During his time at Penn, Reggie James (W '17) has focused on pursuing his entrepreneurial dreams. The senior has a strapping sense of fashion and a knack for humor. You can find him on stage at Mask and Wig shows, but where he truly excels is in his work behind the scenes at Rough Draft Ventures, a team powered by General Catalyst to help student startups gain traction and funding.
Recently, Reggie has teamed up with Toni Oloko (W ’20) to build his own platform, Sushi.AF, which was the product of a project Reggie had been working on last summer while at Rough Draft Ventures.
Sushi.AF is an app designed to organize meetups for people with common interests who are residing in the same city. The vision for Sushi.AF is one of “an agnostic social layer that can sit above everything.” The platform is not intended for dating, but Reggie hopes that it will assist in the forging of strong relationships between people that might blossom into anything from a business to a marriage.
Reggie wants to use Sushi.AF to help people achieve new levels of intimacy while expanding their social circles. Sushi.AF functions by having users fill out a form about themselves and their hobbies and musings. The app then engineers a group chat with several people who see eye–to–eye on a topic. The platform then allows users the option of starting chats with individual members of the group. Reggie envisions these online connections transferring to real life meet–ups.
At the crux of the concept is what Reggie calls social layering. Reggie believes that Sushi.AF can use insights gleaned from research to build layers of human networks that will fill the gaping holes in existing forms of social media. He says the key lies with finding the hidden gems of interpersonal connection.
“For the past 30 years, we have taken our lives and put them on social platforms,” Reggie says. “But there are niche needs that aren’t being filled. If we can create an ephemeral group chat that focuses on strong commonalities between people, then maybe we can engineer serendipity.”
At Sushi.AF, Reggie handles strategy and product, focusing on internal structures, while Toni tends to focus on “external hustle”, namely growth and customer relations.
“The trouble with apps like Tinder and Bumble is that they don’t help people build any tangible commonality before they experience each other’s physical presence. People should understand what is bringing them together before they meet up,” Reggie says.
Reggie says apps like "One" have tried to bridge this gap between online platforms and physical social spaces by using micro–location. “But without an expansive network, micro–location just doesn’t work. People get bored, and then it’s done,” says Reggie.
With Sushi.AF, connections don’t have to be quite as geographically relevant to start up conversation. “With the proper rollout, we can hedge against bets of having to be within the same few blocks as someone. You really just have to be in the same city,” says Reggie.
“For example, if there are seven different people all interested in an Atlantic article, that is the perfect sushi group because it is a tailored topic. We want to focus on the content that moves your life,” Reggie says.
Reggie says the goal of Sushi.AF is to understand what users align with and to find digital imprints of their conversational needs so that strong matches can be made based on interests. “It is a little dystopian,” he admits. “The more data you give us on who you are, the more we can socially engineer your life.”
Although past generations might be more hesitant to share intimate information, Reggie has found through Sushi.AF’s testing phases that young people are willing to be quite vulnerable when they believe the connection they will get out of it will be authentic and genuine.
In Sushi.AF’s beta phase test, some of the group chats started including seven women who felt strongly about the sexual allegations scandal at Uber, three people who commented on the resurgence of Nazi propaganda following Trump’s election, and eight people who mentioned the recent IPO of Snapchat.
“Relationships are built on good conversations that reflect the ideas that make us who we are,” Reggie says. “The point of a social platform shouldn’t be to drive revenue by seeing how long users spend on the platform. It's to see how effectively we can help people gain what they need from it, and then move on to real life.”
This summer, Reggie and Toni will seek funding for Sushi.AF and continue developing the platform in Brooklyn. Reggie is vehemently opposed to being dragged into the Silicon Valley scene. “New York has the ability to understand the long–standing industries that are there, like finance and fashion, which is a major strength of the city. But the tech scene is largely lacking. I think New York is pining for a strong consumer tech brand to be founded there and really take off,” says Reggie.
Instead of falling into the Silicon Valley cookie-cutter pattern, Reggie and Toni are looking to break new ground in New York, bringing a strong tech presence to a finance driven metropolis, and roll social layers into irresistible sushi.