Abhi is a cofounder at the Horizons School of Technology, along with Edward Lando and Darwish Gani. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Huntsman Program in 2015 before spending time at Apollo Global Management as a private equity investor.
Editor: Abhi cares about two things: building something amazing and working out. I’ve had the pleasure of spending many hours with Abhi, he leads by example by displaying a tickling curiosity and steely resolve present in only the absolute best of leaders of our time. Edward Lando, Abhi's classmate and cofounder, describes the Ramesh ethos perfectly: “He'll keep sawing away at any problem until it gives way.”
What's important about you?
Important huh, very little I think. My name is Abhi Ramesh I am currently one of the founders of the Horizons School of technology. We essentially run a technology school that bridges the gap between a traditional college education and the real world of technology. So I actually graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School, I was in the Huntsman program, which is dual degree there. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the good old South, but I was born in India, I lived in Dubai and Bahrain in the Middle East for a little bit and I lived in St. Louis and in Canada briefly, and now I am out in San Francisco doing Horizons.
Did you always want to be an entrepreneur when you grew up?
I did not. For the first half of my life, I wanted to be a neuroscientist. I remember at one point of my life I also wanted to be an astronaut. Most people want to be an astronaut when they are five or six but I decided I would be one when I was 16. Then after I came to Penn and Wharton, I decided I was really interested in finance and enjoyed the business side of things, and pursued a career in finance. Entrepreneurship for me was more of an accident to be honest.
How did that accident come about?
I did have an interest [in entrepreneurship] before. In high school I was very involved in a bunch of different things. As a lot of Penn and Wharton students are, I was class president and eventually school president, two-sport varsity athlete, violinist for fourteen years, and I did all the traditional "I'm a well rounded kid applying to college” type things. But I also enjoyed looking at different ideas and I did some SAT tutoring on the side when I was in high school and that connected to one of my first entrepreneurial experiences. So I was always interested in "business" broadly, whatever that means, but I decided to come to Penn and Wharton because it provided a very good, well rounded, business education.
I didn't know what I wanted to do in the world of business I just knew I was interested in it.
What was your first impression of Wharton and Huntsman?
My impression of Wharton was that it was very competitive. People come here to be the best in the world of business and finance. There are obviously cons to the competitiveness of Wharton, but overall, for me, I thrive in those types of environments, so I enjoyed that aspect of Wharton a lot. Huntsman for me provided a balanced sort of side to my college experience. Being enrolled in the liberal arts side of things, we have to study abroad, and we have a more traditional experience. Having not been born in the US and growing up in a lot of different countries I sort of enjoyed that international studies aspect of Huntsman. When I first came my first impression of Wharton and Huntsman was, "Wow, a lot of very very talented kids who all want to go into business and finance and do cool things." For me it was very positive actually, I know some people took away some very negative things from their first impression, but for me it was overall positive.
And what was your last impression?
Still overall positively skewed, but it left me kind of wishing for more. That was because some of the things I did in college were completely unrelated to college. I took a year off from school, I moved to Los Angeles, I raised a bunch of money from angel investors and venture capitalists, started multiple projects which then became multiple companies when I was in school. None of that was related to my traditional Penn experience. When I was leaving Penn and Wharton I thought I had a great foundation and it has taught a lot, but I just wished there was something that bridged the gap between where a lot of students want to be and what my experience was in school.
And that eventually led to building the Horizons School?
It did. And I think Horizons is only part of the equation, for students who want to be in technology, that leads to Horizons. I think there are other aspects of my Penn/Wharton experience that could've improved for folks who want to go into finance or who want to go into consulting. To be honest, despite the amazing finance curriculum that Wharton has a lot of the things that I learned relevant to finance, I learned on the side.
What was your average day like in college?
