When third-years secure kickass summer internships at top financial services companies, their paths are pretty much clear: Prove you can handle the hours, perform well, and get a return offer for a full-time gig after graduation. It’s a path with which many U.Va. alumni are familiar.
But it isn’t for everyone.
Fourth-year Daniel Autry interned for Goldman Sachs in New York last summer doing software development. But when the firm talked to Daniel about returning – something many finance interns see as the ultimate payoff for their hours on the job and in the classroom – he said no. He knows that’s not the standard decision. Goldman is a goliath of the financial sector – an über-prestigious firm that only grants job offers to elite candidates. And while Daniel enjoyed the support of his supervisors and the grind-it-out attitude of his peers, the role wasn’t for him. “I was just not passionate about it at all,” he tells me. “I didn’t want to do fin-tech my whole life and was really kind of scared about finding a job where I felt I wasn’t making a difference.”
Instead of finding that perfect position, Daniel will be his own boss next year. He’s staying in Charlottesville after graduation as one of eleven students in HackCville’s inaugural Elliewood Fellowship. That’s quite a turnaround for someone who thought seriously about dropping HackCville after his first semester. Daniel joined the organization’s Hustle class during his second year, back when the program was just trying to find its footing at U.Va. But he joined at the right time. The next fall, HackCville expanded its selection of programs, introducing the Wireframe web design class. Although a Computer Science major, Daniel said he’s never been particularly interested in hardcore backend coding. That’s why Wireframe was such a fit. “Web design was more like art,” he says.
And as web design became more of an interest, HackCville began to feel a lot more like home. Daniel served as a teaching assistant for Wireframe last spring before leading the program outright this past fall. Two years into HackCville, “it’s been one of the main reasons I love UVA,” he tells me, “I think the fact it’s a bunch of quirky, smart people trying to do cool stuff has kept me around.”
Still, saying no to coming back to Goldman in search of something more unconventional was tough for the Dallas native. A boatload of loans was the only way he could pay U.Va.’s pricey out-of-state sticker price, and expenses are always in the back of his mind. But while Goldman was a one-way ticket to debt relief, the short-term payoff didn’t come with much lasting reward.
At Goldman, Daniel mainly worked on a bond trading application for the firm’s investment personnel. Challenging? Sure. But he estimates that the end product increased workflow efficiency by only about ten seconds. Every second matters in high-speed trading. While he loved the people he worked with and learned a lot he says, “I’d much rather be spending my time working on problems that can directly impact someone’s life.”
That’s indeed the goal as Daniel gears up for the Elliewood Fellowship. Along with Yash Tekriwal – another Fellow – and Emily Yun, he’s working on an iOS app called Mindbrush, which seeks to improve mental wellness amongst college students. It started organically, with the kind of conversation that happens frequently on Elliewood Avenue. Daniel recalls, “Emily, Yash, and I were all sitting around a table and we were like ‘we’re all passionate about mental health. What can we do about it?’”
It turns out you can do quite a lot. As the trio were building out the app last fall, Allison Garrett – another incoming Fellow – told them that tons of mental health apps exist, but few set automatic reminders for students to keep their priorities straight, stress low, and days manageable. That suggestion shifted the entire focus of the app, and it was the exact input Daniel and his partners wanted. He notes that responsiveness to users is everything when working with mental health. “A lot of our motivation to work on this problem came from our personal experience with mental health and the lack of resources and transparency to actively care for it,” he says.
Mindbrush is still a relative infant in the mental wellness space, so next year is all about improving, refining, and marketing the app. Already, Daniel and his partners have won recognition in U.Va.’s Entrepreneurship Cup and established initial partnerships with CAPS, the Counseling and Psychological Services office at U.Va. “Hopefully the app reaches a lot of people and changes a lot of lives,” he says.
He views this work as an opportunity rather than a set career path, but he does have one major goal. Daniel’s aware of the stereotype that influential African-Americans are only musicians or athletes, and he tells me, “the dream I’ve always had is to change that stereotype.”
“To me, Charlottesville is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it reminds me of home. Traits like southern hospitality and relaxed summers help alleviate home sicknesses whenever I miss Texas,” Daniel says. “On the other hand, it makes me feel like an outlier. The events of August 11th and 12th remind me of something that I love to forget about — there are people who aren’t happy with who I am. I think staying in Charlottesville comes as a blessing and a challenge – to conquer the stereotype that those have of me by doing something that I love.”
He’s aware that by staying in Charlottesville, the Fellows are setting a precedent for future graduates. He wants to challenge bright and hungry U.Va. grads to make a lasting social impact right here in Virginia. Ultimately, Daniel thinks the Fellowship will send a message that heading to New York to, as he says, “make a lot of money,” isn’t the only path. “You can do something you actually want to do and be good at it,” he says. “And there are going to be a lot of people to help you along the way.”
Daniel is participating in the Elliewood Fellowship, a cohort of graduating HackCville members who are staying and starting ventures in Charlottesville after graduation. Learn more about the Fellowship →