Prime Dining: Uma Rajah of CapitalRise on the changing face of high-value property finance

By Nicky Richmond

Property lawyer & food writer Nicky Richmond talks FinTech, crowdfunding & mouthfeel with CapitalRise CEO Uma Rajah, over Celeriac Shawarma and Kombucha at ROVI in Fitzrovia.

I realise as soon as I see Uma that I have met her before. This was at the launch of an ultra-high-end development in Yeoman’s Row, involving the Finchatton Group. There’s a good reason for that, which will be explained later.

It’s one of those downsides of the day job, having to visit showhouses spec’d to the nines, filled with beautiful art and furniture.  You fantasize for a moment that if you work hard enough, you might be able to live somewhere like this, with your own home cinema, wine cellar and walk-in dressing room. Then you look at the price tag and realize that winning the lottery is your only chance.  Great for ideas, show homes, but unfortunately not ones that can be easily recreated by a weekend trip to IKEA.

Uma Rajah is CEO and co-founder of CapitaRise, the property finance firm launched by Finchatton’s Alex Michelin and Andrew Dunn in 2016

We are meeting at ROVI, in Fitzrovia (geddit?) which is my go-to restaurant for healthy, interesting and modern cooking.  Part of the Ottolenghi stable, I prefer it to their mothership in Islington or even NOPI, near the back of Carnaby Street. The restaurant is comfortable, stylish and occasion-appropriate, without being formal. It works for a relaxed business lunch or dinner with people in your life outside the office, should you have one.  You can also sit at the bar on your own without feeling like you have no friends. 

Sharing plates form the backbone of the menu but, if you prefer, you can do that whole conventional three courses and no-one–touch-my-plate sort of experience beloved of germophobes. Personally, I am a sharing-plates sort of girl these days. Whilst I do worry about not getting my fair share, I also like the idea of not missing out on your better choice of dish.

As it becomes obvious that I have been here many more times than might be seemly, Uma is happy to let me take control and I do not even pretend that I am not happy with this. Never knowingly under-ordered, I do some damage to the menu.  I also introduce Uma to the joy of Kombucha, a strange sounding, slightly alcoholic, symbiotic cocktail of yeast and bacteria, also known as a SCOBY. It’s meant to be good for your gut. According to Wikipedia and the Kombucha denier who edited the page, the potential harms outweigh the unclear benefits. ROVI is having none of that. They make their own, obviously.

Tempura, Hot tomatoes, and Crumpet Lobster Toast

Uma is the vibrant and enthusiastic CEO of CapitalRise. For those of you who don’t know what it is, CapitalRise is a first and second charge lender, open to the man or woman in the street with as little as £1,000 to invest, with a focus on prime real estate. You too can invest in Belgravia, more particularly, by way of a property loan, via this platform. It’s crowdfunding, Jim, but not as we know it.  

Not only is engineering a slightly unusual route into property finance, but choosing that subject was, for Uma, also an act of rebellion, if getting a Cambridge degree can ever be called that

Uma graduated with a Master’s degree from Cambridge in engineering. Not only is engineering a slightly unusual route into property finance, but choosing that subject was, for Uma, also an act of rebellion, if getting a Cambridge degree can ever be called that. 

Her parents wanted her to follow them into the family business, medicine.  I suspect that they have forgiven her this choice, although from her description of her (still actively working) parents, I suspect that they might be holding out for a late-career pivot back to doctoring.

Female CEOs of property lending entities are rarer than hen’s teeth and I’m interested in Uma’s journey to her current role. 

Graduate training at Mars might sound like a sugar-addict’s dream but, was in reality, a proper old fashioned training programme, where Uma spent time learning various parts of the business in depth. Product development is of particular interest and has been a continuing theme in her career. Should you be interested (and I am very much am her target market) Uma can give you a fascinating scientific explanation of the meaning of the word light, in the context of chocolate bars. Is it calorific content? You might think so.  Is it fat content? No. Turns out it’s mouthfeel. It is rare that one manages to bring the concept of mouthfeel into everyday conversation (and I have tried) but this is my day. 

