An immigrant on guard for American security: how a Kazakh created an app for the US intelligence services
In early 2021, Forbes published the Next 1000 list. It includes self-funded stores and startups from all over the United States with preliminary income of less than $ 10 million. That is, the most successful small businesses. Elisar Nurmagambetov, 28, is among the participants in this year's list. Together with 66-year-old American businessman Amir Sanderjee, he created Consilienz, a software system that detects financial crimes such as money laundering and fraud, as well as cases of human trafficking. Edition Forbes spoke in detail about the startup and its founder.
The Kazakhstani says that getting into the US security industry is extremely difficult even for an American specialist, let alone a young immigrant. Many come to open a business in this area only after a long work experience, including in the intelligence services. Nevertheless, today the country's financial, law enforcement and government organizations are using the Consilienz system to find suspicious transactions. The product became especially popular during the "helicopter" anti-crisis distribution of money in the spring and summer of 2020. And Elisar Nurmagambetov was included in the short list of the annual rating "30 under 30" Forbes Kazakhstan, which will be released in the next issue.
Kazakhstan - USA - France
Elisar was born and lived most of his life in Almaty - he studied at the famous 105th gymnasium, then entered the Faculty of Oriental Studies.
“I have never been an exemplary schoolboy or an outstanding student. And I chose this faculty only because I was looking for a place where there would be no mathematics, ”he admits laughing.
However, life has its own sense of humor - then he avoided mathematics, and now he is doing a project that in one way or another refers to a complex technological process, where there is no way without calculations.
As a result, he studied there for only six months - in the end he realized that this was not his business, and dropped out.
“All my life, they told me that I was a fool, they punished me for this,” he comments with a smile.
However, his parents supported him and helped financially, when in 2011 his son decided to go to study in the United States. I entered Cleveland State University in Ohio, because at that time it was the most affordable option in all respects. Meanwhile, a full understanding of who he wants to become is still not formed in his head.
In just three years of study, Elisar changed about 16 specialties: psychology, marketing, business, photography, acting and others.
“I didn't really strive for anything, I just tried everything. They show comedies about American student life, and I had about the same, ”recalls the immigrant.
And in the fourth year of study, Elisar transferred to the French Université Grenoble Alpes. Surprisingly, not only was he able to graduate from the university in 2014, but thanks to many credits he received a diploma in three specialties at once: economics, law and business management.
After that, he decided to return to his homeland and got a job at Carlsberg Kazakhstan. And even then, he says, he returned only because his girlfriend needed to graduate from a local university.
As a result, it so happened that it was in this company that Elisar first became acquainted with anti-fraud activities: he was responsible for controlling the movement of marketing funds.
In 2015, Elisar, together with his girlfriend, left for the USA again. Even in his first years in Ohio, he helped children from Kazakhstan with admission to American universities. Thanks to this, he managed to establish contacts with representatives of universities.
“Back then, educational platforms like Coursera were just gaining popularity. I started going to universities and suggesting that they create such systems at home. It was clear that online learning was the future, ”he says. According to Elisar, he helped launch a similar project for Ohio University.
“They were very interested in this, and then we sold courses to Korea, China, even to Kazakhstan,” the entrepreneur recalls.
In 2016, Elisar joined Innovest Global, a large diversified industrial company, as a Marketing Specialist. “In fact, I didn’t even have a resume - I was so gouging. Just one of the evenings a friend called, whom we met while still studying. He said that he remembered me and offered to go through an interview at the company where he worked, ”says Elisar.
At first he thought it was some kind of catch, because even many American friends could not find work for a long time, but still the next morning he showed up for an interview. He says they took him right away, although for the first six months they had to work practically free of charge.
“The peculiarity of America is that you can get a job at some Starbucks and earn $ 2-3 thousand a month, or become a beginner specialist in the field and not earn anything. But after three years at Starbucks you will still receive the same money, and being a specialist with experience - much more, ”explains the entrepreneur.
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However, he did not plan to stay on the spot for a long time. A year later, Elisar left the company: an acquaintance from Kazakhstan offered to participate in his startup. But the case did not work out, as a result, he lost money and, in addition, left his stable job in vain. According to the interlocutor, that startup did not even have a name. It was a project that allowed us to analyze the customer base, see which customers are loyal and which are not. “We just didn't have the experience. In addition, we disagreed with the partner in understanding the product, ”explained Elisar.
After that failure, he could not find a job for 10 months. “I was turned down by 275 companies where I applied my resume, all these months from XNUMX am to XNUMX pm every day I went to interviews. Regularly traveled to Silicon Valley for offline interviews, but to no avail. I went to everyone - from large corporations like Google to supermarkets, to the vacancy of a seller of blenders, ”the entrepreneur recalls.
Better than Oracle
In 2017, a Kazakhstani company entered the United States, engaged in the most complex digital solutions - from RPA to Big Data. A friend of his worked in this company, who informed the owner that there was an intelligent specialist.
“I already had experience in marketing, fraud, and most importantly, I knew how to make deals,” said Elisar.
However, before the company called him, he suddenly received an invitation from Oracle to be the sales director of the product division. Thinking, Elisar chose his compatriots.
“Oracle offered 3 times more, but to be honest, who would I be there now? Senior director maximum. It was not prestige or money that was important for me - I had to jump to the next level, ”he says.
According to the interlocutor, a year later the company was included in several lists of the leading US vendors - from artificial intelligence to blockchain.
