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FedTech Innovator Podcast: Asmod Karki from VikasaTech

Ben: Hi everybody! We are excited to be here today with Asmod Karki. Recently, we connected as fellow Princeton alums, so we met through that network and I was just really interested in Asmod's story. He is based in Kathmandu, Nepal, and is a player in the ecosystem there around entrepreneurship with multiple companies started. We'll hear more about that, in addition to a lot of other very interesting work.

Asmod, maybe introduce yourself and what's going on in Kathmandu right now.

Asmod: Thanks, Ben. Great meeting and thanks for the warm intro.

Hi everyone, I'm Asmod. I'm from Nepal and based in Nepal at the moment. Basically, my story is: until high school I was here, but very lucky to go to campus in the States — in Princeton. From graduation, I came back to Nepal and had a brief stint in China after. Since returning back from China in 2019, I've been largely working in the entrepreneurship ecosystem, largely consulting entrepreneurship research and taking operations in different capacities.

Ben: We were joking earlier that people obviously — like myself — think of Nepal in terms of beautiful mountains. I think eight of the ten tallest peaks are in Nepal. I think about amazing food. We have some great Nepalese restaurants in D.C. Unfortunately, after that my knowledge starts to tail off dramatically. Give us a little sense of Nepal: where it sits in the world and where it sits in the course of its development journey. Just a little Nepal 101 would be helpful.

Asmod: You know, that's one of the hardest questions I continue to face because it's such a diverse country, right? A lot of times, I think Nepal is known for Mount Everest and sometimes maybe for its religion and culture.

To give a 101 to our listeners, Nepal is a small country, I'd say. Between India and China, it’s located in South Asia. The population is around 30 million people, so think of the size of a mid-sized U.S. state. The GDP is roughly the size of — for our U.S. listeners — the size of Vermont; it’s more or less around $35, $40 billion USD. So, it’s not a big country — a small country. It's a mountainous country, for sure. It lives up to its reputation that it's a mountainous country. An interesting fact is around 50% of the population lives on the plains which borders India. It's a landlocked country, so there's India to the east, west, and south, and China to the north. A lot of the population actually lives on the border, like the plains towards the part of India. That's largely the demographics and geographical part.

As a country, it's a pretty diverse country, more than 120 languages. Nepal is one of the...

Ben: 120 languages! Wow.

Asmod: That's recorded, right? If you go unofficially, that would be much higher. It’s a pretty religious country.

Ben: How many languages do most people speak if you walk around the city?

Asmod: Growing up, if you live in, say, Kathmandu — any part — I’d guess Nepali and Hindi. Everyone speaks Hindi because there's a huge influence of Indian movies, culture, the subcontinent, and the food. If you go to a private school — which increasingly many people do — you also speak English, so at least three languages. If you want to boost your skills, because Hindi and Urdu are similar — not in writing but in speaking — you can say four languages. Then, if you are from an ethnic part of Nepal, because there are a lot of ethnic groups, usually you also speak a mother tongue, so at least three to five languages.

Ben: Wow, really neat. I always think it's interesting — these countries like Nepal that are, in some ways, nestled between countries that are larger and have very different kinds of political climates and alliances. If you think about Nepal in terms of being between India and China, how does that manifest itself in the fabric of Nepali culture and economics? What do you notice about being in the middle there?

Asmod: Nepal's history is also very different and unique. Because it's located between two super powerful generations, the way the country shaped — our current borders — is in relation to our superpower neighbors.

Generally, Nepal is very similar to India. Our currency is pegged, meaning we have a fixed exchange rate with India; that really drives the economy. We get almost every drop of our oil and imports from India, increasingly from China also. Culturally, politically, and people-to-people ties, we are very close to India. In recent decades, China is also playing an increasingly prominent role in terms of foreign investment, people-to-people connections, and everything. Because there’s Tibet also, Nepal has historical trade ties. Nepal actually used to be a trading route between India and China, historically, and that's how Kathmandu really became a vibrant city 400 years back. Nowadays, it’s not so much, but it’s very much influenced by two of our neighbors in terms of trade, religion, and languages. There are a lot of similarities.

