do that—that's what we're doing. It’s an easy way to advocate for inclusivity, because it's needed.

What was your experience like as a Filipino-American entrepreneur?

There was one really important conflict that shaped my approach early on. I built a company when I left Intel called Gluecode Software. It was a successful startup and was the first open-source company that IBM acquired here in Los Angeles.

That's the only time where I paused and hesitated to say I'm Filipino. I was like, is there going to be a Filipino discount? Like, if it was built by a white company or white founder, I'm sure it would have been taken differently. This was a milestone—it was the first time IBM acknowledged open-source access, bought a company that threatened them in that space, and made an investment. That was where you can kind of see the conflict. Like, are we ready to showcase ourselves, or are we comfortable being the second founder or the background guy?

I regretted quite a bit that I wasn't openly and aggressively and loudly saying, “Hey, this is a Filipino company, and it's a Filipino company got bought by IBM in Silicon Valley, right?” I missed that opportunity to dramatically highlight that part of it.

But that was just the first company. I grew out of it pretty quickly. I started calling my startups Filipino names. “Talino” means “smart” in Tagalog. I want people to know that innovation exists no matter what color you are.

You started mobile financial app BayaniPay with East West Bank to serve the needs of Filipino Americans, and eventually to serve the needs of all Asian Americans. What was the catalyst for this idea?

You know, it started with Seafood City, which is a Filipino grocery chain where a lot of Filipinos go to remit money back to the Philippines. I noticed that a lot of them are doing manual remittance. It costs 7% to remit money, and I thought that was crazy. So in partnership with Seafood City and Banco de Oro, the largest bank in the Philippines, we were like, let's try to make this 2.5%.

So we then set out the vision to create a financial service that really thinks about the Asian American consumer. We’ll leave room to go down to the subcultures. Filipinos remit. Indonesians don’t remit much, but they have other needs; the Vietnamese community has a lot of business needs. The Thai community has different needs.

We're trying to figure out how to really maximize meaningful reinvestment to that direct community that you care about. If your identity is Asian American, then what are you doing to help the Asian American businesses? What are you doing to help Asian American immigrants? In the beginning of the immigrant life cycle, the first three years of being in the U.S. is really hard. Then people who survive the first three years tend to thrive from four to eight years. So, if they have a partner that will help from years one to three, and then they can get the benefit of what a bank can offer for four to eight, it's a win-win scenario.

I feel like I'm building a service that I should have had when I first arrived in the U.S. at 19, just 30 years later!