When Sr. Judy Zhu arrived at Duke two years ago as a sophomore transfer student, she had no idea she would start a business. Her new startup, a “spontaneous meal” app called Walla, grew out of those early days when she wasn’t so immersed in the campus social scene.
“One of the most painful memories I had at Duke was being in my room at Wannamaker and being able to hear all the party noises outside – people making music, screaming, laughing. and having fun, ”said Zhu, a mechanical engineering major. “I just felt this huge feeling of indecency, like I didn’t belong here. I had no one to go to when everyone had this group.
Fast forward three years, and Zhu not only found her group, but also created an app so that no one has to feel that way again. With the help of Duke’s Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs I&E program, she turns this idea into a business.
Walla creates community and social opportunities by allowing students to register for events and invite others. It allows students to learn about social events such as video game night in a dormitory, educational activities such as office hours, and allows students to coordinate carpools to the airport during college vacations.
Team Walla has raised enough funds – including a prize of $ 50,000 as the Duke Startup Challenge winner – that she considers working full time after graduation.
Zhu credits one of his former roommates, Ivonna Dumanyan, with the beginnings of her entrepreneurial journey. Dumanyan, who participated in the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program a year before Zhu, started his company Biometrix to create a wearable device that helps athletes train safely and avoid injury.
Not only did Zhu take inspiration from Dumanyan’s work ethic, she participated with her in a three-day conference, the Athgo Global Innovation Forum in Washington DC.
At the conference, Zhu worked on his first idea, called Genie. It was designed as a bounty app where users could perform good deeds for those in the same neighborhood – like loaning out their laptop charger for a few hours – and racking up bounty points.
After pitching the idea at the conference, an investor approached her to discuss funding.
“That’s when the thought of ‘Judy’ and ‘entrepreneur’ came together in the same sentence,” she said.
But Zhu didn’t yet have the guidance she needed, and she said she often felt stressed and isolated because she put too much pressure on herself to work on her startup idea.
She found these tips during her junior year, when she was accepted into the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program. She also became a home assistant (RA).
Being an AR has been great for Walla’s development as it has encouraged her “to live my clients’ lives every day,” she said. “My residents were freshmen looking for community, and that’s exactly what Walla was meant to be. So I was able to see first-hand the difference Walla could make.
In Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs, Zhu found this community for herself – a place where she could share her vulnerabilities and triumphs and compare her grades with others who were facing similar obstacles.
Zhu began to recruit a team of developers and designers to help him create the app. “Genie” transformed into “Walla” when Zhu saw an increased need for social relationships on campus. To promote Walla’s launch at the start of this academic year, she hosted nightly “coffee chats” via Google Hangout over the summer to answer questions and chat with incoming freshmen.
On January 20, Zhu and his team will release Walla 2.0, celebrating with a 5 p.m. launch party at the Innovation Co-Lab.
The new version of Walla will have improved features, including improved event invitations.
Through conversations with administrative officials at Duke, Zhu discovered that Walla is not only useful for students.
“I realized it wasn’t just a mainstream app,” she said. “It was a business solution where we can offer schools this amazing information about what their students are doing. “
Walla now aims to collect granular data on student activities – not only to help universities respond to students more effectively, but also as a tool to use for a possible mental health intervention.
For example, Zhu said, if a student regularly goes to an activity and suddenly leaves the map, it could be a warning sign of depression or stress.
Zhu targets all universities in North Carolina. This semester, Walla is also doing beta testing with around 20 students at each of those schools.
Walla’s goal, Zhu said, is “to have a sturdy skeleton that can be organized for every school.” Each school has a different social atmosphere, so we don’t want to go into a cookie-cutter model. “
And while Zhu won’t return to Duke next year, Walla will, with the goal of officially launching into all North Carolina schools in August. Each school will be given a free six-month trial period before schools are asked to pay for the service – a rate that varies depending on the number of students using the app. Walla will remain free for individual users.
And although Zhu has already asked if she belongs to Duke, she will graduate in May knowing that she did.
“I am delighted with what I have been able to accomplish at Duke,” she said. “I scratched all the itches and pushed my limits at every opportunity. Now I can see that I belong to Duke in my own way, and I want to help other students find this right place for themselves.