Written by Rafi Khan, iXperience Teaching Assistant '14
Some time last fall, a stranger named Aaron Fuchs asked to chat with me about his new tech startup, which he was calling iXperience. At that time, I figured it’d be the same old startup story: a brilliant CEO who would make waves in the industry with the next multi-million dollar idea. I had reservations about the startup culture in America, a culture that I felt was often defined by entitled youth masking the pursuit of a cushy lifestyle with the veil of "impact" and "changing the world". Sure, there was genuine passion there, and lots of talent with good hearts and sharp minds, but I personally didn't identify with the rat race to relentlessly become bigger, better, richer. Since I would be graduating from university the following year, I was torn between joining many of my fellow computer science majors in that world, or straying off "the path" in search of an environment in which I felt more at home.
What Aaron described to me during our chat was nowhere near the path. The product his startup was selling was not the next big website or mobile app, and, from the perspective of a computer science major, didn't deal with super advanced technology. He didn't try to woo me with a big salary. What he offered me was actually quite simple: an amazing experience.
He wanted to fly me to Cape Town, his home city, to teach other American college students how to build apps on the Internet. The greater mission was to improve the South African economy by making tech culture—and therefore technological innovation—more pervasive, especially amongst those who normally wouldn't have the opportunity to learn this material. Aaron had a drive to improve his home city, while showing America and the rest of the world what Cape Town and South Africa had to offer them. He wanted to empower others to build with technology, which he felt had strong potential, particularly in the developing world. But most of all, he wanted his students, staff, colleagues, friends, and everyone he worked with to enjoy themselves and to find experiences that were meaningful to them.
While grand hopes and dreams are essential to a start up, they in no way guarantee its success. I arrived in Cape Town in mid-May with no idea what to expect, no idea what working with the iX team would be like, and really not knowing Aaron at all—we'd only spoken several times. What I found was a culture that instantly clicked with me, of people who always expected the best of themselves and the best of each other. They knew how to balance life and work—talks about curriculum would be interspersed with plans to go hiking—and each team member was free to define his or her own relationship with the company. At the center of it all was Aaron and Darren, who made sure the eyes were always on the prize: a great experience not just for them, but for the students who were arriving in two weeks.
In two weeks! In just 14 days, the head professor, Salman Ansari, and I (the teaching assistant) were charged the task of building the entire curriculum, slides, homework problems, supplementary projects, and an entire framework for teaching, all from the ground up. Salman had yet to arrive and would not until two days before the program—the first iteration of its kind in all of South Africa—began. When I got there, the iXperience house, in which classes would take place, was still undergoing major renovations. The level of stress was, understandably, very high. But so was the level of hope. It was contagious.
When the students arrived, the energy stayed, and transferred onto them. Salman and I—to my relief and excitement—clicked almost flawlessly as a teaching staff and quickly became good friends. We often found ourselves working 15-hour days, barely noticing that we were exhausted from morning lecture at 9:30, the midday break for lunch and homework, and afternoon lecture followed by more homework, projects, dinner, and even more homework until late at night. After helping students, Salman and I would build the next day’s slides and homework problems, then get whatever rest and relaxation we could before doing it all again the next day.
I’d like to think that watching him and me pushing each other and loving every moment, the students were inspired to hold themselves to the same high standard, and expected much more of themselves and each other. It was an environment the likes of which I’d rarely been a part of: all minds and bodies working at 100% for the sole purpose of learning. In that frenzy, I slowly developed a solidarity with the students, one which blurred the line between teaching assistant and friend: I became a fellow iXer, there to enjoy Cape Town and grow as an individual. We learned together—from Salman, Aaron and each other—but we also dined, climbed mountains, went to some ridiculous clubs, dove with sharks, taught kids from the neighborhood, and explored the city. All together.
When I think about what I want to do after graduation, my thoughts drift to balancing my desire to help other people with the desire to also live in a way that’s personally fulfilling. I want to continue to explore, to learn, and to grow, and simultaneously help others to do the same. After this summer, I've come to also cherish the notion of living and working with people who not only share my ambitions, but my values. Colleagues I can trust to hold themselves and the entire team to the highest standard. Friends who’ll support me as I grow and are also happy to simply hang out.
It’s rare to find just one of those things; to find them all is near unbelievable. But now that I’ve had a small taste at iXperience, I wouldn’t be able to settle for anything less.