One weekend, while on break from her last year of her undergrad studies, my mom went back to visit home. I was under a year old at the time, and the moment my mom walked in the door, my grandmother shrieked.
Turns out my 21-year old mother wasn’t the best at feeding me and I had gotten a bit frail. Thankfully I survived, so I can forgive my mom for some of her initial mistakes :)
In all reality though, about ten days ago, it was announced that after several months of applications and interviews, I was awarded the honor of being included in the 2013 Thiel 20 under 20 Fellowship.
There were a lot of people in my life who’ve helped me get to where I am today, and I owe this award entirely to them. First and foremost, I’d like to thank my parents. My parents are crazy hard workers; the two of them both studied mathematics in their undergrad and got their Bachelor’s Degrees from the University of Sofia. From there, they decided they wanted to escape from the Communist Bloc, so they both applied to and got into Caltech.
They arrived in the U.S. in their early 20s with about $300 and me in a stroller. My parents were the epitome of the American Dream. Through an incredible amount of hard work and late hours, they managed to raise me in an amazing environment. I never had to worry about food being on the table, and my first math tutors were PhDs from Caltech.
My father was an IMO Gold Medalist in 1990. The IMO is the most prestigious high school mathematics competition in the entire world. Getting a gold medal places you in the elite league of math prodigies.
One of my distinctive memories from my childhood is my father putting up flashcards of multiplication and division before I had fully mastered English.
My parents put me through a couple of different school systems while living in Pasadena, and I always did pretty well in school, but none of my teachers ever clicked with me.
That all changed in 7th grade. I got accepted into West High School, a local public high school which had a program for advanced students which allowed them to enroll in high school in 7th grade.
There I was introduced to an awesome program known as MathCounts, which is a middle-school mathematics program. The coach was a wonderful woman named Kate Little, a parent of a classmate of mine.
Kate poured her heart into the school’s MathCounts team. She would spend almost every single day walking us through problems and training us.
That year, West won 3 out of the 4 spots for students to be sent to MathCounts Nationals. The following year, we won all 4, the first time in Utah’s history. Kate fundamentally changed my view of the world and sparked my love for mathematics. She taught me that raw hours could translate to meaningful results. After months of grueling training, we were awarded with an amazing trip to Washington D.C. to compete on the national circuit. I can’t possibly thank Kate enough for setting me up onto the path that I’m on today.
During this same time, I was also taking geometry from a man named Todd Kassner. Mr. Kassner was famous for his emphatic gestures during proofs. Mr. Kassner taught me how to have fun while also loving math. To this day, ever since jumping around on his desks, Mr. Kassner has a picture of the Family Guy monkey with my name printed underneath.
Kate didn’t stop at just training us after school either. Her efforts started a community-taught math class which followed the works of the Art Of Problem Solving. Rather than taking the standard 8th grade math class, I was taught by brilliant parents of my peers. Kate made a class just for us and even got covered by the local news.
That year, my dad also decided to start a more advanced math team to participate in ARML. He would coach a 30-person team once or twice a week throughout the entire year and then take us down to Las Vegas to compete at the regional competition.
I distinctly remember weeks in 8th grade, where, between MathCounts, the AoPS class, and the Utah ARML team, I was being coached or trained in mathematics every single day of the week. None of this could have been possible without the efforts of my dad or Kate.
The following year, I heard that the teacher who let us use his room for the math class, Daniel McGuire, was going to be teaching AP Physics. Over the course of the year, Mr. McGuire whupped me into shape and taught me physics. Mr. McGuire was never afraid to call me out if I was ever getting too full of myself. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in a single year while being in continuous fear.
A year later, Mr. McGuire sent out a note asking interested students to stop by his classroom to discuss starting a robotics team at West. I knew I had learned a ton from Mr. McGuire the previous year, so I hopped onto any opportunity to learn more from him. Fast-forward a couple of months of writing grants and recruiting, and we had built our first robot and landed an article in the news!
Through this FIRST Robotics team, I learned how to lead a team of software engineers and how to create an actual user interface for the drivers. None of this could have been possible without the ridiculous amount of time Mr. McGuire spent with us outside of school. Outside the winter season, he would meet up with us at least twice a week, and during the 6-week winter season, he was with us every school-day from 3 PM - 10 PM, and every weekend from 10 AM - 7 PM. The first year we finished in 2nd place at the regional competition and the following year we were invited to travel to Atlanta to participate in the International Robotics competition.
The following year, after the robotics season ended, my friend, Erick Chen, and I decided we wanted to compete in the science fair as well. Mr. McGuire mentored and helped us with our research for that as well. I’d also like to thank Erick for enduring through several weeks of getting little to no sleep to sprint through months of research to get our submission ready in time.
