Hi Alec! Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
I was born in Vietnam and spent most of my life in Japan. My family migrated from Vietnam to Japan in search of better opportunities. For high school, I attended Hokkaido International School, which had a significant number of students from the United States.
Growing up in different cultures, I was a Third Culture Kid, which has shaped my perspective and identity. The exposure to different perspectives sparked my curiosity, leading me to consider studying in the U.S. To make that dream a reality, I was fortunate enough to secure a $150K scholarship, which greatly assisted with financing my college education.
I studied Economics and Data Science at Lawrence University and just graduated in the summer. Currently, I am running my own startup called Afforai, a SaaS data processing platform that helps e-commerce businesses understand customers’ likes, dislikes, and pain points by processing thousands of customer reviews using AI. We are targeting underserved small and medium-sized businesses in the rapidly growing e-commerce markets of the US and South East Asia, leveraging my and my cofounder’s international backgrounds and understanding of the market in both regions.
How and why did you start your startup?
As a way to temporarily distract myself from the job-hunting process in my senior year in college, I participated in Lawrence University’s LaunchLU startup competition for a second time. I didn’t win last year, so I was determined to participate again and prove to myself that I could identify opportunities that others might miss. It worked out and I won first place.
When did you know you wanted to pursue the startup full-time on Optional Practical Training (OPT)?
I actively applied for jobs in the fields of Economics and Data Science during my senior year but I wasn’t able to secure any job offers.
I continued working on the startup project, achieving significant milestones along the way. Each accomplishment reinforced my belief in the potential of the startup, ultimately leading me to decide to pursue it full-time. We were accepted into the Microsoft for Startups program and Chicago’s 1871 business incubator program. We were also able to secure over $100K in tech services. After six months of dedicated work, we acquired our first ten paying customers.
Fortunately, I discovered that I could undertake my OPT under my own startup.
Did you know other international students who’ve done this before you?
I haven’t personally come across other international students who have embarked on a similar journey before me. However, I have had underclassmen express interest in joining my startup, including two international students on my team.
What resources or people did you rely on to make this happen?
To make this happen, I primarily relied on the resources available on the internet. Websites such as Interstride provided me with valuable information and insights necessary for starting and growing a business. Additionally, I sought advice from mentors, professionals, and other entrepreneurs who were generous enough to share their experiences and expertise.
What were some of the challenges you faced?
Initially, I had to ascertain the technical feasibility of developing the product I envisioned and determine the associated costs. As an entrepreneur, it is daunting to navigate the uncertainties that come with building a startup. However, having a co-founder proved invaluable. Hung Nguyen was also an international student. We met freshman year in college. He majored in Computer Science and Data Science. One of the most brilliant minds on campus that I know of. We supported each other, held each other accountable, and motivated one another. Working with the right people who shared the same vision and passion made a significant difference in overcoming these challenges.
How was your job search during your senior year?
I actively searched for jobs during my senior year. I primarily focused on roles related to data analysis and data science. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any offers. This lack of opportunities played a significant role in my decision to pursue my startup. I firmly believe that if no one is willing to offer you an opportunity, you should create your own. This mindset drove me to embrace hard work and carve my own path.
What kinds of internships and work experiences did you have during college?
During college, I undertook a data analyst internship with a non-profit organization based in California. I developed a data visualization software to aid in tracking homelessness and identifying crucial data points that could contribute to solving the issue. This internship showed me that the work I do can make a difference in people’s lives. This strengthened my passion for data science a lot more.
When you first started college, what did you envision for your post-grad self and career?
When I started college, I had no clear vision of what my post-grad self or career would look like. I decided to major in Economics and Data Science after taking courses in most departments on campus to explore my interests. This foundation of diverse knowledge proved to be invaluable as a startup founder. I possess enough knowledge to collaborate effectively with specialized individuals in different fields.
What advice do you have for your younger self or other international students?
My advice to my younger self and other international students is to embrace uncertainty. While it may be intimidating, it is also thrilling. Take the plunge into the unknown, explore new opportunities, and listen to your instincts. As long as you continue to learn and grow, things will eventually fall into place. Remember that the path to success may not always be conventional, and it’s okay to forge your own unique journey.