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As a Tunisian human rights activist within the 2000s, Amira Yahyaoui staged protests and blogged about authorities corruption. In interviews, she described being crushed by the police. When she was 18, she said, she was kidnapped from the road, dropped off on the Algerian border and positioned in exile for a number of years.

Ms. Yahyaoui’s compelling background helped her stand out amongst entrepreneurs when she moved in 2018 to San Francisco, the place she based a pupil support start-up referred to as Mos. The app hit the highest of Apple’s App Retailer, and Ms. Yahyaoui raised $56 million from high-profile buyers, together with Sequoia Capital, John Doerr and Steph Curry, in line with PitchBook, which tracks start-ups. Mos was valued at $400 million.

In podcasts, TV interviews and different media, Ms. Yahyaoui, 39, steadily mentioned Mos’s success.

Amongst different issues, she said the start-up had helped 400,000 college students get monetary support. However inside firm information seen by The New York Occasions confirmed that as of early final yr, solely about 30,000 clients had paid for Mos’s pupil support providers. The remainder of the 400,000 customers included anybody who had signed up for a free account and will have gotten an e mail about making use of for pupil support, two individuals accustomed to the scenario stated.

After Mos expanded into on-line banking in September 2021, Ms. Yahyaoui informed publications comparable to TechCrunch that the corporate had greater than 100,000 financial institution accounts. However these accounts had very small quantities of cash in them, in line with the inner information. Lower than 10 p.c of Mos’s roughly 153,000 financial institution customers had put their very own cash into their accounts, the information confirmed.

Some staff tried to talk up about Ms. Yahyaoui’s claims, stated Emi Tabb, who labored at Mos in operations and had roles comparable to head of monetary support earlier than resigning in late 2022. However Ms. Yahyaoui dismissed and typically disparaged staff who tried pushing again in opposition to her public feedback, 5 individuals who witnessed the incidents stated.

“She created a tradition of concern,” Mx. Tabb stated.

Mos is amongst a category of tech start-ups that rose throughout the quick cash period of the late 2010s and early within the pandemic, when younger corporations landed thousands and thousands of {dollars} in funding with little greater than guarantees. Now as the cash has dried up and lots of tech start-ups grapple with a downturn, buyers are pickier, clients are warier of daring claims and staff are extra suspicious of founder pronouncements.

Final yr, Mos laid off roughly half its employees of round 50 and shut down its banking service. The corporate reverted to its authentic enterprise of serving to college students discover monetary support and commenced emphasizing its use of synthetic intelligence.

Ms. Yahyaoui referred inquiries to a Mos spokeswoman, who declined to remark. When Ms. Yahyaoui was requested final yr about Mos’s variety of customers, she posted on social media that feminine founders have been typically presumed responsible whereas male founders have been presumed harmless.

“Perhaps at the moment we should always begin making use of presumption of innocence to additionally feminine founders,” she wrote.

This account of Mos was based mostly on interviews with eight present and former staff, in addition to inside communications, shows and analytics. The interior paperwork go as much as 2023.

Ms. Yahyaoui grew up in Tunisia after which lived in exile in France. After transferring to San Francisco, she raised cash for Mos from buyers together with Expa, the funding agency began by Garrett Camp, a founding father of Uber. Mos supplied a service to assist college students discover sources of monetary support, charging $149 for every college yr.

Deena Shakir, an investor at Lux Capital, which backed Mos in 2020, stated she and the agency’s companions “deeply respect” Ms. Yahyaoui.

“We take satisfaction in supporting corporations and founders like Amira whose dedication to enabling entry for college kids offers us hope for the way forward for greater schooling,” Ms. Shakir stated.

Mos had a gradual begin, three individuals with data of the corporate stated. Some college students who signed up discovered about support they already knew about, like a Cal Grant for California residents, they stated.

An investor presentation seen by The Occasions confirmed that Mos had month-to-month income of $340,000 in December 2019. The beginning-up allowed customers to pay $1 upfront and the remaining $148 after they obtained their monetary support.

Mos in the end didn’t gather most of that cash. Seventy p.c of customers defaulted on their funds after the pandemic hit in 2020, Jess Lee, an investor at Sequoia who sits on Mos’s board, later said in an article concerning the firm revealed on Sequoia’s web site.

As of late 2022, roughly 6,500 of Mos’s paying clients, or 22 p.c, obtained refunds for its monetary support service, in line with inside information. The corporate had informed clients that in the event that they didn’t get 5 occasions the price of Mos’s providers in monetary support, they may get a refund.