Crazy. I played varsity sprint football my first two years. I tried rowing crew for a little bit too. I was a varsity athlete in high school so I really wanted that sort of experience in college as well. But when you're taking 7 classes, trying to juggle starting a company, and you have three hours of football practice every day 7 days a week, it becomes pretty difficult. So for me organization is a big thing, I had always been relatively organized but I forced myself to be insanely organized when I went to college. I still have all my agendas. I've written agendas for the past six years, in written format, and I have them still. So I used to be extremely organized — I woke up at 6:15 am, I'd to the gym if I didn't have workouts that day, I'd go do a relatively full day of classes, I'd go to football practice from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm, come back do homework for about three or four hours, go to bed and repeat.
And where did the company start?
The first company I worked on in college was Altair Prep. We were essentially building a pattern recognition based platform and tutoring methodology for the SAT and the ACT and eventually the goal was to expand into the GMAT. A lot of these test prep curricula are very much one size fits all in their approach and we wanted to be a hyper personalized platform and tutoring methodology. So this again was completely on accident. It was over Thanksgiving break or winter break, one of my good high school friends, Darwish Gani, and I were sitting in my basement talking about the SAT. We had tutored both our younger brothers, we had both scored pretty well on the SAT, and we just talked about the options out there. And there was no premium test prep offering that was hyper personalized. We just talked about it and nothing came about it for a couple months after our conversation then all of a sudden we said, "Hey, this thing should exist", so I started dedicating three hours of what would've been my sleep time to getting Altair Prep off the ground.
When did you learn to code and why?
Altair Prep led me to take a year off from school. It was a really tough decision. Today taking time off from school is a little bit less serious. When I was in school it was very taboo, especially at Wharton where there is a traditional very structured path to success. My sophomore summer I had signed an offer to work at a private equity firm. In the third week of May, I called up the guy who gave me the offer at the private equity firm and I said, "I cannot take this offer I have to pursue this venture that is taking off." His reaction was probably not the most appropriate of reactions, he was extremely upset that I had told him this late and promised I would not have a career in finance and kind of turned me off for a while from finance.
But I ended up pursuing Altair Prep that summer and it ended up going very well, so my cofounders and I took a semester off from school that eventually became two semesters. We realized though that Altair Prep was an interesting product and although we tried to build a piece of software out of it we couldn't, partially because software wasn't what was needed to solve that problem and partially because we didn't know how to code.
We spent a bunch of money hiring a CTO and a series of freelancers and that didn't work out because there were always things we needed to fix and add and it was an ongoing process. Eventually I got extremely frustrated and we decided to pause Altair Prep and I decided I was going to learn how to code. So I moved from Philadelphia, where Altair was based, to Los Angeles because there were a handful of angel investors who agreed to basically fund what was initially an idea at the time, but more so to fund my learning experience to learn how to code. So I moved to LA with one of the Altair Prep cofounders Vinny and spent that year just coding. We went to 25 different hackathons. I spent 14 to 16 hours a day in front of a computer learning to code. I started off with Ruby on Rails and learning to code came less from interest or desire and more so just need.
How did you get the ideas and the problems to solve?
A lot of it had to do with being outside of my daily environment. When you're within the Penn bubble that people so affectionately like to talk about, you're exposed to the same problems every single day. You talk to the same types of people, you have the same routine everyday. When you pack up your bags and move to a different city, LA for me, and you're no longer in school, the people you interact with are 35 or 40 years old, the set of problems you see are very different.
I kept a running list of random ideas I came up with and decided to tackle those one at a time once I learned how to code. Looking back I don't think that was the greatest choice. I think it would've been better to say I'm going to tackle one and build it out completely but instead we built something for 3 or 4 months and kept switching. So I was able to build a lot of things. A couple of them went from idea to business but I never actually started to consider a company.
Did any of your hacks get you into trouble?
Yes, one of them got me into quite a bit of trouble. Preregistration time at Penn I decided I was going to build something very useful. I stumbled into a vulnerability with the way the scheduling platform was built. We discovered you could plug in a class at Penn and display a list of registered students at Penn including their photos, names, email addresses, everything. So I decided to exploit the vulnerability and build a platform for students to input any class name and discover who was taking the class. We had over 3000 people on it in the first 24 hours. Then I got contacted by the Penn administration and the head of IT who sent me a cease and desist letter and cut off my access to all my Penn accounts. It was a huge privacy violation and it got pretty messy, but it was over quick.
