advertisement
advertisement

The Toddler At Y Combinator

For three months, Julia Kurnia took her nonprofit through the famed startup accelerator—all while caring for her 2-year-old son, alone.

The Toddler At Y Combinator
[Photo: Flickr user Eduardo Merille]

It was 2014, and Julia Kurnia was discouraged. It wasn’t her personal life that was a problem. Far from it: Kurnia was blissfully happy with her husband, Terra, an Indonesian martial-arts instructor, and their two-year-old, Adam. But Kurnia had a nonprofit, Zidisha, which aimed to redefine international microlending. And a few years in from founding, Zidisha was struggling, stuck, plateaued. Worse: Kurnia’s bootstraps were about to snap. She’d sent out around 75 grant applications, and all had been turned down.

advertisement
advertisement
Julia Kurnia

Then one of her board members (a former Facebook engineer) suggested she apply to a nontraditional funding source for nonprofits. “I had never heard of Y Combinator,” recalls Kurnia. She had spent her youth trekking through remotest Africa, administering U.S. government grants; an “accelerator,” to her, was the pedal of a jalopy. But in around 2014, Y Combinator began to expand its mission slightly, inviting people like Kurnia to apply. So she tossed off an application, figuring it was as much a long shot as her other 75.

Then, to her surprise . . . she got in.

There was just one problem: Kurnia hadn’t initially been aware that the one requirement—indeed, the whole point—of Y Combinator is for admitted founders to come to the Bay Area to meet and learn personally from YC chief Paul Graham and others. Terra scrambled to find a substitute instructor at his martial-arts school, but came up short. All of which meant that if Kurnia was going to participate in YC, she’d have to separate Terra from his 2-year-old son for three months—and she and Adam would have to get by in the Bay Area on the meager monthly stipend she allowed herself. (Though Y Combinator provides funding to cover founders’ living expenses during the program, Kurnia opted to spend most of this to hire a much-needed engineer for Zidisha.)

She and Terra talked it over. Zidisha’s problem at this point, they knew, was fundamentally technological—how to scale up international grant-making while preventing fraud. Zidisha simply needed YC’s expertise if it was to grow. The decision was gut-wrenching, but Kurnia made it.

She filled a small corner of her suitcase with two outfits and a pair of sandals. The rest she filled with Legos.


The first problem, as any transplant to the Bay Area knows, was housing. Kurnia rapidly booked a stopgap Airbnb. The place was far from ideal: a dorm-like flophouse outside Mountain View, whose rooms of clustered bunkbeds were mostly filled by young would-be entrepreneurs. The place was miles from Y Combinator, a tough walk with Adam in tow (Uber was out of the question, financially).

advertisement

Kurnia scoured Airbnb and Craigslist for something better, but at the rare places she could afford, she was rejected by people who didn’t want to live with a mother and her two-year-old. The flophouse, then, it would be: Kurnia and Adam wound up sharing a single bunk for the full three months of YC, with as many as 15 other roommates at once.

Sometimes, when Kurnia became absorbed in her work, the naturally curious Adam might wander over to another resident to ask what he (the residents were mostly male) was doing on his computer. Some found this cute; most didn’t. Finally, someone complained to the landlord, who threatened to throw Kurnia and Adam out unless she agreed to clean the bathrooms. Scrubbing toilets for 15 people seemed too time-consuming, so Kurnia negotiated: she would pay a higher rent, take out the trash, and keep closer watch over Adam. The landlord granted a reprieve.

Time in Y Combinator is largely unstructured, but Kurnia made at least a few visits there each week. To get there, she would carpool or hoist Adam up on her shoulders and walk. Moving quickly, she found she could cut the round-trip hike to about an hour. The only problem was when it rained, which happened several times. In those cases, she’d pass an umbrella up to Adam. He’d stay mostly dry, but Kurnia would be fairly wet by the time they arrived. But things like this don’t bother a woman who has spent years living in rural Africa, sometimes sleeping on hot cement rooftops.

The first time Kurnia showed up with Adam, it may have raised a few eyebrows. While other founders with children have occasionally managed YC by having their spouse join them in an apartment in the area, no one had ever attempted to care for a toddler, alone, through the program. The first week, at one of YC’s dinners, Adam got fussy and overturned a bowl of spaghetti sauce on someone’s lap. Kurnia “wanted to sink through the floor.” (She skipped the next dinner, budgeting for a babysitter for subsequent ones.)

But at the smaller YC events, like the “office hours” with the partners, Adam did well. He even struck up a bond with Paul Graham. Most people either talk down to two-year-olds or ignore them. But Graham took the time to figure out that Adam was fascinated with trains, says Kurnia, and the two of them spent 10 minutes drawing trains on a white board. Graham treated Adam like a little founder, interested in his interests.

There were all manner of YC social and networking events in the evening, but Kurnia passed on those. Instead she’d walk home with Adam, and he would help carry groceries from a store a few blocks from where they were staying. Each evening, Kurnia would “have dinner with my husband,” she says, each sitting in front of Skype as they ate, thousands of miles apart. Then she’d take Adam up to the bunk bed and read to him as he fell asleep. She’d read a story about baby bears over the muffled shouts (“We’ve got to get this app out by tomorrow!”) of wannabe Zuckerbergs one room over.

advertisement

Then, once Adam was asleep, she’d work on Zidisha, guided by the advice she’d gleaned at Y Combinator, until she couldn’t stay awake any longer.


After Demo Day—Y Combinator’s culminating event—the other founders told her, “You can’t go home now, this is your opportunity!” It’s customary for YC founders to stick around the Bay Area for weeks or months, riding the wave and drumming up funds. But Kurnia had made a promise to her husband, and flew back with Adam. The three traveled to Indonesia for Ramadan to visit Terra’s family.

Kurnia did manage to make a few trips back to the Bay Area over the following months, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. This past May, she went back for a round of meetings, while pregnant with her second child.

Ultimately, says Kurnia, the stint at Y Combinator was just what Zidisha needed. The nonprofit’s ambition was to administer international loans, at scale, without loan officers on the ground to prevent fraud; to do that, Zidisha needed fraud-detection algorithms, and Y Combinator provided the needed connections. YC also helped Kurnia to realize that her website’s code base was, in her words, a “time bomb,” destined to be hopelessly buggy as the platform grew. (Adam was learning to talk during Y Combinator. Among his first phrases was, “The website is crashing!”)

“I realized in YC that we needed to be a tech company,” says Kurnia, “and in order to be a tech company, we needed technical leadership. So I needed to become technical.” So after YC, Kurnia spent six months learning to code, something she calls “probably the best investment I ever made.”

Prior to Y Combinator, Zidisha administered $50,000 per month in loans. Last month it did $200,000, and is on track to grow more.

advertisement

Those three months at Y Combinator were transformative. They were also, in her circumstances, tough. She remembers what it was like, touching down at Washington Dulles Airport after three months of separating her family for the sake of her work.

I did the right thing, she thought. But I’ll never do it again.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about the living expenses covered by Y Combinator.

advertisement
advertisement

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

More