If you are interested in reading more interviews, just like this one, with students, founders, operators, and investors from today’s leading companies / startups, feel free to subscribe below!
It isn’t often that you meet a young person who makes you think deeper about your actions, passions, and vision. Zachary Will Sy or Zak as his friends & family call him is one of those people. I was fortunate enough to grab a few minutes of his time for a conversation where we explored his childhood experiences and talked our way through the numerous projects that he juggles today yet somehow finds time to complete to the highest degree. There is an aura around Zak that is felt when you speak to him. It’s a recognition that I’m with someone with immense potential. I don’t want to discredit or reduce anything that he has achieved already but rather display that Zak is only getting started.
Zak lives in the same world all of us do – only he decided to double down on his passions while continuously pushing himself outside of his comfort zone & most importantly remaining true to himself. Why? I asked him. As naturally, that is the next question for anyone to ask of a 19-year-old during a COVID-19 time. For that answer, we went back to his childhood.
He answered with humble responses, “I’m from a Filipino Chinese family and I studied in a Chinese school. Like just the normal elementary, secondary school, [un]till I got to high school. That's when most of the things really changed because that's when I took the International Baccalaureate program.” Zak paused for a moment to reflect upon how his experiences shaped his thinking and continued, “that really gave me an insight into studying abroad because we had a lot of colleges come to our school and I don't think Purdue [was] one of them though. But we had a lot of others. And yeah, it just really fascinated me. The opportunities that I would be able to achieve if I did study abroad.”
Interestingly enough, one might assume that Zak was a zealous student involved in “too” many extracurriculars and clubs to count in high school, but you’d be surprised that even he needed that push to unlock his entrepreneurship & technological passion. “I wasn't that much… active in a lot of things. That is until one of my teachers turned mentor invited me to join his organization, … and I guess everything just set off from there.”
He would go on to engage in more and more tech projects, where he found his true passion of competing in hackathons. Unsurprisingly, even as a young freshman, Zak was thinking of his future but not in a selfish sense. He thought about his future in a broader manner, one that was deeply extrapersonal. His involvement in hackathons and innovation competitions was more than a chance to win prize money. “I was able to represent my school and my country … in a lot of these competitions, which I think is pretty cool, right? Through networking with others …I was able to learn how the ‘world’ really works.”
Zak’s combination of networking endlessly and competing in hackathons energetically didn’t go without challenge. “I joined my first … few hackathons [and] all of them were college hackathons. We didn't really have high school hackathons here or anything of that sort, so it was hard to have judges and people take us seriously because we were like what? 15, in a sea of 18 to 19 year old people.” He quickly learned how to navigate the tech space and achieved a sizable amount of success by anyone’s terms, but he once again was taught a lesson of reality. “My team and I missed out on a lot of opportunities because we were at that age where people thought we [weren’t] able to make a significant difference.”
As we continued talking Zak shared with me a particularly clear memory of one hackathon competition. "We came behind 1st place, but by about one point only and the reason why one of the judges couldn't give us [those] one or two points was because they thought we were not serious about what we wanted to do.”
In that moment, Zak was still flustered and annoyed despite the competition happening many years ago. A mix of emotions overcame him as he knew very clearly and was reminded that his team deserved to win. Yet, Zak did a rare thing by today’s standard. He sat with his emotions and reflected. “I felt kinda off about that because I don't think it matters how old you are, but what matters is the passion and the drive that you have to achieve an end goal. I think that's what makes your involvements more significant, it doesn't mean that you will be doing it only for yourself, but everything you do ripples onto others right? Even if you're 15 years old, I'm sure one small step would be [building] something great for you and for other people around you.”
This was one of the moments, where I was struck by the genuine nature of Zak. He has this innate ability to trust his instincts, while ignoring that nervous little voice in our head that stops so many of us from taking the first step. I’m reminded of a quote that beautifully describes Zak’s mentality, it is best summarized by Charles R. Swindoll, “Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.”
That 90% led Zak to pursue more difficult and community-oriented projects. Some of those projects include a “SMS based LinkedIn where …recruiters [would] be able to scroll through a web interface, but people from far flung provinces would be able to apply just over their SMS” or building “a [collaborative] web based CSV editor”, for the Philippines Government, since “they had no way of editing their database because they were so large.” Another side project included a healthcare app, due to an antiquated process that would “mostly fill up [with] a lot of papers for doctors or healthcare operators. There was no unified thing, so we created a code base.”
To the average person these experiences may seem extremely advanced for a teenager to complete, but for Zak, these were just cool projects that inspired him to work on the next big idea. “I want to work on projects that are cool projects.” There was a natural entrepreneurial mindset that seemed to be instilled within him from a young age, which prompted me to ask if he ever thought of himself as an entrepreneur? “Yeah definitely it is part of the reason …that I chose computer science.”
