We spoke with Oussema Settala, 2016 Startup Mentoring Fellow and founder of Vink, the Berlin and Tunis-based company which aims to transform legacy economies and achieve financial inclusion through digital currency and disruptive banking solutions.
Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Oussema Settala. I’m the founder of Vink and a self-proclaimed hip-hop music connoisseur. I am Tunisian, from Hammam Lif by birth, and a Berliner by adoption.
My passions are economics and computers, which is a total nerd thing I admit, and I have a background in banking and finance.
I am also an information technology researcher by accident. I locked myself in a room for few years to understand what computer networks might bring to the classic field of economics, and the related risks of these new concepts. Since then, I decided to actively help define and build the new field of “economics on computers” with a focus on computer-based monetary systems.
In 2012, when I was still a student in the US, I stumbled upon bitcoin which is the very thing that brought me to Berlin a few years later. Being one of the international bitcoin hubs, in Berlin I could get closer to and be more involved with bitcoin and open source software communities.
Could you give a brief explanation of digital currency and its current status within Tunisia?
Digital currency is not a fundamentally new thing, particularly in developed countries. Your bank account, PayPal or any form of electronic payment is already digital currency. Banks haven’t transferred physical cash for decades.
What’s new is the emergence of open monetary systems which rely only on the internet, outside of the global banking system and central banks. It is a very new technology, a new paradigm, and it triggers a new era where banks will be run by computer people rather than old-school bankers.
The Tunisian Central Bank has now officially started a program to research and develop digital currencies, which is a very positive move towards the adoption of this very promising technology.
What are some of the opportunities in the future of digital currency?
Through these technologies, there is a potential of financial inclusion in emerging economies like Tunisia. However there is still a need for support and technical research with an economic framework; a realistic framework which addresses directly the importance of national monetary and economic sovereignty within new and more diversified digital monetary systems.
How do you see Vink’s role in this area?
We design financial software solutions with a global banking vision, and master the technologies that gradually and ethically solve these issues at the intersection of the Information Technology and Economics realms. Our ethical approach is reflected especially in our software approach.
As of now, Vink is a team of young self-funded professionals, Tunisian-nationals as well as internationals, with complementary skills in the financial and banking industries, software security, OPSEC, and financial cryptography.
Vink started from the philosophical ground that our generation bears the responsibility to provide new solutions that try to solve what old-fashioned systems couldn’t. If we have to make the banking industry evolve to achieve our goal, we accept the challenge.
We see ourselves unofficial ambassadors of the nascent Tunisian technical know-how. We have introduced our software solution, Bitdinar, to the most influential financial circles in Europe and beyond, and have received a warm welcome from a large scope of professionals and stakeholders in Europe, including technologists, bankers and regulators.
We are the live example that European banks can learn from small and innovative companies like Vink, which has a Tunisian core. We see ourselves as the first generation, after the Arab spring, that can build a new digital economy for Tunisia.
Moreover, we are already on the field developing Bitdinar with our partner the Tunisian Post Bank headed by Mr Chakchouk. We are also open to collaborate in full transparency with central bankers and any stakeholders in Tunisia, since it is our mission to educate and provide enlightened guidance.
What changes are you hoping to see in the next 5 years in Tunisia in this respect?
I consider myself as a technologist who cares about scientific and technical matters rather than politics. Thus, I strive in healthy business environments where I can get the same chances and access to resources as any other peer with equal skills or knowledge, like it is the case in Germany. Unfortunately it’s still far from being the case in Tunisia.
I stopped counting the engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs and other young Tunisian professionals who left Tunisia despite their deep love for the country. We witness an unprecedented exodus of Tunisian brains, and that has deeper reasons.
At Vink we pledge openness to our peers and partners, most importantly to the ones in Tunisia, and strive to contribute to building an ecosystem of innovative companies in Tunisia, Berlin and wherever we are welcome. Our solutions build a bridge between the technology industry in Tunisia, spearheading its region, and Europe. This way we would be at the forefront of activism through entrepreneurship, because we acknowledge our responsibilities towards the civil society wherever we are active.
How did the Startup Mentoring Programme help prepare you for your current work?
I owe a lot to the Startup Mentoring program, for providing a safe space where people from different backgrounds and mindsets could meet and interact.
Tobias Minkwitz, my mentor, provided me with valuable support and infinite patience. In my case, mentoring showed me how to structure my thoughts, and Tobias helped me define and communicate the true value that we bring as innovative company.
Founding a company can be a painful process where an overwhelming amount of information and challenges have to be processed and solved quickly. Mentoring is undoubtedly a very healthy way to understand how to solve these issues because a mentor brings in experience to help overcome the hardships.
It is like having a guardian angel, even though I haven’t believed in angels since third grade.