One entrepreneur brings the political polarization gap with analytics
On the second floor of John Barleycorn, a bar just around the corner from Wrigley Field, Aasil Ahmad prepares to make his elevator pitch to a sellout crowd. His product, Votifi, presents users with the opportunity to share their political views and engage with others on the other side of the issue. He relates it to Netflix – “the peer-to-peer recommendation for political discovery.”
He leans against a circular table bearing a MacBook Pro, nine business cards and a poster held up with a cardboard box. The letter “V” appears on the white canvas. An elephant and a donkey consider one another inside the “V,” as the faded image of stars and stripes fills the rest of its empty space.
Ahmad speaks in an assertive tone in a beige sport coat and whitewashed jeans, his beard groomed, his hairline receding, his hair gelled back. He watches a swarm of people in dark suits, pinstriped jerseys and track jackets mingle in clusters under the dim lights beside the bar. The bartenders clink bottles together and mix drinks. A troop of waitresses in red pencil skirts carry trays of Diet Coke, stopping for a moment to peer at the ventures on display.
Ahmad describes Votifi as a peer-to-peer recommendation engine where users find others that share their political view and engage with others on the other side of an issue. The idea arose in 2008. Votifi CEO Lou Aronson was waiting at his children’s bus stop with other parents. He heard them complaining about the automated calls they would receive during the upcoming election season. One neighbor wasn’t because he didn’t have a landline, just his cell phone.
The DC-based mobile polling and analytics company launched last year, just before the whirlwind election season began. It was one of 48 companies invited to participate in South by Southwest’s Accelerator, a competition held at the annual entertainment festival every March.
The company introduced its iPhone app at the festival. Ahmad says the company was greeted favorably at South by Southwest, noting the swarm of media outlets that approached the founders.
“People really like the idea of getting beyond this polarization in the political space and connecting with people based on issues,” he says. “There was a very strong interest that [Votifi] could be the first step toward improving the political discourse in our country.”
When Ahmad, who is originally from Chicago, heard TechCocktail, a technology news blog, was hosting a showcase in Chicago, he jumped on the opportunity to extend the company’s influence beyond Capitol Hill.
“Coming to Chicago, I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “We have new companies pitching every month. It’s one of those things where the innovation kind of led and now the community is crystallized around it.”
Ahmad stands in the back of the room, watching the spectacle unfold alongside a slew of entrepreneurs. Tonight, he is part of a Chicago start-up scene that has thrived over the past couple of years with the rise of successful ventures like Groupon and Cars.com. Entrepreneurial fever has found its way to major cities across the country like Washington, DC and New York City. For Ahmad, it’s simply a homecoming.
Ahmad found his way into the company by chance. After graduating from Georgetown, he worked as a consultant for a presidential campaign in Malaysia. He devised efforts to reach out to voters on the ground before the elections happened. When he returned to the United States, he wanted to stay engaged with politics. He heard about the project idea from Aronson through a family friend and decided to join.
But when he winds up for his pitch to the people, the delivery is smooth. He changes up his explanation of what the company is with each person he talks to, staring into their eyes through his thick glasses. A young woman in a track jacket returns a glare. After a 10-minute conversation with Ahmad, she leans on her back heel and crosses her arms. “I’m sold,” she says.