Every week The Grindstone interviews an influential woman in the world of business. We scour our brains and hearts to come up with strong, successful women who not only inspire us, but will also inspire you. No industry is off limits, no interview subject too controversial.
With the country’s student loan debt surpassing $1 trillion this year, I have a feeling that Sue Khim‘s company, AllTuition.com, is just getting started. Considering that almost 75% of The Grindstone’s readership are still paying down their student debt, I’m sure we all can understand the value of a company that provides online tools to help students and their families prepare for the financial burdens of a college education.
Khim’s company, which has been praised by Forbes, CNET, The Chicago Tribune, and Tech Crunch, started as a school project that turned into a tech start-up success. This former-University of Chicago student was simply looking for financial support after accruing over $50,000 worth of debt. After hours of Google-searching, Khim was amazed that a huge financial burden on consumers didn’t have easier access or online systems to support it.
We were honored to get to talk with Khim about her journey in the tech industry, her growing company and AllTuition’s impressive social mission and corporate culture.
You started this company while you were a student at University of Chicago. Had you planned on going to into business?
I never ever intended to start a company. I was preparing to go to medical school. It was going to be a project. I thought it was ridiculous that this process of finding school loans was dominated by Google. I just thought it would be a simple service, a hobby project.
When did you decide to really shift towards entrepreneurship?
You’ve heard of tech incubators? They give you office space and a small budget. We had 13 weeks to build our product. Once we got the product launched, it just really took off. We had thousands of users already. Lots of good press. That’s when we decided to take a semester leave of absence. We didn’t think we were gonna drop out. At the end of the semester we raised angel capital from professional investors. They were very reputable people. At that point, we knew that we needed to pursue this full time.
Do you think it’s been harder for you as a female to get funding for your start-up? Has it given you an edge?
With our investors, none of them cared one way or another that I was female. They don’t look at gender. They look for results. They wanted a team and a product that would be profitable. These are serious financial investors. I don’t think being female hurt or helped me.
However, when we started going to start-up meetings or tech conferences, I realized that I was one of the 3% in the room. I had that hesitation in the beginning, that lots of people get when they’re the odd one out.
Was that intimidating?
I think we all started out feeling like the underdog. When you’re out on the scene, you see that there are lots and lots of talent. It’s very competitive. Overall, we were all of the mindset if we don’t get funded, we’re gonna bootsrap it. We were very committed to keeping the company going, whether we had take on freelance work and pay for everything ourselves. Whether we’re part-time or full-time, we would all work together. We knew that we had each other.
That type of relationship sounds amazing. Was it ever difficult working with partners?
We all have very different jobs. I was the CEO. I was making sure that we were talking to people in the industry and investors. I kept us focusing on the right things and motivating us. But because we had very different roles, it made it easier.
What advice do you have for women looking into launching their own companies?
Don’t settle for the wrong employees, or even for your first employees that you found the company with. Because a lot can happen and a lot can change. Start-ups move very quickly and you have new information that you need to deal with. All that is so important. You have to find the right people.