Akshay Ramaswamy competed as a Policy debate for the Lakeland District Debate team from 2011-15. With his partner, James Allen, he finished 6th at NSDA nationals out of more than 200 teams in 2015 and was the tournament’s 13th best speaker. He is currently a rising Senior at Stanford University.
Akshay and his business partner, Chetan Rane, a California State Champion in Policy Debate, recently secured $1 million in seed money for their platform, Alma Campus. On Alma Campus, interested students fill out a profile with their class schedule, what extracurriculars they’re involved in, what dorm they’re living in, and other information about what they’re interested in at college. According to Venture Beat, The idea is then that students can use Alma Campus to perform more specific searches than they could on other platforms, like figure out which students in their classes also live in the same dorms as them.
Akshay, congratulations on securing $1 million in a your seed funding round for your platform, Alma Campus. I know you are very busy launching the new platform at 10 new universities this summer, so thank you for taking the time for this interview.
In high school you spent a lot of time participating in Policy debate, including competing at many tournaments and attending summer debate camps. Could you generally comment on how that might have helped you develop as an entrepreneur?
It helped a ton with storytelling and fundraising. I was able to hire two of my close friends at Stanford because of my ability to persuade and storytell – debate taught me how to really sway people to believe in my vision for the world, and that’s something that you need as an entrepreneur.
Debate gave me some very valuable skills when it came to pitching my company and fundraising. Some of the skills needs to persuade judges apply pretty well to persuading VCs to invest, so when I was pitching to people like Marissa Mayer (CEO @ Yahoo) and Parker Barille (VP of Product @ LinkedIn), I was very comfortable in my abilities to portray the impact Alma would have on people if it was successful (just like I used to portray the impact of preventing climate change in my debate rounds!).
In Policy debate, you worked with your partner, James Allan, who has gone on to be a spectacular debater for Binghamton University. Are there any skills you learned from working with a partner that have helped you build your business, including working with your current business partner?
Working with James gave me the skills to work with my co-founder Chetan – the relationship is pretty similar. It taught me to trust by co-founder much like I trusted James. As a novice debater, I wanted to do it all, but to be a successful team in debate, you can’t be a maverick. You need to have confidence in your partner, for better or for worse. My co-founder was a former policy debater and former state champion in California, so it makes a lot of sense why we work together so well.
As you build your team, what skills do you look for when making hiring decisions?
I look for two things.
- Are they a culture fit? At the end of the day, I want to work with someone who is genuinely a good person with good morals, and who will put in hard work even when no one is watching over them.
- Do they add a new perspective to the team? Whether this be a different skill that our team doesn’t have yet, or a life experience that can help us think about our product in a new way, I want innovative and creative people who will add a new dimension to our company.
What academic skills did debate help you develop that have proven useful when developing your business?
Debate gave me a framework to critically think about the world. I think more holistically about decisions for my company and how to drive it forward, and I do cost-benefit analysis in a similar fashion to when I used to do debate. The skills really do translate – as a startup founder it’s impossible to do everything, there is far too much work to be done and not enough time to do it. I pick and choose what to work on based on what will make us successful, much like I used to choose arguments to go for in my debate rounds.
One of the most difficult things about debate is that you often need to lose a lot of debates before you start winning. Have you experienced any similar struggles in business, and how did your participation in debate help prepare you for those?
Debate taught me to take risks. To start building Alma, I had to take a leap of faith. I turned down all my job offers before even attempting to get funding. I turned down my dream job – the Mayfield Fellowship, arguably the most prestigious program at Stanford with network including the founders of Instagram and Gusto. When I took these risks, I really had nothing to bank on other than the hunch that Alma could really be something special. Now with seed funding and a stellar team of investors, that risk could really pay off. Much like kicking case and going for an impact turn in the 2AR, sometimes the craziest risks are the ones that make all the difference.