Isabel dos Santos amassed an empire worth more than $2 billion as the daughter of Angola’s former longtime president. Now it looks like that empire is beginning to crumble.
On Wednesday—as the Attorney General of Angola held a press conference to provisionally charge Isabel dos Santos with embezzlement and money laundering, according to the BBC—a bank in Portugal where she has been a significant shareholder issued a statement saying that Dos Santos’ stake is being sold.
EuroBic, a small privately held bank in Lisbon in which Dos Santos has owned a 42.5% stake, issued a statement on Monday that it was severing its business relationship with Dos Santos and the entities related to her. On Wednesday EuroBic announced that Dos Santos had decided to sell her stake in the bank, which has about $8 billion in assets. Forbes recently valued Dos Santos’ 42.5% stake at around $200 million.
Dos Santos has come under intense scrutiny this past week after a number of media outlets, including the New York Times, the BBC and The Guardian, published articles based on the “Luanda Leaks”—a cache of some 700,000 documents related to Dos Santos’ allegedly corrupt business dealings that were released to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
Dos Santos was appointed to head Angola’s state oil company, Sonangol, in 2016, when her father was still president of the country. (He retired in 2017 after ruling Angola for 38 years.)
According to an article inThe Guardian, while Dos Santos was heading up Sonangol, she allegedly arranged for a transfer of $57 million on one day in November 2017 from Sonangol’s bank account to a Dubai company, Matter Business Solutions, run by Paula Oliveira, a woman who The Guardian says is apparently a close friend of Dos Santos’.
It turns out that the Sonangol bank account from which the funds were transferred was a EuroBic account. In its statement severing ties with Dos Santos, EuroBic also said that the payments ordered by Sonangol to Matter Business Solutions “respected the legal and regulatory procedures formally applicable . . . between this bank and Sonangol, namely those related to the prevention of money laundering.”
The BBC is reporting that an employee of EuroBic who managed the Sonangol account, Nuno Ribeiro da Cunha, 45, was found dead in Lisbon on Wednesday. A police source told the BBC that “everything points to suicide.”
Dos Santos issued a statement on Thursday saying, “The allegations which have been made against me over the last few days are extremely misleading and untrue,” and adding that “I am a private businesswoman who has spent 20 years building successful companies from the ground up,” and that “I have always operated within the law and all my transactions have been approved by lawyers, bankers, auditors and regulators.”
I’m a San Francisco-based Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on wealth. I edit mostly, but also write about how the richest get wealthy and how they spend their time and their money. My colleague Luisa Kroll at Forbes in New York and I oversee the massive reporting effort that goes into Forbes’ annual World’s Billionaires List and the Forbes 400 Richest Americans list. The former gets me to use my rusty Spanish and Portuguese. In 2014, I won an Overseas Press Club award for an article I wrote about Saudi Arabian billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal; I also won a Gerald Loeb Award with co-author Rafael Marques de Morais for an article we wrote about Isabel dos Santos, the eldest daughter of Angola’s President. Over 20 years my Forbes reporting has taken me to 17 countries on four continents, from the slums of Manila to palaces in Saudi Arabia and Mexico’s presidential residence. Follow me on Twitter @KerryDolan My email: kdolan[at]forbes[dot] com Tips and story ideas welcome.
Tej Kohli’s name is up in lights in Paris, flashing on the walls in giant, bold type inside the new high-ceilinged headquarters of French e-sports Team Vitality, a 20-minute walk from the city’s Gare du Nord train station. Some of Europe’s top video game players, influencers, journalists and sponsors have arrived on this November day to buoyantly pay tribute to Kohli, a U.K.-based, Indian-born entrepreneur, now heralded as the lead investor in the e-sports team. Team Vitality has raised at least $37 million and scored partnership deals with Adidas, Renault, telecom firm Orange and Red Bull, with a stated goal to become the top team in European competitive gaming.
E-sports, Kohli proudly tells Forbes, “encompasses the entire spectrum of business … [and is] not very different from other things we do in technology.” His wavy mane of dark hair stands out in the room like a beacon, as he beams amid the buzz and recognition.
London is home to 55 billionaires, with more on the outskirts, and they generally fall into two camps: those who completely shun publicity, and those, like Richard Branson and James Dyson, who enthusiastically embrace it. Kohli, who lives in a multimillion-dollar mansion in leafy Henley-on-Thames, aspires aggressively to the latter. In April, Kohli told the FT’s How To Spend It supplement that, “Sometimes in business it’s important to show you can sell yourself by way of your lifestyle.” His website describes him as “Investor, Entrepreneur, Visionary, Philanthropist,” with photos of an apparent property portfolio, with about half a dozen apartment buildings in Berlin, one in India and an office tower in Abu Dhabi. He claims to be a member of two exclusive London private clubs, 5 Hertford Street and Annabels, and publicly gives tips on “foie gras … roast chicken” and places where “the steaks are huge.”
