There's no businessman on Penn's campus quite like Alex Sands.
“He’s like a rare Pokémon,” says Jyothi Vallurupalli (W ’18).
“He’s definitely the hidden gem,” says Alex’s girlfriend Taylor Lewis (C ’17).
“You kind of think of him as this secret you guys are so lucky to have,” says Rob Warshaw (W ’18).
Alex Sands (W, E ’17) inspires a wistful devotion. As a senior in M&T studying computer science and management, Alex, or “Sands” to his friends, has created apps and organized hackathons across the country. He has racked up leadership positions for the Wharton Dean’s Advisory Board (WAB) and Penn’s Model UN Conference (UPMUNC). He's a teaching assistant for two M&T classes (MGMT 237 and MGMT 235) and teaches a class on coding on the weekends, all while finding the time to join a fraternity and a senior society, play intramural soccer and spend time with his girlfriend of two years. He has interned at Google, Comcast and Apple, and most recently turned down Apple’s return offer to work on his own startup.
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“I think it’s just like filling my time with when I’m not doing something.” Alex says.
Anecdotes about his meticulous habits abound—he always uses a coaster, always types up his math homework, always responds to every email within minutes. He is the first to fill out any Google Form. He obsessively manages his calendar. He never watches TV. His friends once got him cleaning supplies as a Secret Santa gift.
Alex’s problem–solving capabilities emerged from the time he was sixteen years old and was frustrated with filling out the driving logs needed to apply for his driver’s license. He created an app that would record his route based on his location, which he would then submit as an Excel spreadsheet, an accomplishment that he quickly deflects. “It was nothing legit. I wouldn't say it was very good back then,” he says. “It turned out very basic.”
His over–achieving continued when he and Ben Hsu (W, E ’17), also in M&T, started a 24–hour hackathon at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, a high school consistently ranked as one of the best in the country.
The event was so successful that it led them to found Pilot, an organization that hosts hackathons free to students at high schools around the country, offering crash courses in computer science for beginners.
He met fellow M&T senior Ajay Patel (W, E ’17) during New Student Orientation of freshman year when they formed a team for PennApps, Penn’s weekend–long hackathon, working on an app that would replace the clicker used for lectures. They didn’t win, but they entered the next semester along with Ben Hsu and another M&T senior Gagan Gupta (W, E ’17) and took third place with their project GoogolPlex, which integrates third–party apps into Siri so that users can order the voice–controlled navigator to pay a friend through Venmo, play music on Spotify, change the heat through Nest or unlock the car with Tesla.
The app garnered media attention from Time, Forbes and TechCrunch and had 25,000 users—but the success was short–lived due to an issue with their server. But they still get emails from hopeful users wondering how they can download the app.
After the GoogolPlex sensation Alex and the rest of his team were recruited to intern for the summer at Nest Labs, a company owned by Google that manufactures “smart” thermostats and smoke detectors.
His sophomore year he became co–chair of WAB, which coordinates with the administration on Wharton academic initiatives. Through his position he spearheaded an initiative to create classes offering instruction on specific skills that interest Wharton students. The classes are not for credit, and have tapped into the desire of hundreds of Wharton students who want to learn for the sake of learning. The first semester, Alex taught the only class—on coding—but the initiative expanded to include six classes on topics like data analytics and Photoshop, and now counts 250 students.
“It’s really, I think, taken Wharton by storm,” Rob said.
Alex joined UPMUNC freshman year and initially didn’t reapply to move up, only changing his mind after a member called him asking him to apply so he could run the website. He obliged, and ran at the end of the year as Director–General. That was the year he started dating Taylor, who ran the conference as Secretary–General.
His over–involvement earned him the mockery of his friends freshman year when they pranked him with a secret Facebook event called “Say No to Alex Sands Day” agreeing to say no to Alex any time he wanted to hang out that day.
Ajay continued to work on Plasticity, an artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) software which converts natural or “human” language like English into formats for a computer to easily understand. For example, programs like Siri can answer questions like “How fast can a cheetah run?” but Plasticity would help it to answer more useful questions like “When is Penn’s fall break?”
When he decided to work on it full–time after graduation, he asked Alex to join him.
Alex then had to make the decision between taking Ajay up on his offer or returning to Apple. He recalls the difficulty sending his former manager the email declining the offer, with no place to live and no source of income.
He says the greatest challenge he’s faced is “maintaining the mindset that you should really do what you want to do and not be drawn by what people around you...are trying to do.”
Now Alex is trying to convince his younger friends to do the same, giving them “that extra push” to pursue their passions after graduation over more traditional paths.
“They realize it very shortly after,” Alex says of friends he sees getting “sucked in” by the pressure to conform. “There’s this mindset that you do something for 2 years and then switch. It’s like why bother?”
Ultimately, the decision was consistent with what his friends say about him.
“If he doesn’t think what he’s doing makes sense or has meaning or if he doesn’t know why he’s doing it, then he won’t do it,” Jyothi says.
The project has already acquired funding from DormRoomFund—an investment fund run by students that invests in student–run businesses—and they are in the process of applying to other accelerators. If the project is successful, they will try to offer it as a paid service to companies like Siri, Google and Amazon Alexa. Taylor recalls on a recent trip to Israel that after Alex talked about the company for 20 minutes, friends were throwing around connections to venture capitalists.
His pace has not slowed, even as a second–semester senior.
He recently served as COO for Penn’s Ivy League Model UN Conference (ILMUNC) hosted for high school students in Delhi, India. For WAB he helped develop Huntsman Hacks, a business hackathon that replaces coding with case studies in an attempt to mitigate the “sophomore slump” seen in Wharton undergraduates who struggle to see how their core requirements fit together in real–world problems. The event was sponsored by Alibaba, the billion–dollar Chinese e–commerce company.
As someone who Taylor describes as a “silent and stealthy worker,” Alex does any work that’s put in front of him, often taking on extra side projects and always going above and beyond. He regularly gets 4 hours of sleep or less (he once joked that he actually felt sick after getting a full night’s sleep), never making excuses or turning in late work.
“Even simple PowerPoints end up being these beautiful works of art,” Taylor explains.
“He’s not a real human being,” Jyothi says. “It’s like he was built to be incredible.”
But Alex’s accomplishments fly under the radar, due mainly to his reluctance to discuss them. His achievements inspire loyalty rather than jealousy. “Sands is not a humble bragger. He’s just humble. And he has a lot to brag about,” Taylor says.
In the absence of any inclination to brag, or to speak ill of others, he has a flock of devoted friends who are all too eager to tout his virtues for him. They even created a website for his 21st birthday: welovealexsands.com, with contributions from 33 of his friends.
“I have a good ability to, when I am stressed, take time and put that aside and live more in the moment and be happy when there’s reason to be,” Alex says. “I think being positive and happy and joking around is a huge strength and something I think I appreciate in myself.”
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