Alice Kahrmann interviews the founder of Campus Society, the platform dedicated to uniting students worldwide.

Rashid Ajami is nothing if not precocious, the twenty-six year old founder of Campus Society, the platform dedicated to uniting students worldwide via their interests and hobbies was at Georgetown University in the US when the idea sprang to mind. He felt the disenchantment we have all felt during our uni days, at sea in a vast number of faces, relying on friendships from school, the gradual realisation dawning on him - why wasn’t there a global platform to unite students worldwide? To throw them beyond the pool of their own friendship group? To tear down the virtual college walls with a view to sharing knowledge and unifying the world’s two hundred million students? Cue lightbulb moment. ‘What it is today,’ Ajami says. ‘Is far beyond what I thought of then.’ Research and development, testing the product, ‘hard work day in and day out to understand what students want and need and what’s missing in the market,’ have allowed Campus Society to grow exponentially, sporting 230,000 registered users, and 270,000 chats since its launch in 2016.

Ajami is fresh out of a meeting on virtual currency when I talk to him, abuzz with the possibility of bringing a dedicated version to the platform. You get the sense of a mind working a mile a minute, an ideas man forever charged with innovating the seed idea. Not that the journey has been without its challenges however; he is the first to admit, he has ‘no tech background whatsoever… It’s about having people around you that you trust, and building those relationships. As the founder of a company it’s impossible to know everything. Put people around you that share your vision and will propel it forwards… I’ve never looked at an excel spreadsheet, done forecasting, negotiated a legal contract. You have to just go with the flow. Use your gut and be open to learning and criticism.’

It is the vast scope of the Campus Society platform that makes it so unique. Whereas Facebook in its early days joined students in any given campus (and that campus only) Campus Society unites them all, the world over. A huge task considering it also includes sixth formers choosing higher education and university alumni. ‘Interests’ is the key word. Eighteen thousand channels covering universities and subjects are already in existence to stream this vast community.

‘Don’t limit your ideas and what you want to create,’ Ajami says when pressed for advice to pass on to other young entrepreneurs. ‘I find when people start ideas they put barriers in front of themselves of what they want to create. I’m a big believer that if you really visualise and think about the end goal, you naturally take the steps towards it. Imagine you're the next Apple or the next Facebook. Imagine your office and employees. Work backwards, and think what’s the first step? My first hire for example, launching an MVP. After a while you will look back and think, ‘Wow, I’ve come a long way. Because you have been driven by that end goal.’

His average day is taken up overseeing the different departments to keep them united in their common goal. Raising money is also key, to the point where ‘the pitch is second nature… Every potential question someone could ever ask,’ he laughs, ‘is imprinted on my brain’. To those seeking investment without proof of concept he offers the following advice: ‘The number one thing they will ask you is ‘How are you going to spend the money?’ You need to have a really clear plan. Show the potential, go big but also show realistic steps.’

Hiring interviews also feature heavily in his daily routine. ‘In most of them I pitch the business and I look for the reaction to see if there’s that click, that excitement. The mistake I made when I was just doing that and that alone was that I wasn’t really checking whether they were able to do the work. So now I never do the first interview.’ Ajami counts amongst his team, Victoria Taylor, previously Reddit’s AMA coordinator, now responsible for advising Campus Society on community matters, she is joined by technology chief Feroze Rub, who pioneered contactless payment systems and the technology behind the first bicycle sharing programme, the forerunner of the ‘Boris’ bikes in London.

Going forwards, communion between students is not the only homework on Campus Society’s list, there’s a series of projects that aim to help them save money too. A complete college textbook for example compiled by students from across the world, a sword in the side of prohibitively expensive textbooks. Ajami hopes the platform will become, ’a one stop shop for students, helping them find jobs, a hyper local market place, a We Chat for everything to do with your student life.’

With retention rates at more than double the norm of the ed tech industry it’s no wonder Rashid is feeling positive. He follows in the footsteps of his father and mentor, in the oil and gas industry. ‘He taught me how to engage in business relationships, how to have a vision, to learn there’s no barrier to things’. Aggressive expansion is the next stage of the process, and a conservative estimate of active student community by the end of 2018 hopes to hit three million, which will be an achievement indeed in a two and a half years since launch.

The most rewarding moment for Ajami has been, ‘When we had our first swarm of new users, we had ten thousand sign ups in one day. To see it as a real community that people are using, that was quite special.’ As the interview draws to a close, I ask him what his favourite quote is, ‘Do today what others won’t,’ he says, ‘so tomorrow you can do what they can’t.’ Which says it all really.

Download the Campus Society app for iPhone.

September 2017