Big Man On Campus: DJ Turned Tech Entrepreneur
Rashid Ajami was a successful DJ and producer, but he's packed away his decks and hung up his headphones to devote himself to his tech startup Campus Society. It's a network for students to connect, chat, collaborate and share knowledge, which has raised $5m. I caught up with him to find out more about his business.
Philip Salter: What made you want to be an entrepreneur and what gave you the idea for Campus Society?
Rashid Ajami: My father is very entrepreneurial so I was influenced by that growing up. Even at a young age, I knew I wanted to build my own business. Going to university in America was a daunting experience having spent all my life in the UK and I wondered how I would connect with people. I realized there wasn’t a platform for students to easily connect and engage with each other beyond the very broad social networks that have a lot of white noise, like Facebook and Twitter, and these edtech companies, like Moodle and Blackboard, that are very localised and quite outdated. What sparked the idea for Campus Society was this desire to connect with other students with similar interests.
Salter: Did you have the idea at that point? Or was it something that developed afterwards?
Ajami: Two years after graduating, I just couldn’t let go of that concept of connecting students and enabling them to share knowledge on a global and local level. Looking at the market, there was nothing that really got it right. At that point I started to build my team and develop this concept of channels that now is such a fundamental part of what Campus Society is.
Salter: What is unique about Campus Society?
Ajami: We connect relevant people that don’t know each other and wouldn’t normally have the ability to find each other. That relevance could be that they are at the same university, studying the same degree or share a specific interest. It is about knowledge sharing – an idea that all social networking is moving away from. With Facebook, WhatsApp and SnapChat, you are connecting with your friends or your existing network. Campus Society is different – it is creating a new network effect which is more of a community concept essentially. It allows you to meet those relevant people whether they are close by or across the world. That to me is a platform that can spark innovation and create new opportunities for students.
Salter: What is your vision for 2017 onwards?
Ajami: The first six months of 2017 are UK focused and about perfecting the product concept at a UK level. It’s about community building, partnerships in the UK, creating value for students, nurturing knowledge sharing. Then, we will take what we’ve learnt and start to scale the best of this out globally.
Salter: How do you monetize this?
Ajami: Anything we do to monetize this has to add value for students and give them a better experience. Unlike Facebook adverts that are static, our channels create two way interactions between companies and students. We allow students to opt into brands or companies they are interested in and have a real-time, honest conversations with them. Companies get value because they can tap into young, motivated students who are at the heart of learning. As it allows communication between companies and students, Campus Society channels could be used as a recruitment tool and there are also R&D possibilities. There’s a huge array of ways we can monetize it, but it has to be beneficial for the community.
Salter: I know you are looking into creating an online currency. Can you tell me a bit about what that involves?
Ajami: The currency is based on how much you contribute to Campus Society. The idea is to give students tangible value for contributing to this knowledge community. For example, students could get a coffee on their campus, an Oyster card, or an Amazon voucher as a return for their engagement. I think this is in tune with where technology is going now. It is a nice bridge to start moving into virtual reality in 2018.
Salter: What is your vision of virtual reality?
Ajami: Through channels on our site, you could visit the campus and listen to the lecture through VR. Beyond that, it is about helping students with disabilities to engage with other students. The possibilities for breaking down barriers between universities are tremendous – you could have a VR session that allowed engineering researchers around the world to work together online.
Salter: Would you try to expand Campus Society through alumni networks?
Ajami: At the heart of the concept of Campus Society is the philosophy of knowledge sharing. To me, knowledge sharing is universal but universities are a place where that is constantly happening. So, it is a really great place to start. If you were to expand beyond that, it would be primarily about mentorship through alumni networks. Currently, it will be very much focused on students so it feels very relevant to that community.