Mos said it may assist college students entry $160 billion in scholarships, however that quantity included loans, three individuals accustomed to the scenario stated. The corporate’s pitch was to assist college students keep away from debt.

Ms. Yahyaoui also said students who used Mos “saved” a mean of $16,000. That was the quantity that the start-up decided they certified for and never what the scholars obtained in support, three individuals with data of the corporate stated.

Mos’s website features a transferring ticker of completely happy clients (“Jasmine obtained $12,237 for Cal Poly,” for instance). Ms. Yahyaoui requested staff to make use of inventory images and to make up names, three individuals with data of the corporate stated.

By 2021, monetary know-how was scorching with buyers. Ms. Yahyaoui pushed Mos to turn into a financial institution, making its monetary support product free. That September, the start-up introduced its transfer into banking with a promotion that gave individuals $5 to enroll and one other $5 for each referral.

Signal-ups poured in. Mos turned off the $5 promotion on its first day. Two months later, it turned it again on for 3 days and signed up greater than 100,000 accounts, spending round $1 million within the promotion and sending Mos to the highest of the App Retailer.

The sign-ups piqued investor curiosity, together with from the funding agency Tiger International. Sequoia’s Ms. Lee wished to see how lots of the accounts that signed up throughout the promotion remained lively earlier than investing extra, two individuals accustomed to the scenario stated. Sequoia inspired Ms. Yahyaoui to rent an outdoor agency to evaluate whether or not the accounts belonged to actual individuals, the individuals stated.

Some staff additionally had issues that many accounts didn’t belong to actual individuals, three individuals accustomed to the scenario stated. As sign-ups continued, Mos analyzed the accounts for doubtlessly fraudulent conduct in an inside working doc. In November, Ms. Yahyaoui restricted Ms. Lee’s entry to that doc, two of the individuals stated.

Quickly after, in February 2022, Tiger International introduced it led a $40 million funding for Mos. Sequoia joined the deal. It’s not clear what impression entry to the doc would have had on Sequoia’s determination to speculate extra in Mos. Two individuals accustomed to the scenario stated Ms. Lee retained entry to a broader information supply concerning the accounts.

In a press release, Ms. Lee stated: “Essentially the most profitable founders are those who’ve grit and are prepared to check new hypotheses and adapt. Amira is the embodiment of those qualities.”

Tiger International declined to remark.

Alongside the funding announcement, Sequoia revealed an article on its website detailing Ms. Yahyaoui’s dramatic previous and entrepreneurial imaginative and prescient. It stated fewer than 1 p.c of Mos’s financial institution accounts had been closed, “an unheard-of statistic for a money-based sign-up promotion.”

Few individuals used the financial institution accounts, in line with inside information seen by The Occasions. Of roughly 153,000 open accounts, 95 p.c had lower than $5 in them and a 3rd had a stability of zero by 2022, the information confirmed. Simply 9.5 p.c of account holders deposited cash into their accounts throughout that point.

Mos informed its board that 74 p.c of checking account holders have been college students, in line with a presentation seen by The Occasions. However solely round 20 p.c have been 22 or youthful, in line with inside information, with about 45 p.c over the age of 30. Mos’s income from transaction charges, which made up the overwhelming majority of the corporate’s whole earnings after it turned a financial institution, was lower than $70,000 for the primary 9 months of 2022, two individuals accustomed to the funds stated.

Ms. Yahyaoui typically berated her prime managers and threatened to fireplace them if their efficiency didn’t enhance, in line with 5 individuals who witnessed such occasions.

Utilizing expletives, she wrote in a January 2022 message to staff that the corporate’s mission was meaningless “due to how dangerous we’re at getting” stuff achieved.

“I want individuals I can rely on to beat my goals to not decrease them,” she wrote.

Ms. Yahyaoui’s remedy of staff — together with employees employed in Tunisia and Algeria — ran counter to her picture as an activist, Mx. Tabb stated.

At an worker gathering in September 2022, a Mos worker requested Sequoia’s Ms. Lee about her largest concern for the start-up, three individuals who attended stated. Ms. Lee initially stated she was stunned by how good morale was given the circumstances, then added that it wasn’t clear what Mos’s product can be.

The beginning-up was at extra of a “seed stage,” or very early in its improvement, Ms. Lee stated.

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