Like so many other international students Ken Lian, a Woodbury University Business School grad (Management ’13), came from China to study and see how far a U.S. college education could take him.
The quick answer, back then, was “only so far,” at least when it came to banking.
“After four years, I’d been paying overdraft, ATM, and international wire fees,” Ken recalls. “Without a Social Security number or credit history, I couldn’t apply for a credit card with benefits, even though I was spending quite a bit on tuition.” Recognizing that his story was replicated nationwide, Ken was inspired. “Millions of international students simply don’t have better options,” he says.
Having earned his stripes in the fintech space, Ken most recently created a platform called Cheese, giving voice to his inner entrepreneur while filling a gap in the market – the first cashback debit card for international students and immigrants in the U.S. “Our goal,” he says, “is to make banking easier and more rewarding for everyone.” Scheduled to launch in 2020, Cheese raised pre-seed funding from Amplify.LA, OC4 Ventures and Idealab.
As it happens, Cheese isn’t Ken’s first rodeo. After graduation, he founded a company engaged in international commodity trading, competing with Fortune 500-level players in the U.S. When the firm hit $10 million in annual trades, he sold it.
From 2015-2016, Ken participated in the startups Chihuo Inc. and Honey, which provided a sort of crash course in technology product development and user growth. In 2016, he launched Moolah Science, which offered an app that automatically tracked how much users pay for a purchase and obtained refunds on their behalf if the price dropped within 30 days. The idea attracted Mucker Lab, a leading L.A. incubator, and led to seed funding of $1.5 million from five venture capitalists; that, in turn, enabled Moolah to scale the product to 200,000 users. By 2018, Ken sold Moolah to a Fortune 500 company.
After mulling offers from big brand tech companies following the sale, Ken opted to go it alone. “I concluded that entrepreneurship was in my DNA, so I had to carry on and try to make a difference,” he says. “During my four years as an undergraduate, traditional banks charged me more than $1,000 in bank fees. It wasn’t fair or right. Cheese aims to make banking fair and rewarding for the 44 million immigrants – and 1.5 million international students – in the United States.”
The founding team is comprised of international students, many of whom experienced unfair banking practices personally. “We designed the product along with our users,” he says. “We surveyed more than 250,000 people, collecting their needs and feedback to build the product.”
Ken’s proven ambition doesn’t end with his entrepreneurial ventures. In 2008, he undertook a 4,600 mile, 100 day cross country bicycle adventure, from Seattle to New York, with another Woodbury alum, Zack Ward. He then published a book in China about his journey in 2011. The book, along with his Dean’s list status, earned him a scholarship from Woodbury.
Ken gives big shout-outs to Woodbury faculty members David Rosen, Will McConnell and Nathan Garrett for their inspiration and encouragement. “I’m proud that the Cheese debit card wasn’t built by a bank, but a tech company,” he says. “We want to leave the banking world better than we found it. “