Episode 170

Kristy Kim ·  Credit Cards Built by Immigrants for Immigrants

“ I came back to San Francisco when we launched and found out we had more than 20,000 people signing up on the very first day! It was amazing! ”

Kristy Kim is the founder and CEO of TomoCredit, a fintech startup building the future of underwriting without FICO. She immigrated to the U.S from Seoul, South Korea, and got rejected for auto loans five times. She turned her personal struggles into creating new innovative ways to assess the credit worthiness of the no file/ thin file population 


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Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Bryan Pham: Hey, everyone! Welcome to our episode on the Asian Hustle Network podcast. Today, we have Kristy Kim. Kristy Kim is the founder of TomoCredit. Kristy, welcome to the show. 

[00:00:10] Kristy Kim: Thank you for having me. 

[00:00:12] Bryan Pham: Of course, Kristy, please tell us more about yourself and your upbringing. 

[00:00:16] Oh yes, so I’m originally from South Korea.

[00:00:19] Kristy Kim: My mom and dad are both entrepreneurs. They run small businesses in South Korea. Growing up, I always saw my parents working so hard. But at the same time, they truly enjoyed what they were doing. So I would say it was a pretty good upbringing that I had a positive idea of being your boss and doing what you love.

[00:00:40] Bryan Pham: I like that a lot too. My parents are both entrepreneurs as well. The funny thing is that they always told me not to become an entrepreneur. They are like; it’s too stressful. They used to think that I think slow and that you are not going to be a good entrepreneur. You think too slow. You can’t solve problems.

[00:00:53] Wow, what confidence, mom and dad. But how did your parents encourage you to become an entrepreneur, and were they super supported initially? 

[00:01:01] Kristy Kim: Yes. My parents have an interesting story. My dad worked for an extensive UK company for many years. He studied Chemical Engineering in South Korea and quit his job when he was 32 or 33. He didn’t bring any money home for two years. So when I told my parents, Hey, I quit my job and will start a startup. My mom told me, let’s see if you do better than your dad. I think they had a healthy mentality and didn’t have a high expectation of me, which helped.

[00:01:37] Bryan Pham: Yes. That is very supportive already, not putting pressure on you. I think for both Asian parents, that pressure is, “okay, can you make money on your own? Can you make it? Can you do it?” That is their biggest concern. The other thing is your well-being. Are you mentally capable of handling the stress?

[00:01:55] as we know, most entrepreneurs put on multiple hats. How has transitioning from a full-time job to becoming your boss? What has that process been like for you mentally, emotionally, and personally as a person? What blows through your mind from day one to two now? 

[00:02:11] Kristy Kim: I see. So I first started TomoCredit. By the way, TomoCredit is a company that issues credit products starting from credit cards for people who do not have a credit score.

[00:02:24] All the immigrants, international students, or any young people in the U.S who have not had a chance to build credit yet. So for me, the idea was so personal because when I came to the U.S, I was only 11 years old, and my parents, as I said, were entrepreneurs. They could not move here with me.

[00:02:46] I figured things out independently and went back and forth to Korea and here a lot. No one taught me about credit scores or credit in general, even after finishing college. So, I learned about credit scores in my mid-twenties, which was too late. I suffered so much because I didn’t have a credit score.

[00:03:08] I could not get an auto loan. I could not rent an apartment in San Francisco. The idea was very personal to me. In the beginning, I was fearless in a way that, Hey, someone has to do this. I suffer so much. And if mainstream financial institutions are not going to do it, someone has to do it so that I will give it a shot.

[00:03:32] Bryan Pham: Yes, I like that fearless mentality of jumping on both feet, knowing that there is a more significant cause behind it, that there are a lot of international students that don’t have credit and still need to move on with their lives. It is fantastic that you created TomoCredit to solve that need.

[00:03:46] As you were creating TomoCredit, how much planning ahead of time did you have before you quit your job and started doing this full time? Was it more of a hybrid model where it is like you worked on TomoCredit after work? Was it something where you just felt so convicted that you are just like,

[00:04:03] “Yes, see you later, boss. I’m done with my job. I have just been full-time.” 