Did you work on all of this stuff alone?
I did a lot of this alone but we had a good community. Edward Lando, Vinny Pujji, an older friend of mine, Jose, but most of the time I was spending my own time doing it. At the time, the people who were interested in technology was a small community and closely knit. The relationships were pretty organic though, no formally organized things.
You did a lot of your learning outside college walls, so what do you think the current role of four year colleges are?
The four year structure is probably going to change. The time frame over which you are in college is going to change. College does two things well: providing an ecosystem for you to explore and preparing you for the real world in some ways. Most universities tend to do one or the other and very few colleges do both. You have the Whartons of the world, which get you extremely well prepared for the real world if you're tackling finance or consulting but when it comes to exploration you're pretty limited. And then you have schools that are much more so on the exploration side but when it comes to preparation for the real world, they're lacking.
I think a real college experience will allow you to do both and that’s sort of where things are headed. Part of the problem is the four year structure, because for some people the exploration is a very short period of time, like 6 months, and then they need to be prepared for the real world and move from exploration to exploitation — building products and getting ready for the real world. For other people it takes three years, four years, five years, six years. They want to take more classes, get graduate degrees and things like that. In the coming years the four year structure will become much more individualized.
Where does your entrepreneurial journey and Horizons play in that world?
What we do is exactly that for technology. We provide a platform for students who are ambitious and interested in technology to explore the sector and at the same time prepare them for the real world. You come through our program to learn how to code and build different things but also to explore technology in general. You might be interested in AI or Natural Language Processing or you might be interested in mobile social apps but you explore all these things and figure out what you're interested in.
After college did you join another company or build your own startup?
Neither. I did the opposite. I went and worked at a very large financial institution, at a private equity firm called Apollo. There are a lot of people for whom its one of the other, they find technology in college, or something else in college and they love it. And they're able to sort of put everything else away and focus on that completely.
For me, I learned how to code built a lot of things and was super interested in technology but I also happened to be really interested in finance. Part of me almost regretted not being able to explore the financial world more, having gone to a premier university that prides itself on being the best to train people in finance and business. I felt like I hadn't exploited that as effectively as I could have. I did a finance internship in my college career in banking at Moelis and Company, so I leveraged that after I graduated and told myself to spend a little bit of time in finance.
I wanted to learn investing from a professional point of view but I promised myself I would only spent time there if I was really learning. So I went to Apollo working on their middle market technology investing platform and got to see how technology companies were run. I got a great understanding of later stage technology, and after eight months I realized I wasn't learning anymore.
Did you automatically start working on Horizons?
Horizons started at the tail end of my Apollo career. I have a lot to thank to Penn, Wharton, and finance in general because being in that world I saw a large number of very talented, young graduates who spent a year in banking or consulting and then they wanted to move into tech.
Partly due to the fact that tech as we know it is more broadly defined and partly due to the fact that the opportunity set has increased now where you can have a very viable career as an engineer or product manager or starting your own company. So I saw a lot of our Wharton peers trying to go into tech but they couldn't. They didn't know how to code or they just didn't fundamentally understand the market, they didn't have a product thinking skill set, so a lot of them felt stuck and that the doors were closed off. I had spoken to Darwish, my cofounder from the Altair Prep days about this. He had actually taken a coding bootcamp program and was working as a product manager and he told me about how much he had learned in a short period of time and how he shifted his career trajectory by learning to code.
So the idea came together pretty quickly for us because I was someone who experienced this problem, Darwish was somebody who experienced this problem and we saw a lot of folks around us who were experiencing this problem every day. So we kind of came up with a wireframe for Horizons and started building it out for a couple week and I very quickly left Apollo after.
How do you know when to quit something like finance and go for something else you love like technology?
