Transforming personal struggle into social impact at scale for Gen Z — Interview with Susie Kim, Co-Founder & CXO at Pluto MoneyFeatured

I spoke with @susiemielekim, co-founder and Chief Experience Officer of Pluto Money, the first mobile app to focus on making it very easy for Generation Z to take real action towards their financial goals, starting in their most formative adulthood years in college. They’re building the first financial membership for today’s college students, a suite of financial services and partners entirely focused on their financial health and growing with them over time.–––Susie was born in South Korea, but she was raised in Saudi Arabia. Her father worked for an airline and her family traveled often (to 40 countries!) while she was growing up. The two countries she spent the most time in (South Korea and Saudi Arabia) were quite oppressive, and Susie was consequently exposed to the challenges of minorities and other underprivileged individuals from an early age. Inspired by her uncle, who was a National Geographic photographer and documentary producer recording disappearing minority cultures, Susie grew up with a mission of making social impact for minorities through creativity. Every summer, she would find an off-the-wall, impact-driven job to keep pursuing her mission. She helped her uncle produce several documentaries focused on Tibetan cultures that were broadcast internationally, fought to protect and preserve spoonbill habitat against a conglomerate shipbuilder, and partnered with schools to use their space over the Summer to teach underprivileged children who didn’t have a shot at education in rural villages of Korea. Through these experiences, she discovered her interest in empowering the next generation of youth, which sowed the seeds for her work with Pluto Money. Susie’s father was an athlete and she followed in his footsteps. She was an incredible soccer player but because she was a girl in South Korea, she was frequently not permitted to play on teams and in games with boys. Seeking greater gender equality in soccer and all aspects of life, Susie sought to go to the United States for high school. She bargained with her initially hesitant parents, who finally allowed her to go if she obtained top grades in her middle school in South Korea. She worked diligently, and her hard work was noticed and appreciated by her parents who then sent her to high school in Canada (she was too young to qualify as an exchange student in the United States). Moving to Canada was a major cultural change and shock for Susie. Without speaking much English, she was placed into 9th grade classes alongside local students, which was incredibly challenging to say the least. But Susie was a fast learner and learned English within 3 months in this immersive environment and largely out of necessity for survival in the foreign country. Through more enduring hard work, Susie finished the year at the top 1% of her class. Seeing her strong performance, her parents let her remain overseas and move to a high school in upstate New York the following year, where she remained until college. When she began considering colleges, her father encouraged her to go to Emory University. His company had a partnership with the school that would cover half of the tuition. But very tragically, between her acceptance to Emory and her enrollment, her father passed away. He was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer the spring of her senior year and was given 2 months to live. Her mother was suddenly a single parent and public school teacher, and Emory was one of the most expensive schools in the United States. Her mother sold their last house that her father had built just to cover 1 year of tuition at Emory. Susie sought desperately to alleviate her mother’s financial burdens, so she left school, went back to Korea and worked 5 part time jobs at once while taking classes from 3 different schools to somehow continue her education. After a year, she convinced her mother to take a loan to invest in building a ceramics studio and teach ceramics (one of her mother’s main passions and talents). Together, they built a cafe and ceramics studio and opened 4 store locations within a year. With the money from this venture, Susie was able to return to the United States, where she transferred to UCLA, by then her 7th college, to study art history and Italian. At UCLA, she joined an entrepreneurship fraternity on campus and also got selected as a first-generation student associate for UCLA VC Fund. She began meeting aspiring founders and thinking more about starting her own venture in the future. Over the following Summer, she was accepted to a dream study abroad program of hers—a selective, year-long program that sent students to London to study art marketing at Sotheby’s and to Florence to study art and culture. But 5 days before leaving to Europe, she panicked. With her previous financial struggles still in the back of her mind, she started thinking about how she’d afford living in Europe, then a possibility of not graduating on time again, and her lack of knowledge about managing her money and saving. After all, she didn’t have a savings account or knew anything about building a credit score. After internalizing this realization, she gave up on her dream program.Without any plans or a place to stay over the Summer, she went to stay with a friend interning at Expedia. She initially was impressed with how wonderfully his life was going monetarily - he was constantly eating at nice restaurants and going out with friends and colleagues. But by the end of the Summer, he didn’t have a dime saved, and they both realized that the problem of lack of financial literacy and wellness was shared by millions of college students. Susie then started Pluto Money with her friend, who is now her co-founder, to solve this major pain point. They first targeted millennials, but then saw that millennials were largely already in substantial debt and looking more for a band aid than a panacea. Gen Z, Susie realized, was much more in need of a solution like Pluto. These were people who had seen the implications of the debt that millennials faced and the aftermath of the Great Recession their parents struggled through. And they were thus trying actively to take a more preemptive and proactive, rather than reactive, approach to building financial wealth. Simultaneously, Gen Z was the most impact-oriented generation, and Susie sought to build Pluto Money for the college students of the generation, during their first independent and habit-forming years and to grow with them over time, so that the generation can create real impact without being hindered by their finances.Pluto Money helps users set and track savings goals, take simple challenges tailored to their finances and lifestyle to make incremental progress toward these goals, and compare finances to peers anonymously to further understand money habits in their social context and constantly motivate friends and peers toward creating a more financially sound life. Pluto Money is backed by Techstars’ Barclays Accelerator, as well as nbkc Bank via the Fountain City Fintech program and Queen City FinTech Incubator. When asked for her best advice, Susie encourages aspiring, mission-driven female founders and leaders to jump in head first. There is nothing to lose in taking a chance on an idea, company, or project you are passionate about. You can be surprised by the number of helpful strangers. Look for the right mentors, build a phenomenal team, and cultivate a self directed, visionary life. Turn challenges into learnings and character building opportunities. The numerous, seemingly insurmountable obstacles Susie faced has, in hindsight, empowered her to be incredibly independent, persistent, and entrepreneurial. And that has ultimately set her up for success as a female founder and leader in technology, creating impact through empowering the next generation in crafting a better financial future. Susie is a Frankenstein of designer, entrepreneur, strategist, artist, and culture-maker, who lives and breathes to design socially impactful end-to-end experiences for people through a combination of storytelling and delightful product that seamlessly integrates into their lifestyle. She is currently the co-founder and CXO at Pluto Money, the first mobile platform using behavioral & data science to guide Generation Z towards financial wellness, by starting in college and growing with them.
What an inspiring story!
Wow! Susie, what an incredible journey. I wanted to keep on reading :) Do you have a personal mantra that you turn to in tough times??
Such a great company! I was a saver since I was 6 so I have been helping people save for 15 years with a fun game like approach, and the results are incredible! Most important the peace of mind is priceless. Let’s connect to collaborate!