Maureen Nova Ledesma’s previous jobs prior to establishing Vesl Pte. Ltd. (Vesl) got her thinking about why Philippine businesses do not have this same opportunity that would enable them to expand their reach globally.
Ledesma was a trade finance administrator at Czarnikow, a sugar trading company based in London. She was responsible for the structuring and administration of international trade finance of commodities. It was there that she recognized the benefits of trade credit insurance (TCI).
“How come I’ve never heard of these trade finance products back in the Philippines?” Ledesma asked herself recognizing that “it was an amazing product.” She was even more baffled by the fact that her mother, who was also in the trading business, didn’t know about trade credit insurance.
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After completing her BS in Commerce, Management of Financial Institutions at De La Salle University in 2010, she went on to work corporate jobs in various financial services institutions (FSIs) in the Philippines. As soon as she finished her Master’s Degree in Financial Management from Vlerick Business School in Belgium, Ledesma took an internship at Barco, an electronics manufacturing company.
In 2015, just four months after her stint at Barco, she was employed at Czarnikow, where she came across the idea of TCI.
As the term implies, trade credit insurance compensates companies for unpaid dues from customers because of various reasons, such as bankruptcy, insolvency, or political upheaval.
“So this is why the trading house I worked for can afford to extend payment terms of up to 120 days,” Ledesma said, “meaning they don’t get paid until after four months and it is because they are comfortable knowing that even though they won’t get paid, an insurer will cover them. Plus, they actually don’t have to wait for the payment because banks can advance it.”
Ledesma saw a gap in why this product, while offered in the Philippines, is not popular among businesses, especially with small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Trading insurers, according to Ledesma, require about 1% of the company’s entire expected sales portfolio.
“Aside from the fact that not many SMEs can afford to pay upfront, I think they are more comfortable with paying as they go or tingi-tingi (sachet),” she said.
Recognizing that need, and with the hope of enabling more SMEs to expand their businesses, Ledesma established Vesl in 2016.
“Vesl is a platform that enables businesses of all sizes to apply for trade credit insurance and then financing,” she explained. “The best part is paying for it as you transact. You only pay a premium for the transaction’s value.”
Through Vesl, even small businesses can afford this special type of insurance. Businesses can be competitive and expand confidently, offer payment terms, and grow with the backing of insurance and lending partners.
The birth of Vesl also stemmed from Ledesma’s desire to do something that would have a direct benefit to its intended customers.
Ledesma lost her father when she was only 25 and after coming home from Europe, she decided to make full use of her learnings there and empower SMEs here in the Philippines.
“Before starting Vesl, I remember, my father was just buried then,” Ledesma said. “I thought life is short and really, I have nothing to lose. What we essentially have are our lives and all we have to do is to make it count. You need to have faith in the universe to help you achieve what you want to achieve.”
Ledesma also realized that she cannot just wait for these finance products to be made available and affordable to Filipinos.
“My idea of making it count was to do something very bold and significant that could literally impact an entire industry — and even the world,” she said.
She also attributed her drive to something for being raised by strong women, especially her mother, who valued education and excellence. She witnessed her parents’ hard work to achieve what they have now and learned to become resilient and resourceful “because I understood a lot of the difficulties my parents went through.”
With Vesl, Ledesma hopes to give small businesses the opportunities — in this case, credit insurance — that were normally offered to big companies.
Vesl provides a platform for insurers, reinsurers, and insurance brokers to offer products and services to businesses and trade lenders. By carefully identifying special insurance products that can back financing and propel growth, Vesl helps level the playing field and bridge the trade finance gap for those who need it most. In doing so, it also provides insurers the opportunity to extend their capacity to an untapped market.
“Vesl’s services basically allow SMEs to extend payment terms, and win contracts with domestic or international buyers,” Ledesma explained.
During its first years of incorporation in Singapore, Vesl was able to raise seed funding from institutional investors after graduating from Startupbootcamp Fintech Singapore. It has since onboarded insurers, brokers, and lenders from the Philippines and Singapore.
But the most notable validation came from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) when it tapped Ledesma to educate businesses about TCI.
As of the third quarter of 2021, Vesl and partners were able to lend out up to $30 million to SMEs (15% of the allocation went to SMEs led by females) even during the pandemic.
“As a founder, it hasn’t been easy to convince partners to join our journey, especially the insurers who are comfortable with their way of selling insurance,” Ledesma said. “It was also challenging to market the product to the general public who have never heard of trade finance or trade credit insurance. We had to climb that ladder bit by agonizing bit. It’s a good thing that there are people who believe in you and who are willing to go through the journey with you. Somehow, the burden has become less heavy.”
Ledesma has had many rejections and had to deal with unforeseeable circumstances she could not control. But never did she think of backing down.
“As a leader, I plow through and continue what I have started,” she said.
“Progress may have been slow but we have accomplished more than what we were aiming for,” Ledesma said. “Insurers and brokers now recognize that a pay-per-invoice solution can be done — and that is, through the Vesl platform.”
For future founders, Ledesma said to never forget “why they started” to help them overcome the challenges hurled at them, because there would be many.
“But also, don’t be too hard on yourself. If it’s not for you, it’s not,” she said. “Just keep going. Remember that what’s meant for you will never pass you by.”
Categories: Founders, Vesl Pte. Ltd.
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