At the weekly Duke FinTech Seminar: The incredible story of a FinTech businesswoman

September 18, 2023 | Emilia Chiscop-Head

How rejection and failure motivated Cristina Qi to surpass daily trading value of $ 7 billion at her hedge fund and found a market data business

Cristina Qi, Founder and CEO, Databento

In 90 minutes, the young and spectacular FinTech business owner Cristina Qi, CEO at Databento, revealed herself, her failures and her successes to the Duke FinTech students with the sincerity and authenticity of an old friend. Like many of the students in the audience, Cristina’s native country is China. She started her presentation, connecting with her co-nationals – by sharing a picture of her grandparents at the balcony of their Chinese apartment on a very typical balcony Cristina’s life shows an abundance of personality: her courage was stronger than her childhood mentality, “My mentality on failure changed over time,” she said. She remembers that she cried when a company where she applied for an internship rejected her. Now she is used to being rejected and understands that without rejection and without failure, there would be no success: “Succeeding as a founder is also about overcoming rejection. If you're not getting rejected, then you're not putting yourself out there enough, and as a founder, you must sell and pitch your product to the world. When I get rejected now, I am depositing the rejection on what I like to call a "mountain of rejections" and move on.”

At MIT, where she was admitted as an undergraduate student, she had a hard time finding her way. She interned with Goldman Sachs, Zions Bank and then with UBS where she was hoping to get a return offer. But the company did not appreciate her final presentation – a trading strategy - and did not invite her back. “All of my classmates had multiple jobs lined up already. I was feeling down,” she remembers. To encourage her, a classmate suggested that she goes ahead and implements her final project – the trading strategy. She told herself: “If it doesn't work, at least I'll have some closure on a challenging summer. If it does, then at least I'll have something to do for a bit after graduation”. This is how she founded Domeyard, from her rented apartment. Their hedge fund was “a tiny minnow amongst the tigers of the hedge fund world, but after Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys came out in 2014 and HFT firms hid from the spotlight, Domeyard accidentally found itself in the center of the ring.” – she wrote on her website. “And over the next decade, we went from $1000 (earned during the internship) to trading over $7 billion USD per day at our peak.” Her company’s story became a best-selling story featured on front page of top media outlets like Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, CNN, NBC, Financial Times, etc. Cristina contributed to the World Economic Forum’s research on AI in finance, was invited to speak at top universities like Duke and teach her Domeyard case study at Harvard Business School.

“I had no money, no connections, no reputation. I had 100 % chance of failure given my experience and age. I was naïve. If I was aware of how many things can go wrong, I would have never done it"

When she looks back at the Domeyard hedge fund adventure, she laughs at her countless mistakes, lack of experience and qualifications. “I had no money, no connections, no reputation. I had 100 % chance of failure given my experience and age. I was naïve. If I was aware of how many things can go wrong, I would have never done it”, she recalls. She had no idea how to start a hedge fund – she learned from google. She could not afford to rent a business office and she used her apartment - which she did not know was against the rental policy – and therefore she was evicted. She used highly reputable vendors which resulted in high cost and poor service. “Bigger is not always better,” she says. She just kept moving forward. “There is no magic secret for success. I went to every single conference and event in town, and I pitched the hedge fund,” she said.

Cristina has learned from her Domeyard experience that giving people more – such as high titles and perks - will not increase their retention. “People don’t stay because of free food. They stay because their contributions are being valued, their voice is being heard and they have room to grow, learn and make an impact,” Cristina told students. Therefore, she advised them not to fall for the perks when they search for jobs: “Ask what keeps them up at night, what are the challenges, what excites them and what will be the opportunities for learning.”

"You have value to bring even as a student, just identify it and be aware of it."

Managers value communication, especially in remote jobs – she explained. “Whether it's remote or in-person position, do a weekly write up of everything you did and send it to your manager, so you have a record of this for many years to come,” she continued. For students looking to start their careers, her biggest advice is to abandon their childhood mentality and be aware of what they have to offer. “Don’t be afraid of asking questions. If you apply for a job or internship and they do not respond, you can follow up and offer to help. You could offer to post the position to your network if you are not the right fit. You have value to bring even as a student, just identify it and be aware of it,” concluded Cristina.

Two years ago, Cristina founded Databento and closed Domeyard. “I started Databento after my previous company wasted millions of dollars on market data. Data is very difficult to access in the financial industry, and we wanted to lower those barriers to entry for everyone, from students to companies,” she says. Cristina wants to continue growing her company and making an impact in the financial industry. She has also worked on her book, The Finance Snake.” The book is about all the misadventures of starting a hedge fund and making it to the "top" of the totem pole, so to speak”, she says. She describes the book as “an expose on working with billionaires while coming from a low-income immigrant family”. The story of all the mistakes she made, “and the rollercoaster of startup life”. Her story goes on.