A new challenger bank named Cheese launched to the public Wednesday with the goal of providing banking services to the U.S.’s Asian and immigrant communities.
The Pasadena, California-based challenger bank is the latest venture for founder Ken Lian, a Chinese immigrant who was an early member of online coupon code finder Honey and founded Moolah Science, which helps consumers find out if online stores owe them refunds.
Lian started Cheese, named for a slang term for money, after noticing a gap in banking services targeting the U.S.’s Asian and immigrant communities.
During his time in the U.S., Lian said he paid thousands of dollars in bank fees and was declined multiple times for basic bank accounts despite having a FICO credit score higher than 800.
"I have always envisioned launching a digital banking platform that someone like me could easily access but also serves a deeper purpose, with the power to positively impact Asian communities," he said. "Cheese is that banking platform."
Cheese offers a debit Mastercard to users with no credit history. It also provides a salary advance up to two days early with direct deposit. Customers can receive a 3% deposit bonus for referring friends, a 0.3% annual percentage yield and up to 10% cash back on purchases at more than 10,000 merchants.
Over the past year, the fee-free banking app, whose deposits are held by Coastal Community Bank, has raised $3.6 million in seed funding from lead investors Ifly.vc and Amplify, with additional participation from former Wealthfront CEO Adam Nash, Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff and venture capital firms Wedbush Ventures, Idealab and Operate Venture Studio.
The platform supports social causes by allowing users to donate to Asian-American and immigrant-owned businesses, at-risk communities and charitable organizations with each purchase.
Other services include 5% to 10% cash back when a customer uses their Cheese card at a restaurant near where they live, a feature Lian says is meant to encourage users to frequent businesses in their area.
"We made it very seamless so that you do not need to activate an offer," Lian said. "You do not need to click on anything before your purchase, you just use the card, swipe it, and then the cash back will kick in within seconds."
Every swipe also donates a penny to the digital bank’s Cheese Giveback Fund. Lian said the startup plans to increase the donation.
"In the meantime, the users can decide if they want to keep their $5 signup bonus or put that into the Giveback Fund," he said.
Cheese said it is pledging $100,000 to the fund, all of which will be donated to nonprofits and community service programs in support of Asian neighborhoods and businesses hit hardest by violence and economic hardship during the pandemic. Initial efforts will focus on San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City with plans to expand to other cities.
To help raise awareness for the platform, Cheese has tapped actor, musician and Asian rights advocate Jimmy Wong as its chief community ambassador.
"My parents are also immigrants and have struggled quite a bit with traditional things like banks and getting loans. It was a purpose and a cause that I think really resonates strongly with me," said the "Mulan" actor, who was introduced to Lian and Cheese by a mutual friend who worked at the company. "There are a lot of challenger banks out there and a lot of them are focused on different parts of the world. The fact that we don't have one that's really got their eye on the Asian community and the diaspora was really shocking to me. I feel honored to be a part of something that can really enact long-term change."
Lian said the platform had a waitlist of 50,000 while in beta, with organic visits averaging 100,000 monthly ahead of launch.
Cheese plans to expand its offerings to include credit and lending products for individuals and small-business owners, Lian said.
"It's very easy to sign up right now, but the main goal is to make sure that that process is as streamlined for people as possible," Wong said. "We're working really closely to try and get no Social Security number needed to sign up. That’s something that will hopefully get implemented soon."