Ex-Uber data chief Kevin Novak joins LA-based startup Tala in big win for LA ecosystem

In a huge win for the early-stage financial services startup Tala (and for the Los Angeles tech ecosystem), Uber‘s former data chief, Kevin Novak, has agreed to join the company as its chief data officer.

Novak’s achievements at Uber can’t be overstated. He was the inventor of dynamic pricing, created the UberFreight business and built the foundation of the company’s current data organization.

Now, Novak will be working with new sets of data that have the potential to radically transform yet another industry — financial services.

Tala, which has originated and delivered 4 million loans for more than $190 million, has had a banner year already. The company raised $30 million in financing to start off 2017, and has launched in two new geographies — Tanzania and the Philippines — after beginning in 2014 as a smartphone-based lending app in Kenya.

The company also scored another key hire in September when former Capital One and Barclay Card executive, Gaurav Bhargava, joined the team.

Tala uses data from Android devices and online behavioral data (think Facebook activity, etc.) to underwrite would-be borrowers who have no formal credit history. It’s among a number of companies looking to serve the under-banked with new scoring models to facilitate loans.

The potential market for these services is huge. Tala, and other companies like it, face a population of two billion people who have no formal credit score and three billion who are considered to be underserved by current financial services companies.

For Shivani Siroya, Tala’s chief executive, the attraction for Novak was the company’s mission as much as any potential compensation. “He was actually debating joining other companies. He was incredibly sought after,” she said. “Helping, alongside me, leading this global vision was an important part of selling him.”

That global vision expands far beyond the credit business that’s been the company’s foundation. “We don’t consider ourselves a credit company,” said Siroya. “We are using data and applying that data … This is all about how you understand the customer. I couldn’t think of someone better, in terms of both the vision that we have and the capabilities that we need than Kevin.”

Ultimately, the plan is to expand into insurance products and savings accounts for the underbanked in addition to the credit products.

While Novak’s talents are indisputable, his background at Uber was not an unqualified benefit, according to people familiar with the hiring process. People at the company, aware of the problems that bedeviled Uber’s management, did due diligence to ensure that their new executive hire would be a good cultural fit.

“We fully vetted the guy,” says one person familiar with the process. “He did not get any concessions because he was the former head of data science at Uber.”

Novak seems to be nothing but enthusiastic about the opportunity at Tala.

“Tala is working with one of the most exciting data sets imaginable, and with the goal of building financial services that include more of the world’s people,” said Novak, in a statement. “I’m blown away by the team’s passion and commitment and by the great work already underway. I look forward to working with Tala’s existing data scientists and global teams to guide the company’s next chapter.”

Novak’s hire is significant not just for Tala, but as a signifier of the strength of the broader technology ecosystem in Los Angeles, according to investors in the community.

“What’s meaningful is you’re getting these high-profile recruiting wins to LA… and it’s not just from Snap or some other media business, but from a startup that’s solving larger-scale, real-world social and technical problems,” says Arteen Arabshahi, a principal at Fika Ventures.

Indeed, Los Angeles is home to a number of compelling startups that are tackling problems beyond e-commerce and entertainment. Novak’s presence can only help — not just as an operator, but as an advisor to this growing community of entrepreneurs.