Former model. Founder of Tycoon App.
FROM: COSTA RICA, HONDURAS & ECUADOR
After growing up in various countries and cultures in Latin America, Jessica moved to New York to enroll at the New School, intending to study psychology and eventually neuroscience. Instead, she ended up being scouted on the streets of SOHO to be a model and that took her on a decade-long journey around the world, working with top brands. During her modeling years, she noticed the lack of structure and guidance to money management given to young models. In response, she started Tycoon App, a tool to help creatives and freelancers of all types to better manage their finances.
Hair & Makeup: Rebecca Yang
Where are you from?
I was born in Costa Rica. My father is Costa Rican, my mom is American but my mom moved to Costa Rica when she was about ten, so she grew up in Latin America as well. We moved out of Costa Rica to Honduras when I was seven, moved then to Ecuador when I was fourteen and then to New York to attend the New School when I was seventeen. I had just turned seventeen two days before I started school in New York. My parents were living in Ecuador so they dropped me off. My mom started crying and then went back home.
My extended family is mostly in Costa Rica. My experience with the notion of the American Dream was interesting because kids who go to private school in Latin America grow up with the mindset of preparing their entire high school to go to school in the States. When you ask when I decided to move here...I always knew I was gonna come here. There was no way I was gonna stay in Latin America especially when my parents had been talking to me about going to college in the States since I was like two years old.
I got scouted on the street as a model when I was eighteen, which was my second year in college. My agency tried to convince me to drop out of school and model full time but in my head, all I could think was that going to college was what I had been preparing for since I was two years old, so there was no way I was going to drop out. I actually continued modeling and went to school until I finished, which honestly was the best decision I ever made. I always tell models to finish school first, because that way they’ll always have that safety net. Also, learning skills like knowing how to write well comes in handy when you need to write strong, coherent emails to stand up for yourself or when someone is telling you something that you don’t agree with.
The interesting thing about my family is that we grew up in a bilingual and bicultural family, but my mom was always very proud of being an American in Latin America. Whenever something went wrong, she would say things like, "In the States, this would never happen". So growing up, we had this vision of the US as a paradise, where nothing went wrong, where there was no corruption, because in our minds, that was something that would only happen where we lived. Then I moved here and in some ways, it was definitely an upgrade over where I grew up but at the same time I saw a lot of the same shit, only that people here had more money so things could be covered up for longer, or better. At the end, it's really not so different here, there's still so much bureaucracy. Try setting up health insurance and you’ll see. Some of those things actually work better in Latin America than they do here because Latin countries have a bigger sense of social responsibility. To this day we still call my mom out on how she “deceived” us. I guess it’s just part of that moment when you realize your parents are human and they make mistakes too.
Tell me about your childhood and all the places you moved to.
Everyone lumps South America into one big place. Many people don't even realize that Central America is a separate thing. Central Americans are very proud to be Central Americans. Whenever we get lumped in with the South, we’re like, "we're not South American". I was in Costa Rica until the age of seven and living there was great because I have something like twenty-six first cousins and so there was always a birthday party to attend and there was always family around with a bunch of us running around the yard together. So Costa Rica was family time, all the time. It was also things like one grandmother wanted us to do one thing while the other one wanted us to do another, so my parents worked hard to navigate all the relationships.
When we got to Honduras, I remember my mom being somewhat relieved because we could just be by ourselves and there weren’t a lot of expectations put on us. We were able to start life as only our nuclear family and be together, and that really bonded us. We were also foreigners for the first time. Even culturally, my mom and I were the most blonde, blue-eyed of the family so in that sense, we stood out even more in Honduras than in Costa Rica. My middle school was very much divided between the Honduran kids and the foreigners and most of the foreigners were American so it was really hard to infiltrate into the Honduran crowd. I had a lot of American friends and my best friend was from Paraguay. My other best friend was from Guatemala so the way it worked out was that the foreigners and the Americans stuck together. The interesting thing for me was that I ‘looked’ American but I was the only one who could speak Spanish so I would often try to bridge the gap between some of the groups. The social dynamic in that school was very interesting to say the least.
I think the most difficult thing about moving from Costa Rica to Honduras was that Honduras was I think the poorest, or if not, the second poorest country in Latin America at the time. Moving there was seeing poverty like I had never seen before. When you constantly see little kids on the streets that are starving, it just changes your chemistry and outlook in life. When your mom tells you that there are kids in the world that don’t have food to eat, and it's actually happening outside your door, it makes a big impact. I think it always stayed in my mind that I hoped I'd be in the position one day to be able to adopt a kid. There are so many kids out there already that don't have a place to live or money or resources.
