Entrepreneurial Journey

March 11, 2013 | CUNY Matters, The University

A visionary initiative “Built by and for Students” is streamlining connections between University-wide communities — with an eye toward far-reaching goals.

InYourClass

Arber Ruci, standing, speaks to his InYourClass team.

One night in the spring of 2009, Arber Ruci was sitting in the City College library with two close friends, supposedly studying — each with a laptop open to Blackboard, another to Facebook.

Typical Millennial multitasking.

But on this particular occasion, the trio made a sudden creative leap between computer screens. Like many other students, they were frustrated with Blackboard, which they felt was somewhat dry and uninspiring software. “We thought, ‘How cool it would be to combine the two of them’ [Blackboard and Facebook], providing social networking in the college context,” Ruci recently recalled. “And the name, ‘InYourClass’ just sort of popped out.”

Soon afterward, Ruci — along with City College classmates Fani Maksakuli and Ari Xhelo, all first-generation Albanian immigrants — built the first version of InYourClass.

“It looked awful, but our friends got it,” Ruci admits. “There was this huge gap between the learning management platform [Blackboard] and the college experience. Our goal was to create a space that would make it comfortable for students to have a school identity online, the same way Facebook does.”

Now, roughly four years later, InYourClass has about 23,000 users at nine  campuses, including City College. Usage of the site (www.cuny.edu/inyourclass) has grown exponentially in recent months, thanks largely to wide-ranging counsel from a cadre of advisers — ranging from faculty members to high-tech business experts and top University administrators — as well as some initial funding from City College and the University.

The original threesome has expanded to a team of seven that works out of offices at CCNY and at CUNY’s Computing and Information Services office at 395 Hudson St. The fledgling company also has landed a major consulting contract to design a similar system for Stanford University.

“We work from the time we wake up to whenever we fall asleep at night,” said Ruci, who expects to graduate this year. “Every day is a combination of being visionary and putting out fires. It’s the entrepreneurial journey.”

While InYour Class (IYC) represents a uniquely student-driven venture, it is among several fast-growing social media initiatives that have sprung up around the University, such as the Academic Commons website for faculty and graduate students and the OpenLab platform for the CityTech campus. Each of these sites is customized for specific users, but they share a common theme: They’re not just about social media.

“Once we saw the system, we realized that InYourClass provided tremendous potential as a much needed tool for communications and collaboration at CUNY,” said Brian Cohen, Associate Vice-Chancellor for Technology and University CIO. “That is why we decided to make a modest investment in the venture and then pilot it at nine CUNY campuses. Our hope is that, not only students and faculty will find it useful, but that administrators will also want to use the broadcast feature to make announcements and the group function to communicate to select groups of students, faculty or other administrators. … Our hope is that, once it is on the market, InYourClass will fill a significant need in higher education institutions and that CUNY can also profit from this success,” Cohen said.

“We’re not trying to be the next Facebook or Twitter,” Ruci said. “We’re really a communication tool that’s designed to promote three layers of communities — the classroom or group community, the individual campus communities and the University community as a whole. We make it easy for students to communicate through all of these layers by using the same technology that social media sites use.”

These sites also make a point of constantly addressing and responding to their users. “Everything has come from our needs as students,” says IYC’s Fani Maksakuli. (One of the company’s taglines is “Built by & for Students.”)

Still, Ruci and his partners acknowledge that much of their success has been due to the broad range of support generously offered along the way. “We’ve been very lucky because we were able to surround ourselves with a great group of advisers whose goal is to see us succeed,” Ruci said. “They trusted our vision, to make the CUNY environment better, so they helped us get to where we are now.”

One of the earliest supporters of InYourClass was City College Associate Professor of Economics Kevin Foster. Ruci and his partners were actually students in one of Foster’s courses when they approached him with their idea, and he agreed to let them test it as a demonstration project in class. Soon, other experts began to pitch in, offering feedback, advice and moral support. “One of the real talents of Arber’s team is their ability to bring in people and get them on their side,” Foster said. “The faculty and staff responded entrepreneurially, with creativity and imagination. There was no past precedent for this kind of guidance, and it’s turned out to be a really good community effort.”

Another key mentor was City College President Lisa Coico, who first met the InYourClass team in the spring of 2011 at one her open monthly forums. “At one of these student forums, the team pitched their venture and need for administration support. “It was clear to me that this was not just a theoretical project,” Coico recently recalled. “This group had already done a great deal of research and development. Their mission was clear, their business plan accurate and their enthusiasm overflowing.”

A few months later, the team had a second fortuitous encounter. Late one Friday afternoon, they ran into a top Stanford University administrator who was visiting the CCNY campus, conferring with officials about a proposed Stanford-CUNY collaboration to create an applied science campus in New York City. After they explained the concept behind InYourClass, he invited them out to Palo Alto to make a pitch to build a similar platform for Stanford. “He told us, ‘I will introduce you to everyone you need to talk to,'” Ruci recalled. “There will be those who love you and those who hate you. And they’ll all be in the same room. If you come out alive, you will have a shot.” They survived a five-hour grilling and ended up winning the highly competitive contract.

Today, Ruci and his colleagues balance their work at Stanford (they plan to have the site up by the end of summer) with continuous tweaking  and expansion of InYourClass. The social media platform already offers a host of features, such as the School Wall, which allows students to post something that everyone can see, like buying or selling books,  announcing upcoming events or seeking tutoring. Students also have the ability to join groups and connect with their peers or faculty, regardless of where they’re enrolled. Another “cool feature,” noted Ruci, is Filelocker, which allows users to store all their documents online, with no limit on  storage capacity. It acts as a flash drive, but can be accessed from any computer.

The next big challenge for Ruci and friends is to integrate InYourClass with complex University-wide systems, such as CUNYfirst. And by the fall, the group expects the site to be fully functional, with a mobile app, across all campuses.

“InYourClass was designed to create a place where our generation could be comfortable having a school identity online,” Ruci says. “Now we’ve become more than that. Ultimately, we’re trying to become a one-stop-shop for student life.”