[00:04:06] Kristy Kim: It was a hybrid initially. It was not intentional that way. It just happened to be that way. Right before starting TomoCredit, I got accepted to the MBA program, and I decided to go to UC Berkeley MBA because I loved the school.

[00:04:22] I was already familiar with and working at a venture fund in Hong Kong. They only invested in the crypto native projects, not even crypto in equity funding. At that time, I was enjoying my job. I like that they would fly me, like first class, to Hong Kong and San Francisco all the time.

[00:04:44] I get to stay at the hotel. It was two weeks here in San Francisco, two weeks in Hong Kong, and going back and forth. My job was looking at companies in the U.S that the company should invest in, so basically, like sourcing and evaluating the deals. So I liked it a lot. I learned a lot, but I had this unfulfilled part that was not practical enough.

[00:05:09] It was intellectually challenging and fun. It is not solving the problems of today. Even though I founded this company and invested in it, I will not see anything out of it in the next two years. So for me, that kind of bothered me a lot. So I thought that there was a problem that was acute for me.

[00:05:31] Many people with the same problem in the U.S. do not have a credit score. So why don’t I solve this? That might be more meaningful to me, so I decided to do that, but I didn’t quit the job immediately. Maybe two or three months of overlap, I would look for Defi companies in crypto that tried to do something with crypto to bypass the VI ecosystem.

[00:05:56] I specifically met them. I told my fund, my boss, Hey, I want to cover Defi, and they let me cover because it is a promising sector anyway. I covered it while working on the side, on my specific idea, with or without a crypto component to it. When I felt ready, December 31st was my last day at a job in 2018.

[00:06:20] Yes. In 2019, on January 1st, I went to the rework. I worked there. That was my day one, working on Tomo full-time. 

[00:06:28] Bryan Pham: I love that. I love that story a lot. It is one part of your story that caught my attention too. Most people think that being a venture capital is the end goal that would make them extremely happy. But you feel more fulfilled being an operator again or being an operator in general. And I like that comparison because I feel like nowadays, you talk to many young people, they’re like, oh, I want to get to venture capital. I want to invest. I want to do this and that.

[00:06:50] But I feel most of your hard skills and passion come from being an operator, like solving a real problem. I feel that if you are a young person, you should be an operator until you get to a stage where you don’t have that much time to be an operator.

[00:07:06] You have more insight and compassion towards founders because you have been on quote-unquote, “the harder dark side,” right? 

[00:07:13] Kristy Kim: Yes. So I’m a runner, so I run marathons. I always tell people that, yes, like when you are finishing a marathon, as a runner, you feel really satisfied, happy, and fulfilled, and you learn so much through those 26.2 miles.

[00:07:30] That is like an entrepreneur and operator; you get to see it, and you know which part you are good at, you are bad at, and you know how to pace it. But when you are an investor, if you are a sponsor of that runner, you will meet, just watch. The investors will be happy when the runner finishes the race, but it’s like a different type of learning.

[00:07:51] Some people are better suited to be cheerleaders and sponsors. Some people want to be a runner on their own, so I think it’s a different type of feeling when you are young, probably, yes! I agree with you that it’s better to give myself a shot as a runner. And if you don’t want the struggle in pain, switch, right?

[00:08:12] Bryan Pham: Yes! 100%. I also want to give you a lot of credit for being a runner and a marathon runner. She casually dropped that on us. You are like, oh, I just ran 26 balls. 

[00:08:20] Kristy Kim: Not every day, so maybe once a year. 

[00:08:23] Bryan Pham: Okay. I want to let our listeners casually drop on us like many of us. I think for myself, I can barely run like three or four miles right now. Nonetheless, 26. So congratulations on that. It’s amazing! 

[00:08:33] Kristy Kim: Thank you. 

[00:08:34] Bryan Pham: Of course, and I want to shift the focus and talk about you as a woman founder. As we know, the tech space can do much better with representation and invest it into women, founders of color, especially.