Kohli has employed a large coterie of PR consultants and actively courts the media, pushing grand visions that back up this image. In a 2013 article he wrote for The Guardian, he offers advice on how to get a job in the tech industry (“Learn to code”). In 2016 he told a Forbes contributor: “The one mission that every entrepreneur has, as a person rather than as an entrepreneur, is to extend human life.” And his Tej Kohli Foundation Twitter bio brags that “We are humanitarian technologists developing solutions to major global health challenges whilst also making direct interventions that transform lives worldwide.” A press release issued in mid December boasted of more than 5,700 of the world’s poorest receiving “the gift of sight” in 2019 at Kohli’s cornea institute in Hyderabad, India.
Kohli also aspires to be validated as a billionaire. Over the past two years, his representatives have twice reached out to Forbes to try to get Kohli included on our billionaires list, the first time saying he was worth $6 billion—more than Branson or Dyson—and neither time following up with requested details of his assets. (Kohli’s attorneys now claim that “as a longstanding matter of policy,” Kohli “does not, and has never commented on his net worth,” suggesting that his representatives were pushing for his billionaire status without his authorization.)
There may be good reason for his reticence. It turns out that Kohli—who in a July press release describes himself as “a London-based billionaire who made his fortune during the dotcom boom selling e-commerce payments software”—has a complicated past. Born in New Delhi in 1958, Kohli was convicted of fraud in California in 1994 for his central role convincing homeowners to sell their homes to what turned out to be sham buyers and bilking banks out of millions of dollars in loans. For that he served five years in prison.
Kohli then turned up in Costa Rica, where he found his way into the world of online gambling during its Wild West era in the early 2000s. He ran online casinos, at least one sports betting site, and online bingo offerings, taking payments from U.S. gamblers even after U.S. laws prohibited it, according to seven former employees. He was a demanding, sometimes angry boss, according to several of these employees.
A spokesman for Kohli confirmed that he ran an online payments company, Grafix Softech, which provided services to the online gambling industry, between 1999 and 2006—and that he acquired several distressed or foreclosed online gaming businesses as a limited part of the company’s portfolio. “At no point was any such business operated in breach of the law,” Kohli’s representative said in a statement.
Though his representative claims that Kohli has had nothing to do with Grafix since 2006, Forbes found more than a dozen online posts or references (some deleted, some still live and some on Kohli’s own website) between 2010 and 2016 that identify Kohli as the chief executive or leader of Grafix Softech—including the opinion piece that Kohli wrote for The Guardian in 2013.
Even in a world of preening tycoons, this juxtaposition—the strutting thought leader who actively gives business advice while he just as actively tries to stifle or downplay any sustained look into his business past—proves eye-opening.
According to Kohli’s back story, he grew up in New Delhi, India, and he has told the British media that he’s the son of middle-class parents. Per his alumni profile for the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (about 300 miles southeast of New Delhi), Kohli completed a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1980 and developed “a deep passion for technology and ethical and sustainable innovation.”
At some point, he wound up in California, and set up a “domestic stock” business called La Zibel in downtown Los Angeles. Kohli still uses the Zibel name for his real estate operations today. By the end of the 1980s, Kohli was presenting himself as a wealthy real estate investor who purchased residential properties in southern California to resell for profit. The truth, according to U.S. District Court documents, was that from March 1989 through the early 1990s Kohli, then reportedly living in Malibu, had assembled a team of document forgers and “straw buyers” to pull off a sophisticated real estate fraud.
Kohli and his coconspirator Charles Myers (also known back then as Loren Ferrari) would buy residential properties from homeowners with a combination of cash and promissory notes using a sham entity. Kohli and Myers recruited and paid fake buyers to purchase the home in a second bogus transaction, and had other coconspirators forge documents to make the fake sale look real and inflate the sale price. Kohli and his team would then take out loans in the name of the fake buyers using fraudulent paperwork, diverting the loan proceeds to themselves. The original sellers didn’t get the money they were promised.
By 1993 the game was up. Kohli and Myers pled guilty—Kohli to ten counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy in 1994. According to court filings, Kohli and Myers took out $7.5 million in fraudulent loans from banks, pocketing $2 million, and stiffed homeowners on $4 million in promissory notes. He was sentenced to 80 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $5 million in restitution to his victims. Kohli appealed his sentence in 1997 but lost. Richard Steingard, who represented Kohli while the federal criminal case was pending, says his client was legally obligated to make his victims whole, but doesn’t believe he ever did. “To my knowledge, as his former attorney, the restitution was never paid,” says Steingard. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said it does not comment on restitution payments. A spokesperson for Kohli had no comment on the conviction, prison sentence or restitution.
Lavkumar Barot, 67, was one of Kohli’s victims. In 1989, Barot responded to an ad in the Los Angeles Times from Argent Alliance Corp., where Kohli was the CEO, promising investors a 14% to 20% return in 6 months to a year (minimum investment: $10,000). Barot invested $100,000 and lost all of it. One check he got from Argent Alliance—for an interest payment of $1,500—bounced. He had to work six days a week to make up for the lost funds. Even today, as Kohli promises millions to others as a philanthropist, Barot hopes for some financial restitution from Kohli. Dennis Mahoney, 75, now lives in Honolulu. Mahoney, according to court documents, lost $446,800 to Kohli’s escrow scam—after he agreed to sell his house. Mahoney claims that he received no restitution from Kohli and only got $25,000 from a state fund that helped victims of escrow fraud. He lost his home in California and blames himself. “Naturally you look in the mirror and say—how stupid could I be,” he tells Forbes, “But that naivety was a good learning experience.” Talking of Kohli, he adds: “What you see isn’t always what you get.”
