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Social Impact Tech: Grant Wing of Planet42 On How Their Technology Will Make An Important Positive…

Social Impact Tech: Grant Wing of Planet42 On How Their Technology Will Make An Important Positive Impact

An Interview With Jilea Hemmings

When Planet42 first opened its doors, every application was done by hand. Approvals took around 15 minutes per application, and we were getting wild inconsistencies. We currently take over 25,000 applications per month and growing, and if we were still doing it by hand, it would be thousands of work hours per month just to process these kinds of numbers. Our technology makes it possible to process applications faster and more consistently, leaving our work hours for improving the system and delivering better service to customers.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Grant Wing.

Grant Wing is the Chief Operating Officer for Planet42, a company democratizing mobility by bringing access to a personal vehicle to people in developing markets who are overlooked by banks. After growing up in South Africa and selling from a young age, Grant has worked for international banks across Africa. Since joining Planet42 in 2019, Grant has brought his leadership skills to bear and overseen the organization’s rapid growth.

Grant Wing: “No car means no job, and without a job, you can’t afford a car. This needs to change.”

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. My dad owned a pharmacy just outside of Johannesburg and, because sitting still was not in my nature, I assisted at the till from the age of nine. I also did the monthly run to the wholesaler to replenish our stock. At the age of 13, I managed to get a paying job selling bicycles — it was my dream to one day own a nice bicycle, though I could not afford one at the time. By the age of 16, I was regularly the top salesman at the store.

My parents are extremely hard working and they believed that educating their children was the key to future success. I went to a good high school, but unfortunately this was wasted on me as I hated the traditional schooling process and returned mediocre grades, much to my parents’ despair. Even with the best intentions, my mom — who had earned two professional degrees herself — just could not get me to sit and study. My grades were barely good enough to get into university.

When it came time to apply to universities, my choices were limited. Due to having Chinese parents with high expectations, my options were accounting, medicine, or being disowned. I decided to go for accounting (my younger sister became a doctor).

I wasn’t much better at university than I was at school, with the exception of Statistics and the final year course on Derivative Financial Instruments & Hedging. I loved these and scored highly in them, and in hindsight it’s clear that these were the only courses that had clear real-world applications.

Once I graduated, my first salary went straight into the stock market, as well as many other paychecks thereafter. I constructed a diversified portfolio that took more risk but outperformed traditional South African asset managers. Part of my success was buying after the 2008 financial crisis: when South African stocks began to falter, I rotated into the property market, where I am still invested. Today, there are plenty of great bicycles in my garage, and my wife doesn’t seem to mind tripping over them from time to time.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Back in my banking days, when I was travelling through east and west Africa, I did product deployment into various countries for the bank. We were like the wild dogs of the African savannah, dropping into the country for a few months, living in nice hotels, deploying the product and moving on to the next country.

I worked in four countries, and the first was the most interesting. I was still getting up to speed with the deployment methodology, learning on the job. The front-end trading system created a balance sheet view every day, and we would take that balance sheet, post it one day and reverse it the following day to post the new balance sheet. The difference in balance sheets created the daily profit.

Then, the reversal procedure went the opposite direction. This had the effect of tripling the assets of the bank on paper overnight. As quickly as the bank assets tripled, so too did our faith in religion as we realized what we had just done!

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are many people, I can’t choose just one — but I would like to flip this question on its head. There was one particular financial manager at an audit client that I dreaded seeing. Unfortunately, I was planned there three months per year for three years in total. This manager constantly pointed out my mistakes, told me how to audit better and was very brief with his responses.

The first year of working with him was horrific, the second year was better, and the third year was actually pleasant — he even offered me a job! It was then that I realized that he was being consistent and driving up the quality of my outputs. As much as I dreaded him in the beginning, I am grateful for the experience. Of course, I have also had inconsistently difficult managers, and they taught me patience!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It’s not what you know, it’s what you don’t know and what you do next.” In practice, the world is full of uncertainty, and it’s very hard to get a machine to act like a human. For instance, over a billion people drive vehicles every day, but even this seemingly simple task of getting a computer to drive autonomously requires enormous amounts of algorithms and computer processing power, and we’re still not even at the level of the average driver. This is because machines are not the fastest learners. A five-year-old child, as another example, has image recognition at least on par with Google Images, if not far superior.

