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Heang Chan, from Khao-I-Dang to CEO

My name is Heang Chan and I’m the CEO and Co-founder of Prelim. We develop software used by banks to automate the business customer experience for deposit accounts, services, and loans. The journey I took was circuitous so if you’re interested in a career as a founder in tech I would avoid the mistakes I’ve made along the way and find the best path to reach your goals. 

Born in Khao-I-Dang, Thailand, I immigrated to the United States as part of the first-generation of Cambodian Americans. Along with about fifty Cambodian families, I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment at the Bianchi Street low-income housing projects in Stockton, California. Within the microcosm of our neighborhood, I saw the reality of living in poverty when the first of the month rolled around and the families would wait anxiously for the delivery of the welfare checks and food stamps in the community mailbox room. The feeling of getting a free lunch ticket starting in elementary school, then middle school and later high school also created a sense of self awareness inside of me that I was different and I had to be humble enough to accept it versus asking my parents to give me what little money they had to buy lunch for school even though others looked down on me. I used these early experiences to drive me to be the best I could be in school and later work because I had this real appreciation for life and the opportunities granted to me. 

With a limited view of the world, I believed going to college was the only way to escape out of poverty. At the time of applying to U.C. Berkeley, I wasn’t even one of the top students in my public high school and no other data point in my application really stood out. My belief was that the admission committee saw me as interesting because I worked full-time as a janitor starting at 16 years old, started working as a farm laborer when I was 15, my parents were on public assistance, and I was first generation Khmer. My master plan in college was to self pay the tuition and housing by working security at a laboratory on Ashby Street during the graveyard shift from 8 P.M. to 8 A.M. 3-4 days a week. This meant that I didn’t sleep during the day and just went straight to class at 8:30 A.M. I ended up dropping out after finishing a year of credits. Admittedly even though work impacted my ability to sleep and study, the real reason I left at the time was I really missed home since I never lived away from home and I didn’t feel like I belonged since even the Khmer students there seemed to be from well-to-do families. 

After dropping out of U.C. Berkeley and attending community college, I never thought that I would have a chance to attend Stanford University later in life for my Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. This time applying, I had worked for 4 years at Wells Fargo and was awarded several accolades one being the youngest person to win the annual award for being the top originator of loans in the company. The lesson I learned was that you have to make the most of the opportunities in life because no matter how small you may think your role is in any organization you can use that as a stepping stone to your next destination. 

It’s quite possible to not attend college or graduate school or even work for anyone and become a founder. If that’s your situation, it’s been done before but at least for me attending top tier schools like U.C. Berkeley and later Stanford benefited me from a personal growth perspective. To be amongst the top students at these universities, I learned that others possessed intelligence, talent and drive that I had never seen in my life. From that point on, I learned to challenge myself to always be the small fish in the big pond so that I kept on growing. 

Last but not least, the people you meet at these schools will go on to do great things and they might help you out with a referral, recommendation, or even funding for your company. My network at Stanford helped me land my first tech role which I was able to use to develop further industry experience in enterprise technology and also meet my co-founder. There I was able to use my banking experience to help build the product for the startup and I was able to gain exposure to different parts of the business from design, engineering, sales, customer success, and even legal/compliance. Even though I wasn’t an executive there it didn’t matter since the most important lesson was that job titles didn’t mean much in a startup, you try to add as much value as you can given your abilities and drive and the skills you develop and lessons you learn are usually transferable to running a successful company.  

When I co-founded Prelim, the most difficult decision I had to make was to leave my colleagues behind who I enjoyed working with in pursuit of a new mission. The difficult decision I had to make was also giving up on my salary and part of my equity in a successful tech company which actually ended filing to go public a few years later. However, I knew it was the right decision to make since I just followed my heart and knew I would regret it if I didn’t pursue the opportunity to make a larger impact in the world. Fortunately, our company received funding from Y-Combinator and ended up raising a round of funding and the rest is history.  

As I reflect back on my early life and career, I realize how my younger self was focused on the wrong things. 

Now I realize education is important but the process of educating oneself is even more important because what you learn in school is limited by the curriculum but what you teach yourself is limitless and oftentimes your success in your career is based on self taught skills translated in the ability to execute.

The second biggest lesson I learned was that I had to have the courage to think for myself when others discouraged me or had conflicting views. For example, most people who I worked with at the bank never really understood why I left to go back to school since they were stuck on the fact that getting a graduate degree would not increase my compensation. Perhaps even more difficult for them to fathom was how someone could walk away from being one of the top people at a company to become a student again. What they didn’t realize was that life is short, we’ll never regret not making enough money on our deathbed or winning more awards but we’ll regret not chasing our dreams. And what I did make the right call on was that if you win awards it does make you feel good but you have to be selfless enough to realize that you don’t need to win every year because you feel so blessed that you want others to win too and you leaving means that someone more deserving will win just like you won the first time. 

It’s been four years and we’re still in the midst of growing our company. We count some of the largest banks as customers and continue to introduce innovation into the banking space and we’re hopeful that the company will continue to impact millions of lives around the world. No matter what happens, in the end I know that I lived my dreams and that matters more than anything. If you remember one thing from my story, just remember we’re only limited by our ambitions. 

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