Peer Pitch

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.

Fueling the Think Tank

It is what it is

As I stare out my apartment window on a dreary Evanston night, I gaze down at the streetlights below me, and hide behind the curtain. Pedestrians patrol the streets on their way somewhere, looking for something, staying silent for some reason. I can’t hear them behind the stained glass nor can I see them without moving the curtain. It is as if the streetlights shine down on the pavement, keeping the people hidden from the light.

Here I stand behind the curtain, the subject within a portrait, the canvas on a landscape, the role player hiding behind the press.  Behind the transparent curtain, I hide, waiting for the proper time to speak out. If I continue to stare out the window, one person could look up, give a dirty glare, flip me off (as if I were back home in Brooklyn), and curse under their breath.

But I don’t stare out the window for no apparent reason. Unlike the stalker creeping for its next victim, I stare out the window with a tinge of innocence and in search of answers. From my perspective, I wonder “why would you react the way you just reacted?” Imagine how painful it would be for me to find out what you really said underneath your cold, disparaging breath while you passed by me. What if I had been forced to stare out the window against my will with a gun to my back, but all you could truly see was the darkness behind my countenance? What if I had been paralyzed from the neck down at that precise moment, forced to stay in that precise position until someone like you could yell at me and ask if I needed help?

Highly unlikely, but it’s a thought.

As an aspiring journalist, I seek to answer those unknown questions. Perhaps not those exact questions, but strikingly similar ones that frame how I tell the story. One of the alluring aspects about journalism is the writer’s ability to extract one’s personality and reflect it onto the page. It’s the ability to move the curtain to the side, reach into the shadows and take out a profound piece. You learn about one’s depth in personality by not only listening to what one says but also what they don’t say. For instance, if I spoke with someone with a modest, standoffish personality, I would rely heavily on demonstrating their mannerisms in the piece rather than outright label them as “shy.” Body language often tells a different story and provides the writer with more flexibility when painting the portrait later on. The writer becomes the painter with one stroke of the pen. One must study their subject, paint an accurate interpretation and eventually allow the character to tell the story.

One night, on the train home from class in Chicago, I spoke with a fellow student who shared a striking interpretation of creativity from a drastically different perspective. We both came from polarized backgrounds; I was the journalist, he was the engineer; I was the creative writer, he was the logical programmer. When he spoke about the beauty of computer programming, his words struck me. He spoke with an unfathomable eloquence, relating a complex practice to art in such a way I would never have imagined. He said programming is just like writing a story. What? Though the programmer must be methodical in making sure all the code fits, he must choose its code sparingly so the program runs smoothly. Like a writer, however, the programmer visualizes how the program will process in the end and manipulates the parts in between to satisfy the result. My new friend said “You know, the best programmers are not the ones who know code the best. They’re the ones who can visualize and manipulate to make what they want happen.”

Sure, writers and engineers come from opposite sides of the spectrum. One is guaranteed to make money after school and the other isn’t (you could guess which one is which). Essentially, we are both creatures under the fun-loving, avuncular umbrella called art. Whether we are artists, journalists, writers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, mathematicians, firefighters or cops, we all share a bond with art that varies on how we look at each profession. There is no question art lies within the artist, but like the caring uncle, it shows up to each kid’s party, surprises them and showers them with gifts. There’s a beauty in watching a courageous firefighter leap into a burning building for the sake of others. There’s mystic in watching a lawyer eloquently attempt to persuade the judge and jury to take his side out of justice. There’s elegance to watching a computer animator give birth to new life to tell a heartwarming story.

And as I’ve learned this past year, there is this palpable sensation during an interview when you know you found that one person willing to talk and talk and talk, just to get their story to be heard. Abruptly, an indescribable feeling flows through your body as blood rushes through your veins in anticipation as you wait for that one perfect quote.

You feel its presence, but you could barely touch it.

Perhaps, this is why I write: to explore life’s endless possibilities, satisfy that subconscious urge to fulfill my needs and attempt to explain those needs either in my own way or through others. It allows to me to speak without being spoken to, to think without being questioned and to paint without a clear direction. Like the starving artist, I thrive on the thrill of not knowing what direction my piece is going end up. But like the programmer, I plan it out methodically, tweak the parts in between and create something, well, fulfilling.

Every person has a story to tell. You just have to look in the right place.

Writer | Editor | Nonfiction Junkie