Art by Ellie Gabriel.
Ileana Valdez is inventive, inspired, and intelligent, and over the quarantine period, she used these traits along with her education to make a positive difference in the world. After receiving news that the Spring 2020 semester had been cancelled, Ileana did what most students did; she hopped online. There, she was greeted by other students around the country who were all mutually dissatisfied with how their spring semester ended. Many students were expressing these feelings of discontent and sadness on a Facebook meme page entitled, “Zoom Memes for Self-Quaranteens,” and upon seeing this, Ileana began formulating an idea. As a rising senior with many friends in the graduating Class of 2020, Ileana felt that these seniors and other students had been robbed of many friendships and potential romances.
A computer science major, she turned to her friend Patrycja Gorska and created a form that students could fill out if they were interested in finding a new friend while enduring quarantine. Ileana said, “We got four-thousand signups overnight,” which showed the massive number of students expressing interest in making new social interactions over the virtual meeting platform Zoom. Neither anticipated this sort of overwhelming response, but upon seeing that many students needed and wanted help creating new friendships, Ileana set out to give these same students a medium on which to satiate their desire for social interaction. Ileana and Patrycja found the most important thing for a product to succeed without even realizing it: a need for consumers.
For most people, the fun would have ended with the virality of their Google form, which was intended to be a joke. Instead, Ileana saw her opportunity and seized it. The problem: how to create an interface that matches students based on their interests and personality rather than their physical appearance so as to facilitate friendships and potentially even flames of disembodied romance. The solution: using knowledge gained in the classroom and the drive to create a platform that could provide students with a glimmer of hope in the large shadow of despair cast by COVID-19. From class, Ileana was familiar with coding and in one night, with the help of her brother Jorge Valdez and Patrycja, created a website called “OkZoomer.” Ileana said, “We created a clunky html website in one night, and even though it had its bugs, it still worked.” This website now has more than twenty thousand users, a testament to her hard work and incredible matching algorithm.
“We are planning on launching an iOS version of the website in a few weeks,” Valdez said. As amazing as her work with her startup has been, she still cannot escape some patronization from her classmates. Ileana feels that, in a particularly male dominated field, her male peers often tend to overexplain and treat her as if she is incapable of accomplishing the task at hand. This could not be further from the truth. Creation of a matching algorithm is “kind of complex,” in the words of humble Valdez, and for an undergraduate to accomplish such an astounding feat within the span of one night is truly a remarkable feat. Valdez, however, is not worried about profit from ad revenue or selling her site to other companies that might make capital off her invention. She is instead a bubbly, compassionate, and wildly intelligent woman whose passion for serving and making others smile led her to create a site specifically for college students to feel the same love she exudes, even from behind a computer screen. Her goal was never to make profit, but to use her skills to bring about positive change in a particularly trying time for everyone. She told me a poignant anecdote about a student who told her he had experienced difficulty making friends and especially romantic connections due to his appearance. She said, “This one boy messaged me and told me how grateful he was for the ‘OkZoomer’ platform because he could never get dates in person. His story made my heart melt.” “OkZoomer” provided a space for this student to be himself and be confident in creating connections that will last far longer than a quarantine period. Ileana has made an indelible positive impact on the world, but this will not stop her from aspiring to achieve and accomplish so much more as a leader and innovator in her field.