Banking on success

A local start-up wizard finds that the secret to success may be to provide a service that people truly need.

Barak Ben-Ezer with Margie Cristobal, the founder and inspiration (respectively) behind Neema (photo credit: NEEMA)
Barak Ben-Ezer with Margie Cristobal, the founder and inspiration (respectively) behind Neema
(photo credit: NEEMA)
Sometimes the best ideas are right under your nose.
In the summer of 2013, Barak Ben-Ezer was hunting for a new challenge after selling his shares of his successful fintech start-up, LibraTrade.
“I was looking for something that would make a big change and create a global brand and a positive impact,” he recalls. “I flew to conferences worldwide and talked to lots of people.”
But he found what he was looking for in the Tel Aviv apartment of his grandmother Rachel. Her Filipina caregiver, Margie Cristobal, was sending money home every month and forfeiting as much as 10 percent of it in fees.
That wasn’t the only problem. She was also overpaying for services such as her phone plan because as a foreign worker she could not get a credit card. She was facing the personal danger of carrying around cash because she couldn’t open a bank account.
“I realized how complicated and inefficient and expensive it was for her to deal with her money,” says Ben-Ezer, 37, a former program manager at Microsoft Mobile Devices Division in Seattle, Washington. He realized Cristobal represented the tip of an iceberg of foreign workers earning less while paying more.
“The greatest privilege of being an entrepreneur is the conviction of seeing a big problem and saying ‘Yeah, I can solve it.’ I started reading about the issue, talking to people in the space and spending time with Margie and her friends to see exactly what the challenges are.”
In January 2014, Ben-Ezer and co-founder Asi Sivan incorporated Neema (, a platform for digitizing the cash economy of migrant workers – in other words, “banking the unbanked.”
Neema allows users to transfer money 24/7 for a 1% fee to a large variety of banks or cash pickup points within five days. For an additional $5, the money can be available within an hour in the target country. A mobile wallet app enables users to manage their budget and expenditures without cash.
In addition, Neema is launching a debit card in partnership with Master- Card International. This will allow foreign workers to send home a portion of their salary and put the rest on the card to pay bills or make purchases.
“It’s very hard to live in a modern economy using nothing but cash. This gives them access to the economy at large,” says Ben-Ezer.
Neema means “born into prosperity” in Swahili and is a common name for girls in Africa.
As the company gradually attracted investors – mainly VCs and individuals from the US and Asia interested in the social-impact business – the co-founders began hiring software developers.
“We are a for-profit business,” Ben- Ezer emphasizes. “We believe that impact, technology and business go hand in hand. It’s just a matter of deciding to create a business that is aligned with your own values.”
Critical to Neema’s success was input from the Filipino community, facilitated by Cristobal.
“When you build a product, it’s usually something you’d like to use yourself, while in this case I had to depend on what I heard from Filipinos,” Ben- Ezer explains.
Today, he employs about 15 people in Neema’s office on Rothschild Boulevard and at Neema’s flagship branch in the Central Bus Station, and he partners with another two dozen deposit agents across Israel.
“The idea is to have only one flagship branch in each country in which we launch, for branding and education and to show a public face of Neema, but deposits can be made in other places, including banks,” says Ben-Ezer.
Some of Neema’s employees are Filipino citizens of Israel. Because Cristobal has a work visa specific to caregiving, she cannot be an employee, but Ben-Ezer gave her stock options in Neema.
“I was so happy when I heard that Barak was making this kind of business,” says Cristobal, 48, who has been working in Israel since 2003 and used her earnings for her three daughters’ education, among many other expenses among her relatives and close friends.
“I used to send money through Western Union or MoneyGram and other services, and they were all too expensive. Neema is very convenient, and now I’m not losing so much money,” she says.
“If I send $100, I pay only $1; the others took $3 to $6. That’s a $4 difference. In the Philippines, $4 is 200 or 300 pesos. If you are a day laborer, your wage is 300 pesos, and that buys five kilos of rice. So if you’ve saved $4, you’ve saved four days’ worth of rice, which Filipinos eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s why all the Filipinos here are happy about Neema.”
The Philippine Embassy estimates that there are 31,000 Filipinos working and living in Israel, mainly in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Within several months from launching, says Ben-Ezer, about 10% of this population is using Neema for financial transactions, and the numbers are growing rapidly.
Neema is connected to 15,000 cash pickup spots throughout the Philippines. In addition, it is building a network in Russia, CIS countries and Latin America as a prelude to launching in the United States or Europe later this year.
Ben-Ezer and Sivan now are raising more funds to expand to the large target market of approximately 250 million foreign workers around the world, who cumulatively transfer $560 billion per year from developed to developing countries.
Theoretically, Neema could be used by anyone lacking a bank account, but Ben-Ezer chose to focus on migrant workers.
“There is a great deal of similarity between migrant workers in Israel and Filipino and Mexican workers in Miami or San Francisco, so Neema will translate easier than most Israeli techs to other markets,” he says.
However, the development of the product was anything but easy. It took a year and a half of hard work and red-tape cutting.
“Neema is more complicated than any other tech product I’ve done in my career,” says Ben-Ezer, who after five years of service in an IDF military intelligence tech unit studied computer science and economics at Columbia University. After college, he worked for Microsoft, built a successful iPhone app and then returned to Israel in 2009 to launch his previous start-up.
“In addition to technological and product challenges and the need to understand the customer, we had to obtain financial licenses and deal with regulatory compliance regarding issues such as money laundering,” he says.
“We had to provide high security for services like cash pickup, and the debit card platform was also very elaborate. In the end, we created something that is very robust and is ready for prime time.”