Alston's Entrepreneurial Dreams Taking Off with Apple's Support
3/10/2021 9:27:26 AM
David Alston is a fifth-year senior about to graduate with a major in Information Systems at Gies College of Business and two minors – Computer Science and Political Science. Growing up “in the shadow of the University of Illinois,” where both his parents work, led him to explore the ways computing can give form to his entrepreneurial spirit.
In one sense, that journey is ending as he prepares to graduate this spring.
In another sense, his path only just began when he earned a place in Apple’s inaugural Entrepreneur Camp for Black Founders and Developers.
Alston will graduate with this opportunity still ongoing. The Apple camp recently finished its two week-long emphasis on remote learning opportunities. But it also paired Alston with a mentor he will keep close ties with over the next year.
During that time, the app he developed, Kickstroid, will benefit both in terms of the tech improvements now available to it and the expertise behind it.
“Earning this spot in the Apple entrepreneurship camp is the most satisfying thing that has ever happened in my entire life,” Alston said. “This isn’t the end of the line for Kickstroid. I can’t do the Rocky pose yet. This was more an acknowledgement that I am now a part of the competition.”
Still, the accomplishment isn’t lost on him.
Not only has one of the tech giants placed importance on Alston’s app, but he acknowledged it’s also the only project run by college students in this year’s cohort. His partner is fellow Gies Business student Nicco Adams.
As with all college students who find success, there were also moments of growth that helped him lean into this moment.
First, Alston learned that his desire to be an entrepreneur had to have direction.
It helps that he first unlocked a technical achievement that supports his entrepreneurial dream. Alston began to code just a month before starting at Centennial High School in Champaign by picking up a book. The challenge of teaching himself to code started a craving to learn more about computer science so he could better manipulate applications and websites.
Alston hasn’t stopped coding since, applying his technical skill to several apps released both in high school and in college.
The apps he produced didn’t resonate at first and fizzled out without drawing much attention.
This failure uncovered the deeper meaning of being an entrepreneur. Alston figured out that he had to pair his technical expertise with a topic he felt dedicated to and impassioned by.
“I loved immersing myself in a challenge, but I also learned that you have to connect it to something you love. An entrepreneur knows their passions better than anyone else,” Alston said. “When you combine your passion with entrepreneurial knowledge, you are in a space where you can make anything happen.”
The second challenge he took on was learning how to make that personal interest come alive through technical ability.
The result is his app, Kickstroid.
To Alston, the aim is simple. He created Kickstroid to duplicate the feeling he first had in middle school, when he realized just how interesting and powerful the sneaker community can be.
He remembers going to a local sneaker shop called Prime Sole, looking for a specific shoe. Alston asked for the Air Force Ones he had been admiring. The owner held up a box and told him it was the last pair she had.
Alston then wore those to school shortly thereafter. It was the first time he wore a pair of sneakers that made the other kids stop what they were doing and look at him.
In that moment he realized a shoe held a certain potential for fashion. He calls the sneaker a blank canvas – one that allowed Michael Jordan to first capitalize on the opportunity by turning his shoe and superstardom in basketball into a worldwide brand.
Since that first pair of Air Force Ones, Alston has been in awe of artists like Jordan, Kanye West, Travis Scott, Virgil Abloh, Jerry Lorenzo merge the worlds of sports, music and fashion around the world’s most famous sneakers.
He wanted to build a home for that energy. One that drew upon his ability to code and his love for sneakers.
“The goal for Kickstroid has always been to build a social home for sneakerheads, the nexus of sneaker culture,” Alston said. “The thing that I’m most proud of is something we call sneaker battles. It’s user-generated content. There are two photos and users select the sneaker they like best. That’s the golden egg for everything we’ve done. It’s original, and it’s incredibly sticky.
“People don’t just click on one photo; they click on many. People don’t just post one photo, they post many. That’s what turned heads at Apple when we applied for this camp.”
The third and final challenge that he overcame throughout high school and college was the feeling of being an outsider.
Alston said that he never fully immersed himself in the entrepreneurial opportunities at the university, because of other interests in student government and coding.
Additionally, he realized that being a black student in computing can be isolating. Sometimes he was only one of three or four black students in the larger classes of 300+ students. In the smaller classes, he was most likely the only black student.
But Alston didn’t shrink away from the moment. He engaged to make it better, calling the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science his “home base.” Alston spent countless hours in rooms throughout the building taking courses for his CS minor, as well as coding late into the night and early morning on various projects.
He found guidance from people like Illinois CS academic advisor Katrina Jones and faculty throughout the department. Jones became a person who could answer his basic questions about classes or deeper questions about life.
Alston also became head of outreach with the student organization BAAC (Blacks and African Americans in Computing). Residing in Siebel Center, the BAAC office become the place where Alston spent all those late nights working with a small but tight-knit group of peers.
“A lot of the knowledge I’ve gotten is from communal sharing, because the truth is that everyone of us is going through the same experience,” Alston said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a major or a minor, if you’re taking these courses, you’re most likely the only one who looks the way you do in that classroom.
“That communal sharing has been incredibly important to the experience. And I like that I’m leaving with the belief that the next person to come in like me will have an even better time than I did.”
He’s also leaving with an amazing opportunity ahead.
That path will include more work with the connections Alston has made at the Apple entrepreneurship camp.
Together, these experts from within the industry will help guide him through improvements to Kickstroid. The biggest opportunity, according to Alston, revolves around improved app performance with the help of machine learning experts. Thus far, this discussion has included guidance on Apple’s Core ML framework.
“The most impressive thing about the Apple camp is that the reality of it is beyond everything I expected it to be,” Alston said. “Actively engaging in this experience did not mean that I went to a virtual space to listen to someone for a little while and then left to go about my day. It’s much more than that.
“I am immersed with this cohort. I’m now a part of this group that will have a relationship with Apple, meaning this camp is more like a launching pad for our projects in association with the company."
For more, see the Gies College of Business story.