Alan Grujic – CEO of All of Us Financial
Kara Goldin: Hi, everybody. It’s Kara from Unstoppable, and I’m so excited to have our next guest here, Alan Grueling. He’s actually a neighbor of mine as well, lives in Marin County, and I’m just super excited to hear just a little bit of background on his history and overall just what he’s doing now. So he’s Alan Grujlic. If you guys are not familiar, he’s an engineer and a finance professional, but he’s had a long career in institutional investing and high-frequency trading. He co-founded The Infinium Group, and it grew to become the largest proprietary trading firm in Canada. Alan’s current focus is on growing his newish company called All of Us Financial, which I’m so excited to hear more about. And really it’s an innovative investor-empowerment platform, but we’ll get into that and actually have him do a little bit more explanation of that for all of us and just really, really excited to have you here. So welcome.
Alan Grujlic: Oh, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure, and it’s great to be speaking with you. We’ve known each other quite a few years, so this is great.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, really excited. So first of all, can you take us through a little of your backstory? So you grew up in Canada, correct?
Alan Grujlic: Yeah, I was born in Toronto. That’s the biggest city in Canada and a lot of people wind up coming from there if they’re from Canada, but obviously, it’s not the only spot. I grew up in Toronto and other parts of Southern Ontario.
I was an electrical engineer for a couple of years doing robotics automation and other types of production automation for General Motors, and then got really interested in finance, and went and got my MBA, focused in finance, got a job for one of Canada’s larger banks, TD Bank, actually one of the two largest banks in Canada these days, and had a great decade-long career with them in capital markets as a trader. As someone I went to Europe and ran a trading business for them there, went to Tokyo and built a exotic structured notes business, which was all that kind of fancy CDO and credit derivatives-type stuff that you may have read about.
And that was super interesting, mathematically challenging, and also provided a real need for the investors in Japan, which at the time had zero interest rates, and this was unheard of elsewhere in the world. They were trying to figure out how they were going to find yield and we were helping them do that, interest rate yield.
So, lo and behold, now we find ourselves these days where it seems a lot of the world has zero interest rates. So that was a real preview for me to what’s going on everywhere else now. That was the first part, and I did that for about a decade, and I had the good fortune of living around the world. I was married to Kaylee, who you know as well, and we had our one son in London, and our second son in Tokyo, and finally our daughter in California. We moved down here. So it was a real great kind of experience.
After about a decade though, I was starting to get really interested in what was happening with computerized trading, and I co-founded with my former business partner a firm called Infinium in Toronto, which really started out focusing on just general boutique business, but it expanded its high-frequency trading to the point that that was all we did. As you mentioned, we grew to be the largest high-frequency trading firm and proprietary trading firm in Canada.
It was incredibly fortunate timing, I think, for us as well. I hope we did a good job at it. But during the 2008 financial crisis, we also found ourselves in an incredibly volatile, crazy environment. We found ourselves one month even being the number one equity trader in the country, and for that one calendar year, we were number three overall, so things were really growing like crazy, and that again was about a decade of time that we built that out and we expanded to Europe and Asia and South Africa, and were on our way to South America. I came down to the US, to San Francisco, because this was a great spot to build out our US presence. That was in 2005.
After about a decade, as I said, of doing that, things were slowing down in the high-frequency trading space. It was around 2011, and my business partner and I were talking about what do we do now? We’ve had this growth and that’s been interesting, but where do we take this evolution next?
He’d come from more of an investment banking background, and he really felt that his area of interest and expertise hadn’t been expressed through our business. And I felt that high-frequency trading was really interesting from a high speed, low latency. It was crazy. We were putting computers at the exchanges. We had telecom lines across the Atlantic. But it was more infrastructure than model, and I was really interested in the models.
So off he went and created a mezzanine fund, which he does to this day, and I created and ran for a handful of years a hedge fund that focused a lot more on the statistical arbitrage and the algorithms and really cool models that were really quite honestly beyond even my capacity to understand. I knew what we needed to do, but I had quants that were helping me that extended my abilities far beyond what I have.