[00:08:47] want to hear about your experience, being a women founder, going out to fundraise your seed, ground, and series. What was that process like for you? How did you face any hurdles, and how did you overcome them?

[00:08:59] Kristy Kim: Yes, so I get that question quite often, and, unfortunately, no one has a clear answer to that. I tell people, Hey, I just need to focus on the things within my control because there are so many things that I cannot control, especially any stereotypes or misconceptions about minority female founders.

[00:09:25] Hey, what can I do? Like I’m not their mom. I cannot fix them, so I will avoid them if I can. So I don’t get that stress, but if I meet them, I just cross through and meet the next person. That’s my mind so far. Fortunately, the silver lining is that there are so many investors. Then, in the beginning, especially the seed round, it is the most difficult, but it gets easier after that. So if you are a female minority founder going through the seed round, just remind yourself that this is the hardest. Like trust, it gets easier because you have numbers and matters to show.

[00:10:10] So you don’t matter that much after a certain company stage. 

[00:10:17] Bryan Pham: Yes. That is really good advice too. It’s relieving to hear that the process gets easier. We have some founders on the podcast, and we hear their stories. No, it doesn’t get easier.

[00:10:26] It continues getting harder, so I’m glad to hear that the process has gotten easy for you. But again, I feel like nothing in the business world is easy. I think that I feel like you have grown a lot stronger through the process so it feels easier.

[00:10:39] Kristy Kim: That is possible. And also, if you think about it, like a seed round, minority female founders or minorities in general, we have a higher bar to jump. And we did it, meaning that we already got filtered. So after that, of course, our numbers look better. So for me, okay, we already went through some filters and did the difficult part.

[00:11:04] Our numbers look good, and we put extra hours into it. I think that’s why, when you look at the data, funding Diverse Founder is beneficial for the fund because actual performance is better than the average. 

[00:11:20] Bryan Pham: Yes, I 100% agree with that statement. And as you are building TomoCredit, let’s talk about your founder’s journey quickly.

[00:11:27] Let’s talk about your day one to two. What were some of the struggles you faced building TomoCredit in the early days? What are your struggles now? And what was the turning point for you where you felt this could be a viable company? 

[00:11:40] Kristy Kim: The turning point was the first week we launched the product.

[00:11:47] I still remember that because I was filming Shark Tank in July 2020 and was in Las Vegas. I had to quarantine within that room for one week or two weeks. I was the number one TomoCredit user. I got approved as a test user, number one, and then we had a real launch, like an official launch. And then, I remember making the first transaction in Las Vegas at the airport because I was filming in Vegas for Shark Tank, then the transaction went through. I was so happy. Okay, this thing works. The card works because we went through multiple iterations of it. That was our final iteration, and it worked.

[00:12:34] I was so happy. And then, when we launched, I came back to San Francisco, we found, and we had more than 20,000 people signing up on the very first day. So we are like, oh wait, we didn’t do any marketing, and the Shark Tank episode didn’t even air. They never actually aired my episode. So for me, oh wow, we have so much traffic and attention organically coming the first week since launch. I felt that, okay, this is going to work. 

[00:13:05] Bryan Pham: Wow. Twenty thousand sign-ups went in the first week.

[00:13:09] Kristy Kim: For one day, the first day. 

[00:13:11] Bryan Pham: Oh, the first day, dude. 

[00:13:12] Kristy Kim: Yes.

[00:13:12] Bryan Pham: That is like a founder’s dream come true even at the most optimistic point. That’s absurd for signups.

[00:13:19] So congratulations on that! 

[00:13:20] Kristy Kim: Yes. Thank you. And then at that time, we didn’t prepare anything. We didn’t do email outreach or social media. We didn’t do any of it because I was scared. I wanted to do it slowly because you don’t want things to break on the first day. It was great that so many people came, and then actually, later, I found out that the very first week, one or two YouTubers that I didn’t even know existed at that time mentioned TomoCredit, and that gave us an extra boost.

[00:13:47] I thank the YouTube community for actually helping us have broken through success in the early days. 