There was a year where for months, we only had a few hours of electricity each day because there was a power shortage in Honduras. So we would lose power at 6pm and have to light candles and sit on my mom's bed, singing songs because there was nothing else to do. We ate a ton of tuna fish and bathed in the morning with pails of water. There was a lot that we experienced as children living in a third world country that really affected us and by the time we moved to the States, my sister and I would constantly be like, "I can't believe these Americans do this." Like when we would go to people's houses and watch them brush their teeth and step away while leaving the faucet on. I'd be like, “Have you lost your mind?”
Then we moved to Ecuador and it felt like a step up because they had these giant grocery stores and movie theaters. In Honduras, they would do this thing where when they oversold movie tickets, people would just stand or sit in the aisles to watch the movie. It wasn't like a movie theater where you walked in and everyone had a seat. Everyone would try to find whatever space was available and hang around to watch the movie. When we moved to Ecuador and we went to the movies one day, the movie tickets were sold out. I was like, “Sold out? What? How does something sell out?!” Because in Honduras, nothing was ever sold out. The idea that you could track the number of seats and only sell that amount of tickets was mind boggling! It was like, “Oh right, it’s probably not normal to sit on the floor when you go to the movies.”
The school I went to in Ecuador was mostly international kids and every grade was very small - maximum 20 kids. Every grade seemed to have one culture or nationality that was larger than others. Most of my classmates were Korean or Chinese, but mostly Korean. One of my best friends from that school, her name is Diana Changkuon and she is Ecuadorean and Chinese but only spoke Spanish with her family and is very Ecuadorean in her identity. To me, she was my most Ecuadorean friend and when I moved to New York, she ended up coming to NYU so we lived together. I talked about her to my friends, telling them that my friend Diana from Ecuador was coming to live here. And when she arrived, a lot of my friends were like, "Why didn't you tell us she was Asian?" And I was so confused. In my head, I didn’t think about her being Asian ‘first’ because she was Ecuadorean. I realized from people's commentary here that they get very caught up in that. They want to be able to put people in a box and if their perceptions don’t fit, then it becomes weird.
“I realized from people’s commentary here that they get very caught up in ... [putting] people in a box and if their perceptions don’t fit, then it becomes weird.”
Moving here, I encountered a lot of questions like, “Oh it's your first time in America?” and I’d respond that no, I'm from Latin America, that we're American too. It was very confusing - the language used, the ownership of the word “America”, because we always called it the States. In Spanish, the word for someone from here is estadounidense, which is “United Statesian”, essentially.
To be honest one of the most difficult things about modeling was that every time I went to castings, people would ask me where I’m from. For me, having to answer that question multiple times a day with the reactions that came with it was one of the most annoying things in my life. It's a giant pet peeve of mine. I'm like, here we go again, I’m gonna have to explain myself, “Nope, my dad is not in the military, no I'm not a surfer, and yes I do speak Spanish, obviously.” It was exhausting. Now I just lie. When people ask me where I'm from, I just say I’m from New York. If I'm in a bar and people ask me where I'm from, I'm like, “How about this, I'll give you ten tries, if you can guess where I'm from, I'll buy you a shot, if not, you buy me a shot.” I always end up getting drinks for free. So there you go.
How did moving around so much and living in these different cultures shape your pursuits?
I think it’s a lot easier for me to relate to different types of people than the average person. In fact, I don't understand this notion of nationalism too much because to me, I think it’s more important to be a citizen of the world and to be open and understanding of other cultures. I think we should try to adapt to the places that we go to instead of going to another place and trying to make it the same as where we came from. That is one of the reasons why I hate the idea of cruises so much. It’s like, wait a minute, you're gonna get on a cruise from Florida to Jamaica and do the exact same shit that you do in Florida but somewhere else? I mean, get off the damned boat and go hang out. See what people are up to when you're in a foreign place and learn from that and experience that. It doesn't make much sense to me. I think what happens is that people feel that nationalism means standing up for your country even when they're in the wrong, while I think instead it should mean that you question what your country is doing and you only stand by the things that you agree with.
What does it mean to be Costa Rican?
Costa Ricans are really open people, I think more than other cultures. For example, if I bring a friend to my cousin's house in Costa Rica and she stays there for a couple of days, when she is goes to leave, she’ll be invited to stay again next time she comes, even if I’m not with her. There’s a mentality that you’re automatically ‘in’ and that our house and our doors are open to you. Growing up, my friends knew that the doors of my house were always open to them. I think Costa Ricans are very generous people.
Costa Ricans are also very conscious of their nature and environment. Costa Rica recently became the first country to be solely powered by renewable energy for 100 days in a row, there was an article about it. To think that stuff like that happens in Latin America is kind of surprising to most people, but not to me. People are proud of their landscape and take ownership of it and as result, have helped to protect it.
