From Chamblee to Wall Street: The Story of Tim Chen and NerdWallet

Tim+Chen%2C+a+Chamblee+alum+and+current+CEO+of+the+personal+finance+company+NerdWallet.

Photo courtesy of Tim Chen.

Tim Chen, a Chamblee alum and current CEO of the personal finance company NerdWallet.

Keegan Brooks, Staff Writer

When looking online for the best personal finance or credit car advice, it can be hard to find relevant information that is not an advertisement or a company promoting their own product. Tim Chen, who graduated from Chamblee Charter High School in 2000, has set out to transform that notion.  

Chen co-founded and currently serves as CEO of NerdWallet, a personal finance company that gives advice and features reviews of different financial products, such as credit cards and college loans.

In 2016, NerdWallet was valued at more than $520 million, providing information to tens of millions of people around the United States. But NerdWallet’s growth was not spontaneous: before his ventures as an entrepreneur, Chen was a Chamblee student who entered the finance world at Stanford University.

Chen’s Time at Chamblee

While in high school, Chen was academically-oriented, taking many Advanced Placement classes. Despite this, he encountered his fair share of suspensions. 

“In a nutshell, I was in all the AP classes but also got suspended multiple times for being a bit of a troublemaker. Overall, I feel fortunate to have gone to Chamblee, though I remember at the time just wanting to get out of Atlanta and do big things!” said Chen. “The academics, especially in the math and science areas, really prepared me for college.”

In high school, Chen recounts facing tough situations regarding mental health—something that current students at Chamblee may relate to.

“I definitely remember some tough situations, socially, and in terms of friends struggling with mental health issues. It’s tough being a teenager. People are much more open about mental health now, and I think that’s a really positive thing,” said Chen. “I wish we’d all had more empathy for each other going through those years.”

While at CCHS, Chen participated in many extracurriculars, both academic and athletic related. What did eventually play a role in his professional life, however, were Chamblee’s English classes. 

“I was a huge nerd! National Honor Society, Math Team, Science Olympiad, and National Engineering Design Challenge. Also, swimming and cross country,” said Chen. “[The most useful class was] Englishlearning how to communicate in a structured and persuasive way. I still use that all the time as a CEO because I’m communicating [a] vision and aligning hundreds of people around it.”

Starting out on Wall Street

Chen graduated from CCHS in 2000 and went on to attend Stanford University, where he majored in economics. But thinking back on his work at Wall Street, Chen states that he would have considered going to the more business-oriented Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Believe it or not, I wrote my application on a typewriter! There was definitely a rat race of piling on extracurriculars, APs, and volunteer activities. I applied early to Stanford because it’s a good school, and because it is really far away from Atlanta,” said Chen. “In hindsight, I probably should have also considered going to UPenn Wharton because I ended up working on Wall Street and ended up hanging out with a ton of Wharton graduates […] in [New York].”

Chen’s first job after graduating from Stanford was working at Credit Suisse First Boston, now just known as Credit Suisse. 

“I worked as a stock analyst [there], doing research on publicly traded companies, and making recommendations on whether to buy or sell those stocks to big institutional investors like mutual funds and hedge funds. If the funds liked our research, they would trade through our trading desk, and we’d make a commission,” said Chen.

Chen went on from working as a stock analyst to working as a hedge fund equity analyst. He worked at the hedge funds Perry Capital and JAT Capital Management.

“They often hire out of investment banking or equity research, so I was recruited out of equity research,” said Chen.

At the time, the United States was in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, leading to unemployment for millions of Americans, including Chen. However, this may have been a blessing in disguise, as it was what led Chen to entrepreneurship and, eventually, NerdWallet.

The Founding of NerdWallet

Chen was inspired to start NerdWallet after offering his sister financial help.

“My sister asked me for help choosing a credit card. I said, ‘Let me Google that for you.’ I got annoyed that the results were all infomercials and not helpful, which led me to create a spreadsheet with the cards from the biggest banks for her. That proved to be really helpful, so I turned it into a website,” said Chen.

What originated as a simple credit card spreadsheet ended up turning into a million-dollar company. In 2009, NerdWallet was co-founded by Chen and fellow CCHS alumni Jacob Gibson. 

Today, the website allows people to read reviews of financial products, use financial tools and calculators, and get personal finance advice. 

“We help you compare, shop, and learn about credit cards, mortgages, insurance, loans, bank accounts, etc.,” said Chen.

When creating NerdWallet, Chen initially faced the obstacle of gaining website traction.

“It’s not hard to build a website. It’s hard to get people to show up. As a small site, you can’t afford to pay $10 per visitor on Google AdWords, so you have to figure out how to get visitors for free. That’s getting harder and harder over time,” said Chen.

The site makes its revenue through the use of paid partners and affiliate links, where NerdWallet gets paid if a consumer applies or purchases a product linked on the NerdWallet website. The company claims that they are as objective and unbiased as possible.

“[We] are matchmakers who get paid when a customer successfully gets a financial product. The difference is we have editorial separation between business and reviews, so our editorial team recommends what’s best for consumers, rather than auctioning off the spots on the page to the highest bidder,” said Chen.

What CEO Life Is Like

As CEO, Chen’s empowerment is derived from bearing the responsibilities of solving his company’s problems on his shoulders. 

“I love that there’s nobody to blame but me when things go wrong. It’s the most empowering thing in the world. Over time I’ve realized that this is actually true for everyone, not just CEOsI just didn’t realize it until I gained some wisdom,” said Chen. “The trick is figuring out why things went wrong, that part is not always obvious and [can] be very counter-intuitive.”

In a typical day as CEO, Chen spends the majority of his workday in meetings, which he likens to running all of the branches of government at once. 

“[A normal workday as CEO is made up of] meetings! Imagine running a company as having a lot of similarities to running a government. You’re the executive branch, judicial branch, legislative branch, and the regulator, all in one executive team. The meetings tend to fit into one of those four categories,” said Chen.

In addition to being a co-founder and CEO of NerdWallet, Chen is a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Consumer Advisory Board of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“We serve over one hundred million consumers a year who are seeking answers to their money questions. Many of those people are facing obstacles, and we hear about it. Government and nonprofits benefit from that insight when they are trying to help the American consumer, so I share the stories I hear with those boards,” said Chen.

Advice for Students

Aside from serving as a board member, Chen enjoys reading and podcasting. He also likes the show “Shark Tank” on ABC.

“[I] read and podcast! If you had asked me ten years ago, I would have said I’m a huge fan of electronic music, but life changes when you have a family!” said Chen. “I love watching ‘Shark Tank’ for inspiration, there’s a lot of wisdom and ‘anyone can do it’ [mentality] demonstrated there.”

Chen recommends that high schoolers with a passion for economics follow a similar career path in the financial industry, which can open up many different career pathways. 

“It gives great perspective on how companies work, how big companies borrow money, and how institutions manage money. This opens up a lot of subsequent career opportunities, whether going to work for a big company, starting a company, or working as an investor,” said Chen.

Some high schoolers may also be inspired to follow an entrepreneurial path similar to Chen’s or are even already working on their own personal entrepreneurial projects. Chen suggests that such students take the time to consider unsolved problems that high schoolers face in their day-to-day lives. 

“Think about the problems that you see, because of who you are, that others don’t see. Those are your biggest opportunities. What is miserably inefficient in the life of a high school student?” said Chen. “Some examples of the power of niches, there are huge companies that make software for HR people, for oil drillers, for doctors, for vets, etc.those were started by people who saw room for improvement in their day jobs.”