Ben: I know that a lot of Nepalese people leave and go and work in other countries. Is there a common approach to go and work in… If you want to be a software engineer, a technology entrepreneur, or whatever it might be, is it easier to do that in India or China? Where do people usually migrate to?

Asmod: Let me put that briefly in the historical context for our users. So migration and immigration have been a fabric of Nepali socio-cultural life. In the past, it used to be traders trading between India and China, like 300 years back. Around World War II, when there was the British Empire in India, it used to be martial laborers in Nepal. Nepal is actually — besides Mount Everest — also known for Gurkhas, right? The fighters for our army.

In recent years, a lot of Nepali have been migrating to the Middle East, Malaysia, and increasingly to the U.S., Europe, and Australia. Migration has been a fabric of Nepali socio-cultural life. It's so huge that it’s almost five million people; this is a country of 30 million. So, one in every six Nepali is outside the country, and these are youths. I was reading a report that every other household in Nepal has someone living outside the country. So, migration is huge in the country. It spreads across socioeconomic strata and across sectors — and tech is also one. Increasingly, the sector is growing in Nepal and migration because of tech is also increasing. If you have tech skills, it's relatively easier for you to access opportunities outside.

We are seeing two trends here, Ben. Starting out, a lot of people work in the Nepali tech ecosystem, which is increasingly connected with the ecosystem in the U.S. and Australia, which has significant Nepali diaspora. If you are semi-skilled, start in the Nepali tech ecosystem for one or two years, and then go abroad for education or migrate where you have better opportunities, right? The ecosystem here is still nascent. We're starting to see that trend in Nepal.

Ben: Interesting. In a moment, I want to hear what you see in the Nepali startup community. What made you come back? I think it's an interesting example of someone like yourself that was in the States and then has been excited about what's going on to come back home and start companies. So, we'll talk about that in a minute.

When I was preparing for this, I was giving some thought back to before starting FedTech. I worked in Kenya for a few months. I had this amazing opportunity where another fellow Princeton alum gave me a chance to ride alongside as his assistant. He owned — at the time — what was the largest fast food company in Kenya, which was not an area that I anticipated wanting to work in. I don't know that I would necessarily work in it in the long term, but it was a fascinating chance to see a growing business in an emerging market in the developing world and how exciting that was. I don't recall ever being more excited about the process of starting companies than when I was interacting — in this case, in Kenya — with some of the ingenuity of entrepreneurs there.

I'm curious what you've seen — obviously not an African emerging market — but in Nepal in terms of the ingenuity of entrepreneurs, what you've noticed about the ecosystem, and what you think is exciting or challenging, on the other end of the spectrum.

Asmod: Ben, very thoughtful question. This is also something I've been trying to figure out both academically, through the work I do, and experience-wise right so.

On my spectrum, Nepal is a very pre-frontier market, not even a frontier. When I say pre-frontier, I mean that the institutions are weak, very early-stage in terms of very nascent companies, and the growth stage — especially in tech.

Kenya is actually a very vibrant country in Africa; Rwanda is another. Africa is increasingly getting more prominence. Nepal somewhat falls in the spectrum of…

Say if I have to put the Nepali tech ecosystem on a spectrum, starting with — say — the very mature system of Silicon Valley. Maybe China would fall somewhere in between, then Europe, right? Singapore is a bit emerging, and there's India. After like all of that comes Nepal and a lot of countries in Africa. So, it falls in that ecosystem.

There are a few characteristics that we see in the Nepali market that are prominent. I think as we start to dissect, it's important to know the characteristics, right? So, there are weak government institutions, but strong informal social norms. A lot of innovations happen in these social, political, and economic constraints. What I mean by that is a lot of times, how this manifests in terms of innovation is: say you want to build a company, you want to hire someone, right? How do you do that? Not a lot of vulnerable information out there in the market, right? A lot of time, your network plays a big factor. Who you know, who you connect to, how do you triangulate the information, who do you know in the government? Red tape can really eat a lot of your time and effort. I'm not talking about corruption or anything, but knowing people really can expedite the process, both in businesses and in dealing with red tape.

