Azarias Reda spent his childhood shooting off rockets made of bamboo and firecrackers. Now he’s launching a new online social networking platform for high school students.
A year ago, Michigan Engineering alum Reda turned his Ypsilanti apartment into a code-crunching office and built his new start-up, Meritful, from the ground up. But his story begins halfway across the world – in Africa.
“Everyone was just so open and friendly here. There are a number of schools with a number of qualities, but to me what made Michigan different is it seemed like people cared a lot.” -Azarias Reda
Reda, who was born and raised in northern Ethiopia, says he always knew he was going to be an engineer. Beginning with the bamboo rockets, Reda learned to be creative with the materials he had, including a used IBM laptop purchased by his father in middle school.
“A lot of kids in Ethiopia study science and engineering,” said Reda. “It is a place where it is pretty clear the only way to make it big is education. If you really want to be great, you have to be very good at school.”
That desire brought Reda and his parents to America after high school, where he studied at Sterling College in Kansas to get three Bachelor’s degrees in computer science, math and business. “It was good to get my feet wet in a smaller college,” admitted Reda. For graduate school, Reda started applying to top-notch universities.
“Everyone was just so open and friendly here,” said Reda about his visit to Michigan while making his decision. “There are a number of schools with a number of qualities, but to me what made Michigan different is it seemed like people cared a lot. I heard that grad school was this long, tiring journey and it really matters who you work with and who you get to know.”
Reda began working in the Operating Systems Group with Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor Brian Noble. The team focused its efforts on the challenge of maintaining connectivity through “dead zones,” be that in a traveling car in the middle of the US or in remote areas of the world.
His studies started him at Ford Motor, then took him to India and back home to Ethiopia, where he pursued options for increasing internet access for people in those developing areas. “One of the things that I really care about is that you can make a difference in people’s lives,” said Reda. “They are the same concepts here or there, but they can really be applied in the developing world.”
Reda continued his research on the use of internet in the developing world during an internship at LinkedIn, where he examined the spikes in social networking usage in countries like Asia and Africa. Simultaneously, he also did some real-life mentoring at Ypsilanti High School as part of an outreach program through Michigan Engineering’s Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach (CEDO).
All this knowledge crossed paths, and ultimately led Reda to his current one: the launch of a new social networking site called Meritful. The new site aims to give high school students a place where they can showcase their talents and accomplishments online, and ultimately connect with each other, mentors and college recruiters to help them plan their futures.
“While I was working with CEDO, I had students trying to friend me on Facebook,” laughed Reda, “and it was pretty clear from the get-go that these are digital citizens and they are living on the web. So I thought, ‘It would be really cool to have a place where admissions counselors could find the good and positive things about students online’,” rather than only the content they typically post on Facebook or Twitter.
Reda is reaching out to local guidance counselors, and hopes his new service will have an impact in the lives of talented students who might otherwise get overlooked.
“Assigning a number or score to a student is very easy, and it’s typically how we evaluate them,” said Reda. “But my experience has been that people have a lot of diversity and passion, and if you’re going to measure them by just numbers, you’re going to miss out on a lot of interesting students who are going to change the world.”