Chris Painter, a cybercrime expert who was an assistant United States attorney in Los Angeles in the 1990s, says he remembers trying the case and the “sophistication of the fraud … defrauding just about everyone, from the sellers of the properties to everyone in between.” Altogether Kohli and his cohorts scammed banks and homeowners out of more than $13 million, according to court filings.
Kohli’s alma mater bio says that in 1997, Kohli “plunged into entrepreneurship and established his own company Grafix Softech,” which specialized in e-commerce payments. The timing seems off—he was in prison until 1999.
Regardless, sometime before the turn of the millennium, Kohli headed south to Costa Rica and tells Forbes he “focused on payment solutions … interfaces and payment gateways.” Asked about the exact source of his wealth, Kohli chuckles. “We were at the right time in the right place,” he says.
The business empire that, he claims, made him a “billionaire” has variously been described by Kohli, in press releases and on his websites, as operating in e-commerce, online marketing and payments processing. But 12 former Kohli employees told Forbes that Grafix Softech and other businesses operating out of the San Jose, Costa Rica, offices of Grafix Softech, were actually running unregulated online casinos and at least one sports betting site that targeted American gamblers. A spokesperson for Kohli said that any suggestion that his business broke the law “would be wholly false.”
The gaming and sports book entities operated under names like Cool Cat, Cirrus, Virtual and Royal. The websites—some of which are still active (under unknown ownership)—were an online shop front for gamblers, who could place bets from the comfort of their sofa. The biggest target market, according to former employees and executives, was American gamblers.
At first, such marketing represented a gray zone of sorts. Then in 2006 a new U.S. law, The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (known as UIGEA), effectively prohibited online gambling—and put operators like Kohli on a collision course with the U.S. legal system if they continued to knowingly accept online bets from Americans. An archived Web page from 2015 for Cool Cat Casino links to a list of “country restrictions.” There the U.S. is curiously marked green for go: no restrictions for U.S. gamblers. While a “tips” page on the same site simply states: “Cool Cat Casino is the top online casino in the United States!”
Warwick Bartlett, chief executive of Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, tells Forbes that UIGEA put most Costa Rican gambling sites out of business. “Those that remained,” he adds, “had to come up with unique ways to counter banks not wanting to process credit card transactions.” Bartlett cites the British chief executive of BetonSports, David Carruthers, who according to court documents was arrested by U.S. authorities in July 2006 while en route to Costa Rica and sentenced to 33 months in prison as an example of the kind of sentences given to those who broke the law.
Kohli, however, was undeterred by the new legal restrictions, say former employees. Cynthia Paniagua tells Forbes she worked as a human resources consultant for Kohli’s Silver Arrow group between 2009 and 2010 in Costa Rica. She describes online casinos as the beating heart of Kohli’s businesses. “He had around 15 to 25 casino brands,” she says. Who would be the end beneficiary of a $10 bet—placed and lost—on a sports result back then? Paniagua is unambiguous: “To him. His accounts are tied to him.”
“Sometimes in business it’s important to show you can sell yourself by way of your lifestyle.”
Alexis Calderon worked for Silver Arrow and Tej Kohli in customer service between 2012 and 2014, transferring callers to the VIP team that, he claims, helped big money clients wager “literally millions of dollars” at a time on Kohli’s online casinos and games. Calderon says Silver Arrow used Canadian checks to pay gamblers their winnings and would instruct the clients to cash the checks “in small unions that don’t ask questions.”
Another former employee tells Forbes that after the law change in 2006, Kohli “doubled down … because he figured everyone was getting out of the market.” The source adds, “All his competitors were fleeing because regulation hit in, and he was like—great. Like picking money off the ground. It’s gonna be a lot easier now.”
New Zealander Mike Miller was brought in as consulting CEO of BetRoyal (also known as Royal), Kohli’s sportsbook, for ten months between 2006 and 2007. Miller describes Kohli courting him before he decided to join, flying him in business class to London for the interview and putting him up in a five-star hotel. But Miller later soured on Kohli. “He had a slightly flawed view of the online gambling world,” Miller says. “He felt that when anyone deposited money to any of his businesses—and there were 50-80 of them—that money was his.”
Kohli’s sites also failed to pay out winnings in a timely manner, according to four former employees and gambling industry review websites. His Virtual Casino group received industry ratings site Casinomeister’s “Worst Casino Group” award at least three times—in 2002, 2007 and 2008—for slow-payment issues. Bryan Bailey, founder of Casinomeister, wrote in 2007 that the award was given because of its “habitual stalling of player payments” and its unpleasant sounding “September 11th Twin Tower bonus.” One staffer who worked for Kohli from 2008 to 2010 in Costa Rica was tasked with customer service, which included handling complaints about the slow payment of winnings. She tells Forbes that when people called, chasing their winnings, “I did the best I could to help people, but … it was just no, no, no with no reason.”