Innovation comes out of that, right? It comes out of the informality, but within the larger ecosystem constraints.

Ben: What are some common businesses? If you were an entrepreneur with an idea, how hard is it to get going? What kind of resources are available?

Asmod: Largely, as sad as it is to say, Nepal identifies almost two dozen key exports of the country’s sectors and migration/labor is one of them. That's the state.

If you talk of the larger economy, in terms of private sector entrepreneurs, health and education are big in the country. Education is largely privatized, and so is health care. Increasingly, we're turning to tech because the initial upfront capital investment is low, usually. I'm not talking about tech sectors with deep R&D that require manpower and skills; the ecosystem is not available in Nepal. Think of something as basic software app development or basic data for which you need a room, a computer, and human brain power. Those sorts of tech companies are starting to emerge. Other than that, hydropower is also big in the country. Nepal is starting to export to India — we’re in talks of exporting hydropower to Bangladesh.

Generally, health and education are there. Migration is a big factor. Then, after energy, comes the tech sector that’s slowly starting to emerge.

Ben: It's interesting. I think in some ways when I talk to folks like yourself, I get more appreciation for how much opportunity there is in the U.S. to start a technology-based, highly differentiated company.

One of the things that we had talked about previously, Asmod, was that there's not a lot of patenting in Nepal. That creates a vacuum where if you look at the idea of turning research into products and companies — which is kind of the world that we live in — it is so much harder than we have in the U.S. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of inventions that are made every year and end up getting patented and turned into licenses and new products. In some ways, it reinforces that. I get very excited; if there are ways to take some of that U.S. infrastructure, from a research standpoint, and marry that with some of the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs in the developing world, that — to me — is a cool idea. We haven't totally figured out how to do it, yet.

Asmod: I guess one of the key factors is innovation happens in an ecosystem as you very much know, working in deep tech space and innovation. There's certain things an individual can do and there's certain things an ecosystem does. In a place like the U.S. — where there's very solid, robust innovation — it's much easier for individuals. What I've seen in Nepal is — and basically for a lot of pre-frontier markets — there's so much onus on individual. If you succeed, sometimes it's big despite of the system, not because. So, there's and irony in that.

Ben: So, backing up, we were at Princeton in different times. I'm not even gonna reveal, I'm a tad older than you. What was your experience? What brought you over? Then, being at a place like Princeton — which is definitely a wonderful environment — it's definitely a high pressure environment. I'm curious, if you can take us back to the the college years, so to speak. Maybe you can skip over the keg stand stories, but tell us some other experiences you had in college.

Asmod: Briefly, even ending up in Princeton was luck. I was trying to go to engineering schools in India and that required me to take the SATs. That landed me in like a U.S. institution, government institution, you know? I learned about a scholarship for underprivileged kids that helps you apply to the U.S. So the deadline was next day; I learned about it today. That's a story for another time.

Luckily, I got in the program. It’s the first time I heard about Princeton in my life. So, this was the year. I had no intention until I graduated from high school to be in college. Fast forward a year, through a lot of practice and a lot of luck, I end up in Princeton. So I think college was really interesting in that it really interesting in that it really opened up avenues.

Ben: Well, back up a little. You literally you find out about a scholarship program. Basically — a one day difference — if you would have missed that, it might have changed the whole direction

Asmod: Yeah, really! I end up in this institution called EducationUSA; it’s a U.S. government body that helps students apply to U.S. colleges. I was very lucky that they had just opened this course called Opportunity Funding that year. It was their pilot year. I learned about it today. I didn't have a computer at home back then. There was load sharing; we didn't have power, supplies, and everything, so I had to go to a place where they helped me type that. So, there's an entire story.

Luckily, I get the program. I was planning to go to an engineering school in Nepal, which is sort of competitive, right? Then I said, “Okay, sometimes in life, you take risks.” Looking back, there was a huge risk in not accepting an offer for a Nepali college. Then, I start studying for the SATs. So, that was a huge risk in itself back when I was in my teenage years.

