DRF Partner Feature: Harvard’s Joe Kahn — From South Africa to the Land of Startups

Just like you, all our investment partners at Dorm Room Fund are students just as passionate about startups coming from different backgrounds! Today, we’re featuring Boston Partner Joe Kahn.

Quick Bio: Joe was born to a family of activists in South Africa and grew up in a small village called Scarborough. His middle name is Wandile, which means “progress” in isiZulu. Since matriculating at Harvard he’s dedicated himself to exploring the intersection of machine learning and neuroscience, figuring out the art of software engineering, and not getting an American accent. Progress is slowest on the third front.

How did you first get interested in startups?

Both of my parents were anti-Apartheid activists in South Africa, so I grew up in a political household focused on issues of social mobility and equality. My family environment engendered a sort of unshakable responsibility to people around me and society as a whole, but for the longest time it wasn’t clear what kind of mechanisms I could use to positively affect the world around me.

During my gap year I spent a lot of time thinking about ways to increase my leverage. Our time is limited, so figuring out how to squeeze the most out of every hour seems important. I figured startups would be one way to do that; you get to reinvent industries, re-think how it can be done, build the future around you in a kind of limitless way. Rather than navigate an existing system (think: big company or industry) you get to define your own.

So I started reading a ton about entrepreneurship. Biographies, papers, research, essays. And began to take note of components of the world around me which seemed broken or suboptimal. I still do this today; I have lists of hundreds of observations from the last four years.

One of these ideas ended up becoming my own company (Slide Identity Inc.). I’d been in and out of hospital during in 2013 and 2014 and couldn’t understand why the process of sharing my medical data was so inefficient. A couple friends and I spent a year building out an API for personal information which made the process of collecting, updating and sharing this data seamless and secure. Actually doing a company only boosted my interest in startups even more. The feeling of pure, single-minded focus is something I miss when I’m not working on a project.

Why did you join Dorm Room Fund?

DRF was extremely supportive to me when I was working on Slide. Getting the opportunity to support other students in the same way was brilliant.

What do you look for in startups and student founders?

At the stage we invest in everything comes down to team. Do you have the expertise to pull off what you’re suggesting? How hard do you hustle? How much does this really mean to you? Why are you doing this?

If the team’s powerful, the next thing I’ll consider is the market they’re chasing after. What kind of impact can this idea have? How big can this company be? I’ve got a personal bias to what Blend Labs calls HARD problems. Human, astronomical, regulated, data-rich / insight poor. Seeing entrepreneurs working on the insurance, lending and healthcare industries is especially exciting for me.

One of my favorite resources for thinking about startups and products is the Startup Launch List by Panda. It’s a collection of some brilliant essays and blog posts by entrepreneurial thought leaders.

Joe with his friends on a normal Tuesday night working on startup projects

What is the biggest thing you’ve learned as a member of DRF?

This one’s kind of obvious, but I’ve learned a bunch about decision making as a group. The most exciting learnings come every Monday when other students pitch their ideas. Every week I get exposed to a new way of thinking and new opportunities — many of which I’d never have considered otherwise. It’s like a high quality, TED-talk-esque guest lecture. There’s nothing better.

What advice would you give to student founders out there?

This is actually advice I’ve been given by someone I admire a lot. “Only work on things you could fail at for two years, look back on, and believe completely that it was worth it; that you were fighting the good fight.”

Think of this like your idea filter. To build something meaningful you need to be able to put your everything into it. What’s an idea you’re so passionate about that you’re willing to dedicate sleepless nights, stress, risk, your relationships, and so on… to? Which isn’t to say that you need to sacrifice on your happiness! But hopefully you get the point.

The other bit of advice would be to find small routines which keep you happy and healthy. Write down your top fifteen priorities for every day in order as if you had unlimited resources to fulfill them all. When time gets tight, make sure the items at the top of the list get done. For me that means meditating, eating, getting enough sleep, working out, and caring for my close friends and family before worrying too much about my grades on tomorrow’s midterm.

If you compromise on your own well-being you’re not just affecting yourself and those close to you. You’re affecting the entire ecosystem of people you have the potential to help. You owe it to yourself, but you also owe it to the world around you to be your best self.

What is the one thing that gets Joe excited?

Everything Deep Mind does. Extremely excited about new research in AI.

Is there anybody you look up to/want to work for/aspire to be like?

Leaders who embody servant leadership. Too many to mention…

Dorm Room Fund is dedicated to supporting student founders across the country and help them reach new heights. Working on a startup? Get in touch on twitter or here. Want to join our investment team? Apply here.

Graffiti art is another thing that gets Joe excited
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