[00:13:54] Bryan Pham: Congratulations! That would be my strongest conviction. If I were you, I’d be like, oh wow, like I had 20,000 sign-ups, a product market fit. Most people stress about that, by the way, they’re like, oh my God, I have one sign-up for two sign-ups.

[00:14:06] I had to hustle to get more, but I’m happy to hear that success story early on. I’m curious, too, about you being the founder and CEO of TomoCredit, right? What have struggles with scaling the company from like yourself to others because most founders, especially first-time founders, have delegation issues?

[00:14:29] If I delegate that, how would I ensure the quality will be the same, or you get the quality back? You are like, no, it’s not what I’m thinking. So what have been some challenges for scaling the company from just yourself to others? 

[00:14:42] Kristy Kim: Yes, so the first part I struggled with was asking for help. I don’t know whether this is my or an Asian problem that we just want to fix on our own.

[00:14:56] We want the world to believe that we are perfect. So when things are not good, or I have something I’m struggling with, I naturally do not want to share with anyone prematurely. So sometimes investors like, “why didn’t you tell me this before? We could help,” But for me, I would fix it myself and then tell them, Hey, this happened, I set it. Now we are good. 

[00:15:20] So I waited until it got fixed and told them, and they said, yes, we could help you with X, Y, Z. Just let us know. 

[00:15:28] So for me, Okay. And they are like, yes, you should use us. I want to work for you, but you need to tell me what it is.

[00:15:37] So I was like, okay, I will do better. And the same thing internally, related to delegation, I feel like I can do it within 30 minutes. But the other person has to spend three hours doing it because I have more information than he has. So he needs to ramp up and finish. Then I’m like, I would just do it.

[00:15:57] I would just sleep 30 minutes less and do it alone. That only works up until a certain point, so now I practice more and more on delegating and knowing that even though that person spends three hours, it’s worth it. Next time, he can spend a shorter amount. 

[00:16:13] Bryan Pham: Yes, I think he just highlighted a lot of similar founder struggles, right?

[00:16:17] The delegation part, the sleepy part, I’m guilty of that myself. I can do this, but what you learn is that the more you delegate, the more you tap into your team’s fullest potential, right? Because you realize that every human has a unique skill set and everybody has a different opinion.

[00:16:38] For the company to continue to grow, you need to value those opinions. So I 100% agree with everything you said. I don’t think we ever got a chance to talk about ourselves on the podcast. We talked about your background, upbringing, and relationship with your parents, but we want to hear more about Kristy Kim.

[00:16:57] Tell us how it will be a loaded question for you. Tell us about how you became the person you are. And I want to hear more about your personality as a child, the things that you valued in the early parts of your career, and what was your major in college?

[00:17:12] Let’s cover those aspects too. 

[00:17:14] Kristy Kim: I see. So I was always an outgoing person because my mom is super positive. Like she is the type of person who wakes up and likes singing “That’s A Good Day” she is very positive and always like, oh, you smell the roses and enjoy, don’t stress out.

[00:17:36] When I was younger, let’s say I stressed out about the test or something, my mom is, it’s fine. You’ll be fine. Or my dad would say something like, oh, you are a woman just like caring. Married is most important. Who cares? Whether you get a plus or a minus. My parents are weird, right? I will tell my dad that, Hey, that makes no sense. And my dad is, yeah, I think you are pretty enough. I think you’re fine. Okay. 

[00:17:59] My parents live in South Korea. So in South Korea, I would say, what’s the right word? Still way more sexist.

[00:18:07] But because I was exposed to that kind of culture early on, when I came to the U.S, I thought it was way better here. I love being in the U.S, but now, we all know that the U.S is also not perfect.

[00:18:22] But the comparison is important, so compared to South Korea, the U.S was always better. When I first came here, I was sucked into everything. I always try to look at the good things about this culture rather than the bad side. And also, that kind of helped me develop like fixed skin.