As an entrepreneur, Kohli was passionate about his reputation in the industry. In 2005, news broke that John Walker, who worked in Costa Rica as the founder of gambling news site Sportsbook Review, was allegedly threatened over an article naming Kohli as the new owner of a sportsbook called Royal Sports. According to Walker, Kohli was angry because “his reputation was so bad for not paying people … he didn’t want people to know he was buying Royal.” Walker says he took the article down from the Sportsbook Review website because he was intimidated by people who appeared to work on behalf of Kohli.
At their peak, Kohli’s casino operations netted at least $1 million a month, say former employees. Under the name Navtej Kohli, he was a director of a Panama-based shell company, Wisol International, which is tied to 642 domain names, many of which are online gambling sites—at least six of which are still live today.
Kohli’s San Jose Costa Rica office, which employed around 100 people, was not a nice place to work, say several former employees.
“There was quite a culture of intimidation. People were afraid of Kohli,” says one former staffer. A high-ranking employee from the early days in San Jose told Forbes, “He had a temper on him that could melt down the office. It was hard. His joy was in making grown men cry … break them down till they were on their knees begging for forgiveness.”
Kohli seemed to have mellowed over time. One long-term employee who worked at Silver Arrow after 2007 never saw anyone receive any physical aggression. This person describes Kohli as often “verbally abusive” but “not to employees, to managers.”
“Show me an opportunity with global potential and I will create an empire.”
A spokesperson for Kohli says, “Like any successful businessman Mr. Kohli is from time to time confronted by false claims from disgruntled ex-employees and competitors. Any suggestion of wrongdoing by Mr. Kohli in any business or other matter are rejected absolutely.”
Kohli’s gambling business in Costa Rica was shuttered in 2016, according to former employees, who were laid off. While some of the executives helped build another business in Prague around 2016 (Kohli does not appear to be involved), Kohli emerged on the social and philanthropy scene in London in a very public way.
Positive clips began with random biographies on the likes of IMDB around 2011 and progressed to more of the same and listicles on little-known publications like The Start-Up Magazine. Kohli then began to appear in laudatory articles on the pages of The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Inc.magazine’s website and the Financial Times.
A couple of admiring articles even appeared on the Forbes website. In 2014, a contributor named Drew Hendricks published a post entitled “Top 15 Entrepreneurs Who Give Back To The Community” on Forbes.com, listing Kohli at number two, right behind social media billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. Kohli makes special note of the Forbes article on his biographical page tied to his alma mater. (Hendricks was removed from the Forbes platform for violating editorial standards, and this article was removed from Forbes.com.) Another favorable article, from a different former contributor, remains online.
Based on the available financial information, Forbes estimates Kohli’s net worth to be in the hundreds of millions, not billions. The only U.K. company in his name is a dormant entity called Osac Management with just $129 (£100) on the books as of November 2018. Forbes values Kohli’s personal property in Henley-on-Thames at $8 million based on an estate agent estimate and similar listings in the surrounding area.
It’s very likely that Kohli earned most of his fortune amid the cash-rich gambling business in Costa Rica. Former HR consultant Paniagua told Forbes that while she worked there in 2009 and 2010, Kohli “would clear a couple of million a month. Free and clear. After he paid his houses, after he paid his cars, after he paid his lifestyle–net, net.” One former employee sent Forbes an Excel file with purported financial info for all of Kohli’s casinos for the month of October 2006; the profit for the month: $1.06 million.
“The one mission that every entrepreneur has, as a person rather than as an entrepreneur, is to extend human life.”
Kohli’s wealth has since spread around the globe. In India, where he has a solar panel startup, the government undertook a tax investigation regarding the startup and earlier this year found $21.6 million in assets in a multifamily office tied to Kohli as of December 2016, $20.9 million of which was classified as “long-term loans and advances.” A representative for Kohli did not comment on this matter.
In June, Kohli issued a press release saying he’d invested $100 million into an entity called Rewired, “a robotics-focused venture studio with a humanitarian bent.” Forbes was not able to confirm whether $100 million was really invested. One company mentioned was Open Bionics, a startup creating artificial limbs in Bristol, U.K, endorsed online by Star Wars star Mark Hamill. Open Bionics did not reply to repeated requests for comment. Forbes confirmed that Rewired invested in Aromyx–a Silicon Valley firm involved in producing bio-based scents for use in various consumer products (the dollar amount invested was not disclosed), and that Rewired was a backer of a $3.5 million seed investment round in U.K. firm Seldon, a machine-learning platform for sharing data.
And those nine properties, including the Berlin apartment complexes, listed on Kohli’s website? It’s unclear whether Kohli owns all of them or just a portion. A spokesperson for Kohli says his investments “have lain in real estate.”
This wide array of seemingly legitimate projects offer a way for Kohli to invent an image that belies his past as a con man, a casino boss and convict. That bothers his previous victims—the ones reached by Forbes are still out money. (Forbes could not confirm, with Kohli or elsewhere, whether Kohli paid his $5 million in restitution, and if he did, who got it.) It doesn’t seem to bother Kohli. “Show me an opportunity with global potential and I will create an empire,” Kohli boasts in his online bio for his alma mater. He already created an empire—just not the kind he wants people to believe in.