“I became a CEO in America. Our activity was in one way or another related to big data and security - combating money laundering, corruption and crime, ”says Elisar.
In 2019, he also resigned from this company - again due to disagreements with partners regarding the company's development path. Moreover, he admits, he already wanted to discover something of his own.
Idea for a million
For two months Elisar did nothing - he tried to understand what exactly he needed. “Once I sat down in front of a white sheet of paper and wrote everything I know about the industry in which I worked lately - the money movement. On 30 pages I described what the problems are and how, in my opinion, they can be solved. Then I sent it to all my acquaintances - at that time I already had a fairly wide network of connections in the industry. It got to Facebook and IBM. Very quickly, literally in two weeks, ”recalls Elisar.
This is how the American businessman with Tanzanian roots, Amir Sanderjee, found out about him, who volunteered to become a co-founder of a startup and enter the project with money. In total, according to Elisar, they initially invested about $ 1 million in Consilienz. Before participating in the project, Amir developed financial companies such as Cash Edge, Fiserv and Nanopay. But what interested the 66-year-old experienced businessman in the idea of a young Kazakhstani?
The fact is that before the entire money movement industry in the United States was focused not on actually preventing crime, but on avoiding fines from the regulator for poor control.
“Everything was aimed exclusively at reducing costs with a minimum of requirements, since up to 10% of the banks' turnover is spent on checking transactions,” explained Elisar.
Suppose, he says, someone wants to transfer money from point A to point B. The bank has minimal information on the sender - date of birth, ID-card data. About the addressee, except for the name and the receiving bank, almost nothing is known. This creates risks of withdrawing funds from the country. To track each transaction, 10 thousand analysts work in special departments and verify them, reporting suspicious movements of funds. As a result, about 90% of alerts turn out to be false. That is, all these people are wasting 90% of their time.
Many banks are looking to reduce false alerts through machine learning. But the challenge is not to miss out on real threats. Most systems focus on scenarios of transactional behavior. Consilienz's approach is different: to collect as much information as possible on the people and companies that make transactions. Because, Elisar explains, each customer's behavior is different, and what seems suspicious to the hospital is not the same to the supermarket.
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“For the bank, the current systems reduce only up to 20% of false positives, although this also saves tens of millions of dollars. But if you initially know who the addressee is, it saves you up to 50%. This is the essence of my idea. We take hundreds of sources and aggregate information - from fines for car offenses to information about the place of work, lists of Interpol and special services. For a huge number of bases. It's all easy in Kazakhstan - there is Egov. But here everything is fragmented, ”says the entrepreneur.
In conjunction with the special services
Consilienz today enables US financial institutions and companies in other industries to quickly and accurately identify cybercriminals in money laundering schemes, identify risks, and comply with regulatory requirements. Indeed, in the United States, fines for violations of these requirements exceeded $ 2019 billion in 10. Increased regulatory pressure, combined with increasingly sophisticated criminal schemes, have led to an increase in the cost of ensuring financial security. For example, in 2020, US financial institutions spent $ 26,4 billion on monitoring for possible money laundering.
“Just before the pandemic, the US added the Cayman Islands to the blacklist. Interpol, British intelligence and everyone else went there to investigate the facts of money laundering. IBM had been in the Cayman deal for three years, but couldn't win to gain access to the data. However, when they took us as partners, they won. I will not say that only thanks to us, but now the special services have tested our system. Collectively, the Cayman Islands have been removed from the blacklist, ”says Elisar.
Last year, he continues, the US government allocated $ 2,2 trillion of antiquated, and the problem of controlling the movement of money was sharply actualized: “Crazy money has fallen on the shoulders of banks, which must be transferred clearly to the addressee. The New York Times and other media have already reported that $ 300 billion may have gone to China, some billion to Russia. "
IBM, according to the interlocutor, also decided to take part in the competition to control the movement of these funds, but again it did not work out to win without a partnership with Consilienz. “I was dragged into Zoom, I started giving a presentation of our system, and after seven minutes I was interrupted. I thought - everything. But a week later they said that we won, ”Elisar laughs contentedly. He refused to name the amount they will receive for the work, since Consilienz is on a subcontract with a large federal supplier: "But this is less than $ 10 million."
Elisar says that today the US government is very seriously interested in problems in this area, because for a very long time banks gave money to almost everyone without any detailed checks. Now they are under the threat of heavy fines.
“Today we can come to the bank and say: the state uses our system and sees the results. You can use the same system. In fact, the fact that we are engaged in a large project with IBM opens up a market of 5000 banks for us, ”says Elisar.
The interlocutor admits: he is still surprised at how he ended up in this industry. “I am about 25 years younger than anyone at this level here. After all, while you come, you need to work for five years for the state or in closed structures, then go to get big in business and study technologies, ”explains Elisar. In addition, usually in the West, Kazakhstan is associated with Borat or confused with some other "camp". “The Americans are also scared by our closeness to Russia, which is still their number one threat,” he laughs.
Elisar modestly admitted that he wanted to tell his story more beautifully and more logically, but what is not, is not: “I did not study at Harvard, did not build a career in cool companies that would lead me to the current industry, I do not have a PhD. I just long and hard tried all the jobs in a row - from vacancies in the production of beer to employees in the educational and banking sectors. I managed to use soft skills, I had to break myself a lot and win battles in my own head. "
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