This Fall I was asked to answer the question, “Who are you and what are you doing here? Are you happy? Fulfilled?” for my English 145 class. After sharing it with a friend, she made the comment, “Everyone should have to write one of these for their friends”. It was a funny idea, but I realized that it would be a cool to open myself up. Maybe I’ll find others who feel similarly? I don’t know. Here’s my response:
The clock read 3:15 AM. For the last 7 hours, my attention had not faltered; I had been hammering out code that would steal data from computers all over the country. My server log contained several credit card numbers from unsuspecting victims. Like a light switching on, a sudden feeling of anxiety overcame me. My brain overloaded — I was having a panic attack. For the first time in months, I asked myself what the hell I was doing. “Would I abandon my morals to make a few thousand dollars committing credit-card fraud?” or more importantly, “do I want to go to jail?” I immediately realized that something had to change. I needed to remove myself from this situation and set myself on the right path.
When I look back at my 14-year-old self at that moment, I realize that if I stayed on that path, I would have ended up in a jail cell and been stripped of my access to technology for the rest of my life. Now, several years later, I’m heading in a different direction. I know where I want to go and the type of person I want to be. I’ve always had the tendency to lead others, change things, and take action on ideas. Though I didn’t know how, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur and start my own company. Still, even with a clear goal, I’ve still gotten distracted and had to realign. To this day, it’s been the unexpected things, rather than the calculated moves, that have shaped my current situation.
When I was 14 years old I enrolled myself in a military boarding school three thousand miles away from home and then convinced my parents to ship me off. Besides wanting a change of pace, I knew that what I needed was a group of like minded individuals who would help me develop and grow in the right direction. The summer after freshman year, I showed up to Riverside Military Academy where I found the opposite of what I was expecting.
Looking back, I was probably naive to think that the students I’d find at Riverside were there to better themselves. Shortly after arriving, I realized that most of the kids did not want to be there. I was puzzled and frustrated, but after thinking about it, the reason was quite clear — nobody chooses to go to a military boarding school. Hell, I don’t think there has ever been a situation where a child has threatened his parents with, “I’m going to go away to military school!” Obviously, it’s the opposite. Parents who have children that lack discipline, have drug problems, or are too energetic for them to deal with, send their kids to military school.
Not only were they reluctant enrollees, but some of the students arrived at Riverside by a judge as an alternative to a juvenile delinquent center. It was a strange culture shock to engage with people who came to the academy for selling drugs, vandalizing, or stealing cars. I met kids from all walks of life and became exposed to all sorts of ways of thinking, good and bad. Coming from a small private school, I was shocked by the drug use, brutal hazing, and explicit sexual objectification of women. I had never experienced the structure and discipline that Riverside forced upon me. We were regularly made to stand at attention for hours without moving a muscle, work as a team to conduct daily inspections and correct behavior through physical exercise. It was an interesting blend that a lot of people struggled with. If you misbehaved in class, academics would send you to the Dean’s office for some sort of corrective action. Then you still had to deal with your company leadership, who would make sure that whatever issue was never happened again. Some cadets begged their parents to come home. Those that stuck around eventually benefitted from the deep community bond that came from having a common enemy: the school itself.
For following three years, I found ways get the most out of what Riverside uniquely offered. I gained skills as a leader by becoming going through the rank eventually becoming the Company Commander of Bravo Company.
Still, I remained frustrated lack of intellectual challenge. The consequences of going to school with would-be delinquents meant that classroom activities were easily distracted from or the content was simplified to make sure that students could get the work done amongst all the other mandatory activities that take place at a military school. I knew that if I wanted to get a better education, I was going to have to motivate myself to learn outside of class.
In my off hours, I started getting in the habit of reading and learning skills I knew would be relevant to me as an entrepreneur. I started by researching successful entrepreneurs and looking at their skill sets: they were master networkers, creative thinkers, and relentlessly resourceful. They also spent a lot of time reading, which I quickly worked into my daily routine. I wanted to give myself the knowledge base I would need to get into a university where I would find my people, start a company, and then change the world.
By the time senior year rolled around, I couldn’t wait to get to college. I was excited and was driven by the idea that once I escaped the brick walls of Riverside Military Academy, I would find the people I was looking for. I knew that at the right school, I would find people who were smart, innovative, and would help me get my education going in the right direction. In anticipation for college, I never considered how hard I would have to look to find them.
After my first week at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, I found myself conflicted. The school itself offered unlimited resources, but the social life surrounding it was full of distractions. I found myself in an amplified high school setting where people were prioritizing drugs, alcohol, and sex over taking advantage of all the opportunities they had at their fingertips. In many ways, I was and still am supportive of the social scene, but in moderation. The people around me were living for the weekend, and I was confused. In my first couple weeks, the people around me wanted to talk about nothing other than the next party, their alcohol hookup, the girls they want to get with…and nothing of substance.
Eventually, I found some fellow students who were just what I was looking for. I had some great conversations my first quarter….but that’s all they were. It seemed like there was something missing. I had made it to a highly-ranked college, and I was surrounded by amazing people — but it was hard to get close with them. Things would have been perfect if I had had these people back at Riverside Military Academy where the students were tightly connected and part of each other’s’ daily lives, but we weren’t. This was college where everyone operated on a different schedule and had different clubs, classes, bedtimes, and friend groups. The connectedness I needed was the missing element.
