Employee spotlight: Cathy’s story

Cathy fell in love with the diversity of Brazil and never looked back. Today, she’s helping bank the unbanked in Brazil with Airfox.

A woman smiles in front of a painted mural of many colorful faces
Cathy sitting in front of a colorful mural on Avenida Paulista in São Paulo

Senior Manager of Business Analytics, Cathy Melnikow, is one of Airfox’s most valuable employees when it comes to bridging the gap between our Boston and Brazil offices, thanks to her time spent living and working in both countries learning their cultural similarities and differences. But Cathy wasn’t always the adventure-seeking global citizen we know her as today; she started out growing up in Yorkville, NY, a tiny town with a population of 2,000 people and virtually no diversity of culture to speak of.

Cathy was accepted into MIT after embracing her love of math and taking community college classes to meet the requirements of the prestigious school. It was here that she was exposed to a plethora of diverse cultures and people for the first time-and loved it. Her time at MIT taught Cathy the value of diversity, and the respect one should have for all kinds of people and walks of life, that would go on to guide the choices she made in life after graduation.

Corporate buzzkill

But first, like many of us, she got her first job out of college at a stuffy company — and had a major existential crisis. Remaining in Boston after graduating from MIT with her bachelor of science in Management Science in 2010, Cathy became an IT Project Manager at Philips Healthcare, a large, well-known corporate company that assigned her dispassionate, ‘soul sucking’ work. Cathy didn’t see her young, adventurous, and open-minded attitude reflected in the people around her, and was seeking a change.

When she found out that Philips would be laying off the entire IT department including herself after two years there, Cathy was actually relieved. This was the out that she needed, after recognizing that she wanted to be contributing to the greater good in a way that corporate life wasn’t allowing her to do.

Seeking something completely different, Cathy searched for volunteer programs in warmer climates and by happenstance, found an opportunity to go to Brazil. She booked her trip and connected with the one friend she knew in São Paulo, letting him know she was coming to volunteer.

But just before she was set to leave, Cathy was surprised by Philips: They offered her a new job rather than being laid off along with the rest of the department. Weighing her options, Cathy finally decided to take the job with the caveat that she would need a month off for her trip to Brazil. With that settled, she was off!

Cathy standing on the monument marking the center of South America, located in mid-west Brazil

Discovering-and falling in love with-Brazil

Cathy instantly fell in love with Brazil. Armed with two weeks of Portuguese classes under her belt (not nearly enough, anyone would attest!) and her sense of adventure, Cathy spent four amazing weeks volunteering at a local school and making new friends with the locals — with a little partying on the beach, of course! The Brazilian people had such a love of life that Cathy had never experienced before, but spoke to her heart after her corporate time with Philips.

A view of the ocean and a beach and a cup of purple dessert with a spoon in it.
A view of the ocean and a beach and a cup of purple dessert with a spoon in it.
Açaí on the beach in Rio — a daily occurrence on Cathy’s first trip

When the trip was over, it was hard to return to her job in Boston. In fact, it was impossible. Cathy knew what she had to do, though she didn’t quite understand how: she had to move to Brazil.

Leveraging the MIT alumnae network, the few connections she had in São Paulo, and her tireless perseverance, Cathy was able to find a job, get her visa, and move to Brazil in 2013. She worked at a small company of about 200 people in which she was the only one who couldn’t speak Portuguese. Her coworkers were encouraging and friendly, even commenting that speaking to her was like receiving free english lessons, just as they gave her free Portuguese lessons daily.

Reflecting back on this time in Brazil, Cathy credits the kind, easygoing locals — from the Brazilian girls she shared a room with to the coworkers who were patient with her Portuguese — for making her dream of living in São Paulo possible.

Cathy (middle) and her two Brazilian roommates

Some of the best friends she made were with buskers, or street performers who made a living performing music for cash in the streets of Sao Paulo. It was through these friendships that she witnessed firsthand the disparity between those who had a bank account and those who lived in the cash economy — a separation that would eventually guide Cathy to Airfox and banQi.

Some of Cathy’s street performer friends playing music
Some of Cathy’s street performer friends playing music
Two of Cathy’s street musician friends

Banking the unbanked

After two years in Brazil, Cathy decided to move back to Boston in 2015 — but the Brazilian spirit and people she met along the way never left her heart. That was why when a job opening at Airfox came onto her radar in 2018, it seemed like the perfect fit: it brought together her love of Brazil and Boston, leveraged her knowledge of Portuguese, and filled a need for banking options she witnessed firsthand during her time abroad. Although the banQi project was in its infancy at the time, she was struck by the passion of the small Airfox team and their visionary leader, Victor Santos. This was a far cry from the stiff, corporate setting where Cathy had kicked off her career, which solidified that Airfox was where she was meant to be.

A ticket and passport held in hand
A ticket and passport held in hand
Cathy’s plane ticket in hand on her way home to Boston from Brazil

During her time with Airfox, Cathy directly contributed to the product launch of banQi in Brazil, as well as improving our customer service into the well-oiled machine it is today. There were only 10 employees out of Boston when she started, and they were just getting off the ground when it came to their goal of “banking the unbanked” in underserved communities.

Leveraging her knowledge of Portuguese and the Brazilian people, Cathy helped spark a transformation to make the company more customer-centric and truly address the needs of the underbanked. And when Airfox inked the partnership with Via Varejo, Cathy could finally see the vision coming to fruition. Today Airfox boasts hundreds of employees between Boston and Brazil, and over one million users on the banQi app. We’ve come a long way in two years!

At an innovation hub like Airfox, Cathy wears many hats: she has been involved with customer support, product development, marketing, data analytics, and more on any given day, and is an indispensable part of the team. Cathy’s come a long way from the tiny town of Yorkville, and it is her flexibility, passion for financial inclusion, and sense of adventure that makes her such a valuable member of the Airfox team.

To learn more about how banQi is banking the unbanked in Brazil, check out our blog post: Why banQi is now more important than ever.

Accelerate financial inclusion in emerging markets using technology built with trust and inclusion. www.airfox.com

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