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As a Tunisian human rights activist within the 2000s, Amira Yahyaoui staged protests and blogged about authorities corruption. In interviews, she described being overwhelmed by police. When she was 18, she said, she was kidnapped from the road, dropped off on the Algerian border and positioned in exile for a number of years.

Ms. Yahyaoui’s compelling background helped her stand out amongst entrepreneurs when she moved in 2018 to San Francisco, the place she based a pupil assist start-up referred to as Mos. The app hit the highest of Apple’s App Retailer and Ms. Yahyaoui raised $56 million from high-profile traders, together with Sequoia Capital, John Doerr and Steph Curry, in accordance with PitchBook, which tracks start-ups. Mos was valued at $400 million.

In podcasts, TV interviews and different media, Ms. Yahyaoui, 39, continuously mentioned Mos’s success.

Amongst different issues, she said the start-up had helped 400,000 college students get monetary assist. However inner firm knowledge considered by The New York Occasions confirmed that as of early final 12 months, solely about 30,000 clients had paid for Mos’s pupil assist providers. The remainder of the 400,000 customers included anybody who had signed up for a free account and should have gotten an e-mail about making use of for pupil assist, two folks acquainted with the scenario stated.

After Mos expanded into on-line banking in September 2021, Ms. Yahyaoui advised publications comparable to TechCrunch that the corporate had greater than 100,000 financial institution accounts. However these accounts had very small quantities of cash in them, in accordance with the interior knowledge. Lower than 10 p.c of Mos’s roughly 153,000 financial institution customers had put their very own cash into their accounts, the info confirmed.

Some workers tried to talk up about Ms. Yahyaoui’s claims, stated Emi Tabb, who labored at Mos in operations and had roles comparable to head of monetary assist earlier than resigning in late 2022. However Ms. Yahyaoui dismissed and typically disparaged workers who tried pushing again towards her public feedback, 5 individuals who witnessed the incidents stated.

“She created a tradition of concern,” Mx. Tabb stated.

Mos is amongst a category of tech start-ups that rose through the quick cash period of the late 2010s and early within the pandemic, when younger corporations landed tens of millions of {dollars} in funding with little greater than guarantees. Now as the cash has dried up and plenty of tech start-ups grapple with a downturn, traders are pickier, clients are warier of daring claims and workers are extra suspicious of founder pronouncements.

Final 12 months, Mos laid off roughly half its workers of round 50 and shut down its banking service. The corporate reverted to its unique enterprise of serving to college students discover monetary assist and started emphasizing its use of synthetic intelligence.

Ms. Yahyaoui referred inquiries to a Mos spokeswoman, who declined to remark. When Ms. Yahyaoui was requested final 12 months about Mos’s variety of customers, she posted on social media that feminine founders had been typically presumed responsible whereas male founders had been presumed harmless.

“Possibly in the present day we must always begin making use of presumption of innocence to additionally feminine founders,” she wrote.

This account of Mos was based mostly on interviews with eight present and former workers, in addition to inner communications, shows and analytics. The inner paperwork go as much as 2023.

Ms. Yahyaoui grew up in Tunisia after which lived in exile in France. After transferring to San Francisco, she raised cash for Mos from traders together with Expa, the funding agency began by Garrett Camp, a founding father of Uber. Mos offered a service to assist college students discover sources of monetary assist, charging $149 for every college 12 months.

Deena Shakir, an investor at Lux Capital, which backed Mos in 2020, stated she and the agency’s companions “deeply respect” Ms. Yahyaoui.

“We take pleasure in supporting corporations and founders like Amira whose dedication to enabling entry for college students provides us hope for the way forward for larger schooling,” Ms. Shakir stated.

Mos had a sluggish begin, three folks with data of the corporate stated. Some college students who signed up realized about assist they already knew about, like a Cal Grant for California residents, they stated.

An investor presentation considered by The Occasions confirmed that Mos had month-to-month income of $340,000 in December 2019. The beginning-up allowed customers to pay $1 upfront and the remaining $148 after they bought their monetary assist.

Mos in the end didn’t acquire most of that cash. Seventy p.c of customers defaulted on their funds after the pandemic hit in 2020, Jess Lee, an investor at Sequoia who sits on Mos’s board, later said in an article in regards to the firm printed on Sequoia’s web site.

