Inside Amira Yahyaoui’s Claims about Mos, a Scholar Assist 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 pupil help 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 buyers, together with Sequoia Capital, John Doerr and Steph Curry, in accordance with PitchBook, which tracks start-ups. Mos was valued at $400 million.

In podcasts, TV interviews and different media, Ms. Yahyaoui, 39, incessantly mentioned Mos’s success.

Amongst different issues, she mentioned the start-up had helped 400,000 college students get monetary help. However inner firm information considered by The New York Instances confirmed that as of early final 12 months, solely about 30,000 clients had paid for Mos’s pupil help companies. The remainder of the 400,000 customers included anybody who had signed up for a free account and will have gotten an electronic mail about making use of for pupil help, two folks accustomed to the scenario mentioned.

After Mos expanded into on-line banking in September 2021, Ms. Yahyaoui advised 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, in accordance with the interior information. Lower than 10 p.c of Mos’s roughly 153,000 financial institution customers had put their very own cash into their accounts, the info confirmed.

Some workers 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 help earlier than resigning in late 2022. However Ms. Yahyaoui dismissed and generally disparaged workers who tried pushing again towards her public feedback, 5 individuals who witnessed the incidents mentioned.

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

Mos is amongst a category of tech start-ups that rose through the quick cash period of the late 2010s and early within the pandemic, when younger corporations landed tens of millions of {dollars} in funding with little greater than guarantees. Now as the cash has dried up and plenty of tech start-ups grapple with a downturn, buyers are pickier, clients are warier of daring claims and workers are extra suspicious of founder pronouncements.

Final 12 months, 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 help 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 12 months about Mos’s variety of customers, she posted on social media that feminine founders have been usually presumed responsible whereas male founders have been presumed harmless.

“Possibly in the present day 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 workers, in addition to inner communications, shows and analytics. The interior paperwork go as much as 2023.

Ms. Yahyaoui grew up in Tunisia after which lived in exile in France. After shifting to San Francisco, she raised cash for Mos from buyers together with Expa, the funding agency began by Garrett Camp, a founding father of Uber. Mos supplied a service to assist college students discover sources of economic help, charging $149 for every faculty 12 months.

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 delight in supporting corporations and founders like Amira whose dedication to enabling entry for college kids provides us hope for the way forward for increased training,” Ms. Shakir mentioned.

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

An investor presentation considered by The Instances 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 once they obtained their monetary help.

Mos finally didn’t acquire most of that cash. Seventy p.c 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 revealed on Sequoia’s web site.

As of late 2022, roughly 6,500 of Mos’s paying clients, or 22 p.c, obtained refunds for its monetary help service, in accordance with inner information. The corporate had advised clients that in the event that they didn’t get 5 occasions the price of Mos’s companies in monetary help, they may get a refund.

Mos mentioned it might assist college students entry $160 billion in scholarships, however that quantity included loans, three folks accustomed to 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 obtained in help, three folks with data of the corporate mentioned.

Mos’s web site features a shifting ticker of pleased clients (“Jasmine obtained $12,237 for Cal Poly,” for instance). Ms. Yahyaoui requested workers to make use of inventory pictures and to make up names, three folks with data of the corporate mentioned.

By 2021, monetary expertise was scorching with buyers. Ms. Yahyaoui pushed Mos to turn into a financial institution, making its monetary help product free. That September, the start-up introduced its transfer into banking with a promotion that gave folks $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 lots of the accounts that signed up through the promotion remained lively earlier than investing extra, two folks accustomed to the scenario mentioned. Sequoia inspired Ms. Yahyaoui to rent an out of doors agency to evaluate whether or not the accounts belonged to actual folks, the folks mentioned.

Some workers additionally had issues that many accounts didn’t belong to actual folks, three folks accustomed to the scenario mentioned. As sign-ups continued, Mos analyzed the accounts for doubtlessly fraudulent habits in an inner working doc. In November, Ms. Yahyaoui restricted Ms. Lee’s entry to that doc, two of the folks 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 influence entry to the doc would have had on Sequoia’s choice to take a position extra in Mos. Two folks accustomed to the scenario mentioned Ms. Lee retained entry to a broader information supply concerning the accounts.

In a press release, Ms. Lee mentioned, “Essentially 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 revealed an article on its web site detailing Ms. Yahyaoui’s dramatic previous and entrepreneurial imaginative and prescient. It mentioned fewer than 1 p.c of Mos’s financial institution accounts had been closed, “an unheard-of statistic for a money-based sign-up promotion.”

Few folks used the financial institution accounts, in accordance with inner information considered by The Instances. Of roughly 153,000 open accounts, 95 p.c had lower than $5 in them and a 3rd had a steadiness of zero by means of 2022, the info confirmed. Simply 9.5 p.c of account holders deposited cash into their accounts throughout that point.

Mos advised its board that 74 p.c of checking account holders have been college students, in accordance with a presentation considered by The Instances. However solely round 20 p.c have been 22 or youthful, in accordance with inner information, with about 45 p.c 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 turned a financial institution, was lower than $70,000 for the primary 9 months of 2022, two folks accustomed to the funds mentioned.

Ms. Yahyaoui generally berated her high managers and threatened to fireplace them if their efficiency didn’t enhance, in accordance with 5 individuals who witnessed such occasions.

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

“I would like folks I can depend on to beat my desires to not decrease them,” she wrote.

Ms. Yahyaoui’s remedy of workers — 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 could be.

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

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