Joyce Kim Is Using Tech to Make the World a Better Place

2003–04 AAUW Selected Professions Fellow Joyce Kim

2003–04 AAUW Selected Professions Fellow Joyce Kim

February 09, 2016

“The simple truth is that it is expensive to be poor,” says Joyce Kim, a 2003–04 AAUW Selected Professions Fellow and the creator of the nonprofit Stellar.

Looking for a way to assist disadvantaged and immigrant communities struggling for economic empowerment, Kim left her career as a lawyer to become an entrepreneur and after a few years was inspired to develop Stellar, a decentralized protocol for sending and receiving money. In simpler terms, it’s a financial network that allows cash to be moved digitally from any financial institution.

Stellar is only about two years old, with a very modest marketing budget, but what’s amazing about the company is that it makes transfers with little or no cost to the end user. Kim notes, “Working families spend $44 billion a year on Western Union and similar fees. For people living on $2 a day, they can spend up to 15 percent of their daily income on a single transaction fee.”

Since aid from remittances (money transfers sent by workers to their home countries) can significantly assist in preventing low-income family members and friends from falling into poverty, Stellar’s low-to-no-cost infrastructure translates into significant savings, particularly for immigrants and those in the developing world. In its first pilot operation, which included 6 million transactions, Stellar saved end users more than $150 million dollars in fees when compared to Western Union.

Watch Joyce Kim talk about her nonprofit, Stellar:

Watch video on YouTube

Running and promoting Stellar has now become Kim’s full-time occupation. But what inspired the switch from law to the tech world? The idea for Stellar could have been applied to a for-profit enterprise, but Kim wanted to focus entirely on helping disadvantaged and immigrant communities, to “leave the world a better place than it was before [she] arrived.” Coming from an immigrant community, she understood firsthand the financial challenges that often affect immigrants.

“I know [about the challenges] because I am one of the people who made it,” she says, “and without the right tools you can’t do all the things that need to be done. … You can’t save for school, you can’t pay for health care … and this is where the Selected Professions Fellowship was very helpful because law school was very difficult to get through, because [of the] prohibitive expense.”

The latest implementation of Stellar took place recently in Nigeria. Along with Oradian, a software company that develops software for microfinance institutions, Kim rolled out Stellar with an estimated reach of approximately 300,000 end clients, of whom more than 90 percent were women. Though Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa and has the largest population, roughly 40 percent of Nigerians don’t have access to any banking or financial institution, according to the 2014 Enhancing Financial Innovation and Access report. The report also notes that 15 percent of those Nigerians without access to banking rely on money sent from friends and family. Many Nigerians looking to send money from one part of the country to another, Kim notes, are left with little choice but to “put money in a bag and then … put that bag on a bus, and that bus could take 12 hours to get where it needs to go.” She continues, “It’s obviously not safe, it’s not fast, it’s not efficient, and it has become more unsafe as the local political situation worsens with Boko Haram. Oradian started to tackle that problem and that’s how they found us.”

With Stellar’s low fees (approximately 300,000 transactions cost just a penny), transferring funds became significantly more affordable for those Nigerians who received their funds from a microfinancing institution that had utilized Stellar. The nonprofit’s association in Nigeria with approximately 200 microfinancing institutions, some located in the more remote, rural areas, increased service accessibility.

Essentially, Kim notes, what Stellar provides is an opportunity for people to safely transfer money and “[keep] more money in communities so that [they] can invest more into the well-being of their families.”

This post was written by AAUW Program Associate Theon Ford.


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