We built a great quantitative hedge fund that managed money for big institutional names, big Wall Street firms, and did that for a handful of years. And again, that was extremely satisfying, but it all led to what I’m trying to do now with All of Us Financial for reasons that we can get into, I guess, as we continue the story,
Kara Goldin: Yeah, so basically, you left, you shut down the other company, and what happened to the hedge fund?
Alan Grujlic: Yeah, so the high-frequency trading firm effectively morphed into the hedge fund, and so that was a continuation. And after a few years of running the hedge fund, I was starting to feel that I really wanted to do something that had more impact on a broader audience of people. The institutional customers we had were great, but they were professional, sophisticated, and I was doing a job for them, but I didn’t really feel I was helping them to the extent that I wanted to.
At the same time on the return side, we were doing pretty well. We had projected returns that were pretty aggressive and we were meeting those returns, but we were finding that the environment was tough. We were finding that it was a tough environment to grow our business in. We’d raised a few hundred million dollars. We were not seeing where we were going to grow that path.
So these investors take their time in terms of allocating money, and I said to them, “You know, I’m thinking of winding this down and it’s going to take a couple of years, but I’m letting you know.” We wound it down, larger investors first, smaller investors later. I took a couple of years to wind it down, and I would say that business was satisfying and probably also a little bit challenging in terms of the ability given where the state of the markets to generate and grow the returns that people were expecting of us.
Kara Goldin: So All of Us Financial stems really out of your need and your passion and what you were seeing in the marketplace? Tell us a little bit about that.
Alan Grujlic: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the things that I really remember thinking about during that period of time where I was running the hedge fund was, “Okay. I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the things that I’ve learned, but I’m getting a little bit older here and am I doing things? My kids are growing up and I’m starting to think a little bit, I’m reading a lot of books, and I’m fascinated with platform business models and the empowerment that…”
There’s good and bad in companies like Uber and Facebook and everything else, but it fascinated me the power of platform business models. I read three books that talked about how this is changing the world and empowering individuals, and I thought, “Well, I’m not doing that. I’m doing more traditional old-school stuff that I feel proud of, but I’d really like to be a part of this platform revolution, and part of regular people being empowered by technology in the various services that they’re encountering from their service providers, and I can do that in finance because I’m not seeing a Facebook in finance. I’m not seeing an Uber in finance. And yet I have this data science background, which is exactly what I thought was relevant to empower ordinary, self-directed investors because I saw them as on the outside looking in, and all the data was owned and collected and utilized by the companies that were servicing them, but I didn’t feel they were sharing in those benefits.
Just like to this day, Andrew Yang talks about how platform businesses are not sharing the data that should be owned by the individuals who are producing it. And so that whole theme was percolating in my mind about, “Can I create a business that actually not only leverages its capabilities to create returns on assets for customers, but returns on what else is valuable for those customers, which is their time and their data?” And that’s what All of Us Financial is all-
Kara Goldin: That’s so interesting. So do you feel just by watching these companies in other industries that were building these platform businesses… Typically, I think about this all the time, that when I was starting Hint, my company, it was like, “Okay, I’ve got to go figure out how Coke and Pepsi do things,” right? And then instead I found that I got the most inspiration and the most overall “All right. This is the way that, ultimately, I think I need to try and do this,” is from other companies that were trying to build the platform or whatever that I was ultimately doing. It sounds like it was very similar for you, that you were looking at these, whether it was the Ubers or some of the others that were really focusing on the platform side of that business. Do you think that that was true?
Alan Grujlic: Absolutely. And I don’t know which came first or second, but there were a few transformative events that really got me interested in that space and what people were doing. And in your case, I think the competitors that you’ve cited were more directly within your industry, within your vertical. For me, I felt that the companies that were doing fascinating things to change how business was done were outside of finance. And so the things that happened in various sequence were that I actually invested in Facebook, for example, before it went public. For those that have followed that, it was a crazy ride where the stock initially went down when it went public and back up, but I hold it to this day. Not all of it. I’ve invested in a couple of other companies that I thought were extremely interesting, that were doing things in a new way, and so I had a vested interest that way.
But I also like to read. I read a lot of nonfiction books. I try to keep myself learning. And I was reading books on platform business models, on the new mapping technologies, on a bunch of different things that really got me trying to understand the underlying nature of why these businesses were succeeding, and it’s extremely interesting.
