Arta Team Spotlight

Q&A with Charles Dong, Co-founder at Arta

Arta Team Spotlight

August 10, 2022

Meet Charles

Charles has worn many hats throughout his career; investment analyst, venture investor, product manager, and professional gamer. But, just when you think a man can’t be any more talented, you learn that he has not one but two killer dance moves (!). Formerly Head of Growth at Tez/Google Pay, Charles brings rich experience from the investing and tech industries. Charles is now a co-founder of Arta, working on building the product.

You started your career working with private equity investments, venture capital, and hedge funds. Can you walk us through it?

I started my career at Blackstone in private equity, working on leveraged buyouts of large companies. It was a great training ground for how to think like an investor. I met several of my lifelong friends and mentors there.

After that, I helped start a venture capital fund in Kenya focused on technology. My managing partner was moving home to stop the “brain drain” out of Kenya by directly funding local entrepreneurs and fostering the local ecosystem.

While there, I worked with another friend to finance $2-10M energy projects, including hydroelectric plants and solar farms. We connected local villages to the grid for the first time and sold the remaining power to the government. The work was profitable and fulfilling from a mission perspective. We could see an immediate and measurable difference in how technology improved lives.

From there, I went on to work at a long/short hedge fund in Hong Kong, investing in public equities across APAC, Australia, and India. That’s the whirlwind tour of my financial chapter before starting my “second career” in tech.

Wow - that’s a lot of work experience in finance. How has that influenced your approach to your own personal finances?

I noticed that high-net-worth individuals learn and share financial knowledge early. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that experience. I was never taught “how to do” personal finance, so I had to learn independently. I identified the gaps in my financial education while working in this industry and tapped into my circle of friends and colleagues across the financial spectrum to learn.

Thankfully, my work experience also gave me the confidence and expertise to take action on opportunities for my personal portfolio.

You said that you learned personal finance from trusted friends and colleagues. Since you have experience in private and public investing, entrepreneurship, you must have learned from incredibly knowledgeable people. Was there specific advice or insight that helped shape your approach to investing?

Early on, one of my friends (and one of the most intelligent people I know) who was working at Bridgewater gave me this advice: “The downside hedge for people in our situation is the longevity of career and future earning prospects. So, we can maximize risk on our investments at this stage of our life.” In other words, we could think about our careers as a part of our investment portfolios. We didn’t have major financial responsibilities at the time, so we would’ve been ok even if our high-risk investments went to zero due to having many decades of income ahead (hopefully).

My friend was able to co-invest with Bridgewater on many high-risk, high-return investments. For me, the equivalent was stock-picking based on my prior experience and what I had access to. I approached equities and newer asset classes like crypto with that mindset.

What do you see as the significant differences in how the wealthy educate themselves versus the less wealthy?

Wealthy folks are exposed to many smart financial practices so much earlier in life. For example, kids are often taught financial concepts, such as compounding, as they grow up. Likewise, education investment vehicles like 529 plans and alternative investments are common knowledge and implemented as a matter of course. However, in less affluent circles, people often learn about these concepts later on, if at all.

This difference became clear to me during a conversation I had with a good friend during college about how we covered tuition costs. I had cobbled together my tuition through scholarships and earning cash prizes from video game tournaments. In contrast, his parents had invested in alternative investments when he was just two years old - my parents never even had access to something like that. Then, after compounding for 16 years, the funds covered his college tuition and then some. At the time, it blew my mind that people knew about these esoteric investment opportunities and had the foresight to plan ahead like that. Now it seems so obvious.

You paid for your own tuition by playing video games? That’s impressive! Please tell me about this experience and how education became important to you so early.

When I was young, I had my heart set on exploring the world outside of my small town in Wisconsin. This led me to an independent high school on the east coast. My parents couldn’t fully afford the $60k boarding school and college tuition even after scholarships, so it was up to me to figure out how to cover the remainder, starting at age 14. I didn’t have many other skills at that age, so I turned to gaming. Luckily, eSports was new at the time, so it was still possible for an amateur like me to make some money.

Having that experience as a kid, I learned how to be more resourceful and gained the confidence that I could problem-solve my way toward my goals. This self-assurance led to a few entrepreneurial ventures and passive income streams throughout school and beyond. Hopefully, there is a way to teach this resourcefulness to kids!

Can we switch topics for a minute? Please tell us about what it’s like to be the “family CFO.” What is it like to manage finances for yourself along with parents and (eventually) kids?

I help advise my parents’ finances alongside their financial advisor. Sadly, the space is so broad and complex that many folks tend to throw up their hands and delegate. It would be nice to have an engaging resource that I could use to teach them because I don’t see them having the interest or time to dive into investing on their own. When I have children, I plan to teach them all the financial concepts that I wish I had learned sooner.

Speaking of that, what do you wish you had learned sooner?

The short answer: So much!

I wish someone had taught me about compounding when I was five and encouraged me to invest early, even with just the money from mowing lawns, collecting bottle caps, etc.

I also wish I had learned that the stock market wasn’t so scary.

My parents weren’t taught how to navigate the complex investments landscape, and I didn’t learn anything in school, so it was all DIY later in life – much of it through my career training and from the smart people around me. I wish someone had sat me down and had me think about financial concepts such as public markets, diversification, or taxes. Reflecting back, I would have saved so much by doing basic tax planning and investing in retirement accounts.

One more: There’s a saying going around the financial recesses of the internet, “What’s trashy when you’re poor and classy when you’re rich? Debt.” It’s been ingrained in me never to take on debt, especially coming from a cultural background where debt was historically frowned upon. But now I understand the concepts of leverage and margin as investment tools and that I don’t have to liquidate existing investments to make room for new ones. I wish I had learned that earlier!

I’m thrilled to be working at Arta so I can pass along what I’ve learned and help folks make better, smarter decisions for their futures.