I am a wealth reporter at Forbes, based in London covering the business of billionaires, philanthropy, investing, tax, technology and lifestyle. I studied at Goldsmiths, University of London and joined from Spear’s Magazine, where I covered everything from the Westminster bubble to world of wealth management, private banking, divorce law, alternative assets, tax, tech and succession. Notable bylines include an investigation into Switzerland’s bi-lateral bonds to the European Union, and a journey through Bhutan – testing the hunger for democracy, and the love for their King. I joined Forbes in May 2019.
… a scalable, accessible and affordable technology solution to end corneal blindness worldwide. VIDEO: Wendy & Tej Kohli Discuss The Mission And Purpose Of The Tej Kohli Foundation https://www.businesswire.com/news/hom…
In 2007, Anit Hora quit her dream job with no safety net, no backup plan and no idea of what she was going to do next.
After graduating with a degree in fashion design Hora landed a high paying gig as a designer for a major label in New York City. She was earning a good salary, had great benefits, strong job security, enjoyed her work and was getting promoted on a regular basis. Seven years into her seemingly perfect career, however, Hora found herself thinking, “This can’t be it.”
“I did love my job, but I didn’t love it enough to not want to try something new,” she says. “I worked as a full-time knitwear designer when I started making my own products. When demand started to grow, it became more difficult for me to balance everything.”
Hora eventually couldn’t keep up with the pace of a day job and creating her own products, so she took off on a three-month backpacking trip around South America while she considered her next career move. As she traveled, volunteered and taught, Hora fell in love with the lifestyle and ended up staying for over a year and a half. “That’s when I realized that maybe the nine-to-five life isn’t for me,” she says.
The trip taught Hora how different life was outside the big city. For example, she says she had very little patience for illness in her corporate life; the moment she felt sick in New York she’d race to get a prescription for antibiotics and try to return to work as quickly as possible.
It wasn’t until she came down with an illness in South America and tried to do the same that she realized this wasn’t normal behaviour. “They all looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “They were like, ‘why would you want such a strong medicine?’”
That’s when Hora fell in love with herbal teas and natural medicines, which she studied formally upon her return to New York in 2008; first in classes at the Open Centre, then during an apprenticeship at an apothecary in Brooklyn.
She even started selling her natural health products at local craft fairs but eventually discovered they weren’t the natural products customers were looking for.
“Every time I’d go to sell them, these women would come up to me and ask for skincare and makeup stuff,” she says. “They’d come to me and be like ‘I’d buy this if you had this for face or hair or nails,’ and I thought, ‘yeah, I’d probably use that too.’”
In 2009 Hora enrolled in the Aveda Institute in New York City where she pursued her aesthetician’s license, but her savings were starting to dry up. At the same time, she needed money to buy supplies, create a website and build her new brand, Mullein and Sparrow.
To make ends meet Hora took up a day job at a spa while attending taking classes in the evenings and on weekends, building her business in what little time remained.
“I wasn’t sleeping very much in those days,” she says. “I don’t remember having any time for a social life or seeing friends, I remember being in complete isolation from everyone I knew, but it was so exciting that I didn’t see it like that.”
After years of balancing work, school and entrepreneurship Hora got the opportunity she had been waiting for in 2014, when she received an email from a representative at one or her favorite retail chains, Anthropologie. “That was such a surreal moment for me,” says Hora. “I was like ‘how did you even find me?’”
The company was interested in selling her products in their stores, but Hora couldn’t fulfill an order of that size from her home studio, so she started looking for a line of credit and a new workspace. Even with her purchase order, Hora couldn’t get her bank to provide the capital she needed. The demand was there, but it still took time for her to develop the bandwidth to fulfill a big order.
In reflection, she says she should have put more thought into financial planning. “I would have put more thought into my budget. Organization is not my strong suit so I would have brought someone on early on to help me allocate my resources more efficiently.”
Today, M.S. Skincare has products in a range of small boutiques and major retailers around the world, including Urban Outfitters, Free People, Nordstrom, Steve Allen and Anthropologie. But the greatest validation, according to Hora, happened when she was selected for an entrepreneurship fellowship from the Tory Burch Foundation as well as Goldman Sachs’ prestigious 10,000 Small Businesses Program, despite having no formal business training.
“There’s a lot of self-doubt that comes from doing this, especially if you spend the first few years by yourself figuring it out,” she says. “You just have to believe you can do it, and keep that sense of stubborn optimism.”
Sunscreen and makeup: a game of compromise, imperfection, skin damage and expensive products. 23-year-old Sophia Hutchins, who calls Caitlyn Jenner her “cheerleader,” aims to win that game with Lumasol, the FDA-approved odorless SPF 50+ sunscreen mist engineered to be applied after makeup. With a $3 million seed round from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and Greycroft Ventures, she’ll be able to expand her team of 30 employees and bring the product to market in early 2020.
“It’s SPF millennialized,” says Hutchins, surrounded by her three-person media team and director of operations in the Jersey City, New Jersey Forbes office. “We are a health and tech company and [sun protection] is an extraordinarily unaddressed health issue that we’re trying to attack.”
Hutchins, who lives in LA, is a first-time founder but no stranger to cosmetic titans. As a close friend of Caitlyn Jenner, Hutchins witnessed the Olympian-turned activist/socialite’s battle with skin cancer in 2018. And because of her closeness with Caitlyn Jenner, she spends significant time learning from Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian, who have built billion-dollar makeup brands Kylie Cosmetics and KKW Beauty from Instagram.
