Felicia Curcuru - CEO & CO-Founder @ Binti
“Just do it. Surround yourself with people that can be helpful to you, be supportive, and give good advice. Get started. You can’t plan out everything before you start working on it. You need to start. You will learn as you go, and just try to learn as quickly as possible.”
Meet Felicia Curcuru, CEO and founder of Binti, a GovTech software platform improving the outcomes of families and children in the foster care and adoption world. Prior to starting Biniti, Felicia was the first employee and Head of User Experience / Business Development at FundersClub and before that worked at McKinsey. Over her four years building and scaling Binti, Felicia has managed many pivots and team changes. We chatted with her about why and how she started Binti and her approach to working with investors.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m from the East Coast originally, and went to the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School of Business for undergrad. After graduating, I worked at McKinsey for a few years and then moved out to San Francisco to be the first employee at FundersClub.
When I left McKinsey to join FundersClub, it was a pretty big step. McKinsey provided safety in terms of reputation, career development, and salary. I was nauseous when I quit. I am very grateful for my time at McKinsey, but very happy that I made the transition. Reflecting on that choice now, making the jump is not as risky as you may think. You can always figure something out. You shouldn’t worry about getting off the fast track. I think there are a lot of different paths that you can take, and it is fine.
I left FundersClub to start Binti.
Can you share with us the process of starting Binti?
When I was in college, my sister adopted two children internationally. The process was really difficult, expensive, and complicated. At the end of her process, she went to the orphanage in Russia where they were adopted from. She learned, that of the 300 children there, most did not get adopted.
I remember being really shocked by that. If there were so many kids in need, I couldn’t understand why the process was so difficult and expensive. It made me mad and it stuck in the back of my mind. Years later, when I started to brainstorm ideas that I cared about, adoption was at the top of the list. At first I was hesitant to work on the idea because, it seemed like a non-profit area, but then I realized the process was really complicated and that software could make it more simple.
Both adoption and foster care are really important topics, and ones that don’t get as much attention as they should. What inspired you to tackle this arena, above and beyond your sister’s process? How has your passion for this area developed overtime?
I want the world to be a fair place. Whenever things aren’t fair, I get really worked up. One of the most unfair things is if you don’t grow up with a family, you just really don’t have a fair chance at life. After my sister adopted, I started researching and found that there are millions of children in orphanages around the world and very few of them get adopted. That is where the idea for Binti started.
Before I started Binti, I volunteered with foster kids through a program called CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocate. Through this program, you become a buddy for a foster kid and hang out with them once a week. You also help represent them in court every six months. I have been doing that now for 3-4 years, and through that process I got to know the foster care system, which has a lot of issues. There are 400,000 kids in foster care. Even though less than 5% of kids will go into foster care, 25% of California’s prison inmates were in foster care and 50% of foster kids will become homeless at one point in their life. Less than 3% of foster kids will graduate from college. The majority of sexually trafficked youth are either current foster kids or have been in foster care. Those statistics highlight how kids who have grown up in a foster care system don’t have a fair chance at life. Those are the things that made me really care about it.
So how did you begin to develop your initial business plan and build it into Binti?
I am four years in now, and we tried three or four business models in the first few years that didn’t work. Originally, I wanted to build a consumer company that helped families navigate the adoption process.
We helped a few hundred families with our different business models that we tried but, what we realized is that we were helping them navigate a broken process and we didn’t have control over the process. It was also really hard to scale by helping one person at a time, especially when the families only used you once. So there were no recurring customers.
It was a hard initial 2.5 years. We launched, raised money, and hired a team. However, once we had tried a bunch of different business models and it wasn’t working, we had to lay off 3 people, which was the hardest thing I have ever done. I was crying the whole time that I was letting people go. We were down to me and my co-founder, and one other person, trying to pivot Binti. We closed down the office, sold the furniture, and started working out of my living room.
That sounds like a tough beginning. How did you remain resilient and move Binti forward from there?
I started getting really excited about pivoting to be a “GovTech” company, because I realized that if we worked with the government, we could fix the process from the inside. My co-founder and the other person on our team were not excited about working with the government. They decided to leave, but encouraged me to do it. That was also really hard. I lost my co-founder.