As humans, we are constantly faced with potential learning experiences. There are two options, accept what you don’t know and move on, or see what you don’t know and strive to know. Imagine the possibilities that come with having an open mind to learning something new every day.

Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. There is a Xhosa word for grit: “Nyamazela.” Directly translated, it means: “to endure”. It’s so easy to hit a speedbump and question whether you are doing the right thing. I picked up grit in endurance sports, but this trait applies equally in work — especially pioneering work where you’re trying to do something that has never been done before. So often you will do something, get a horrible result, and question whether it’s worth the effort, but success depends on pushing through this doubt.
  2. At Planet42, we launched a new product offering in November 2020 which involved trying to acquire customers directly from the web and connecting them with dealers. The marketing budget for this project was large to say the least, but we only got a 2% conversion rate for the entire month. In December, which is meant to be a great month, we still only achieved an 11% rate. After much passionate debating we stuck with it and, to cut a long story short, in July 2021 the web business accounted for 44% of total car acquisitions!
  3. The ability to be ok with being wrong, and even embrace it. Some people argue to win, but I believe you should argue for the best outcomes, because then everyone wins. Everyone is wrong on a regular basis, and the key difference is that when I am wrong, I admit it in front of the rest of the company. For example, we conducted a routine system upgrade and there were some rumblings from staff that key outputs were not working the way they should. I initially dismissed them. Over the following days, more incidents emerged, and this forced me to take a detailed look at the issue. Indeed, all the staff were right and I was wrong. At our company, I chair the all-hands sync-up meetings, and at the very next meeting I apologized and made clear that everyone else was right and I was wrong. I encourage this from everyone, as it ensures we’re all acting in the company’s interests.
  4. The average person who reports to you will do what you ask them. If, however, you empower that person with the tools to succeed and align outcomes, they will want to overcome challenges for the business without you asking. They will be correctly aligned, and they’ll carry out the required outcomes to a very high standard. Similarly, teams of people with the freedom they need will largely manage themselves. I believe strongly in delegating responsibility and giving people the tools to succeed for themselves, and there are countless examples of the success of this approach.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive social impact on our society. To begin, what problems are you aiming to solve?

There’s nothing necessarily innovative about what we’re doing in South Africa, the competition simply hasn’t been driven by data. Affordability decisions have been largely human-driven, and there are all kinds of “human factors” that go into this. For example, the credit analyst can wake up and have a great day, and people might get approved for cars that day. If the analyst is having a bad day, then maybe some people are not getting cars. This is simply not an effective system — not to mention the unfairness.

Instead, we leverage algorithmic processes to make consistent credit analyses and return reliable, fair decisions every single day. Eliminating inconsistent decision making is the source of a large part of our profit margin.

Our approval rating takes around 59 seconds — a speed no human can match. Further, our algorithms are constantly reviewed by data scientists, and we are constantly improving our core technologies. We’ve changed the algorithms significantly around six times in the last two years — I don’t think traditional credit analysis firms have this kind of agility.

How do you think your technology can address this?

When Planet42 first opened its doors, every application was done by hand. Approvals took around 15 minutes per application, and we were getting wild inconsistencies. We currently take over 25,000 applications per month and growing, and if we were still doing it by hand, it would be thousands of work hours per month just to process these kinds of numbers. Our technology makes it possible to process applications faster and more consistently, leaving our work hours for improving the system and delivering better service to customers.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I was a professional certified accountant earning a respectable salary when I was denied a monthly contract on a cell phone plan that costs around $27 per month. I was forced to buy the cell phone for cash, which doesn’t help your credit history. This was a personal exposure to the issue, and I quickly learned that it was just a tiny glimpse of a larger problem.