“I have a really good relationship with all of them,” says Hutchins. “What Kylie [Jenner’s] done is amazing. I admire that she’s been able to convert fans, likes and shares into buys—and she works nonstop.”
Hutchins transitioned to a woman as a freshman at Pepperdine University and graduated from the University in 2018 with a degree in economics, with the intention of going into investment banking rather than entrepreneurship. During her senior year, she lamented with her friend, the daughter of Kiehl’s founder, about the impossibility of flawless makeup and sun protection.
From that conversation, she was advised by Nick Drake, CMO of T-Mobile and worked with big three consulting firm to develop a sunscreen product for makeup wearers. Lumasol was born, and with her board of scientific advisors from UCSF, the U.S.-manufactured product was approved by the FDA as an over-the-counter product. The recyclable product will protect from 98% of UV and UB rays and will be sold direct-to-consumer via subscription, according to Hutchins.
“You could compare it to Dollar Shave Club or Harry’s,” says Hutchins. “I know this business is going to be a success.”
For Ian Sigalow, founder of Greycroft Ventures, who has previously led the firm’s investments in Venmo, Braintree and Shipt, he saw the potential for the product from the hundreds of dollars his family of five spends on goopy sunscreen every single year. “There’s an opportunity to do what Juul did for the cigarette category by changing the delivery mechanism and changing the formula somewhat to win really big market share,” says Sigalow, noting that the design firm behind Juul also designed Lumasol, as a conscious effort habituate healthy habits after doing the opposite with the e-cigarette giant.
Lumasol will not be the only ‘mastige’ post-makeup sunscreen spray on the market. Semi-premium sunscreen brand Supergoop retails a SPF 50 setting spray product at $12 per ounce. Coola, Kate Sommerville, Shisheido and Ulta Beauty, among others, offer makeup setting sprays with SPF.
So what compelled Founders Fund send Hutchins a term sheet within an hour of her pitch presentation? “Founders Fund invests in founders, first and foremost. Sophia [Hutchins] was such an incredibly strong person when she came in and pitched us on her vision.” says Cyan Bannister, the partner at Founders Fund who led the round. “She’s identified an underserved market and a product that people would want. The fact is that she can leverage her connections to power the distribution behind the product.”
Lumasol’s packaging is also a huge draw for the investors. The bottle changes color when exposed to UV and UB rays, letting its owner know it’s time for another spritz, and habituating reapplication. Additionally, the product’s design and functionality make it highly ‘grammable—a deliberate strategy for Hutchins’ plan to rely heavily on Instagram influencer marketing, with probable Jenner/Kardashian spots, to market the product.
“There’s obviously precedent with the Jenners in the skincare industry. That was not lost on me when we made the investment,” says Sigalow. “One of our theses around next generation brands is: If you attach an influencer with a huge following to a consumer product, it’s like having your own media channel, so Lumasol’s starting on third base—they’re going to take off.”
In preparation for Lumasol’s Q1 2020 rollout, Hutchins is hiring an “extraordinarily experienced CMO,” adding to the “hundreds” of user tests, and developing her influencer, popup and outdoor event event strategy. “I have a social obligation to give people a product that can seamlessly fit into their lives and also save their lives,” she says.
I’m the assistant editor for Under 30. Previously, I directed marketing at a mobile app startup. I’ve also worked at The New York Times and New York Observer. I attended the University of Pennsylvania where I studied English and creative writing.
Sophia Hutchins is an entrepreneur at the crossroads of health, beauty and tech. She is both founder and CEO of Luma Suncare Inc. She successfully closed her first round of venture funding in March 2019. She is busily preparing for the launch of her company. Hutchins is an outspoken advocate for women and equality in the workplace. People can often find her speaking to groups within corporate America and her favorite of all groups to speak with are entrepreneurial women. Prior to starting her venture, she served as CEO of the Caitlyn Jenner Foundation.
Mark Zuckerberg has had plenty of difficult days in the past year, but this past week was a good one for him. The Facebook CEO’s net worth jumped $5.5 billion in the week through Thursday April 25, mostly due to investor glee about the $2.4 billion in first quarter profit that the social media firm reported on Wednesday.
The 34-year-old is worth $71.3 billion, $20 billion more than at the beginning of 2019. He is now the 5th richest person in the world, up from No. 8 in March when Forbes published the annual world’s billionaires list. The positive quarterly earnings report overshadowed news that Facebook is setting aside as much as $5 billion to pay a fine to the Federal Trade Commission over privacy issues.
Zuckerberg’s gain was by far the biggest of the week, but he is in good company. The fortunes of Zuckerberg and four other tech billionaires, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, rose by a collective $13 billion in seven days.
A day after Facebook released its first-quarter earnings report, Amazon announced a quarterly profit of $3.6 billion, an all-time record for the e-commerce giant. Amazon’s share price rose 2.2% in the week through Thursday, causing Bezos’ net worth to surge by $3.2 billion. The 55-year-old CEO, who owns a 16% stake in Amazon, is now worth $157.8 billion.