Week three I was invited out to rush. At first I didn’t want to go. I had no interest in associating myself or dedicating my time to the “frat life,” which for me had always been surrounded by negative connotation. I came to college for development, not to step back into the superficiality of high school…but when rush week came around, it seemed like everyone was going. Despite my reasons for thinking it wasn’t for me, I instead decided to go. I thought to myself, “It’s only rush, I don’t have to commit. And why not explore the opportunity if I have it?” At rush, most of the booths seemed to emit the douchey vibe that I expected. I finally decided to just go and talk to whichever booth was manned by the least “bro” looking guys. I sparked up a conversation with some members of one of the frats and discovered that the guys I was talking to seemed like me. They told me they joined seeking a group of brothers who were extremely close, there for each other, and helped start businesses together. I still had a lot of preconceived ideas about being in a fraternity, but all the guys around me were stoked on joining and I found myself gradually warming up to the idea.
I gave into the pressure. I wanted to fit in. I wanted that brotherhood and even though I didn’t want to be a part of some of the more crude aspects, I wanted that intimacy with the people around me. I wanted to get close to people I could start businesses with and this seemed like the most obvious path.
For the first couple of weeks after joining, things seemed great. As time went on, the internal structure that was hidden from me up front was slowly revealing itself. The front that was put on during rush came down after I committed. Things inside the organization needed a lot of work and the values that were presented during rush didn’t seem to be showing themselves in the day to day lives of the people I elected to call my “brothers”. The entire pledge process wasn’t what I expected it would be. I was looking for the challenge and to build real relationships with a group like I had at Riverside, but what I got was a community filled with fake loyalty and drama.
If I wanted to improve my situation, I knew I would have to change it myself. I tried to look for the value that the fraternity could bring to the university community. We could be the best, we just needed some pushes in the right direction. So there I was, a new recruit, telling the senior brothers that they were doing things wrong. By challenging the status quo, I was quickly ostracized by half of the group who thought I hadn’t earned the right to speak up. The other half jumped on board with my proposed changes and helped fuel the innovation. At times, I definitely felt like I was imposing or that I would be seen as pushy in some way…but the more results I saw the more confidence I gained. Whatever power the brothers had officially bestowed upon me didn’t matter — I was creating outcomes based on my own initiative.
Once I identified that there was a problem, I was off to the races. I got involved in every aspect that I thought needed work and came up with solutions that would solve a larger set of problems. The biggest one was the fact that most brothers weren’t living together. I knew from my experience back at Riverside Military Academy that the best way to build relationships with people is to live with them. When you live together, you get on similar schedules, you eat together, you have late night conversations that help push forward ideas of growth and development. If the brothers were living together, I guessed that a lot of the distance and lack of communication would be replaced with real brotherhood.
In doing this, I became obsessed with the housing market in San Luis Obispo. I wanted to find places where brothers could live together, where other brothers could hang out, and where we could host social events to improve our relationships with other organizations. I wanted to craft our Greek system into something that functioned as a unit, rather than a set of individual organizations.
Throughout the process, I mapped out all the houses in San Luis Obispo and helped a lot of the fraternity find a place where they could call home.
For the first time in awhile, I felt like I putting my skills to use and creating real change. After that, I just had to wait to see the results…and my efforts paid in spades. After the brothers started living together, the fraternity as a whole started feeling less tense and more like a community — a place where brothers could rely on one another and find lasting relationships.
Summer after freshman year, I thought long and hard about where I wanted to divert my attention. I had this passion and skill set for finding people a place to live. After seeing the results of my work with my brothers, I had confidence in my ability to solve problems. In fact, back in the Spring I established a reputation as “the guy who can help you find a place to live”. I had a knowledge and deep understanding of the pain that students go through to find a place to live, and I was the expert.
That summer I decided to combine my lifelong interest in technology and pair it with my newfound expertise in the San Luis Obispo housing market. So I started PolyRents, a company that would forever simplify the off-campus housing process for students. To this day, it’s been a year since I’ve seriously committed to solving this problem. In the process, I went to a study away program in San Francisco where I found my current friend group who provide both support and intellectual stimulation. When I returned, I took a quarter off from school to further develop PolyRents. Then last summer, I applied to the Cal Poly Hothouse and spent three months working full time on PolyRents. I now have an amazing team assembled to launch our closed beta this January.
Over the last six years, I’ve repeatedly been driven by circumstance onto paths I never expected. In middle school, I couldn’t stand the environment I was in which led me to explore some pretty risky interests. When I sent myself to a military school to find people like me, what I got instead was an experience that allowed me to develop close relationships with people, understand group dynamics, and become proactive in planning for my future. I left high school with this underlying sense of motivation to make a difference. When I got to college, I found the intellectual stimulation I wanted, but I still lacked the community that would allow me to apply what I learned. When I joined Greek life, my expectations were again met with a game-changing experience when I took on the challenge of fixing it.
In all these experiences, I have found a pattern. This pattern where I tackle problems, initiate change, and then move on in search of achieving more ambitious goals. Each step along the way I had these expectations for myself, and while I did make progress, most of what I achieved and most of the crucial knowledge I gained came as a result of what I didn’t plan for.
As for where I’m at now, I guess I would say I’m happy, I would even say fulfilled, but not in the sense that I feel relaxed about my situation. Things for me always need to be evolving. My current situation isn’t perfect; I still lack a social group that pushes me to work harder (though they do support me in my every move). I still face considerable roadblocks with PolyRents and fear that I’m not working hard enough to get to where I need to be. Every day I wake up with the drive to continue to challenge the status quo but have to keep moving forward. Looking back at my lowest moment when I was the 14-year-old shithead about to commit credit card fraud, to now as a startup founder, I realize I’m happiest when I’m moving forward. When I have a clear goal in mind, a path to it, and the support system to get there.