A Card For Cal, By Cal: Firstcard

Author: Derrick Cui, Graphics: Nina Tagliabue

The BRB Bottomline

Firstcard is the first student-centered, fee-less card that offers up to 15% cash-back at stores around Berkeley, from Berkeley Social Club to Cafe Strada to Games at Berkeley and everything in between. Discounts with no strings attached.

As a student at UC Berkeley, I find myself going to the same places across campus. After a long day of procrastinating, I usually reward myself with an iced matcha latte at Cafe Strada, after which I go to Games at Berkeley to buy Pokemon cards to search for the ever-elusive Charizard. At night, I sometimes find myself at Artichoke’s or Top Dog, seeking a morale boost to start my homework due in a few hours. The life of a Berkeley student is surprisingly cyclical, with local stores and restaurants serving as hubs for hangouts, coffee-chats, and socials. So why isn’t there a card that caters to the student experience? Firstcard is the first card made for Cal students by offering cash-back at local stores.

What is Firstcard?

Firstcard was founded in September of 2020 by Kenji Niwa, a MBA student at UC Berkeley. The mission of Firstcard is simple: to help college students save so that they can pursue their academic and professional goals without worrying about their finances. Their first product is the Firstcard Mastercard® Debit Card that has no fees and offers cash-back at local Cal stores. For example, they offer 5% off at Sliver’s, 10% at Artichoke’s, 15% off at Cafe Strada, 10% off at Boba Ninja, and 7% off at Berkeley Social Club. Instead of offering cash back on hotels or airlines or vacations as other cards do, they offer relevant, tangible discounts at local stores.

Figure 1: Just some of the discounts offered with Firstcard

When a purchase is made using this card with the physical Debit Card, Google Pay, or Apple Pay, the Firstcard app immediately indicates where the money was spent and the amount of money saved from the purchase. No strings attached, pure discounts. Aligned with Kenji’s vision to help students, the product does not require credit scores or bank accounts and only requires a student email. In fact, Kenji hopes to add new features in the future, like credit-building and credit-loaning to benefit students as much as possible. 

Why Help Students?

Before Firstcard, Kenji created and ran an online internship-finding platform called ​​i Tank Japan, Inc. in 2007. For 7 years he strove to help college students build their careers by working to make internships more common in Japan. With this first company, he had the opportunity to meet hundreds of students from all over the country and came to realize that he had a passion for helping young people. After moving to the US, he sold the company and aimed to find different ways to help students here. Out of this passion came Firstcard.

How Do Savings Work?

 The first time I heard about this card, I thought it was too good to be true. How does a company not charge fees and offer cash back? Their revenue streams are actually straight forward: they charge merchants a processing fee (just like any other card provider) and take that 1% to offer discounts. Savings add up. If I only buy 1 matcha latte from Cafe Strada a day for a month, I would save $23. Not too shabby. In comparison to other cards like the Cal Alumni card that offers at most 3% cash back in a specific category like gas or dining, or the Discover card that offers at most 5% cash back for purchases at specific vendors that change every quarter, Firstcard is a no-brainer for a Berkeley student.

Sign me up!

Currently, Firstcard operates near Berkeley and Stanford with plans to expand to other schools like UCLA, USC, MIT, and Harvard very soon. With only 15 employees, Kenji is expecting to grow quickly. Over 4000 students at UC Berkeley and Stanford have already signed up for the waitlist. After all, why not? There is no fee and Firstcard offers discounts at over 50 stores so far and is planning to expand to many more. Sign up at Firstcard.app to start saving today!

Take-Home Points

  • Firstcard’s first product is a debit card that has no fee and offers cash back at your favorite Berkeley stores
  • There are over 50 participating locations, with plans to expand to many more
  • Discounts go up to 15% from your favorite stores like TopDog, COHO, Cream, Boba Ninja, Gong Cha, T-toust, Berkeley Social Club, IB’s, and Artichoke’s
  • Over 4000 students have already signed up for the waitlist at Firstcard.app

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