Willingness to pitch in, solve problems, and explore opportunities has landed Heathwood alumnus Matthew Quan, ’17, on the leadership team of a start-up company—a role he earned a scant year after graduating from Heathwood, thanks to the initiative he showed from the moment he arrived as a first-year student at the University of Virginia last fall.
At Richmond, Virginia-based Radify Labs, Quan is helping to further a hands-on approach to learning that also characterizes the experience he had at Heathwood. Working with college students from around the country, Radify connects them with real-world experiences that take their education beyond the traditional classroom and better prepare them for the jobs they want after graduation.
Going beyond the classroom has been Quan’s own approach at UVA as well. He had only been on campus a matter of weeks when he joined HackCville, a Charlottesville-based hub for students with an interest in entrepreneurship. There, he not only explored entrepreneurial opportunities but also jumped into a role helping run HackCville itself, creating online programs to meet growing demand from students. Through that experience, he came to the attention of the founders of Radify, who brought him on board to do digital marketing and then made him a co-founder.
At the same time, Quan was also taking what might be described as an entrepreneurial approach to his first year of college, not merely following a prescribed path of traditional coursework but actively pursuing a course of study that fit his interests and career goals. While many freshmen hesitate even to talk to a professor before or after class, Quan was knocking on the doors of faculty members and deans at UVA, proactively seeking their help in pulling together a hybrid major of his own design that combines the study of history, computer science, and psychology.
That ability to carve out his own academic path has made it easier for Quan to perform the balancing act he’s maintaining now: part entrepreneur and part student, he’s living and working in Richmond this semester while pursuing two independent studies at UVA.
We asked him to tell us more about what his college experience has been like so far and how his Heathwood experience helped prepare him for the path he’s now on. Here’s what he had to say:
You chose UVA over several other college options, some much closer to home. How did you feel about that decision once you got there?
Getting dropped into a completely different environment turned out to be a great decision. That first year was a difficult transition in many ways, but I learned much more about myself and my personal preferences from it. And being in an environment with so many incredible people has just made it a great experience. Over all, the people have been the best thing about UVA so far.
How do you feel like Heathwood prepared you for college? Are there ways your high school experience helped you to make the most of your college experience?
One huge benefit of being at Heathwood was that I had such great relationships with my teachers and was never afraid to ask questions. That put me in a position to take advantage of all the resources here, and I’ve benefited from that both academically and professionally. For example, when I realized I wanted to design my own major, I felt comfortable knocking on doors and talking to professors and deans about what I wanted to do and why.
Speaking of your major, what does it look like? And what made you decide to design your own major?
I had initially thought about majoring in commerce or engineering. But I also had a lot of other interests that the requirements for those majors would have made it difficult for me to pursue. I knew I wanted to have technical skills and to keep developing my critical thinking skills, so I looked into double majoring in computer science and cognitive science— as many options as that offered, that course load would also cut me off from exploring some random interesting classes. So I started talking to deans and professors, some of whom had also carved their own way through college, and I told them about all the different interests I had, and they were very supportive. The major I’ve designed combines history, computer science, and psychology, all of which are relevant to the marketing work I’m doing for Radify and entrepreneurial path I’m interested in pursuing down the line.
A lot of students have part-time jobs, but not many take on roles like the one you’ve found at Radify. How did that come about, and what are you doing there these days?
It started through my work at HackCville. There was more demand for their services than they could meet, so last year I was helping them create online versions of their programs to make it more widely accessible. A friend I had met through HackCville saw that I had those skills and said he was starting a company and could use some help with digital marketing, so I jumped onboard. That was last spring, and by summer I was working for Radify full time and was then named a co-founder. I recently re-created our website (http://radifylabs.com/) and have been running the marketing engine for our upcoming program. But like any employee of a start-up company, my job is pretty fluid. I’ve also been creating online materials, and building partnerships with companies and universities— it's great to be in an environment with so many moving pieces and opportunities to learn different things.
What’s Radify all about?
Our core goal is to bridge the skill gap between academia and the modern workplace by creating meaningful experiential learning opportunities for students. We’ve identified six skillsets—like web design and data analytics—that are in high demand but can be hard to master in a traditional academic setting and without real world experience. We also saw that the “learn by doing” model worked incredibly well for teaching students these skills. So we tweaked that a bit a made a program where students can learn by interning. We partner with companies and create internship programs for them that are based on a series of mini-projects. We then break down those mini projects in a way that students can easily navigate and work towards completing. Finally we incorporate a tight-knit online community to recreate some of the best aspects of the traditional classroom - giving students constant support from their peers and instructors. This project based learning approach allows students with no prior experience to learn the basics of an in-demand tech skill while actually working for a company. Combine this with the online community, and it takes away many of the normal barriers to online education. With this type of program, students finish with technical skills and work experience on their resumes in just four weeks, all online.
What have you found most rewarding about working with Radify?
What we’re doing is such a great fit with my own learning style. I naturally learn best and am most excited about learning by experiencing and doing. So it’s very gratifying to have the opportunity to create programs that help other people learn by doing.
As a current college student and as the co-founder of a company whose core mission is to help college students succeed on the job market, you’re pretty well equipped to offer advice to current Heathwood students looking to make the most of their time here. What advice do you have for them?
First, take advantage of the teachers you have at Heathwood, because they’re such great resources, not just for learning, but for everything outside of school as well.
Second, don’t get too caught up in thinking about the future. I personally have a tendency to get very focused on what I want to be doing in five or 10 years and what I need to do to get there, but that often stunts me from fully taking advantage of the situations I am in. The idea of constantly tracking and measuring progress is awesome, it allows you to essentially fail or grow as fast as possible. But oftentimes it can just turn into a distraction. The times I’ve resisted the urge to think too far ahead and have just dug into experiences in the moment have been especially helpful in discovering what I want to do. It’s something I’m working on doing better now, but I’ve found that reflecting afterwards can be a happy medium to satisfy the desire to track and measure while still fully experiencing each moment – same idea as a book report sort of.
Finally, what do you miss most about Heathwood?
The people. I had an amazing group of friends, and I spent every day with those guys for six years. We’re still close, but I miss seeing them all the time. And I miss my teachers too. I came back to Heathwood to visit at the end of the summer and was there for five hours and didn’t get to talk to all the teachers I wanted to catch up with. That’s when I realized how many doors I wanted to knock on—and I need to go back and do that again.