[00:18:42] I was younger, and my dad would say many absurd things here. If someone says something about me, I’m like, Hey, I don’t even care. So I think in that sense, whenever I talk to my parents, like my dad now, he’s a big supporter of me and TomoCredit. So, hey, people do change.

[00:18:58] So that’s another positive angle that I see my dad being so conservative and sexist. And now, he truly believes that I can reach my full potential and then asks me, ” Oh, when I am going to IPO, when will I give myself some money. So for me, that has been a big transition, and I think that’s nice to watch.

[00:19:18] Bryan Pham: Yes, you have Asians and Asian culture. There are different emphases and values.

[00:19:24] I’m glad that he changed and overcame that. And he has a different perspective now, which is cool. The way you describe your mom is basically how I am as a person like I would: there’s nothing to be stressed a lot, be positive, whatever. I think that mentality goes a long way, too, because there are more bad days and good days as entrepreneurs.

[00:19:43] Sometimes, you need to make your day good. 

[00:19:45] Kristy Kim: Yes. She is that type of person. I feel so lucky that I have a positive attitude, and she still wants her own company. She is in fashion design. Whenever I visit her in South Korea, I can see that she truly loves what she’s doing, the creative type of work.

[00:20:05] Bryan Pham: Yes. I like to hear that a lot. Let’s talk about the early parts of your career. What was your major in college? What did you do at the early part of your career before you became this amazing CEO and founder? 

[00:20:17] Kristy Kim: I was lucky. At that time, 2011, the economy was not as good as before.

[00:20:25] I was able to get a visa quite quickly. Then, I started working at this M and A firm. So for me, I just wanted to try everything and anything that was like my mentality in the beginning because, Hey, this is a new country. My parents are not here to give me any guidance. When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a reporter, like working for CNN.

[00:20:52] Then I realized that my English is too bad. I’m not, definitely not going to be qualified. So for me, I’m like, okay, when I was in Korea, I thought I wanted to be like an anchor reporter for a Korean company. And then when I came here, CNN looked cool, but no one would hire me.

[00:21:06] So I was like, okay, then what should I do? Maybe I should go to law school, and I took some law classes and realized that it’s not so great, so that’s out. I thought I would try finance, so the first job was good. I met many founders in my first job as a young analyst. So if you are at a massive company like Goldman or Morgan Stanley, you don’t get to make any sales as an analyst.

[00:21:32] You don’t experience the sales side, but I could do the sales side by myself because I was at a boutique, M and A firm. I got to meet so many founders and investors. That kind of gave me a glimpse of founder and investor life. And got me thinking about what I should do?

[00:21:53] I thought I would try the investor part because the founders I met at the time were mainly B2-B software companies. I didn’t feel like that was my passion. So I was like, okay, then I will try the investment. And I joined a PC firm, but ironically, they wanted me to work with

[00:22:12] one of their portfolio companies. So I tried that because, again, my mentality is, Hey, why not? I want to try everything and compare. And I learned that I enjoyed the operation as well. So my twenties were just being very open-minded and trying different things. And when I had the idea for TomoCredit, there was no doubt that it was clear that this was the idea I wanted.

[00:22:41] Idea was more important than starting a company. I made so many founders as wannabe people focused on studying a company. They’re like, oh, I have a potential co-founder. I’m going to start a company, but I don’t have an idea yet. For me, that’s just not how I operate because I never thought about studying a company as my goal. After all, I would be totally happy doing something else as well.

[00:23:05] When I had the idea and it was so clear, no one else was doing it, and no one wanted to, so I was like, okay, then I would do this. 

[00:23:13] Bryan Pham: Wow, thank you for describing that journey. For our listeners, too, to hear this story, I think that the biggest takeaway for me is joining a company that allows you to experience a lot of different things because that allows you to see what’s possible.

[00:23:29] And most importantly, envision yourself in different key positions. I was just seeing you, eventually becoming an operator that’s invaluable to hear for listeners. 

[00:23:37] Kristy Kim: Yes. Whenever I have young graduates or college students asking me for advice, I tell them, Hey, this is your first job out of college.

