Name: Julie Chen
Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA
Major: Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology (M&T), Computer Science, and Operations, Information, and Decisions (OID)
34th Street Magazine: What activities at Penn are you most passionate about?
Julie Chen: I think every year I've gone through phases and worn many different hats. Right now it’s probably Contrary, which is an early stage venture capital firm that invests up to $500,000 in student–founded startups. My job is the coolest thing in the world. I get to talk to founders at Penn who are building really interesting companies and startups, and I basically go through the entire investing process and see if we want to invest $500,000. It’s been really fun to do the investing stuff, but also to get to know some of the smartest people on campus and put on really fun events. We do founder happy hours and community building things, we bring in really cool speakers, and we had a pitch competition last semester. A lot of startup ecosystem stuff at Penn has been my recent most important thing.
Street: How did you become involved with Contrary?
JC: I kind of fell into it. At the end of my high school senior year, I founded a nonprofit startup called Peerlift. It’s an ed–tech startup that helps low–income, first–generation high school students find resources for college. We incorporated as a company, we had a whole team, and we had people at 92 high schools as our representatives across the country.
That was kind of how I entered this startup ecosystem at Penn. Because I had Peerlift, I was pitching to all of the people who were giving out money, and I was applying for all of the programs, and getting all of these Penn mentors. So then, when I was really involved, I realized that the other side of startups is the people who give you the money. At first, I was the one asking for money, but then I realized that I would love to be on the helpful side, where I can help young founders and direct people to the right resources.
So then I found Contrary. Contrary is awesome because it is still a startup within itself. Contrary is only five years old, and I was really excited by the prospect of being able to build Contrary at Penn. So I found Contrary and started investing with them, and I have been for the past three years now.
When the pandemic hit, I realized that classes were just useless for me. I wasn't getting anything out of virtual classes—I hated it—and I was super unmotivated and under–stimulated. I realized that I was getting so much more out of [Contrary], and so I pass/failed all my classes. For the past three semesters, I’ve been working full–time for Contrary, and it’s been so fun. I get to build Contrary nationally at 40 schools, and it's been the best learning experience that I have had in college.
Street: What is your role on the 2021 Class Board?
JC: I have been the vice president of external affairs for the past four years, which is crazy to say because it makes me feel very old. Class Board was probably the first club that I was interested in in college. I ran my [first] year and I won, and every year after that I’ve just been continuing to run and planning really fun events for the class. Class Board really taps into the huge school and community side of me. I really love bringing people together and putting on traditions—things that people will remember in ten years—and that’s just so special to me. I never thought I would do it, but I have been on Class Board for the past four years, and I think it’s the biggest impact [on traditions] that I’ve made at Penn.
Street: How would you describe your involvement with M&T?
JC: M&T is also one of my favorite communities because it is so small, and it feels like a little home within the larger Penn [community]. Every class of M&T is around 50 people, so there’s 200 people total in M&T. I've kind of been involved in different ways. I’ve been formally involved on the M&T Board. I was the vice president of social [committee], so I put on social events and formals and everything, which is what I like to do. I love doing that and bringing people together. But I also think broadly, I was always in the M&T office, and I’m super active in terms of getting to know underclassmen and upperclassmen. The people older than me in M&T are my biggest role models. I turn to them with every question I have—from classes to jobs to relationships. They pretty much raised me at Penn, and I’m so grateful for them, so I’m trying to pay it forward to the underclassmen in M&T.
I love how everyone in M&T is so self–motivated to do something. Some people are really motivated in their clubs, or their own startups, or their classes, or their research, and everyone just pushes me to be a better version of myself because they’re so inspirational to me.
Street: What's next for you after Penn?
JC: I don't know what I'm going to do after graduation. I’m a senior, and I had an existential crisis of sorts last fall when I was deciding what I wanted to do full–time. I actually ended up turning down my full–time offer from my internship last summer, from Bessemer Venture Partners, which is an amazing, awesome venture capital firm. I really loved the work I did there, but I kind of just had this two–week period where I was doing a lot of soul–searching, which is scary to think about at the age of 21. But I was doing a lot of soul–searching because I realized that I had taken such an easy path in college, where I was applying to things a year in advance, getting an internship or a job, taking that internship or job, and then just taking all these steps to do so. I never really stopped and thought about what I loved doing, or what I was passionate and curious about. So for the first time ever, I said no to an easy option. I am currently looking to work for a startup in New York. I haven’t started my job search yet because the startup timeline is really weird, but all I know for sure is that a year from now, I will be living in New York with two of my best friends. I have no idea what I’m going to be doing, but I’m excited about it.
Last song that you listened to?
"Painkillers" by Rainbow Kitten Surprise.
What’s something that people wouldn’t guess about you?
I hate first dates. I’m a very extroverted, outgoing person, but I really hate first dates.
If you were a building on campus, which one would you be and why?
The M&T office right by the LOVE statue, just because I spent all of my waking hours on campus in that building, and it’s where I’ve made most of my M&T friends.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I always say stopping time because I would love to just take a nap anytime that I wanted, and to take a few deep breaths at any given moment.
There are two types of people at Penn…
People who wake up at 5 a.m., and people who go to bed at 5 a.m.
And you are?
I am the one that goes to bed at 5 a.m.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.