As of late 2022, roughly 6,500 of Mos’s paying clients, or 22 p.c, bought refunds for its monetary assist service, in accordance with inner knowledge. The corporate had advised clients that in the event that they didn’t get 5 instances the price of Mos’s providers in monetary assist, they might get a refund.

Mos said it might assist college students entry $160 billion in scholarships, however that quantity included loans, three folks acquainted with the scenario stated. The corporate’s pitch was to assist college students keep away from debt.

Ms. Yahyaoui also said students who used Mos “saved” a median of $16,000. That was the quantity that the start-up decided they certified for and never what the scholars obtained in assist, three folks with data of the corporate stated.

Mos’s website features a transferring ticker of glad clients (“Jasmine bought $12,237 for Cal Poly,” for instance). Ms. Yahyaoui requested workers to make use of inventory pictures and to make up names, three folks with data of the corporate stated.

By 2021, monetary know-how was scorching with traders. Ms. Yahyaoui pushed Mos to change into a financial institution, making its monetary assist product free. That September, the start-up introduced its transfer into banking with a promotion that gave folks $5 to enroll and one other $5 for each referral.

Signal-ups poured in. Mos turned off the $5 promotion on its first day. Two months later, it turned it again on for 3 days and signed up greater than 100,000 accounts, spending round $1 million within the promotion and sending Mos to the highest of the App Retailer.

The sign-ups piqued investor curiosity, together with from the funding agency Tiger International. Sequoia’s Ms. Lee wished to see how most of the accounts that signed up through the promotion remained energetic earlier than investing extra, two folks acquainted with the scenario stated. Sequoia inspired Ms. Yahyaoui to rent an out of doors agency to evaluate whether or not the accounts belonged to actual folks, the folks stated.

Some workers additionally had issues that many accounts didn’t belong to actual folks, three folks acquainted with the scenario stated. As sign-ups continued, Mos analyzed the accounts for probably fraudulent habits in an inner working doc. In November, Ms. Yahyaoui restricted Ms. Lee’s entry to that doc, two of the folks stated.

Quickly after, in February 2022, Tiger International introduced it led a $40 million funding for Mos. Sequoia joined the deal. It’s not clear what impression entry to the doc would have had on Sequoia’s determination to take a position extra in Mos. Two folks acquainted with the scenario stated Ms. Lee retained entry to a broader knowledge supply concerning the accounts.

In an announcement, Ms. Lee stated, “Probably the most profitable founders are those who’ve grit and are prepared to check new hypotheses and adapt. Amira is the embodiment of those qualities.”

Tiger International declined to remark.

Alongside the funding announcement, Sequoia printed an article on its website detailing Ms. Yahyaoui’s dramatic previous and entrepreneurial imaginative and prescient. It stated fewer than 1 p.c of Mos’s financial institution accounts had been closed, “an unheard-of statistic for a money-based sign-up promotion.”

Few folks used the financial institution accounts, in accordance with inner knowledge considered by The Occasions. Of roughly 153,000 open accounts, 95 p.c had lower than $5 in them and a 3rd had a steadiness of zero via 2022, the info confirmed. Simply 9.5 p.c of account holders deposited cash into their accounts throughout that point.

Mos advised its board that 74 p.c of checking account holders had been college students, in accordance with a presentation considered by The Occasions. However solely round 20 p.c had been 22 or youthful, in accordance with inner knowledge, with about 45 p.c over the age of 30. Mos’s income from transaction charges, which made up the overwhelming majority of the corporate’s complete revenue after it grew to become a financial institution, was lower than $70,000 for the primary 9 months of 2022, two folks acquainted with the funds stated.

Ms. Yahyaoui typically berated her prime managers and threatened to fireside them if their efficiency didn’t enhance, in accordance with 5 individuals who witnessed such occasions.

Utilizing expletives, she wrote in a January 2022 message to workers that the corporate’s mission was meaningless “due to how dangerous we’re at getting” stuff completed.

“I want folks I can depend on to beat my goals to not decrease them,” she wrote.

Ms. Yahyaoui’s remedy of workers — together with employees employed in Tunisia and Algeria — ran counter to her picture as an activist, Mx. Tabb stated.

At an worker gathering in September 2022, a Mos worker requested Sequoia’s Ms. Lee about her greatest concern for the start-up, three individuals who attended stated. Ms. Lee initially stated she was stunned by how good morale was given the circumstances, then added that it wasn’t clear what Mos’s product can be.

The beginning-up was at extra of a “seed stage,” or very early in its improvement, Ms. Lee stated.



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