Manish Bhai is a veteran of the banking world. After rising to the lofty heights of a Managing Director over a 25-year stint at financial stalwarts Citibank, he wanted a new challenge. Now, as Founder, President and CEO of digital bank UNO, he has beneficent ambitions.
His main focus is on financial inclusion in the Philippines, where a significant portion of the population doesn’t have access to decent credit facilities.
“It’s a real problem that we are solving in the Philippines. The population there is 115 million and fewer than 7 million people have credit cards,” he explains.
After more than two decades at Citibank, he decided to leave the global bank and start his own venture. He left in 2019, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit – a period that saw a rapid shift away from conventional in-person activities toward online alternatives. Banking was not exempt from this.
UNO Digital Bank eventually launched to the public in late 2022 and within a year, it has gained more than 800,000 customers and US$80 million in deposits.
“What we are trying to do is define ourselves, as a bank, to be highly focused on providing one trusted interface to meet all your life’s financial needs with speed,” Bhai says. “Those needs are to save, borrow, transact, protect and invest – the five facets of anyone’s financial life journey.”
Lending is one of the bank’s core focuses, which feeds into its goal of improving financial inclusion.
“It’s a big problem in the entire South-East Asian region, where interest rates are very high. Very few people borrow from the formal sector,” he adds.
Financial inclusion is a particular challenge in Philippines, given the high level of financial illiteracy. To help tackle this, UNO has partnered with a company supported by Singapore’s financial regulator, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, which specializes in financial literacy.
The forward-thinking digital bank wants to bring more micro, small and medium-sized enterprises into the financial fold who can help improve financial inclusion. The aim is to only offer financial products to those who have passed a certification in financial literacy.
“I don’t look at this as a challenge, but instead as a huge opportunity which people like us need to come together and solve,” Bhai says. “Just saying that there are people who are financially illiterate doesn’t solve the problem. What are you doing about it? How are you changing it? That is what matters.”
While there is plenty of work to do in the Philippines, the bank is looking ahead to the coming years when it hopes to expand into three or four key markets across Asia. Its success lies partially in technology, which Bhai says is pivotal.
UNO’s reliance on technology derives from its nature as a virtual bank, without any physical branches. “Technology is the backbone of our entire operation, but, at the same time, it’s the platform for innovation and intelligent information processing.”
Bhai also believes in partners who can help him realize his ambitions, but they must exhibit one essential characteristic, he says.
“Companies, partners and organizations who can quickly adapt to digitalization will come out as winners. When we are talking to certain partners, we see the difference. Some partners get this very quickly, even when they’re not digitalized themselves.”
Indeed, UNO has forged plenty of useful partnerships with all kinds of industry players. One of them is with the credit card payment platform Mastercard.
“When you’re dealing with these global companies, there is a decent amount of time that goes into, on a daily basis, to cultivating, growing and maintaining each relationship,” Bhai affirms. “Still, it’s important that your partners have a joint responsibility and equal share in the pie of success, otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are.”
However, success is a culmination of many things, Bhai believes.
“Be agile, think on your feet, don’t be afraid to make decisions and to be tough, and believe in your strategy.”