In the entrepreneurship world, we’ve seen a growing trend of people choosing computer science or engineering as their major of choice simply because for many students they learn the foundational skills that serve as a launchpad for their careers and startups.
For Zak it was simpler than that. “It was just the idea of turning ideas into reality with computer science.”
Before coming to Purdue to study Computer Science, Zak was already bettered prepared than most students. Growing up in the United States is a different reality than growing up in the Philippines. I pushed Zak to dive a little deeper into himself to name one of the biggest influences that has guided him so far. The answer was worldly. “I would answer that it’s my global perspective on a lot of things because I'm coming from the Philippines, right? I not only grew up from Chinese roots, but then I had to study for a year in China because this is a required program by my school. I’ve been to Malaysia to compete in competitions. So, seeing [all] that, it's a lot of the cultures that come together that really drive my passion to create an impact in society using technology. I mean as cliché as that sounds. I guess it makes the most sense, right?”
With each answer that Zak had for my numerous questions there was a consistent theme of self-reflection and recognition. In many ways, his maturity surpasses that of a typical college student, who is more focused on the next party or hangout (…even despite a COVID-19 time).
As the world’s borders started to close and cases started to rise nation wide back in late March of 2019, Purdue followed the trend along with many of the top universities and closed their university campus moving all classes online via Zoom & Blackboard. However, what does a student do when one moment they are on a robustly active campus and the next moment they are back in their childhood home in the Philippines? If your guesses were casually studying, social distanced hangouts with childhood friends, and binge-watching Netflix … you’d be very wrong. Instead, a quick glance at Zak’s LinkedIn shows that he decided to pick up a few positions: Development & Communications Associate, Product Engineering Intern, IT Consultant, Software Engineering Extern, Campus Ambassador, Marketing Communications Manager, Communications Executive, Product Management Consultant, Data Initiatives Intern, and a Founder. I don’t list all of the positions to brag for Zak but rather to show his intense work ethic and passionate curiosity that led him to pursue each of those experiences.
One of my favorites of his experiences is Seven Thirty Lectures, a for college students by college students podcast that “focuses on student careers and [advice].” This past summer, a friend of his reached out with the goal of simply starting something. Well that something has scaled to a couple thousand subscribers and major universities. As Zak and his friend continued working on their podcast, the goal evolved into “inspiring current college and incoming college students through [getting] professionals who are very active in the startup and entrepreneurship space …to give their insight on how we could, as students become better entrepreneurs.”
As you can probably guess by now, Zak went above and beyond to secure top-notch guests on their podcast such as a former Senator of the Philippines and the Vice President of the Philippines. Zak was quick to share his secret of how he confirmed the former Senator…a cold email. As for the Vice President of the Philippines, this connection took a little more time. Zak was invited to build a COVID-19 dashboard for the Philippines, where the Vice President was leading the project and naturally, he simply asked for the Vice President to be a guest on his podcast.
The sheer idea of starting a podcast is enough to get people running in the opposite direction, let alone the confidence it takes to invite both a former Senator and current Vice President of your country. This is exactly what makes Zak different. Towards the end of our time together I wanted to extract as much wisdom as I could for the world to see, which led me to asking him if he would do anything differently. “I think I would probably get into this space a bit earlier because even though I might be early compared to some of my other peers back in my high school, I think if I dabbled in tech and entrepreneurship a bit earlier I'd be able to have a step up on a lot more people. That kinda makes it sound bad.” After a brief moment of pause to reclarify his thinking Zak continued, “I guess if I did so, I'd be able to see the world differently at an earlier time. Yeah, that sounds better.” He finished with a chuckle. It is clear that Zak is conscious of his thoughts but challenges them as well in a sort of internal debate to ultimately ensure that what he says and pursues is pure and true.
Given Zak’s childhood upbringing and experiences, I was surprised to hear that if he had a magical redo button presented in front of him, he would just set the clock back earlier. Zak explained “It would allow me to create an impact at an earlier time. In high school I loved participating in a lot of non-government agency programs too. And charity organizations … if I did become active in school a bit earlier, I think it would have been a lot more beneficial in helping me plan out my future and [having] a clear view of what I want my future to be.”
When thinking about the future, we often times neglect our past. It is those very experiences both positive and negative that shape who we are today. There is no concrete right model for how to live a successful life but if there was a model, Zak is pretty close to having figured it out.
“Face the uncertainty in life, you know? Because from the very beginning, well, we all have a lot of opportunities that come to us. It's just a matter of whether or not we take on that opportunity. So let's say, behind, every opportunity is a door and we don't know what's behind that door. Whether it would be something better or worse in our lives, but the moment we take that risk will definitely find out. So be willing to go against the conventions and just look at how you want to live your life, no matter how different that maybe from other people.”
We hope you enjoyed the interview with Zak. We certainly learned a lot and hope you did too :)
You can find Zak on Twitter @zwcsy .
If you found this edition of The Insight valuable, share it with friends👇