Ben: I think you're humbly moving through the story, but this is an exceptional achievement to go to Princeton. I'm just happy to hear. It's a good example of a U.S. government program working really well and creating something that is…

I think a lot of students have thousands of dollars of SAT help, consultants that help them write their Princeton essays, and all of that. You came in through a very different route that you're being humble about, but it's very special.

Asmod: Thank you. I do have to support the U.S. taxpayers; they have supported me all throughout college — being in Princeton — where I was in scholarship.

I'm very also thankful and lucky, because there's me, but there's all the support, right? My parents really worked hard. My professors and the entire Princeton institution was amazing. It's just opened the world to me. I got to travel around the world and really explore academically, personally, spiritually, and professionally. Even when I came back — when I was in Nepal — I'm extremely lucky to have these champions around me who are not visible, but who are always there to help. So, I also have to thank that.

Ben: When you got over, had you been to the U.S. before?

Asmod: It was my first time on a plane. When I came to the U.S., I was lost. It was my first time outside the country. So, there were a lot of new experiences. I was lost when I came to the airport — I think it was in Newark.

Ben: Yeah!

Asmod: Yeah.

Ben: Wow. So, walk us through what were those first few weeks like?

I was a competitive athlete. I was the #1 fencer in the U.S. so I was definitely not fully at Princeton for my brain power as much as my athletic prowess. So, I remember the adjustment that I had to make of what it took to really keep up. I'm curious; how were your first weeks and months when you got onto campus?

Asmod: So, I was very lucky; there's a matter of luck involved. I had to come to the U.S. a couple days earlier. I didn't have housing and I couldn't afford a $200 hotel room, right? Someone who interviewed me, Sey Von Skivic. I still keep in touch with him. He’s in the class of… I won't say the exact wrong class; I don't want to mess up. Anyway, he's way older. He was very kind and he apparently sends out an email to this Princeton local list saying, “Hey, this guy from Nepal; is someone willing to host him?” So, a guy called John Beyer — class of 2006, computer science — hosts me. He says, “Hey, I'm willing to host.” That happens. The first time I land in the U.S., I don't know anything. I go to John's office — which haven’t met the person once — and he gives me a tour of the campus and it’s really pretty very different from Nepal. It turns out that he lived in the same room at Rockefeller College. In Princeton, there are six colleges, the same college within the same dorm room, right? So, it’s a matter of luck — room number 30 or 31.

Ben: I was a Rocky person when I was early on.

Asmod: Oh, really? Which building?

Ben: Holder Hall.

Asmod: Me too — 31.

Ben: Cool, okay! It got nicer when you were there. I think they redid the whole thing. Wow — small world.

Asmod: Very small world.

Anyway, I tell this story because there's a lot of matter of luck. John and his family kind of adopted me and they became host families. I used to celebrate my vacations with them and also got to go to John's wedding. I still keep in touch with him.

So, anyway, that opened up one part with each mistranslation over the course of four years. I was very lucky to have no Nepali on campus, so that really meant I had to blend in in a lot of ways. That was one cultural part.

The second part was academic, which I realized that although I did well in testing and everything, I wasn't prepared, you know? I didn't know I had to select classes until a few days before, and I saw one of my friends — the friend who actually came to Nepal a couple months ago, he’s from Germany — picking classes. I was like, “Oh, really?” I didn't know I had to pick classes until the day before, so I scrambled. It was a lot of learning; my English wasn't great. So, something like being fluent was also a big part. Academic is very different from colloquial.

The cultural adjustment was huge; academic adjustment was huge. Over the course of the years, the first year was difficult, but I really learned to use the resources to thrive. I think the last two or three years were really amazing.

I learned how to not pull all-nighters after a year, how to work sustainably.

Ben: Oh my goodness, so much.

Asmod: So much respect for athletes, also.

Also, Ben, you said you're a fencer. I had a fencer friend and that life is something, is just— I have so much admiration. I don't know how they pulled…

Ben: Well, it was just such a different experience. In high school, I did okay, but also spent a lot of my evenings either fencing or watching the