I’m a strong believer that the whole world is moving in this direction where there’s various… If you remember when Andreessen said, “Software is eating the world,” there’s books now written saying platform business models are eating the world, and those are the Amazons of the world and so on. There’s really good reasons, and there’s just so much to learn there, and the more I did, the more I felt for me that the light bulb was really coming on how this was super cool. And then I thought, “Well, but that’s not… I don’t see anybody doing that in finance.”
On the other side of it, it’s an interesting backstory. Robinhood is the topic of the day and they’ve been incredibly successful. One of their founders, Baiju Bhatt, actually worked for us at Infinium. We actually had offices in Marin and offices in the city, and that was convenient for me living in Marin. We had hired him out of Stanford, and I didn’t even realize he came and worked for us for a little while, and I met him. He didn’t stay very long and he went on to found Robinhood. And I only realized that a couple of years later when I asked my former CTO, I’m like, “Why does that guy on TV look so familiar?” And he said, “Well, that was Baiju Bhatt that we hired then.” So I got the backstory. I’m like, “Oh, wow, what a coincidence.”
So I started following Robinhood, and I thought to myself, “Well, they’re doing all these really great changes in UX, and they’re doing…” And I think a lot of the things that they’ve done, like everyone else, there’s good and bad, but they’ve done some things that have really changed our industry. That’s very clear by the success that they’ve had, but again, it was front end. It was UX, which is important, but I didn’t think it was platform business model.
So all of this kept pushing me to say, “I really think somebody needs to create an empowering platform for users in finance because they’re not empowered,” and I can tell you why I think they’re not empowered. But I’ve been an industry insider my whole life, and I’ve been keenly aware of that fact and thought that it needs to change.
Kara Goldin: So why do you think that’s the case?
Alan Grujlic: I think that’s the case because data and information are what creates success in finance. That data information comes from the accumulation of activities that people do. And social, as it’s been applied to finance now, is a step forward, so all these social interactions create all kinds of interesting data sets to be analyzed.
If you think about what platform business models outside of finance do, they create interactions. They learn from those consumer interactions, data accumulates, and then they do things, whether it’s selling advertising or other, and they monetize that.
In finance, data is also power and all of our algorithms would trade off of either sentiment data from customers, or market data, or any kind of data we could accumulate, news, technical information.
In finance, this data that is so powerful is being held by the Schwabs of the world and by the Goldman Sachs of the world and by the Robinhoods, and it’s being used for various purposes, but none of those purposes are to fully inform the retail investors whose success depends on having a greater understanding of what’s going on and what’s predictive for success.
There have been some movements in this direction. There’s another Canadian, Howard Linden, who founded a firm called StockTwits. There’s a bunch of companies where there’s a lot of streams of information, Twitter-style flows, but that I don’t feel… It’s a lot of information in a Firehose format. It’s very hard for these retail investors to digest all that and make sense of it.
What they’re doing nowadays is they’re hopping on through FOMO, fear of missing out, and they’re following trades and there’s copy trading, and I’m not a believer in that. That’s a wider story, but largely, it comes down to the fact that data doesn’t become information if you’re just overwhelmed by it, or if you don’t know how to analyze it. And the big firms all over different industries are succeeding in analyzing and monetizing the value of information. Retail investors need to do that too, but they can’t do it on their own. They need to do it as a group.
Kara Goldin: Definitely. I think it’s true in almost any industry that you just keep playing the same cards, right? And as long as things are going fine, why change, right? And I think, unfortunately, this platform concept has come into lots of different categories, right? And now it’s shaken it up in other categories. Why not finance? It seems totally legit what you’re doing in terms of the timing, so I think it totally makes sense.
Obviously, we’re doing this during COVID, hopefully getting out of COVID, but how has this affected your business overall? And have you seen a rise in self-directed investing during this time?
