Why you should care

Because money does not, in fact, grow on trees.

When Meyer “Micky” Malka was 8 years old, he wrote a letter to the tooth fairy, just as many kids that age do. Except he was very specific in his request, asking for a particular currency he felt was more valuable than the local Venezuelan currency.

“I wrote, ‘Here is my tooth, please, I do not want to receive bolivars, I will only accept dollars,’” recalls Malka, laughing. His mom recently gave him his original letter as part of a 40th-birthday gift. “This is me, at 8 years old, right before the devaluation of bolivars!”

I decided … to become the ultimate banker investor for financial services in the world.

— Meyer “Micky” Malka

Whether 8 or 40, Malka has always cared about money. Not necessarily in the way many of us care about money, but Malka likes to contemplate what gives money value, what makes it useful and what it can help people do. And he’s taking big risks on how people will use money and technology in the near future.

Malka founded Palo Alto-based venture capitalist fund Ribbit Capital in 2012, raising $100 million in its first fund in 2012 and $125 million in its second fund this month. The fund focuses on financial technology. “All my life I’ve been in consumer financial services,” says the tall, rangy Malka, with his trademark high-energy vibe. “I’m a junkie for this. I think you can always give better financial [solutions] to people. I decided it was time to become an investor in this; there was something going on in the market that I’d never seen before in my 20 years of building companies.”

Malka says, “I decided to start Ribbit to become the ultimate banker investor for financial services in the world.” It’s a big goal, but he has quite the résumé to back up his aspirations — not to mention the fund has reportedly returned 400 percent since its debut, according to Bloomberg.

Often in the spotlight as a passionate proponent of decentralized currency bitcoin, Malka is driven by a belief that banking services can transform culture. “Alternatives for financing and financial education have a direct influence on the social fabric. The more there is, the better society as a whole is.”

Well beyond his days imploring the tooth fairy for a more stable currency, Malka launched his first company — a securities and investor broker dealer based in Caracas called Heptagon Group — in 1991, at age 17. Six years later, he “stumbled upon E-Trade” while on a trip to the United States. “I thought that was the future,” says Malka. “I decided I wanted to build E-Trade within Venezuela and take it all over Latin America.”

By the time I was 17, I had seen more than many Americans have seen by the time they are 30.

— Meyer “Micky” Malka

In 1998, he heard about a man named Wences Casares doing something similar in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the two teamed up to launch online brokerage firm Patagon, which was eventually acquired by Spanish bank Banco Santander for $750 million in 2000. Malka followed that up by building an online bank for Santander in Spain and Germany. “I lived on a plane,” says Malka, of his travels between Europe and Venezuela, where his girlfriend-turned-wife lived. In 2003 he and his wife moved to São Paulo, where he co-founded Banco Lemon with Casares and sold it to Banco de Brasil, Latin America’s largest bank (by assets).

“I was not going to go back to Venezuela. By then, all that Chavez had done to the country — it was not the place that I grew up,” Malka says. After Brazil, Malka decided to move to Silicon Valley, saying he wanted to play in the “major leagues.” He and Casares, again, co-founded a company called Bling Nation, which eventually became digital wallet platform Lemon Wallet, sold to Lifelock for $42.6 million in late 2013.

Malka says he enjoys meeting people from different countries while living in Silicon Valley, because it challenges his brain. He has convinced three fellow Latin American Jewish families to move there, saying there is “no better place to be if you are creative and a risk-taker.”

Malka often looks back on Venezuela’s troubles: “This is a country where, [when] I was 8 years old, it decided to have hyperinflation,” he says. “I saw three or four zeroes being added to my currency. I saw people with no jobs. My parents were low-middle-class doctors. By the time I was 17, I had seen more than many Americans have seen by they time they are 30. You have a perspective in life and a perspective in what’s risk that’s very different than a majority of people.”

Malka says he enjoys helping entrepreneurs, because he knows building a company can be lonely.

Venezuela’s economy is one of the reasons he is such a huge believer in (and his fund is a big investor in) bitcoin. He sees bitcoin as an asset for people who cannot trust their government, particularly when governments rely heavily on inflation. He also places a big importance on the digitization and modernization of money.

Casares has worked with Malka for a better part of two decades, and says that while he is, of course, biased, he has enjoyed watching Malka shift his career to play the role of investor rather than start more companies himself. “Today, it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t an investor all his life,” says Casares.

Ribbit Capital recently led the investor round in a startup called Active Hours’ seed fund. The financial services startup makes an app that lets hourly workers tap into their paycheck whenever they want to access it, rather than having them wait the standard two weeks to get paid. There is no fee for using the app; the company asks users to pay whatever tip amount they wish.

Ram Palaniappan is the founder and CEO of Active Hours, and says Malka has been “outstanding” and “very insightful” as an investor. He says Malka not only provides advice when asked, but also often calls with ideas for people he can connect Palaniappan to, for additional help while building the early stages of his company.

Malka says he enjoys helping entrepreneurs, because he knows building a company can be lonely. He says that the decisions you make aren’t life or death, but they are life and death for the company. As for him, he calls Ribbit Capital his “ultimate baby.”

“I want to be doing this the rest of my life!” he exclaims emphatically.

No word on whether that life includes making sure his kids are visited by the bitcoin tooth fairy.

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