You'll quit before you know, or you'll have to, that's the rule.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this. I sort of pegged quitting my job to a lot of different metrics like "we need this many students" or "we should have hired this many people" or "it should be 73 degrees in New York" — I had a bunch of random metrics I pegged this to and at some point I realized it was a chicken and egg problem. We couldn't reach those metrics that we set until the commitment was there. It varies from career to career. I worked at a very rigorous financial institution, I was up at 7:00 am, in the office by 8:15 am, and I left at 10:30 or 11:00 pm on a good day. For me to commit time outside of work on a venture would mean midnight to 2:00 or 3:00 am. Eventually I gave myself a deadline. I said, "On this day I'm going to quit", put it in my calendar, and on that day I quit.
So what is the work-life balance like now?
The myth of entrepreneurship is that you set your own hours so there is work-life balance that you can control. The truth, which very few people will tell you, is that your work life balance will get worse. But I think that’s due to the fact that work and life become the same thing for you. When you work a traditional corporate job there is a clear distinction between work and life so people can talk about the concept of work-life balance. When you start a company your life is that company. At Horizons at least, we're happy about it.
Does it help that you're working with some of your best friends?
Oh yeah that helps a lot. If you work with people that you hate, you'll hate your job and you career. I love working with my friends, and with like minded people. Darwish and Lando are two of the only people who on a Saturday or Sunday night regularly will talk about ideas in the office and how we can grow the company, and how we can make the product better, and how to help more students. You have to find more people who have the same mindset and liking them makes it much easier.
What is your advice for students in college?
Keep in mind I'm not too far out from school. The best piece of advice I can give is not to wait. There is an archetype in our minds of a successful person. It’s generally someone who is 33 or 34 years old who has spent time in an industry, who realizes there are all these problems, decides to go tackle one, and goes to build a company. Or it’s someone who climbs up the corporate ladder for 15 to 20 years, becomes hyper successful, and goes and buys a house in the Hamptons.
The biggest flaw with this is the notion you must wait to be successful, and wait to go out and try something. In school you have a sandbox you are playing in that is completely risk free. College is the most risk free four years of your life. You can fail miserably and you'll be okay. You will never have that time ever again. After college the clock starts ticking for real.
With that in mind would you have done something different in your college experience?
I took a year off from school but a lot of the things I was working on in my year off felt ephemeral because I knew I had to come back to school. There is an incredible amount of value to being at universities and in college but when you have the mindset of having to operate within the confines of a four year university college education, you lose creativity. I stopped working on a very successful company or idea because I felt I was limited to a year and had to go back to school.
If I was back in college I would've stayed out for a little bit longer. And I'm not saying I would have dropped out of college but I just mean if things were going well I wouldn't have decided to come back just to come back. I would have pursued whatever project I was working on and seen them through before coming back to school.
How do you filter out the noise when everyone around you is doing the same thing?
It's extremely difficult. Especially at a schools like Penn and Wharton there is an incredible amount of pressure to take part in the prevailing ecosystem, which is the banking and consulting ecosystem. Nobody can do it by themselves.
If you're the only guy or girl working on something and every other person around you is working on something else, it takes an incredible amount of mental strength to keep doing that. You have to have a community. You have to have other people around you that support what you're doing and who feel the same way. Finding those people come from putting yourself in the right environment.
Any last words?
We've covered a lot. One thing I'd like to reiterate is this is your time to experiment. You have little free time in your life to do so. It doesn't have to be starting a company. Just do as much as you can to explore while you're still here at school.
Editor’s Key Takeaways
- College does not have to be a four year straight line experience. Explore until you have the skills and perspective you need to do the work you want to, this can take six months or six years.
- An incredible amount of mental strength is necessary to filter out the noise surrounding each and every one of us. We require community to persevere.
- College is a risk free sandbox. Whoever said you must wait to be successful and do your life's work was wrong.
Disclaimers: The views presented here are solely those of the interviewee. They do not represent Horizons or any of the other individuals or institutions named above.