We sat down with Owais, a computer science major from Houston, to talk about how he used his Individual Opportunity Scholarship from Presidential Scholars and how it’s shaped his time at UT.
How did you use your Individual Opportunity Scholarship?
In Summer 2018, I studied at Make School, a startup that went through Y Combinator, which is Silicon Valley’s premier accelerator. When I came to UT, I had no prior coding experience, but I saw computer science as an essential tool for me to innovate in the tech space. If I chose any other engineering field and wanted to build a prototype for an idea, I’d have to use a software to model my product, but then I would still need funding to physically build the prototype, which is very hard to come by. In software engineering, if I have an idea, I can open up my laptop, learn the basics for what I want to build, and begin coding. No funding. No obstacles. And I can test my ideas easily.
What did you accomplish at Make School?
The Make School Summer Academy takes you through the research, design, and development process of building your own app. Initially, the app I chose to build was an Uber for haircuts. Everybody’s busy, and going to a barber shop and waiting for a haircut — especially with the right barber — can take up a lot of time. So why not schedule a barber to come to you? I laid out the scope of the app and showed it to the head of the academy, and he walked me through exactly why it wouldn’t work in our given timeline.
I wasn’t disheartened, though. I pivoted to a different app called WhichOne? In our day-to-day lives, we all suffer from decision paralysis. With WhichOne?, instead of just asking for opinions from your friends and your family, you can ask a community to vote on a decision of your choice (e.g. which dress to wear, if you look better with a beard or without one, etc.). It was an idea my brother had been itching to create for the longest time. I’ve built things I’ve personally envisioned in the past, but executing someone else’s vision for once was a rewarding experience. I learned so much, and seeing my brother’s reaction when I showed him the app really made it all worth it for me.
Were there any challenges along the way?
In all honesty, I didn’t think I was going to pull it off. When I arrived, I met some incredibly intelligent high school students, and they were already coding using libraries I couldn’t pronounce. I thought, “This is embarrassing — there’s no way I can do this and catch up.” But then I remembered to give myself some credit because I had done some pretty cool stuff in high school too, like self-publishing my book, “The Social Media Specialist.” I was like, “You know what? If I could pull that off, then I can do this.” I did what I did with the book: powered through and put my faith in the process. I really didn’t expect to end the summer with a polished app, but when I presented it on demo day, people were amazed at how useful it was. You just have to really believe you’re capable of doing something, work hard to accomplish it, and let the process take care of the rest.
Do you have plans to write any more books?
I do, but I’m focusing on my podcast right now. It’s called Crushing It, and it shows how students can pursue their ventures no matter how audacious they are without sacrificing their academic and personal well-being. It debunks the myths of what it takes to be a successful student entrepreneur by showcasing what goes on behind the scenes of a business. It’s my way of giving back to the entrepreneurship community by addressing a problem in a demographic that is often overlooked: student entrepreneurs.
Crushing It will be more than just a podcast, though. I plan to interview and compile advice from successful student founders around the world and develop a movement that pushes the limits of student-driven change through entrepreneurship on college campuses globally.
What has surprised you most about creating a podcast?
I wasn’t ready for the amount of work, and I didn’t know how much I would love interviewing people. A lot of the credit goes to my incredible team. They’re all UT students, and they’re helping me bring Crushing It to life. Shout out to Jessie, Sammy, Kasun, Lainie, and Anum!
I was also surprised by the acceptance, feedback, and messages from students saying the show was really helping them. I wasn’t used to it. I’ve started many ventures in the past, and they haven’t gotten half the support Crushing It has. It’s a pleasant thing to experience for a change, and I’m really grateful.
What advice would you give to a fellow Presidential Scholar who’s thinking about applying for the Individual Opportunity Scholarship?
Do something that’s genuinely rewarding. Find an experience that will get you out of your comfort zone and potentially mold your outlook on life. Look for those kinds of opportunities and use the scholarship to broaden your horizons. You only get this one chance, so make it count.
What else have you gained as a Presidential Scholar?
Having a program that’s there for me, whose staff truly believe that I’ll be a successful student and that I’ll go on to do great things — I think having that kind of backing gives me the confidence to keep going when times get tough.