Francis Barel

Head of Market Growth, PayPal, Inc.

I met friends for life who are both sounding boards and a professional network. It’s an incredible brand that opened up a lot of doors.

Over the last 15 years, we’ve come to take for granted that we can buy something online, pay digitally, and retrieve it from our doorsteps days later. But across the Middle East and North Africa, it’s a very different story. There, 80 percent of local purchases are done with cash—even if the transaction began online. Place an order for, say, a television, and a delivery guy will come to your door, take your cash, and hand you a box. It’s not that people don’t have bank accounts or access to the Internet, but cash is still king.

For Francis Barel T’05, PayPal’s business development manager for the Middle East and North Africa—a region often abbreviated MENA—those customers are a great opportunity. The ability to make reliable cashless online transactions can quite literally open people’s lives to the world.

Based in his native France, Barel focuses on the 12 MENA countries between Morocco and the Persian Gulf. “Although PayPal is already a 16-year-old Internet company, it has been able to retain its startup sense, especially in the MENA region,” says Barel. “It feels like Silicon Valley of 1998. The whole ecosystem needs to be built.”

For Barel, that means not only enrolling merchants to accept PayPal, but also convincing consumers to use it. The education component involves many interviews with local media about how and where to buy safely online. “There’s still a lot of fear around e-commerce and buying internationally,” says Barel. He also develops partnerships with banks in order to broaden PayPal’s range of services and keeps an open dialogue with the nations’ central banks. While there are other online payment firms targeting the MENA countries, PayPal remains the market leader.

In comparison to the mature markets of Europe or the United States, Barel finds the rapid development of e-commerce in MENA countries particularly gratifying. For example, when PayPal launched in Egypt last year, Barel watched social media light up with the news. Before, Egyptians could not buy much online—internationally, their credit cards would be declined. PayPal’s availability meant they could buy books, games, music, and imported goods.

Even during periods of political instability and demonstrations, Egypt’s use of PayPal continued to grow rapidly. While it simply may have been the pent-up demand for PayPal driving growth, Barel also wonders if it was a byproduct of people staying off the streets. “People at home still have a bit of money to spend and enjoy, especially on digital goods like Internet services, music, movies, and Skype credits,” he says. “The delivery guy is not going to take his scooter through the tanks, but with digital delivery, that’s not an issue.”

A payments expert by day, Barel also has what some might consider a second career. While he’s on the road opening the world to digital payments, Barel spends late nights in far-flung hotels and spare hours on planes designing fictional worlds. A prolific writer since childhood, he has written screenplays, short stories, poetry, and four novels, including 2013’s “Saving Kennedy,” his first in English.

Before joining PayPal in 2013, Barel’s career in banking and strategy consulting took him to as many as 30 countries all over the world. Having spent his childhood summers with a close family friend in Boston, he considers himself  “the most American French guy there is.” When it came time to choose a business school, the U.S. seemed a natural choice, and not only was Tuck the most personal of the top business schools, but between professors and students, Barel found dozens of nationalities there. “I met friends for life there who are both sounding boards and a professional network,” he says. “Tuck also taught me so many different skills in terms of finance, strategy, and marketing that I still use today. It’s an incredible brand that opened up a lot of doors.”

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