Bezos announced earlier this month that he will transfer approximately 4% of the company’s stock to his wife, MacKenzie, as part of their divorce settlement, which is expected to be completed around early July. Jeff Bezos would still be the world’s richest person while MacKenzie will become the third-richest woman.
The net worth of Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s former CEO, rose $1.7 billion in the week through Thursday as the software giant’s share price increased by 4.7%. Microsoft smashed earnings estimates with a quarterly revenue of $30.6 billion, boosted by its commercial cloud business, which has grown 41% year-over-year. Ballmer, Microsoft’s largest individual shareholder, is now worth $48.3 billion. Cofounder and former CEO Bill Gates only owns just over 1% of shares, having sold or given away most of his stake in Microsoft, but the stock uptick did bump his net worth by $600 million.
Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies, is now worth $40 billion after gaining $1.4 billion in a week due to a 6.6% stock uptick. Last December, the computer maker returned to the public market six years after Dell took the company private. Dell Technologies’ market capitalization was $46.7 billion as of end of day Thursday, up from its $34 billion listing. Dell’s net worth has nearly doubled over the past 12 months.
Larry Page, the cofounder of Google and CEO of its parent company Alphabet, got $1.1 billion richer, with an estimated fortune of $57.6 billion. Shares of Alphabet, which will report its first-quarter earnings after the closing bell on Monday, have increased 2.2% since last Thursday. It has been a busy week for Alphabet’s “Other Bets.” Wing, which became an independent Alphabet business last summer, recently got approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to deliver goods by drone. Wing plans to start drone deliveries in Blacksburg, Virginia, later this year. Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to provide internet access to remote areas, raised $125 million from a SoftBank subsidiary on Thursday.
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Anthony Martin, 36, has created financial freedom for himself that many people can only dream of.
He generates $1 million in annual revenue at Choice Mutual, a one-man insurance agency he founded, by selling a very specialized niche product: final expense insurance. It covers burial expenses, so someone’s family doesn’t have to pay the costs, with a payout that is typically in the range of $10,000 to $30,000.
Six years ago, Martin’s life was very different. Working as a manager at an insurance agency in Roseville, Calif., Martin wished he had more control over how things were done. He eventually realized what he really wanted was to be his own boss. In 2013, he took a leap of faith and started the agency from his home.
Martin is one of a fast-growing cohort of entrepreneurs who are breaking $1 million in non-employer businesses, the government’s term for those that have no full-time employees except the owners.
The number of nonemployer firms that generate $1 million to $2.49 million in revenue rose to 36,161 in 2016, up 1.6 percent from 35,584 in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That number is up 35.2% from 26,744 in 2011.
So how did Martin grow his agency to $1 million? Recently, he shared his strategies with me. Many of his approaches are instructive for anyone who is selling a consumer product or service online.
Here’s how he pulled it off.
Focus on an area you already know well. It’s easiest to get a running start in a new business if you have already worked in the same industry. By the time he went into business, Martin had already racked up years of experience selling final expense insurance, so there was no need to get a crash course. It was easy for him to explain his product to customers because of that. “I have a very thorough understanding of all of the options out there,” he says.
Find an efficient way to attract customers. Although Martin knew his product well, he didn’t have experience in marketing, so he sought outside help. He hired a company called SellTermLife.com to build a website for him that would rank well in Google and help him get leads, through a customized marketing plan. He put up the website in June 2016.
Even with expert assistance, it was slow going at first. “It took me six months before I got a single lead from Google,” he says. Nonetheless, Martin kept showing up at his desk every day to build up his website. “You’re really going for a long-term play,” he says.
It took stamina to stay committed during those early months. The battle to get market share wasn’t the only one he was waging. For entrepreneurs, he believes, the real fight is to keep showing up for your business, even when it would be easy to slack off. “The majority of the fighting you’re doing is completely against yourself,” he says.
After Martin got his first lead, his momentum accelerated. Two months after that, he started getting daily leads through his site—and now it brings in many more. “It feeds me a never-ending flow of ready-to-buy customers,” says Martin.
Offer top-quality content. In working on his marketing plan,Martin had learned from the team at SellTermLife.com that it was important to publish high-quality, informative content to attract people to his site. As readers clicked on practical articles he wrote on topics such as state-regulated life insurance, life insurance for 89-year-olds and buying insurance for your parents, the site gradually built a strong organic rank in Google.
Here again, sticking with a niche subject he knew served Martin well. “You cannot find another website that sells this type of insurance that has anywhere near the level of in-depth, accurate information about this product,” says Martin.
Creating robust content took a serious investment of time, given that Martin did not have a writer on retainer. Every day during the week and for five to eight hours on the weekends, he’d create articles that address commonly-asked questions about final expense insurance. The articles attracted people who were already seriously interested in his product and also helped him to “own” certain search-term keywords, including “long-tail” phrases—such as questions customers might type into a search engine.
To figure out which keywords mattered most, Martin researched which ones were most commonly used, relying on tools such as Google’s keyword planner and SEM Rush. He also tapped his own knowledge of the field. “After selling this type of insurance for so long, I know the words people use,” says Martin.
Automate your leads. Martin’s site enables people to “request to apply” for the insurance by filling out a form. By the time a prospect has filled out the form, Martin knows he or she is serious.