We ended up getting a week-long free trip to San Jose to compete at the International Science and Engineering Fair. I would have never been able to do this without McGuire’s mentorship, Erick’s dedication, and about $400 of parts from both our parents.
By senior year I had realized that I was gaining the most knowledge by being around Mr. McGuire, so I ended up signing up for 3/8 of my classes with him. Through the beginning of senior year, Mr. McGuire helped my friends and I apply for a $10,000 grant from MIT to work on a year-long robotics project. The robot was known as UXO Grazer, which autonomously detected the locations of landmines and reported it back to the cleanup crew. As a team we got to fly out to MIT’s campus and present the project.
Long story short, through Mr. McGuire’s efforts, I got to travel to Las Vegas, Atlanta, Boston, and San Jose for a variety of science and robotics competitions. Not only that, but I also got it hammered into my head that I don’t know anything about anything, which was much needed.
I have one last story about Mr. McGuire. Senior year, in the final two weeks after the testing period, when most teachers stop giving out homework, McGuire gave us a unique proposition. He was going to throw out all of the grades we had accumulated over the course of the year, which were mostly through the UXO Grazer. Instead he gave us a difficult astrophysics problem involving the theory of special relativity. Our grade in the class would be based on the completeness and accuracy of our solution.
We were given two weeks to model and understand what a flight to the nearest inhabitable planet would be like, how long it would take, and how much fuel we would need. About a week into playing around with the problem, my friends and I realized we were in way over our heads. We managed to discover a physics professor at Drexel University who had tackled a similar problem in a paper he published. We ended up getting to Skype with him and getting some advice on how to solve our problem. At the end of the call, he asked us how old we were. He was shocked that we were in high school. In his words, “I wouldn’t even give this problem to some of my 4th-year physics students”
To say Mr. McGuire pushed the limits of being a high school physics teacher would be a gregarious understatement.
I’d also like to shout-out to the Utah Crew team as well. They kept me fit and energetic throughout all of high school. Thanks to everyone from my co-captain Maggie Bradford, to the infamous Coach Andy. I don’t think anyone managed to push me as hard physically as Coach Andy did. Thanks to my mom for showing up to every single race, even if she didn’t fully understand how the sport worked!
One thing led to another, and I found myself on MIT’s campus as a confused freshman. I knew I wanted to study CS, and I knew I didn’t want to just be an engineer either. One fateful elevator ride changed my entire course at MIT. I was riding up after Crew practice, and stumbled upon Romi Kadri. We only had about 15 seconds together, but his closing comment was “You seem energetic and you said you like coding? You should come by this entrepreneurship class I’m starting”
Next thing I knew, I was spending every night at the Martin Trust Center. A few weeks later, Romi and I launched FanFuser, the first startup I’d ever done. The folks over at the Trust Center, most notably Bill Aulet, Colin Kennedy, and Christina Chase. I remember the night that FanFuser launched, Colin stayed up with Romi and I until 4 AM, helping us work out our last bugs before launching.
I can’t possibly thank the team at the Trust Center enough. They’ve fed me, given me free advice, given Nightingale free office space, and always been there when I’ve needed them most.
I learned a lot about myself in my first two years of college, and lot of that learning came through my fraternity, Phi Sigma Kappa. Watching a house of 45 young men operate with extreme efficiency on a daily basis is a sight to be seen. I’d like to give a shoutout to a few of the brothers who I’ve gotten to travel around a decent amount with. Akash Badshah, Ryan Lau, Victor Pontis, Sam Parker and I have gotten to visit some of each other’s homes, and I wouldn’t give up those trips for anything in the world. Thanks for celebrating with me when the times are great, and helping me out when the times aren’t as great. And of course thanks to Brett Van Zuiden for being Brett.
Huge thanks to the guys at General Catalyst, most importantly Bilal Zuberi and Nitesh Banta. The work I’ve gotten to do with RoughDraft.vc in the last year has been fascinating. They’ve also been huge supporters of StartLabs which has inspired dozens of MIT students including myself.
I’d also like to thank my more traditional academic advisers. Thanks to Professor Patrick Henry Winston for being an awesome artificial intelligence professor, and also letting me know when he thinks I am doing MIT wrong. Thanks to Professor Sanjay Sarma for introducing me to a ridiculous number of people in the healthcare industry and teaching an amazing Design for Manufacturing class.
I’m really excited for these next two years with the fellowship. I don’t think dropping out of college is the right choice for everyone, and I think the traditional educational system has its place. I’ve tried to enumerate every teacher/professor/academic who has helped shape the person I am today. I’ve probably missed a lot of people along the way, so thank you to everyone who has helped me.