When Afraj Gill emigrated from India in 2000, he never thought he’d write for The Globe and Mail while in university.
Gill, Comm ’15, is a budding entrepreneur that has cultivated experience in the fields of technology, politics and writing.
The 22-year-old is scheduled to speak about education at the TEDxQueensU Conference on March 29. TEDxQueensU is an AMS club that hosts speakers who share their knowledge of different subjects with conference delegates.
Gill has experience in spades. He received his pilot’s license at the age of 17, and used to work as a campaigner for former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and for two Members of the Canadian Parliament — Ujjal Dosanjh and Sukh Dhaliwal.
He’s since gone on to focus his attention towards his true loves — technology and education. Gill has worked for Google and co-founded two technology companies: GammaSocial Inc., an online advertising network, and Annofy, the world’s first image-annotation social network.
He also wrote about education and entrepreneurship for The Globe and Mail and Business Insider in 2013.
Gill spoke with the Journal earlier this week to share his experiences and advice for prospective entrepreneurs.
What was your first start-up company?
My first start-up was when I was 17 years old and just finished high school. The company was called GammaSocial, a virtual currency monetization platform. It was an online advertising company and we helped game publishers monetize their virtual currency.
What that means is instead of using your credit card to purchase virtual goods, you would complete targeted advertising offers that would be provided by our advertising partners in exchange for virtual goods. Instead of you paying a dollar to get 10 virtual coins, you watch a commercial and get those coins.
What’s your biggest accomplishment?
When I came to Canada, I couldn’t speak English as an eight-year-old kid, and up until the age of 16, 17 even, I had a very strong accent and I was horrible at English. Reading, writing and speaking were horrendous.
As a result, I used to get bullied and called names, and so for me, the biggest accomplishment was pulling from somebody who could only speak the fundamental English, who could barely read and write in English, all the way to somebody who can communicate properly. And to somebody who writes for a national publication, which is something that I couldn’t have even dreamt of in grade 12.
It was overcoming the social barriers when immigrating to Canada — that’s probably my biggest accomplishment.
My biggest accomplishment in technology is accepting failure and moving on. My second company didn’t work out and instead of starting another company for the sake of starting something, I decided to go work at Google and get some experience.
You’ve written for The Globe and Mail and Business Insider. How did you start doing this?
I was an opinion writer. I started blogging and education was a topic that was close to my heart.
Because of all of this writing, I decided to reach out to an editor at The Globe and Mail and said that I have these thoughts that I want to share about education and my own story. I graduated with this high percentage in high school, but I don’t look back at that experience with pride anymore, so I wanted to write about it.
They basically gave me one shot to write an article and it took off, and a few months later they reached out and wanted me to keep writing. I’ve been on a writing break right now for a while because I’m focusing on my entrepreneurial pursuits.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned through your experience?
The most important lesson has been that suffering and curiosity are probably the most important prerequisites to exceeding a self-aware mindset, and the reason is because suffering builds character and curiosity builds a very necessary foundation off of which you can gain a ton of knowledge.
That’s probably the most important lesson. The reason that’s important is because if you don’t suffer, it’s like living an easy life, and suffering is subjective to everyone, but suffering helps people build character.
When I see someone suffering with something or struggling to some extent, I think I always try to remind them that you’re suffering, but it’s something that’s going to change you as a person if you choose to make the best of the experience.
Why did you decide to speak at the 2015 TedX conference? What will your talk be about?
There are a lot of debates happening in education, happening from general student health to standardized testing and tuition. The spectrum is extremely wide when it comes to the debates about education.
What I think is missing in education to some end is a high-level view about what would really transform education. My talk is primarily going to focus on trying to answer, “how do we make education more accessible, how can we level the playing field in education?”
A lot of people say that the technology world will devour the existing education system, but that’s hard to believe. The core structure of education, having a professor teach a group of students, has been around for hundreds of years and it hasn’t changed. The foundation is still there, and it hasn’t changed not because we’re lacking technologically, but there’s something about that model that’s extremely powerful.
So the question is not how can we replace that model with technology, but how can we offer that model of education through technology and make education way more different than it is? In other words, make education accessible.
What are you planning on doing after you graduate from Queen’s?
My goal has always been to work on a start-up — that’s what I’m passionate about. But that’s not my mission; my mission is to create an impact.
Right now, I’m working with two Queen’s Commerce grads, filtering through a bunch of ideas to see what sticks and we’re hoping to start a start-up and that’s my plan. If I want to, I can go to a big company and work there and I have in the past, but I think I want to reserve my early 20s for taking a lot of risks.
A lot of people say to go get experience, but the best type of experience you can get is through taking a lot of risks by trying to start your own thing. I think that’s really underrated, so I’ll be doing that for a few years after school instead of following the conventional recruiting path and getting a conventional job.
What advice would you give to students who want to be an entrepreneur?
The most important advice that I would have is to seek the truth. That means be extremely self aware, understand yourself as a person, and what that requires is for you to take a step back away from all of the noise and really ask yourself who it is that you really are. It’s very easy to say seek the truth, but it’s very difficult to execute it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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