Let's talk about after you moved here. What was it like attending school, modeling and then starting a company?
I think one of the things that I really like about the States is that there are just endless possibilities here. I had heard the whole thing about the American Dream in the conventional sense, with the suburban house with a white picket fence and two kids and a car but to be honest that was never really a goal for me. In all honesty, I had always lived in really interesting places and cultures, so the idea of living in a place with a perfectly mowed lawn kinda creeped me out. For me, the American Dream was about having access to many types of possibilities and that was the reason I wanted to come to New York specifically.
Latin America, as nice and community-oriented as it was, is still very conservative culturally at its core. People don’t accept those that are different from the norm. I wanted to be somewhere where I was around all different types of people. I remember when I first came here, one of the people in the registrar's office was a woman with a giant face tattoo. I thought that was so awesome. I feel like here there is no judgment, you can walk out wearing whatever you want, whereas in Latin America, it was always like, "What shirt are you wearing?!" I just couldn't deal with it. Coming to the States meant freedom to be whoever I wanted to be and the freedom to be different.
Back at home, there were a lot of openly misogynistic comments in everyday speech. The prevailing mentality was that women should get married at twenty-two and have babies, that's just what they are expected to do. In my head, that was a fucking nightmare. I wanted to have a career and do something. It was really refreshing to be able to move here. To me, the American Dream was being able to be around the freedom of expression and have possibilities in careers and opportunities that were not open to me as a woman in Latin America and to have access to all of that. It wasn't really about the house, or the picket fence, it was deeper than that and it still is.
Tell me about what you first did when you moved here.
I moved here for college and in my second year of college I started modeling after being scouted on the streets of SOHO. It was something completely unexpected that I had never factored into my life. But to my point earlier, there are just so many possibilities for things in New York. It was something that was able to happen here.
How did you feel about being scouted? What did you think about that?
I guess at the time I thought it was so cool. I was excited to be part of a world that was exclusive where people didn't know what happened behind the scenes and the magazines would just appear. This was pre-digital when people still bought physical magazines. It felt like a big deal, like wow I can't believe this is happening to me. I came from this very humble family and yeah it just felt exciting. I was really awkward and I didn't like taking photos. It was also funny because in Latin America I was always made fun of and bullied for being too skinny and then I got here and I was being offered to model because of it. That was a weird brain fuck, for lack of a better word. The types of bodies that Latin American women were praised for was very different from what I looked like at that time. When I was in college, I weighed under a hundred pounds and it took me a long time for me to develop into a woman. I was just a super late bloomer. For me, I was trying to reach a hundred pounds. And then I got into modeling and they were like, we love you like that!
When I finished school, I told my parents that I would model for one or two years and then go to grad school. After I graduated, I needed a break because at that point I had been going from my job at a lab to a casting, then home for homework for the five classes I was taking. So by the time I graduated I felt really burnt out and overwhelmed. I told my mom that I was gonna take a few years off to model. It ended up being longer than the two years that I had promised. But it was kind of like a career in finance where every year I just kept making more money so every year I got sucked in even more.
A lot of times I did work in countries I had never been before. I think I went to Europe before my mom ever did actually. So it just opened doors in terms of seeing the world that I had never had access to before. Early on I went to Japan and spent summers there while I was in school. I learned so much and I had a chance to make an amount of money that in Latin America would have been ridiculous to make. I got paid thousands of dollars for shoots whereas back home it can take people a few months to make thousands. So it seemed too good of an opportunity to give up and I kept going with it until I reached a point where it started to be obvious that I had to start thinking about other things.
Luckily being in a place like New York, there are so many different types of industries - entertainment, music, fashion, and tech. At that point I had seen many of my friends end their careers with nothing to show for it. I also heard of many people mismanaging their finances, not saving for taxes properly and whatnot.
So I had this idea to create a system that would make it easier to track earnings and whether or not money was still owed. I thought about it for a long time and then decided to build it. In talking to freelancers, many had some kind of a system set up, even if it was annoying or inefficient. At that time, my boyfriend who is now my fiancee, had started his own tech company and I told him about all of my ideas. He thought what I wanted to do was a really good idea, that I understood the problems very well, and I had the community to test it out for me, so he encouraged me to try. He helped me get my initial foot into that world and I took it from there - networking, building my team of advisors, meeting a lot of people, trying to figure out how I would build it. One thing led to another and then the product was out there and that’s when I got accepted into this incubator and started building out my team. Now I'm in the process of raising money.