Mouthfeel is a large part of the consumer experience. Mouthfeel is the sensation that something has in your mouth. Claggy mouthfeel might apply to something like peanut butter, or dark chocolate, both of which will be perceived as heavy and sticky. “Light” in terms of chocolate, means something that won’t hang around in your mouth, more’s the pity. There is, of course, science behind quick dispersal of the content of your mouth.

ROVI’s Celeriac Shawarma

I need no help with dispersing the contents of my mouth as we work our way through the various dishes which keep arriving, especially when it’s food as delicious as this. We demolish in short order a dish of architectural char-grilled sweetcorn strips, burrata with courgette, elderflower, lime and basil and a dish of hot tomatoes with cold yogurt, Urfa chili, oregano and sourdough. That’s before the star dish, the celeriac shawarma (don’t even think about it, just order it) and the stuffed mackerel, on a bed of aubergine. We will not starve.  

Moving from the business at hand to the business of finance, the CapitalRise website talks about Uma’s time at Mars and her experience at Wonga, which was, for her an interesting learning experience. In between was the small matter of an MBA at INSEAD. As you do. 

From Mars via Wonga sounds like something out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but the truth is a little more prosaic. 

No experience is all bad and in fact business collapse is often a great teacher

Uma started at Wonga when it was a small, tech-led innovative business. When she started, it had around 20 employees. She was number 21. It was a market disruptor, creating the first fully automated risk processing technology in the sector and creating an instant lending application form, via mobile, tablet and desktop. What now seems normal was then revolutionary. It ended, when it ended, with 900 employees. No experience is all bad and in fact business collapse is often a great teacher.  According to Business Insider, “Wonga spawned a FinTech diaspora of almost 200 former employees who still work in finance in London, spreading what they learned throughout this sector”. Uma is one such. 

It will be no surprise then that CapitalRise is no stranger to the FinTech world.  Their website talks about “disrupting the old way of investing in property” by giving investors “direct access to prime property-backed investments with attractive potential returns.” They fund professional property developers.  It’s crowdfunding into the prime sector and Uma believes that it is the only crowdfunder in this particular market. They do have other sources of capital, including institutional funding lines but it is for the crowdfunding that they are particularly known. 

What about the Finchatton connection? The luxury developer is a household name in the world of high-end residential and their website contains a number of rather impressive examples of their work. 

Finchatton’s Twenty Grosvenor Square has recently delivered 37 new super-prime residences in Mayfair

CapitalRise was founded by Alex Michelin and Andrew Dunn, of Finchatton, in 2016. Frustrated by the delays and complexity of obtaining funding, they thought that they could do better. Bringing in Uma on the FinTech side was key.  According to Uma, this background gives CapitalRise a particular advantage.  Real life developer expertise and coal face experience can be shared with developers newer to the market and who can benefit from the lessons learned by Finchatton in their journey.  The due diligence process is also more developer-focused and quick. They understand what they are looking at in a way that a traditional lender may not. 

We talk at length about the dinosaurs in the industry, the preponderance of men in real estate finance, the ritual dance of legals, the difficulty of documentation drafting and the whole painful closing process

We talk at length about the dinosaurs in the industry, the preponderance of men in real estate finance, the ritual dance of legals, the difficulty of documentation drafting and the whole painful closing process. Uma contrasts the sheer trauma of the legal documentation dance with the simple experience on the crowdfunding side, where signing up as an investor can be done online, in a day. Wearing her FinTech hat, she looks forward to a time when the legal process will be as painless as the investor one. I am not holding my breath. I would love to talk to her about it though. Anything which can speed up the mind-numbing completion checklist process would be welcomed with open arms. 

I “encourage” Uma to have the Loukoumades doughnuts with rose syrup, pistachio and gooseberries. I resist, as I gave up sugar three years ago. I am, however, a skilled enabler and enjoy watching others get their fix. The portion is so large that I need to check that they have not brought two by accident. She allows herself a couple of those golf-ball sized orbs of joy.  I would have managed all of them.  

Uma is nobody’s fool. Charming and perceptive she takes no prisoners but in a charming way. It’s refreshing to talk about the property finance industry looking at it through a FinTech lens and it’s clear that much of the way that business is done could be modernised and improved. Both Uma and CapitalRise are an interesting combination of old-school expertise and cutting-edge technology and it will be fascinating to see how many other lenders decide to go down the FinTech route, when they work out what that actually means.