Meet James: a Junior studying Human Biology at Stanford who is working to revolutionize personal collateralized lending. This week, we had a conversation with James to learn more about his interest in entrepreneurship and innovation, and how that led his team to their current venture, Pawnterra.
Growing up, who was James? Did you think of yourself as an entrepreneur, or when did the bug hit you?
From a young age, I was always interested in science and inventing. If you met me on the street in New York City when I was in fourth grade I would have unabashedly told you that I wanted to be an inventor, race car driver and astronaut. I don’t think much has changed, but I’m not exactly waiting for Ferrari or NASA to call me. I continue to love learning about practical, applied science and the people who built the modern world, particularly inventors and industrialists.
My first significant science project was in 7th grade when I entered the Exploravision competition with my brother and two close friends. We created a way to capture the wind from the subway and convert it into electricity. Years later we were granted a global patent on the technology behind it.My next big project was in microbiology research. Along with my twin brother, Hugh, and someone who might as well be my triplet, Drew Tomback we developed a novel way to recycle styrofoam, which currently fills 1/3 of world landfills by some estimates. We won 1st in the Intel ISEF’s Environmental Engineering category and published a paper to make the technology available to the world. Drew, Hugh, and I also ran some side projects, including an eCommerce Website.
These same team members are now co-founders of our latest endeavor: Pawnterra. I have always been interested in turning ideas into useful products; entrepreneurship is just how you do that in modern America.
How do you spend your time at Stanford? What has been the most impactful class you have taken here thus far?
I have been fortunate enough to take classes in many different departments. This year I took BioDesign for Digital Health, and I loved the challenges of the project. I was fortunate to be selected as a a BioDesign Next Fellow, which has been a fantastic experience with incredible mentorship. There is so much opportunity to bring new approaches to antiquated parts of our economy such as the healthcare sector. I also had an amazing experience taking “Inventing the Future” with Professor Tina Seelig. Outside of classes, I spend most of my time working on projects and having fun with my close friends. I am part of a small group of motorsports enthusiasts at Stanford and we go to a karting track in Sonoma when we need a quick break from campus.
Your current business is Pawnterra, which is looking to modernize the pawnshop industry.…Where did the inspiration for Pawnterra come from, and what’s your long term vision for the company?
Pawnterra is definitely an extension of my previous endeavors... We started looking into the bizarre world of pawnshops after learning how terrible the banking system is for people with poor credit. Over the summer of our sophomore year, Drew, Hugh and I all worked in Midtown, NY, where there are dozens of pawnbrokers requesting outrageous interest rates on loans. Initially we inquired about a loan from a couple of the New York shops and experienced first hand their aggressive sales tactics and pricing strategies. We expanded our research, and met with pawnbrokers across the country. The underbanked are providing this industry with $14Bn in revenue annually. In the long run we hope to be the first stop people go to for short-term loans- and we want to do that by offering a product and experience that is light years ahead of what is available elsewhere.
What is the most critical initiative you are working on now and how do plan on achieving it?
Close to 1 in 4 U.S. households are unbanked or underbanked, and approximately 40 percent of them have used the current form of pawn store. We see this market as an opportunity to do well, while also doing the right thing for millions of hard-working Americans.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? 20 years from now?
The world is evolving so quickly I don’t make detailed plans very far in the future. However, I do know that I am happiest when I’m working with a team, and when I look back at everything that I have done I am proudest of the accomplishments that came as part of a team effort involving technology. Ideally in the next three years I will be working with Drew and Hugh on rapidly growing a company I believe in, and be close to having a pilot’s license.
If you had to give one piece of advice to other young founders, what would that be?
It’s amazing what you can get from cold calling people as a student. You should try and reach out to as many people in your industry as you can. Also, you need to find friends who are willing to get food with you at 3:00 am.