Alan Grujlic: The industry has seen a huge rise in self-directed investing. We’re pretty new so our customer base is growing very quickly, but that’s, I think, the nature, obviously, of an early-stage startup, but we’re seeing that even happen, not just with us and not just with Robinhood, there’s newer that I mentioned earlier, but with what would be called the incumbent players, the E*TRADES and TD Ameritrade’s of the world, the Charles Schwab’s of the world are also seeing growth in the industry. There’s 30% growth is one quote I’ve seen of revenues and business, in general, since the pandemic started, so that was quite a surprise in some ways. Nobody was quite sure, obviously, when the pandemic started would happen, but just like the NASDAQ is rocketing higher because it’s a technology-based, self-directed investing is rocketing higher because it is a beneficiary of the greater focus that people are giving to investing during this lockdown period. Yeah, so the industry has grown.
Another thing that I did want to mention that I realized I was remiss to say is that it’s not that data of retail customers isn’t being used in our industry. It’s not being used for their benefit. But the big hedge funds have always looked and analyzed at all trading activity, and they are actually recently the beneficiaries of all this retail activity, because they’re watching it, they’re analyzing it, and they are making money off it. And there’s been a lot of articles written about that recently, a lot of statements made about how much money the Renaissance technologies and others of the world are making off of retail flow.
There was a book written, I think about 15 years ago, called Wisdom of Crowds, and it’s counterintuitive, but even people who are not experts, if you put them all together, will make better predictions on average than experts because they all have little bits of information.
And when they’re all not related to each other, their errors of their predictions cancel out and what’s left is signal, not noise. And so they’ve done studies where people can forecast sports betting or economic forecasts, or even there was a case where a bunch of people found the submarine faster than the experts that had sunk because wisdom of crowds, crowd intelligence is powerful, and the hedge funds understand that they analyze the crowd, they can learn. So this growth in our industry is creating lots of data, and so now what we need to do is deliver that analysis back to the people that are creating that data for their benefit.
So it’s a really exciting time in the industry. It’s growing like crazy. It’s still not being delivered back to the people creating the growth and activity and information and value.
Kara Goldin: Interesting. Obviously, there’s lots of industries that are… Facebook is probably one of them that’s really been under the microscope. Do you think the finance industry and how much data and that… Do you think it’s going to be the same story eventually, like the platform is really going to be looked at?
Alan Grujlic: Yes. Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Our industry is very much going to come under the microscope that way. It already is. It’s a heavily regulated industry. There’s recently been something that probably sounds a little esoteric in what it’s called, it’s called payment for order flow. Firms that are offering free trading now are actually making money by sending their orders to those professional market makers, those names of which Renaissance technologies is the best known, but there’s a handful of others. And those market makers pay for that order flow for a couple of reasons.
One is market makers have always traditionally provided liquidity and made money by doing so. They buy on their bid, they sell on their offer. So they’re still doing that, but in an electronic way, and they actually pay tiny bits of money for each order that’s sent to them based on the shares or the size of those orders, but they also pay for the information that those orders give them.
And so payment for order flow is currently being studied in detail by the SEC and FINRA because as firms have gotten more competitive and offered free trading, they’re sending even more orders to those market makers and receiving payments to offset the losses in the ticket revenues, as they call them, by payment forward or flow revenues.
So our industry very much that’s being looked at at the moment. And there’s other areas where, as firms leverage information for investing, particularly social, there’s a lot of concern on the part of the regulators how that’s going to be used. There’s firms outside of the United States that have traders that get paid by other people to copy their trading, and that has inherent conflicts of interest. So the regulators are all over this right now, and social has come to finance, and it’s unfamiliar to them and they’re concerned, and they’re studying it. It’s very topical. It’s the heart of everything that’s going on in finance right now.
Kara Goldin: Very, very interesting. How are you getting the word out about building the brand right now?
Alan Grujlic: We spent a couple of years really building this because there was a lot to do, and again, it’s a heavily regulated industry, and a lot of the infrastructure that I’d built before needed to be repurposed for the purposes of retail traders, because there are some similarities, some differences. So we spent a couple of years building, and we only launched a couple of months ago, and so we’re just starting to get the word out. This is why I was excited to be able to speak to you.
We’re just starting to create some digital marketing campaigns to try to tell people about what we’re doing. We’re really mission-driven so we’re trying to figure out how to explain to people why we’re doing things the way we are.