After that, I was fortunate to have a career that brought me all over the continent, and this opened my eyes to the true scale of under-banking here in Africa. There are many countries where credit is lenient and making moves in your life is a relatively uncomplicated affair, but this isn’t the case in Africa.

I spent some time working in America and witnessed the mechanics of first-world finance. Kids get out of college and can get a car loan with no problems. If anything, it’s too easy over there, but at least people are given the chance.

Then I looked at South Africa, where having a car is so important to pursuing high-quality opportunities. Without a car here — I don’t mean to be fatalistic — you’re going to have a very hard time, and this becomes a cycle. No car means no job, and without a job, you can’t afford a car. This needs to change.

How do you think this might change the world?

We can look at history to see the immediate effect of credit availability. President Nixon decoupled the US dollar from gold in 1971, creating a massive economic boom. A 30-year bull run on the Dow Jones ensued, paving the way for America to become the largest global economy. In short, the availability of credit created opportunity for every single person in the US.

Now, let’s substitute the word “credit” for “opportunity,” as Planet42 is not a credit provider. In developing markets such as South America, Africa, parts of Asia, it is very difficult for would-be customers to obtain access to credit as banks are too quick to turn them down. Many of our customers would have been given bank finance in developed markets such as the US or Europe.

Things will continue to progress in developing markets, but the catch-up will take time. Due to our progressive scoring of customers, we can give people opportunities today. In many developing countries, if you don’t have personal transport, you most likely cannot work due to the under-developed public transport infrastructure. So, while we cannot change the entire world, we do believe we can at least change half of it.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five [JK1] things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

  1. Decide the scale of the impact you want to make using technology, as this will determine how you scale up. For example, designing a fully connected IoT smart building is a relatively high-value and low-volume scenario, whereas businesses like TransferWise that facilitate money transfer do comparatively lower-value and extremely high-volume. In the first example, every fitment will require a lot of customization and tuning to make it work for a unique building. Dealing with exceptions is thus the order of the day and scaling with exceptions is more manual but still achievable. Contrast this to a high-volume financial services business where exceptions become dangerous due to the potential to deliver a large number of inconsistent outcomes. It will be impossible to scale up, and no fancy technology can resolve this. Whereas a custom approach can positively impact hundreds of lives, I believe that the future is high-volume, lower-value thinking that changes the lives of hundreds of thousands.
  2. More often than not, your customer won’t know exactly what they want, but they will know what they don’t want. This can become a slippery slope, as often they will be given something that fulfills a want — something with no positive social impact — versus a need — something with a positive social impact. Being clear on your outcome of fulfilling a need vs a want is essential. Especially in developing countries, many people need a car for safe mobility but want Netflix. To be clear, I love Netflix, but if you don’t have a car that provides a job, you are never getting Netflix.
  3. Constantly ask yourself: “does your technology stack support the outcome?” Let’s take Facebook as an example. The original intention was to make an awesome place to easily connect billions of people with their friends and family — and an emphasis on the word easy. This had the unintentional consequence of potentially giving up privacy and making people vulnerable. Facebook recognized this and, as the risk grew, they developed ways for people to mitigate this with privacy controls. Using technology to maintain their objective, using tech to make a positive social impact, enabled Facebook to remain on its mission.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

There are degrees of impact, and the more people you can impact the greater your reward will be. In my previous company, there was a lady that worked for a contractor on a temporary basis as a cleaner. She was poorly compensated and had no job security. However, she really struck me as a very intelligent person who could achieve more, so I decided to hire her directly. Long story short, within two years she went from sweeping floors to the front-facing secretary of a publicly-traded company.

That’s one person, and it felt really good! But how can we do this for millions of people? I don’t see any way to make a massive impact without using technology. You need to harness the benefits that technology can deliver to scale and stay focused on helping people.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

I would like to have more private breakfasts and lunches with my wife who supports me through all this crazy scaling and growth!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

LinkedIn

Planet 42’s LinkedIn

Planet42’s Twitter

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.


Social Impact Tech: Grant Wing of Planet42 On How Their Technology Will Make An Important Positive… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.