Founder and CEO: Ksenia Yudina
Year founded: 2018
UNest is a startup supported by Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures.
Ksenia Yudina never expected to become an entrepreneur. After earning her MBA from UCLA, she landed her dream job working with clients in private wealth management, helping them build financial security and wellness.
During that time, she discovered that the No. 1 goal for clients with children was saving and investing in their children’s education and future. As a mother of three (who also graduated with $180,000 in student loans), the issue hit close to home, and she worked with a lot of clients to start 529 plans. The hitch? The complex process remained stuck in the last decade — completely and inconveniently paper-driven, with no digital solution widely available.
So in 2018, Yudina founded UNest, the first mobile app that helps parents set up and manage 529 college savings plans. The recently launched UNest Investment Account offers more flexibility than a 529 but with similar tax benefits. Below, she shares how she made the difficult decision to leave her secure job, advice for women who want to launch a startup and what keeps her motivated as an entrepreneur.
What compelled you to start this business?
Shortly after I landed my dream job out of business school, I came to realize that many aspects of the financial industry are still very antiquated. When I earned my CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) designation, I began to think more innovatively. There are a lot of financial processes that are not equipped to serve the needs of our new generation, for whom everything is on their mobile phone.
I believed that with my background, I could get a simple solution for the 529 problem in the hands of parents by starting a company to try to solve this problem. Student debt in the U.S. is close to 1.7 trillion, and 70 percent of Americans don’t even know about 529 plans. Parents have the best intentions, but a simple solution for college savings was not widely available.
I actually created a spreadsheet of all the possible pros and cons of staying with my employer versus leaving to try and solve this problem. Ultimately, I realized that if I didn’t give it a try, I would regret it for the rest of my life.
Who do you look up to professionally?
Melinda Gates is a big inspiration to me, not only because she is a very successful woman, but also because she’s a huge advocate and supporter of women. She understands that we can’t compare ourselves to men in an apples-to-apples way. I’m inspired by her advocacy and efforts to empower women, while at the same time acknowledging our differences.
And Warren Buffett is definitely one of my heroes on the investment side. I learned a lot from him about how to be a great investor, how to know your industry inside and out, and how to make the right bets in life — which is what keeps me going with UNest. If we can help to solve this huge problem, 10 years from now we will have changed the future for an entire generation.
What advice would you offer to women who are planning to launch their own businesses?
Surround yourself with advisers who are also successful entrepreneurs in their industries. My biggest revelation was realizing that my corporate experience didn’t really translate into the world of startups. When buying into early-stage companies, investors are looking for a proven track record. My way to combat that issue was to find experts. A lot of them were men, because the fintech sector is 99 percent male. But I found several guys who had successfully launched their own companies, and told them about my passion for solving this 529 problem. Those who loved my idea became advisers for a bit of equity in UNest, and they opened up their networks to me when it was time to fundraise.
I also want to emphasize: Don’t give up. That may sound overly simplistic but, especially for female founders, the whole experience can be very draining — fundraising is very time-consuming and dealing with rejection is emotionally taxing. Women are typically perceived as higher risks, especially at the seed funding stage, because we tend to have fewer assets and are perceived to have less experience at running startups. You need to seek out support from those who believe in you and you have to keep pushing, because no one ever succeeded by giving up.