And so we’re just learning right now. We’re speaking to people. I’m on the phone individually with customers. I believe in these early days that getting both positive and negative feedback is going to be really important because when you look at it from the inside out, we deliver products and we think this is great, and services. And then I’ve had feedback from people where they say, “Oh, I didn’t quite understand that.” And so it doesn’t just help to give somebody something, you need to make it really usable so we’re focusing on the user experience. We’re focusing on digital marketing, hopefully more conversations with people like you to get the word out, because I really believe that what we’re doing is… I know it’s mission-driven and just a matter of getting people to… It’s really new. Getting people to understand what it is, people aren’t to seeing things that they see on our platform.
I’d be happy to tell you about those differentiators, but I think we’re really different from anybody else out there. And when you’re that new, it’s also takes a little bit of time, I think, for people to get what you’re trying to do.
The founder of Betterment? I listened to his podcast and he talked about how in the first year it was hard for them to get customers because people didn’t understand quite what it was that they were trying to accomplish or what the product was. And now, of course, many people know what a robo-advisor is. There’s many of them. It takes a little while, I think, for new ideas, and I believe ours is, to be explained to people as well.
Kara Goldin: Definitely. When Hint first came out, we would say to people, “Here try this product. It’s an unsweetened flavored water.” And they’d say, “What’s it sweetened with?” Right? We were like, “Are you listening?” Right? You know? And so we had to educate. When we launched Hint, we not only were launching a product, but we were actually launching a new category, which was unsweetened flavored water, so I talked a lot about this.
I actually have a book coming out in October which talks a lot about this, that I had no idea when I launched this, that actually launching it, an entire category in addition to a product, which, while you have a few people that are in your category and your space, that I saw very clearly that the consumer, they need to be educated.
And often it takes time, right? To educate them. And it’s not just about blasting a marketing message out there. It’s really communicating with the customer and getting on the phone with them and really understanding are there really things that are consistent amongst the consumers that they just don’t really understand. And it’s frustrating, frankly, sometimes because you think like, “I’ve got to spend all this time educating versus actually building my own brand” when you have to educate an industry.
Something I talk about all the time, it’s great when you actually have competition out there because they can actually help you build and really get consumers focused on what you guys are trying to do as a category. And then it’s your challenge, your opportunity, to actually go and say that you’re the best, right? And really show you’re the best at it.
I always find in these conversations that we figure out that all these industries have things that are so similar, right? Similar challenges along the way, it’s just different widgets. This one in particular seems very similar in many, many ways. So what are you most excited about this year besides growing the company?
Alan Grujlic: Let me pause before I get to that because I wanted to say that we’ve known each other for quite a while now. If you think about it, our kids… Boy, they started in school together. Maybe it was 15 years ago, maybe it was a little bit less, but it was a while ago.
My wife, Kelly, and I used to talk about the hard work that you were putting in in those early days, and it’s been great to see. Now we’ll travel places and we’ll see Hint in places that we just are surprised to see all over the place when we travel. So, first of all, congratulations. We’re really happy to see that happen, but we remember all the hard work in the beginning that you were putting in. And, by the way, personally, cherry is by far your best flavor. I love the cherry.
Kara Goldin: Oh, that’s so nice. I think that the other thing that we hear from consumers, and you’ve kind of lived this, too, is that I think we still work really hard. I will always be the founder, and the CEO, too, but I think just diving in, especially during COVID, I was going back to my roots to get on the phone with customers, and I took a route in Marin County and worked through this, just making sure that not only our team was safe, but also that consumers and the stores were being serviced. I think that’s a big thing that big companies don’t necessarily do.
If you’re a leader and you have the ability to go back and get scrappy because you haven’t forgotten how to do that, I think that it ultimately allows you to weather some of these storms that we see out there. It’s something that I’ve learned along the way.
I also hear from so many consumers who have lived with us and see this brand and they feel like they’re a part of it, too. They know it, right? They know us, they know the brand, and they feel like… I think anytime you can have the consumer feel like they’ve built it with you, that’s just a huge benefit.
Alan Grujlic: Yeah. That’s something that I’ve really enjoyed in this company that we’re building now in all of us is that in this experience that’s been different… As I talked about my background, it was a lot of dealing with big professional institutional customers, and so the ability to do what you’re doing is something that I’m just experiencing now, which is to give retail customers something that they can feel a part of and that they can benefit from. And it’s always more tangible, I think.