It was back to just me after over 2.5 years. That was definitely my lowest point.
After pivoting to work with the government, we had the choice of focusing on foster care, or international adoption. I realized that working with a domestic government would be easier to do first, so I decided to focus on foster care domestically. Fortunately, I had about $1MM left from our seed round, so I set up a free pilot with San Francisco county. I shadowed them for four months to understand their processes and challenges.
The engineers that I had let go offered to help me out on nights and weekends, even though they had other jobs. At the end of the pilot, they liked our prototype and agreed to work with us. I then started rebuilding the team. I was able to rehire our lead engineer that I had let go of as our co-founder and CTO. We decided to stay the two of us for as long as possible, because we didn’t want to go through letting people go again. We wanted to get five to seven counties that were working with us before we grew the team, and we actually hit that in the next month. We realized we were onto something.
At this point, we are 12 full-time employees, and 5 part-time contractors. We work with 31 of the 58 California counties. As well as agencies in 11 states across the country. We are well over $1MM in revenue and we are profitable. We don’t plan to stay profitable and we plan to grow the team quite a bit and raise a Series A within the year. What is even more exciting is the results we have had. We have increased the number of foster families applying from the community by over 300%. We also save social workers an estimated 20-40% of their time.
Looking back, I wish I had known that if something is not working, move on really quickly. That is the advice I would have given myself.
During that period, how were you guiding your investors through the ups and downs of the company?
I sent an investor update every few months. Most investors were really supportive- a lot of early stage companies go through things like this. I was also really careful to surround myself with people that really believed in me. It was really helpful to have both investors and founders who had seen a lot of companies go through tough periods. Having a support network is critical.
It sounds like picking the right investors was very important. How did you decide who to accept capital from?
I was really interested in First Round Capital. They were one of the investors in FundersClub, where I worked before, and they were really helpful. They have a great reputation for being very helpful and friendly to founders. I am really grateful they were our lead investor. Kapor Capital has also been really helpful. They are very mission-driven and are also leaders in terms of diversity in tech. I also tried to have a number of founders as investors, as I think they are really great to talk to for advice. When evaluating investors, founders should talk to other founders and ask who their investors are, who they like, and ask for intros.
What is your long term vision for Binti?
Long term, we want to make sure that every child has a family. I think that it is possible. I think there are enough families for the children, they just need to come together. What that means for us, is that we want to be the leader in foster care software that is used in the vast majority of governments in the US as well as in other countries.
How have your four years founding and leading Binti impacted your own view of leadership? What does it mean to be a good leader to you?
When I had a boss, I liked when I was given a lot of ownership- it was very motivating, and I did my best work. I try to have that attitude when managing and leading people. Try to hire great people, and give them the vision and strategy, and give them a lot of ownership.
It is also important to have diversity and to build a very empathetic workplace, one that is welcoming and inclusive. We definitely screen for those things when hiring people, but we also have a lot of sessions on diversity, where we talk about the things that are unique to each of us, and celebrate those things.
Our vision is to have every child have a family, but our mission is equality of opportunity. This is what drives our team. Our culture is geared toward that. In fact, our conference rooms are named after different Civil Rights movements- this is part of our culture. And a part of my leadership is to infuse that mission into everything that we are doing.
Now that you have been through it, what advice do you give to other women who are considering leaving their jobs and starting a company.
Just do it. Surround yourself with people that can be helpful to you, be supportive, and give good advice. Get started. You can’t plan out everything before you start working on it. You need to start. You will learn as you go, and just try to learn as quickly as possible. Work on something that you care a lot about.
Is there an industry trend that you are most excited about?
Do you have a favorite or interesting article or video?
This Sheryl Sandberg Ted Talk.
Is there a female entrepreneur or investor you'd most like to meet and chat with?
What is your spirit animal?
A tiger. I am very aggressive about getting things done and move fast.
Best piece of advice you've ever received?
When I was starting Binti, I didn’t have a co-founder at the beginning. Someone told me, just start making progress, and the right people will be attracted to what you are doing.
Want to hear more from Felicia, check out her Twitter.