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By Coining 'The Passion Economy,' Li Jin Showed Creators What Was Possible

From her investment firm Atelier to her involvement with Linktree’s Passion Fund, Li Jin wants to help people make money doing what they love

Li Jin

When Li Jin coined the term ‘the passion economy’, she thought she was pointing out the obvious.

In 2019, Jin was working in marketplace investment when she noticed an interesting trend: the rise of online platforms allowing users to commoditize their creative skills. The likes of Linktree, Patreon, and Twitch were enabling creators to monetize work on their terms, without a middleman getting in the way. It was becoming, as she saw it, “uniquely possible to make a living off of one’s passion, in a way that it wasn’t before the internet.”

Jin decided to write an essay, The Passion Economy and the Future of Work, naming and exploring the phenomenon.

“I could already see it happening so I figured everyone else could see it too,” she tells Linktree down the phone from New York, her current base after a year spent riding out the pandemic at home with her parents in Pittsburgh.

“But the response was so overwhelming and really incredible. I still, to this day, feel wowed by how much it continues to be referenced and cited. It feels like it kicked off a wave of founders building in this space and people wanting to enable this kind of work, which is really amazing to see.”

Her essay helped to bring a flood of new funding and investment into the online industry. And by putting the fundamental shifts that the passion economy wrought into words, Jin showed creators what was possible.

“I’ve heard from a lot of Substack writers that my essay was part of the reason why they decided to go full time; I’ve heard from a lot of founders that my essays have been a big reason they’re building the companies they are today,” she says.

In 2021 the passion economy is getting another supercharged boost thanks to the launch of The Passion Fund, an initiative from Linktree and Square where online creators can apply for the chance to receive financial support to help turn their passion into a full-time gig.

Jin is stepping up as a judge for the initiative, alongside the likes of Queer Eye star Karamo and fitness industry CEO and founder Grace Beverley. Together, they will help The Passion Fund disburse a total of USD$250,000 among 25 to 40 creators, artists, side hustlers and small businesses. It is, as Jin puts it, “free money” for creative minds.

As someone who has spent her career working in investment, Jin is excited to be part of The Passion Fund.

“I really am interested in new ways of supporting creators and I think grants are one of the purest forms of funding: you’re not asking for a return, you’re just hoping to support someone that you think is doing something great,” she explains. “So when I heard about The Passion Fund, I was like, yes, I would be happy to support this in any way.”

But there’s another, more personal reason Jin wants to go to bat for creators.

When she was five-years-old, Jin’s mother began taking her to weekly art classes. After emigrating from Beijing to Pittsburgh, her parents would take her to the Carnegie Museum of Art almost every weekend. Art practice became a fixture of Jin’s childhood and teenage years. It’s played a huge role in shaping her views on work.

“My parents were so supportive of me pursuing art, but they were only supportive of it as a hobby,” she explains. “Anytime I tried to mention it as a career or ‘what if I studied this in [college]’, that was when the line was drawn.”

“I realized that putting me in art classes was a way to help me become a well rounded person, but it was never meant to be a career,” Jin says. “I saw that the world was split into the skills you needed for feasible, normal, financially stable jobs and skills you cultivate to be a well rounded citizen of the world. And art was the latter, it was not the former.”

“I think that very much cultivated an appreciation of arts and artists, as well as how difficult it was going to be to be a professional artist and a creative person.”

So instead of pursuing art professionally, Jin went into finance, a decision that eventually led her to write her influential 2019 essay. But she sees the passion economy as a new and vital path to being able to have a career as an artist or creative person—something she wants future generations to feel they can explore.

To put her money where her mouth is, Jin now helms her own investment firm, Atelier Ventures. It is focussed specifically on funding ventures that propel the growth of the passion economy and enable new types of work.

“I didn’t just want to invest in the passion economy, I wanted to first hand live and breathe it,” she explains. “And so me starting a firm is an example of the passion economy—it’s the VC version of the passion economy.”

Through both Atelier and The Passion Fund, Jin is excited to be able to help more people make a living by doing the thing they love. Her advice to budding creators is simple: “Keep iterating, pursue what you enjoy doing, and do more of it.”

“I always tell young people: pursue what gives you energy and makes you feel more alive,” Jin says. “I think if people do that, then the money side will come a lot easier.”