To avoid losing track of these leads, Martin set up his site so the leads automatically go to his customer relationship management (CRM) system. Once it feeds him their contact information, he reaches out by phone, prioritizing the newest leads. “The person who has submitted a lead most recently is always the best person to call,” he says.
Thanks to this system, Martin never has to chase anyone down to get them to listen to a sales presentation. “I’m in a really unique situation in the world of selling insurance,” says Martin. “I actually don’t really sell anymore. For all intents and purposes, I’m more of a cashier. I just take orders.”
Embrace remote work. Many insurance agents spend a good part of their day driving to and from appointments with customers. Not Martin.
When customers decide to buy, Martin guides them by phone through a remote application process that the insurance companies have put in place. Sometimes customers sign documents using a program such as DocuSign. Other times, they use a voice signature on the phone.
Working virtually in this way helps Martin make the most of his time every day. “I’ve never met a person face to face to process the deals,” he says. “It’s all done remotely.”
Stay focused. Some of Martin’s contacts have recommended that he sell Medicare supplements or cancer plans. He always says no. “The reason I’m really successful in this space is I have been hyper-focused at being the most expert authority you can imagine on this type of insurance,” says Martin. When he gets an inquiry from someone who wants to buy insurance outside of his niche, he refers the prospect to a trusted industry colleague.
Martin does not look for reciprocal referrals, finding that leads that arrive this way are generally not as inclined to buy as the prospects who come in through his own website. “Right now if I had to choose between serving a customer who has said ‘I’m ready to apply. Please sign me up,” or a referral who has a question, I’m not going to make as much money from a referral,” he says. “That’s why I tell people ‘Don’t refer people to me.’ I allocate my working hours to people who are ready to sign up.”
One thing that helps Martin attract business is having a large number of positive online reviews. He requests reviews from customers automatically using TrustPilot’s automated system.
Keep overhead low Martin started out working from home in Roseville, Calif., but when his website traffic started to increase dramatically in March 2017 and he saw the business’s full growth potential, he realized there would be tax advantages to locating to Nevada, which has no state income tax. Licensing costs were also lower. He rented an office there for $2,500 a month.
Having the space is important because soon, Martin believes, he’ll need to hire other agents. “I have so much web traffic and so many leads that if I want to continue to monetize a lot of what is possible, I will have to hire agents to process those deals as well,” he says.
In the meantime, Martin keeps the rest of his overhead to about $500 a month. That covers his errors & omissions insurance, licensing fees and CRM subscription.
Protect your most precious resource. In a one-person business, where you have no one to back you up, staying healthy is essential.
Although Martin works long hours as he grows his business, he always finds time to work out. Rising at 4:30 a.m. every morning, he goes to a gym where he can do strength training and play basketball. Then he heads home for breakfast and starts making phone calls from his office around 7:30 a.m.
On the weekends, Martin and his wife, Christelle, love to enjoy the outdoors with their German Shepherds, Bear, and his new adopted sibling, eight-week-old Olive. “I could definitely sleep more,” Martin says—but his life is too full of good things at the moment to spend much time hitting the snooze button.
The venture capital firm cofounded by Facebook billionaire Eduardo Saverin and partner Raj Ganguly has raised hundreds of millions in new funding to invest in startups.
B Capital has raised $406 million in a first close of its second fund, according to a new regulatory filing with the SEC obtained on Friday. The firm, which wrote in the filing it had raised that amount from 62 investors since late March, indicated that it planned to raise more than that amount, which already tops the $360 million it raised for its first fund.
B Capital declined to comment on the filing or its funding plans.
Earlier in March, Forbes published a wide-ranging interview with Saverin, the cofounder of Facebook who moved to Singapore in 2009. In that article, Saverin and Ganguly revealed a strategy to invest in companies with an international focus—B Capital maintains offices in California, New York and Saverin’s Singapore—and ones that can benefit from a “special relationship” with Boston Consulting Group, the consulting firm that is one of the anchor investors in B Capital’s initial fund.
At the time, B Capital had made about 20 investments from that fund, using up much of its “dry powder,” as the industry sometimes refers to money available to invest in startups. A source told Forbes at the time that B Capital would look to raise a second fund of approximately twice the size of its first later in 2019. That remains the goal after this first filing, the source says now.
At the time, B Capital had recently expanded to bring on a seventh partner, Karen Appleton Page, a former executive at Box and Apple. With seven investment partners and check sizes that can run into the tens of millions, it’s not surprising that B Capital, still just four years old, would seek out so much money so fast.
“No matter how lucky or blessed I might be, I will never retire on a beach,” Saverin told Forbes in early 2019. “We are still so early into making the technologies that will impact the world.”
Read more of Saverin’s views—and see how B Capital is looking to stand out in a crowded venture capital market—check the full feature story here.
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I have written dozens of useful how-to lessons for driving sales, but perhaps none is more important than this one. This is the day that you learn that driving sales has very little to do with what YOU have to say. And, it is everything to do with what YOUR CLIENT has to say. The magic sauce to closing the transaction is knowing how to ask probing questions, sit back and LISTEN. Keeping your mouth shut is typically a really hard concept for a salesperson to grasp. But, if they do, jewels of insights and real pain points of your customers will quickly surface to the top the more THEY talk……..