FinTech Female Fridays: Meet Co-Founder and CTO at Leaf Global Fintech, Tori Samples
"My personal thesis is that flipping the paradigm often showcases the most interesting opportunities. That’s what I am doing in fintech, both as a female CTO and as someone rolling out blockchain-based products for non-smartphones in Africa. " Tori Samples shares.
Tori Samples, Co-Founder and CTO at Leaf Global Fintech — The company offers virtual banking services to vulnerable populations globally, by storing and transporting assets across borders through a mobile device (no smartphone required). Tori started Leaf Global Fintech with her co-founder in 2018 after fleshing out the concept in graduate school. "I had seen firsthand how many refugees were adversely affected by not being able to bring their money with them when leaving their country. A person’s financial health influences almost every area of life; as the world becomes smaller and more people cross borders, technology and financial services must adapt to meet those needs. We built a blockchain-based digital wallet that helps people store, send, receive, and exchange money domestically and across borders — no smartphone required. Fast forward four years…I’m incredibly proud that Leaf is live in three African countries and was one of the first to bring best-in-class technology to the people who usually receive it last." Leaf got acquired by a publicly-traded company in March 2022 (IDT) and the Leaf team is using the acquisition as a catalyst for growth. Tori is currently working on expanding the Leaf's product suite and geographic footprint across Africa.
"Music -> IT -> Business -> Fintech" describes Tori's career trajectory. She started her career in tech and keeps getting drawn back to it. Tori studied music in university and has come to love the crossover with technology in that "Code and music are both highly structured, symbolic languages with room for creativity and finesse." She worked for a Fortune 75 healthcare company in Nashville for six years as a Data Architect. She loved building products that went back into clinical settings and that were used for business decision-making. Then Tori got her MBA from Vanderbilt in order to transition to the business side of healthcare after working in hospitals over the course of her time in IT and HIV/AIDS clinics while living in Tanzania. While at Vanderbilt, She started working on the concept that became Leaf Global Fintech and ended up going full-time in order to build the company after graduating in 2018. She says: "Within the context of being incredibly privileged, I’ve chosen to put myself in environments to sink or swim (some would say weighted towards sinking). I believe there is always something to learn from everyone and that humbling yourself to the ground is the best way to start. "
When asked about the culture at Leaf, Tori said it is an interesting moment now given Leaf has just been acquired — "I’m in the middle of a transition between the culture I largely shaped at my own startup and the culture of a big corporation. One of the benefits of starting a company is that you can make the company’s values overlap with your personal values to a certain degree (2/5 of mine overlap). At Leaf, our culture was based on the values of creativity, honesty, advocacy, respect, and drive. IDT has been great in letting us continue to live out our own culture as a startup while providing resources to help us grow."
Looking forward, Tori is passionate about improving financial inclusion continually through fintech — "I want to see fintech become a more inclusive industry across all spectrums. It’s a smart move — not just for moral and ethical reasons but for business. Overlooked, underestimated, and stereotyped markets are rife with potential. I love meeting people where they are and building products that solve their unique needs."
More on Tori
Where you currently live: Just transitioned from Kigali, Rwanda (where I have been the past few years) to Louisville, KY after Leaf was acquired
Living arrangement: I absolutely loved our apartment in Kigali, which was critical since I spent 24 hours a day in it during multiple lockdowns and two years of curfew. One of the fun things about living abroad is that I’ve been able to stay with friends and family when I have visited the US (sometimes for an extended amount of time). Living with friends bonds the relationship in a whole new way.
Family at home: husband of almost 10 years
Hometown: Louisville, KY but spent 12 years in Nashville, TN before moving to Rwanda
Favorite hobby: Any type of travel. When borders were closed because of COVID I loved exploring as much of Rwanda as I could, especially because you can be outside all year long. I’m looking forward to doing that in a new way in the US.
Favorite part of your day: Opening the windows in the morning and feeling the fresh air come in
Favorite show to binge: Ted Lasso
Media Recommendation: Blinkist (an app that distills non-fiction books into 15-minute visual/audio summaries) keeps my mind turning. It exposes me to new ideas, gives me a preview of books to read in full format, and allows me to synthesize key concepts and different perspectives on the same issue by listening/reading thematically. I like to listen to a book summary while getting ready in the morning.
What's the best job decision you ever made? I had the choice right out of college to work in communications for a non-profit I liked or to start in IT at a company I didn’t know much about. I had no idea how to code or what working in a dev shop would look like. I chose the harder option…best job decision I’ve ever made. It flattened my pride. And, slowly, it instilled confidence in knowing that I could start at the bottom and tenaciously learn until I was excellent at a new skill. It showed me I never have to take the safe option, which has served me very well over the years.