[00:23:47] You will not be there for ten years, so just choose a job you think you get to learn the most and have the exposure you want. Because if I look back on the first year out of college, I had amazing exposure because I got to meet so many founders. Founders would normally not spend time with 20-something-year-old analysts.

[00:24:09] But because I was there to help their sales process, they’ll tell me everything, anything, their regret that they’re like, oh, I should have sold this earlier or all the inside baseball stuff. And also hear from the investors that, oh yeah, this company better sell it, or we should wait for three more months, like to see X, Y, G. So I get to see different players’ perspectives. Okay. There are founders’, investors’, and bankers’ perspectives trying to facilitate the deal. That kind of gave me the full picture. So after that, I’m like, what do I want to choose? 

[00:24:45] Bryan Pham: Yes, that’s still cool to hear that side, and it makes me happy that every single experience helps shape the person you are today. It makes me happy to hear that there’s probably less emphasis on monetary gains in your younger years but more on education and experience.

[00:25:02] I 100% agree with that statement, right? I think that money will eventually come, but it’s most important to find out what you are good at. What do you like doing, and what doesn’t feel like work to you? What gives you purpose? Those are the most important things, in my opinion, at least, and Kristy, as we are nearing the end of the podcast, I have two more questions for you.

[00:25:24] The first question is, what are your goals for the next three to five years? Where do you see yourself? How do you see yourself ten years from now? I’m curious to hear about those visualization perspectives; it allows our listeners to hear about who you are as a person.

[00:25:41] It gives them the whole point of this question, to give them a way to visualize themselves too. Like where should I be in three years, five years? In comparison to liking where they want to be in life. 

[00:25:52] Kristy Kim: Okay. I want to be. Like Elon Musk for minority females. What do I mean by that? This is what I told my dad actually in May, and my dad was laughing so hard.

[00:26:08] What I meant by that is, if you ask young guys in college or any guys in their twenties, they all like to idolize Elon Musk and think they should build a company. Going to Mars, all the cool things that boys dream about. He’s doing it like Tesla, right? So many companies.

[00:26:28] And who is the female version of that? I couldn’t find anyone. Do girls idolize? I don’t know. So I feel like, for women and girls, we look at Kim Kardashian or others like celebrities. Still, we don’t have that figure like Tech, so I thought that if I do well and achieved the company’s mission of helping people without a credit score, that would be amazing. And if I also get to build that image, like an immigrant minority, females can be super successful in Tech. I think that can be cool. A message to give to my younger self, like my younger self, and any young girls. 

[00:27:15] Bryan Pham: I like that goal a lot. I love big goals. I love audacious goals. And most importantly, I like achievable goals. And I feel like those goals are attainable for you. I can’t wait to see where you will be in the next few years. 

[00:27:28] Kristy Kim: Yes. And I cannot believe that I said that in a pocket, so it’s going to be in an archive forever, so I need to work hard to get that, make that happen. 

[00:27:41] Bryan Pham: It’s okay for you to say that, right? 

[00:27:43] Yes. 

[00:27:43] I think that people usually speak things into existence, which is a really important part of your growth process. So don’t worry about it; we’ll continue following your process all along, but I have a lot of faith in you, for sure.

[00:28:00] Kristy Kim: Oh, thank you so much. Yes, unfortunately, right now, the most famous female founder is Elizabeth Holmes. So we have got to fix that. That’s why I was like Elon Musk is a better example. Yes. 

[00:28:12] Bryan Pham: Just ensure you don’t lie to the top.

[00:28:14] Kristy Kim: Yes, exactly. 

[00:28:15] Bryan Pham: All right, Kristy, how can our listeners learn more about you in TomoCredit? 

[00:28:20] Kristy Kim: check out our website, TomoCredit.com, and we have an excellent social media presence on TikTok and Instagram, so follow us. 

[00:28:28] Bryan Pham: Awesome. We are going to include all that in the show notes. Kristy, thank you so much for being in the podcast today.

[00:28:33] Kristy Kim: Yes, it was so fun. Thank you so much. 

[00:28:35] Bryan Pham: Of course.