If I told you I planned to be a Venture for America (VFA) Fellow working at Leverege and IoT For All, I’d be lying. I’d also be lying if I claimed that five or ten years ago I ever could’ve imagined I’d end up here at Leverege. But in retrospect, there always were themes, tendencies, and values in my life that resonate with both VFA and Leverege. Nonetheless, my life has been a winding and somewhat shocking series of episodes of which it can be hard to make sense.
For starters, I was always entrepreneurial, even though I wouldn’t have used the buzzword. I was raised by two parents who, like the protagonist/antagonist in Captain Fantastic, sought to raise my seven siblings and me off the social grid—without media, without formal education, and without any structure whatsoever. We had neither classes nor homework on the small farm we called home in upstate New York. We were left to our own devices—forced to be creative, strategic, and entrepreneurial.
Growing up in that educational vacuum in the countryside, I gravitated toward the radio in my father’s carpentry shop. I spent time with him every day from age three or four, building artisanal cabinetry. And the only media to which I was exposed was the classical music emitting from his radio.
I took to music at age three. I would play by ear what I had heard on the radio. At age five, I expanded into guitar, cello, drums, etc. By age ten, I was performing my own compositions. At thirteen, I decided to pursue a career as a classical pianist. I apprenticed under a Russian concert pianist named Vladimir Pleshakov until I was 21, practicing 8-12 hours a day, and giving solo recitals in the Northeast. I started teaching piano to earn money when I was 15 and left home. I guess I always was an entrepreneur, a startup in the flesh, navigating an already ambiguous world made more ambiguous by a complete lack of structure and institutional support.
When you hear that, because of my parents’ radical beliefs, neither I nor my siblings were exposed to technology growing up—nothing beyond my dad’s radio at least—it might seem strange that I work at a tech startup like Leverege. But I always loved computers as soon as I discovered them in my early teens. They just made sense naturally, and when I left home at 15, I got to use them all I wanted.
I made money as a teenager by fixing and building custom gaming computers. Since I was an was an avid PC game modder and hobbyist game designer, I naturally gravitated toward optimizing my own rigs. And people in New York’s Hudson Valley knew that I built computers, so when PC gaming was still all the rage, I’d work with them to identify their gaming styles (and therefore their hardware needs) and design and build PCs by hand to match. My two brothers and I also regularly coded and did some network “hacking” as hobbyists. Hindsight being 20/20, I guess it isn’t all that surprising that I ended up at a tech startup.
My piano career ended when at 20—amid my biggest solo concert series yet—I suffered what ended up being a permanent performance injury to my right arm: the vaguely-named Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). I was devastated and moved to NYC to start a new life. I worked for a construction project management firm in Brooklyn for six months while I figured out my next move.
I met a girl on the New York subway one day in my 22nd year who saw something in me that I didn’t know I had—academic capability. I had never gone to school or had any formal education, so I wouldn’t have imagined I could get into—let alone excel at—Columbia University. But that’s exactly what happened. After noticing that I regularly corrected her homework from Columbia, she eventually convinced me that I would do well there. I quit my job in project management and submitted a hail mary application to the Ivy league with only a GED and the story you’re reading.
After getting into Columbia by what I was sure was a mistake, I was convinced I would fail my first semester before it even began. But I didn’t. I surprised myself with a 4.07 GPA my first semester and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude.
I was at a critical juncture in my senior year. Cultural anthropology had basically become my new piano in terms of the level of investment and commitment. I was a research fellow at Columbia doing ethnographic fieldwork on the political and philosophical implications of music therapy treatments for autism. I was planning to pursue a Ph.D. in the same field and become a professor. Creating and running an argument reading coaching center at Columbia—in which I helped nontraditional students learn to write and speak persuasively—had re-confirmed my passion for teaching. However, in my senior year, I had also fallen back in love with computers by taking courses on Python, applied math, data science, data ethics, and applied machine learning. I was writing to people and machines simultaneously. English words and code crisscrossed through my everyday life in one encompassing passion for writing.
And there I stood, trying to make my senior year decision: should I continue on the academic path or veer back into entrepreneurship through my renewed passion for computational sciences?
Here’s where Venture for America enters my story. I met Andrew Yang, the founder of VFA, at a leadership conference at Princeton. He faced three hundred suited and tied Ivy league scrubs—all on the precipice of becoming bankers and consultants—and convinced at least one person that veering from the cookie cutter path makes sense. Silicon Valley and Goldman Sachs have enough smart people. Smaller cities—and I’d add, rural communities—need young, bright, passionate energy. I guess I was also primed by my past to take the road less taken. I applied to VFA on the train back to Columbia.
Leverege was always my top choice. The opportunity to learn more about the technologies with which I had always tinkered, amplifying human potential in the process, was too good to pass up. The wealth of multidisciplinary technical knowledge and experience Leverege's leadership embodies—in the multiple interlocking fields of engineering IoT requires—seemed like the perfect environment in which to add value while continuing to learn. And my initial sense that Leverege was packed with incredibly intelligent, passionate, multidisciplinary people, has proven well-founded. Every day, I learn something new and exciting about how people are using IoT, machine learning, virtual reality, and so on, to forge the future. And I genuinely believe that our team is designing a better, more efficient, and more sustainable world.
Michael is Senior Editor at IoT For All, where he empowers contributing writers to share valuable IoT resources, and Digital Marketing Manager at Leverege, where he manages marketing initiatives. He graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology, and he studies software engineering and machine learning in his spare time.
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