Every step has been a totally different experience involving multiple things that I've had to learn for the first time. I probably learned more in the past two years building this company than I have in the past decade so that's really cool. When you have a small company, you have to wear a lot of different hats. Everything from the tech, product, marketing, content, press and all of that stuff, I’ve had to manage it all. I had to do it first on my own and then later on find people to help me. When I started, I didn't even know what a term sheet was. Honestly, when I started doing this I didn't even have a Gmail account. I was a loyal Yahoo user, I still have it and I'm not gonna close it down (lol). I didn't even know what Google Drive was, I had never even heard of it. I was a model, why would I need to know what Slack or Dropbox was? I had no use for those things.
Can you talk about the community of models that you were and are still a part of? There seems to be a lot of challenging day to day stuff that is not addressed yet.
The whole modeling industry is very interesting because you have mostly foreign, young girls who move here to model. You have these vulnerable girls that come here and don't speak the language and don’t have their parents with them. They're put into a situation where they're living with a bunch of other girls in one small room. They're here to fulfill this dream of making it and very early on, any money they make, it's common for them to send it back home. They become the breadwinner of their families at seventeen or eighteen, which is kind of crazy when you think about it. They are working individuals and everyone else around them are much older. A lot of times, the things that get said to them, they take it at face value and they don't know to question the things they are told.
One of the things that I really wanted to instill with my tech was this idea of transparency. When agencies give models account statements that they can’t read and understand, I want them to come to me, so that I can walk them through what everything means. They can also use the app to track things for themselves. At the end of the day, there's no one who's gonna be more honest and on top of things than you about your own money. I wanted to address the notion of powerlessness that many of the girls feel in the situation they are in. I wanted to build a company and product that put the power back into their hands, where they feel like they're staying on top of their own finances.
I ran a finance workshop where I was in a room full of models and I said to them, "At the end of the day, money is power." If you don't prioritize that in your business and career as a model, then you're never gonna be in a position of power in this industry. If you're able to be careful with your money, know when and where to spend it, know when and how to ask for money, you can get to a place where you have more power for yourself. Being the broke model that's asking the agency for an advance because you're broke doesn't put you in a position of power.
The reality is that the majority of these young models that are scouted end up getting sent home broke. The ones that do make it end up at age thirty with nothing to show for it and their agencies just cut them off. I feel like there has to be more control, power and accountability on their end even if they're too young to understand the realities of their situation and careers. It's like athletes, musicians, dancers and other creative fields. These are careers where the setup is that you’re career is a short term one and one day you’re mostly likely gonna wake up and be forced to do something else.
A lot of the work that you're doing has a strong advocacy component. Where does that comes from?
It’s very personal to me because most of my friends are freelancers of various kinds. I can tell you that eight times out of ten, when I'm on a photoshoot, finances get brought up as a pressing issue for someone. People are very vocal about it when they're on photoshoots and they talk about a bunch of issues, like an agency hasn't paid them their money and they can't pay their rent, or a client just went cold on them. Or having to pull their kid out of school because they're not doing as well this year as they were doing last year. These are issues that people in our industry talk about all the time. But because they're not sexy problems, no one in the industry has made an attempt to do anything about it. So I wanted to take action.
My stance was: Let's hold the agencies accountable but also hold ourselves accountable to significantly change this. Maybe the average person isn’t that bothered about freelancers not being paid but when you actually have friends in that situation and you hear that a friend is on the brink of a divorce over their finances, or having to file for bankruptcy, and these are your friends, it really fires you up. I literally had people cry in front of me over their finances on photoshoots and I wanted to do something to help them. I think my drive comes from a place of knowing everyone's a little bit lost and that finances is a subject that brings out a lot of fear and stress in people.
How do you feel about America? What does it represent to you?
I think it's a place of opportunity and privilege, and for the most part, freedom. I think also on the negative side, it's a culture of egocentrism where people really do believe that this is the best country on earth. Like how I was saying earlier, they go to other countries and try to find American things there to feel comfortable, which is why I think American tourists are so unpopular throughout the world. But for the most part, I think it's a great place to live. I'm very glad I have the opportunity to live in New York. I don't really know if I'd live anywhere else in the States.
If you could bring one thing from Costa Rica or anywhere else that you've lived in, what would it be and why?
The States has a very individualistic culture while Costa Rica is more collectivist. I think sometimes there could be a little more of that here, looking out for your neighbor and doing things together more, being more cognizant of each other. Sometimes, it's small things like I'll go to a deli and I'll order the same thing from the same person every morning, and every morning they look at me like I'm a stranger that just walked in. People that I give business to all the time act like I've been in their store for the first time and that's off putting to me. I think we could use more of a communal spirit where people are neighborly and show more concern towards each other.
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