I had so much to learn. That was another thing that I realized when I decided to start this business was that I wasn’t a B to C guy, and I really had to surround myself with strong people and I had to learn, and as I typically did, I read a few books and then I had a lot of conversations.
You asked me earlier to come back to that, what am I looking forward to this year? I’m continuing to learn. I’m getting time now to focus less on product build and more on customers, and how to understand customers, and give them a great user experience, and understand and iterate products. And so aside from obviously wanting to grow this company and make it more successful, it’s really exciting to actually have that interaction with individuals. I’m just loving learning this, and so that’s making this journey really fun.
Kara Goldin: Yeah. And I think that it’ll be interesting to talk to you in six months from now, because I think actually having… When you think about the consumer, and really they’re the one that’s ultimately going to decide your success, right? That’s what I always say. When you embrace the consumer, then you actually want to speak to the consumer, and you want to understand this consumer, and what’s hard. Like, “How do you think about these things? Do you like these social platforms? Do you listen to podcasts,” right? I think that there’s things like that that it’s really great when you can get that connection with consumers, because then you start to really feel like, “Okay, I think I can build this and solve some problems for them, too.” So it’ll be exciting.
I love B to C. I think for me, it’s just the most exciting because you can actually get your gut feeling based on talking to this consumer. So it’ll be fun watching you do this and especially since you built many other successful B to B things. It’ll be super fun to watch you do this along the way. I think you’ve already answered this, but I always ask this question. What makes you unstoppable?
Alan Grujlic: Right. I think there’s three things. I feel like this is the direction the world is going, and so I feel the wind at my back. I feel the wind at our backs in terms of building this company. There’s so many things, the focus on responsible companies, the focus on environmental/social governance stuff, the focus on the demand that companies are more trustworthy and transparent. I just feel we have the wind at our back in terms of what we’re trying to do so that every day feels like we’re getting pushed in the direction we want to go.
Secondly, everyday feels exciting and energetic because we feel good about what we’re doing. I think what we’re doing is valuable, and so it makes it easy to bring the energy that’s needed.
And the third is I have a really deep experience in finance, and particularly, data sciences applied to finance, so I really feel clear about what we need to do from the product side. And that makes it really easy to try to deliver on the things that we think are valuable. Again, in making sure that customers validate what we’re trying to do, product market fit, but I feel that that’s… Every day I get up and I say, “We’re being pushed in the direction that we believe in, and this is the right direction. It feels good. It feels valuable and we know what we need to do.” I think those are the things that I hope make us unstoppable.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. So where do people find you, Alan, and also All of Us Financial?
Alan Grujlic: Yeah. So we’re at allofusfinancial.com. And again, we named it that. It’s a little bit of a long name, but we named it All of Us because we really wanted to convey that message to everybody. So allofusfinancial.com. It’s easy to Google us and then read a bunch of stuff. There’s been some press and all kinds of interesting things. We’ve just recently raised some money so we’ve been in the press for that.
There’s lots of Google searches that you can find us across, but you can go straight to our website or on mobile, iOS or Android, or on the web. And lots of access points, super easy, and five minutes to open up an account for those that are interested, and really different.
We are radically transparent. You can see how much money we’re making, how much we’re sharing with you, how big the platform is. Absolutely everything about us is transparent in ways that I think will surprise people. Imagine if you could go to Schwab, and you knew how many customers they had, how their whole platform is doing, how much money they were making on you. We’ve tried to do all of those things.
It’s easy to find us, and once you join, if you choose to do so, we’d love to have you join, it’s also really easy to see exactly what we’re up to.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. And Alan, LinkedIn is the best way to get in touch with you?
Alan Grujlic: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Super easy to find me on LinkedIn. I’m also quick to respond if anybody messages me, and yeah, absolutely.
Alan Grujlic: We have a Facebook page as well, if you’re interested in that.
Kara Goldin: No. No, not at all. That’s great. Awesome. This has been super helpful, educational, exciting, so I can’t wait to watch you grow this business. It’s super, super great. So very, very, very exciting.
Everybody, listen, if you liked this episode of the podcast, please, leave us a comment. We thank you guys for listening today so have a great rest of the week.
Alan Grujlic: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
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