Alums, founders of YouVisit.com, serve as inspiration for students
Tolka and Baderkhan speak with computer science students about their company and how they aim to use Oculus Rift virtual reality
Endri Tolka ’03 and Taher Baderkhan ’03 were freshmen roommates at Brandeis, and Abi Mandelbaum ’03 was their neighbor across the hall. Now, 15 years later, the trio are co-partners of YouVisit.com, a company that offers virtual tours of college campuses, has offices in New York and Florida and about 50 employees.
Tolka and Baderkhan returned to campus July 16 to talk with students in Professor Tim Hickey's Justice Brandeis Semester course on mobile applications development about their experience starting the company and to show off what they have in development — college tours with Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets.
The Justice Brandeis Semester program is part of Brandeis’ commitment to creating and supporting intensive learning experiences with enduring impact, a central goal of the university’s strategic plan.
Founded in 2008, YouVisit.com allows prospective students to virtually tour hundreds of college campuses, click-by-click, through photos and panoramic images, including some classrooms and labs that may not be stops on a normal tour.
Their experience as international students — Tolka is from Albania, Mandelbaum is from Colombia and Baderkhan is from Jordan — helped inspire their business. Many students from abroad aren't able to visit campus and often need to rely on what they can find online and what others tell them to help inform their decision.
"From an international prospective, we want to give students an opportunity similar to that of actually visiting a campus," Tolka said.
This includes the development of tours using virtual reality headsets, Tolka explained. Although the headset tours are not quite consumer ready, Tolka said delivering a virtual tour that's as close as possible to the real thing could make them a hit with prospective students at college fairs.
While meeting with the students in Hickey’s course, Baderkhan said the skills he, Tolka and Mandelbaum learned at Brandeis have contributed to their company’s success.
"We didn't know it at the time, but even 15 years later some of the things we learned we're still using," Baderkhan said. "I had to bring some of my books out of the basement."
The friendship they forged at Brandeis led to a strong partnership in business. They came from different countries and different religious backgrounds — Baderkhan is Muslim, Mandelbaum is Jewish and Tolka is Christian — but they found they had a lot in common.
"We've had this bond that we built at university,” said Baderkhan. “We have all always wanted to do something different."
The students in the Justice Brandeis Semester Voice, Web and Mobile Applications program take three courses from June to August, including an incubation course, where they are challenged to create something that could launch a start-up.
Hickey said the three and their company serve as proof that what students create can turn into something real.
"The technology they are using is the technology these students are learning," Hickey said. "Having them here helps encourage our students to be entrepreneurs themselves."