Mr Chris Zaharia
About the speaker
Our speaker today is Mr Chris Zaharia.
Chris is the Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Zookal. He holds a Bachelor of Business and Bachelor of Science in Information Technology from UTS.
Zookal was established one year after Chris graduated and is the national market leader in textbook rentals with thousands of students using the service. Zookal was the first to introduce the rental model for textbooks in Australia and the company has also both funded and partnered with Flirtey, Australia’s first commercial drone business.
Chris has been researching and developing technologies that converge virtual reality and neuroscience with the aim to deliver fully immersive education digitally. He also mentors and advises starting entrepreneurs, particularly on the technological aspects of their business.
Both Chris’ and Zookal’s achievements have been covered by media all around the world, including on CNN, Bloomsberg, and Sydney Morning Herald. Zookal has now partnered with Pocketbook to provide entrepreneurship scholarships to students.
It gives me great pleasure to invite Mr Chris Zaharia to deliver the occasional address.
To the Presiding Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Faculty Dean, staff, distinguished guests, fellow graduates, your families and friends. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.
I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal and Guring-gai people of the Eora Nation, whose ancestral lands the University now stands on.
You know it’s only been 5 years since I was right there in the audience, sitting where you are now. Although not much time has passed, I think with the right mindset there’s quite a lot you can achieve in a short amount of time.
Today I want to reflect on my journey so far, both from my times in the corporate world and as an entrepreneur, hopefully providing you with guidance on attaining some early success in your careers.
Being young and able to grasp the knowledge you’ve gained in your business degrees, you’ve now got so many opportunities open in front of you. Industries everywhere are being disrupted, renewed through innovation, and whether you choose to work amongst existing companies or start your own, you have the ability to really make great change.
As a graduate, you bring a fresh perspective to the workforce, and this is one of the main reasons why companies want graduates on board. During my brief stint at Suncorp as a graduate software engineer, I noticed that the company was missing an opportunity to enter the mobile space. I spent some of my free time building mobile apps in banking and insurance to show that it can be done, backing my work with statistical evidence demonstrating an upward trend in public mobile use. In the end, I was pitching this with colleagues in front of the Group CEO and C-Level executives who gave this strategy their approval. As a fresh graduate, I did at times find it hard to voice my ideas with others but I pushed myself to do so anyway. Don’t be afraid to voice your ideas, people will listen.
Networking can be truly beneficial. By going to different events, meeting new people, I’ve made the connections that led me to find business partners, employees, mentors, investors and friends amongst the industry. You never know how those contacts will help you in a year or more. If you do find it hard to get yourself along to events and speak to others, tagging along another interested friend makes it easier.
In corporate, network outside your area too as opportunities do come where you wouldn’t normally expect. Doing this I got the chance to meet other senior staff in different areas such as marketing and HR, where I had the opportunity to kick-start new projects outside my department, including helping found a new brand.
Again, people outside our generation are interested in our different views, and in reverse you will gain from their experience and open up future opportunities working together.
Once I realized that I can do something I’m passionate about and directly receiving the up-side benefit of my hard work, I knew that the entrepreneurial path was for me.
Starting a business is quite hard. It will take a lot out of you but if you want to do it, you should at least give it a go as these are the best times yet to start as a young entrepreneur. As students and recent graduates, my partners and I experienced how expensive textbooks had become when you would normally only need those for a short while, so we wondered why not just rent them to others for only the time they need it. Basically, coming up with a business idea can be as straight forward as finding a better approach to an existing problem.
We saw this model was young but working well in the U.S., which reinforced our confidence that it has potential here too. We actually started renting mostly to business students at UTS, and I bet some of you graduating right now were among our very first customers.
Initially, I was not able to work on the business full time since my parents’ divorce had left me to become the sole financial provider of our household. Although I still had to keep my job, I’d try to spend as much of my free time as I could on the business. Thankfully, after about two year later we grew large enough that we were able to secure venture capital to bring everyone on board full time.
For those of us who stuck with the business over the years, from the highs to the lows, we’re now seeing our hard work flourish into a profitable and sustainable business that’s continually capturing market share.
Give back to the community too when you can. For us, although renting a book would help the environment by reducing the number of books printed, it still does contribute to the cutting down of trees so we thought appropriate to introduce a scheme where we’d plant a tree for every book we rented out. Later on, we wanted to share our personal learnings on how to start a business so we partnered with another start-up to provide a scholarship for student entrepreneurs.
University gets you into this rhythm of continually learning, a habit I believe you should still stick to, even if you’re entering the workforce.
Although I haven’t gone on to do post-graduate studies, I often spend time learning and keeping up to date both within and outside my field. In this highly competitive and fast paced world, staying up to date on trends and your area of expertise will keep you on the frontlines amongst your peers.
Try to find interests outside your field, and spend time on those. Maybe take up a hobby, you never know what could come out of it.
For myself, virtual reality is an area I’ve gained a passion for. I was able to apply it to digital education by creating virtual classrooms where students can do more practical learning, from performing chemical experiments to surgery simulations. If you’ve ever had the chance to try out one of these headsets, you’d see how surreal it feels as if you’re actually right there in a whole new world. The technology is becoming advance enough and affordable that I believe it may not be long now when people will be able to attend a classroom, travel anywhere, work, enjoy a sports match and much more with other people from the comfort of their homes.
Another emerging area I find really fascinating is neuroscience. Although more of a hobby, I’ve been doing some experimenting on allowing people to move around, interact using their hands, even recognize some words through thinking of their sound, by using devices that can read brainwave and muscle signals. While still early on, the developments being done in this field by experts can eventuate to remarkable possibilities, from treating brain diseases, helping people with paralysis regain movement to controlling devices with your mind.
These are just two of many emerging industries that will likely shape our future in ways we can’t even imagine now.
It’s good to gain a different perspective, you don’t need to limit yourself to just what you think you can do.
If there’s been something you want to do, you can start now. If you don’t know yet, be conscious to opportunities as many more will come.
As you embark on the next big journey of your lives remember, you only live once, so do what makes you happy.
Thank you and good luck to you all.