Credit Karma co-founder encourages students to follow their passions

Nichole Mustard on Zoom call gesturing

Long before Nichole Mustard co-founded personal finance company Credit Karma, she was a student from a small Ohio town and a zoology major at Miami University. Mustard said she spent many weekends during her senior year traveling, trying to find what would feel like home after Oxford. That quest took her to Los Angeles.

“The power of the ocean was the thing that just made me feel calm. And I really embraced the power of it, the sound of it, the ability to have indoor/outdoor life, the stability of the weather. So moving there was just a path towards achieving happiness and finding a place that I felt I could find my best me,” she recalled.

After graduation, she bought a one-way ticket to L.A., a decision that sidelined her zoology degree. “There was no physical therapy school that I applied for that took me in Los Angeles. And so for me, that was kind of the sign that I wasn't going to go do that. So the steps for me was finding a place to get a job, um, which essentially took me into food. It took me into Pizza Hut and into management training and then working as a new manager, and then running a larger set of Pizza Huts in Southern California,” Mustard said. “I was quickly realizing that I had already moved out of zoology without having decided to move out of zoology. It was never a conscious decision that I wasn't going to follow my premed studies. It was more of a decision that I was going to follow how I would be happy and what I thought would be more fulfilling long-term for me.”

As a guest in the Farmer School’s Executive Speaker Series, Mustard told students and alumni about her career path, which took her through startups on both coasts before she, Kenneth Lin, and Ryan Graciano teamed up to start Credit Karma in 2007. “I was in the financial services space previous to Credit Karma. As you started to talk to the leaders across the ecosystem, you realized pretty quickly that they didn't trust digital just yet. They didn't feel that there was a way to determine quality consumers from risky consumers. They felt that everyone was shopping for financial services between the hours of midnight and 2:00 a.m. and that it would never scale. And, you know, as a youngster with a lot of hope and optimism, I just didn't believe that,” she said. “I thought it was early in the adoption of financial services and that this channel was going to be where everyone transacted over time.”

The company has grown over the last 13 years, adding  tax filling, loanscredit cardidentity theft Protection, credit tools, and financial recommendations to its services, most of them free to the consumer. Mustard said that one key to success was a willingness to be imaginative and to prioritize making progress over making perfection. “I think imagination and innovation are like steps of the stairs and that as you go, you have to continue to expand that imagination,” she explained. “Don't get caught up in figuring out the operational plan for the long term. You're never going to figure it out -- just start walking. It's like a trail height. Just get going, put the boots on, start stamping out there and you'll figure out your path as you see the trail that you're coming upon. You're smart, you're bright. You're imaginable. Just get moving.”

Answering questions from viewers, Mustard also touched on other topics:

  • Advice for women getting their first job: “You should be challenging and asking the open questions like ‘What's it like to be a woman working here?’ I think when you go through your interviews and when you go through your screenings, you should have a strong set of questions. I want to make sure I meet female leaders, and if they're not in my zone, whether that's product or marketing or what have you, I want to meet other female leaders that have been here. You can find a good place and you can be extremely comfortable and you can be included. You can have a voice, you can be a leader, you can see advancement. You just need to screen for those things up front.”
  • The best part of her job: “I love spending time with my team. Right now, we're in annual operating planning, so we're getting to brainstorm and dream about next year and really talk about how we're going to stretch and where we're going to optimize versus where we're going to innovate. And I have to say, I like those times with the team, and then the happy hours and getting to know those people,  that to me is the most precious.”
  • Staying ahead of competitors: “I think you have to continue recreating who you are. It's not okay to just optimize yourself. If you optimize yourself, your S curve is a plateau. You have to have a thousand additional S’s that you're seeding, growing, and cultivating on a regular basis.”
  • Doing what you love: “if you follow what you're passionate about and you're happy, the wealth and prestige will come with it. And that wealth may be different dollar amounts or different titles, but you'll feel so much more complete. So just consider your happiness as an equally-critical factor, if you're thinking about where you go.”
  • If she could go back in time to change one thing: “I had a lot of great relationships through high school and amazing relationships through much of college, but it's really hard, as you move from one chapter of your life to the next chapter, to keep those relationships. If I had one thing that I go back and do again, I would have invested more time. I would have made time for more conversations to keep more of those relationships strong and deeply connected. I look back and don't feel like I fed those enough.”

Even though she didn’t use her zoology degree in the way she anticipated, Mustard said that she, like the students listening to her speak, were in the right place. “Miami gave me a liberal education that allowed me to really learn how to problem solve and to problem solve in a way where I could use my imagination to create things that didn't exist before, and then my problem solving was to go actually figure out how to create the thing that I had imagined,” she said. “You're all going to do great. You're at an amazing college. You're getting a great education. And if you got into Miami, you've got a great head on your shoulders. You're going to do fun, believe in yourself and just go be you.“

To learn more about Nichole and her life inside and outside her job, watch her interview below