What's the worst job decision you ever made? I should have left several positions earlier. In attempting to be loyal and stick it out until the end, I closed my mindset and didn’t add much value in those final periods.
What is the most important lesson you have learned from a mistake you’ve made in the past?
Mistakes get worse in the dark (mine definitely have). Own them and move on. I have no issues with mistakes but I am a firm believer in the “own your sh*t” model of the world. Early detection, transparency, personal ownership for creating a solution, and collective learning in order to not make the same mistake again are paramount. Often times that involves bringing in team members or outside perspectives in order to expose and reduce blind spots. Fostering a culture of openness around mistakes and the learnings that come from them is one of the most important things a manager can do.
8:00 am: today is a holiday for most of our staff in Africa. Being remote is difficult because you never know which holidays to take (and I am notorious for mixing up international holidays). Having most of the team off gives me bonus space to think though. I knock off some hanging items and take a networking call with another woman working in blockchain.
10:00 am: check in on dependencies and partners. Currently waiting on four partners to make technical fixes, which is frustrating. This is why I keep lots of balls in the air. You never know who is going to come through first and unfortunately these are not functions we could do ourselves unless we took a different regulatory strategy.
1:00 pm: eat salad on the couch. I like to eat leftovers for lunch so that I don’t have to make decisions on food in the middle of the day. I enjoy eating but absolutely do not want to stress about what I am going to eat or prepare something in the middle of the day.
4:00 pm: brainstorming session with an employee about our new rewards program. I flesh out the implications of certain design decisions and technical compatibility and we come up with a plan. I love taking abstract visions and making them concrete.
7:00 pm: work on house things. I moved less than a week ago and everything is still in boxes. Tonight is fun though—I get to unpack and categorize all my books that I haven’t seen in 3 years.
10:00 pm: prep tasks for my team for the morning and communicate priorities. Being six hours behind the Africa team means I trust them to handle anything that comes up but [I think] it makes their lives easier if I pass the baton cleanly by providing a plan and/or addressing hanging items.
6:45 am: I like to lay in bed and catch up on overnight emails and what is happening in Africa first thing. I loved reading in the morning while living in Rwanda but being on a different time zone now doesn’t really facilitate slow mornings. I still really enjoy drinking a cup of coffee slowly after breakfast.
9:00 am: user activity investigation with our customer support lead. People are endlessly creative in their attempts to get free money. Thankfully we have gotten good at identifying those attempts and responding appropriately.
10:00 am: listen in on a product demo session for different IDT teams and try to learn as much as possible. Knowing the lingo, roadmap, progress, and key players will help me integrate our product and team efficiently.
12:00 pm: build out new functionality in our analytics dashboard as a treat for myself. This is the most fun part of my work day. I love diving in on our numbers and seeing what I can show visually.
1:33 pm: I was born at 1:33pm so if I catch the clock at that moment I celebrate a “moment of me” by doing something that makes me really happy for one minute. It usually involves dancing. Today it is walking around my new sunroom and looking out of the windows while thinking about how grateful I am for sunshine and big trees.
3:00 pm: afternoon productivity lull, which means it is time for emails I put off answering and some house things.
5:00 pm: identity discussion about providing flexibility for customers while balancing security and consistency. This gets really interesting when we consider local quirks of how identity is maintained and verified in different countries.
6:30 pm: I cook for the first time in my new house while listening to jazz. Nothing inspiring (sauteed cabbage and tomato soup—I’m vegetarian) but it is fun! We finally ran out of the frozen food I brought back last week from our favorite restaurants in Kigali :)
7:00 am: check in with development team in Africa before meeting madness ensues
8:00 am: back-to-back meetings. Four short interviews for two new positions, an individual employee check in, tech team call, new partnership call, NFT strategy meeting.
2:00 pm: finally off of meetings and thankful for food.
3:30 pm: after one more short check in call, I am free to work on a new integration. It’s still under wraps but could drastically expand our footprint. I work through some technical bugs, test the initial integration, and hand it over to my lead developer to pick up in the morning.
7:00 pm: pizza night with my parents and husband. After being 8,000 miles away for the past few years, this has been a fun weekly tradition recently.
9:30 pm: finish up testing for an app update we are deploying tomorrow, respond to the emails I didn’t have brain space for when I was in deep concentration mode earlier today
11:30 pm: end the day by journaling on my phone. I’ve done this every day for over five years. It helps me process events and emotions as well as document all the adventures of daily life as an entrepreneur.