In his four short years at Penn, Nabeel Farooqui (E '21) has done it all. His claims to campus fame include founding and selling the startup Halo, serving as both projects chair at Hack4Impact and head of operations at PennApps, and calling himself a proud member of APALI, the Muslim Students Association (MSA), and Penn Electric Racing while completing a computer science major.
And through it all, he drank almost a carton of chocolate milk every day.
“I always have a carton, and I drink it with every meal ... The label says it’s kind of healthy, apart from the sugar. There’s calcium. There’s protein. If I ever want to bulk at some point in the future, I could easily bulk with chocolate milk," Nabeel says.
Born to two parents from Pakistan, Nabeel grew up in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. He attended a small Islamic school in New Jersey with only 29 people in his graduating class. “I always tell people that if you sneeze, the whole school finds out. It’s a very tight–knit community, but also a bubble. I went there from K–12, so coming to Penn was a very different experience for me,” Nabeel says.
The adjustment during his first year was difficult, but Nabeel found comfort through clubs and the short distance from home. He quickly became close with the MSA community and joined Penn Electric Racing. "The Muslim Students Association has been integral to my social experience at Penn. It has helped me to keep in touch with my childhood, my roots, and my background. I'm so glad that Penn has communities like that," Nabeel says.
He also remained in touch with his roots by maintaining a strong connection with his family. Throughout his time at Penn, Nabeel took frequent trips home to eat home–cooked meals, watch sports with his dad, and spend time with his family. Family is something that Nabeel prioritizes and remains very important to him.
“My dad immigrated from Pakistan, but he fully assimilated to the American sports culture. I’m a huge Philly sports nut. He raised me as a die–hard Eagles fan, Sixers fan, Flyers, Phillies—any Philly team, you name it,” Nabeel says.
Reflecting upon his time at Penn, Nabeel describes how Hack4Impact—an organization he joined his junior year that builds software for nonprofits—played a large role in shaping him both personally and professionally. Being a part of the club confirmed his passion for building tech while also helping others and creating a social impact. It’s helped Nabeel realize who he is, and who he wants to be.
Through Hack4Impact, Nabeel served as project manager for a city transparency project that's now live on the Philadelphia website. “Not to flex or anything,” Nabeel laughs.
He also became involved with PennApps, the world's largest college hackathon, his sophomore year. As head of operations, Nabeel accumulated sponsorship money, brought in recruiters, and assisted with internal operations.
His passion for creating social impact through tech was born his sophomore year when he founded Halo. Nabeel always wanted to be an entrepreneur; Penn’s budding entrepreneurship scene was a big draw to him upon applying. He spent his first year brainstorming ideas for startups with his friends, some of which, he admits, were terrible.
“One of our early ideas was to make a Pokeball sort of contraption where you could put an orange inside, twist the orange, and it peels the orange. We wanted to do a kickstarter for it and got really hyped about it. But then we realized that it wasn’t an idea that would actually work,” Nabeel says.
Their second idea, after the orange–peeling Pokeball, was Halo.
In October 2018, Nabeel and his friends were walking around West Philly after class and noticed many torn up billboards: “People actually have to look at them, and this is how companies pay to advertise. What’s going on? Facebook advertises so well that they know you’re pregnant before you do, which is creepy. But we realized, there’s definitely a gap here. [Analog] advertising needed a facelift.”
Nabeel and his friends noticed a parallel problem: Drivers at rideshare companies were protesting about their wages. These drivers are members of the gig economy, a relatively informal network of contractors that lacks a lot of the protections salaried employees do. Consequently, many of them barely make a livable wage.
They discovered a way to bridge the gap between these two problems. Nabeel and his friends created a taxi–top digital advertising unit to put on top of rideshare vehicles. Revenue is then split with the driver to help them earn a more livable wage—and outdoor advertising is modernized.
“It was really, really tough to balance. Balancing a startup with homework, sleep, social life, classes—it was a lot going on at the same time. As I mentioned, I go home often, so I was also making time for my family. I felt like I was being stretched in a lot of different directions, but it was also the time when I grew the most and learned the most about myself,” Nabeel says.
He can’t resist smiling as he recounts this time in his Penn career. Nabeel and his friends received calls at all hours of the day from drivers in Center City or Fishtown, explaining that the monitor wasn’t working properly. “They would ask for a technician or a mechanic to come and fix it, but we didn’t have any technicians or mechanics that we could call to send over. We were the technicians. So we’d be driving around Philly in the middle of the day. We were kind of on call 24/7, putting out fires around the city. It was a ton of fun. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
It didn’t last long, though. About a year after they started, Lyft acquired Halo in November of 2019.
Though their adventure was over, founding Halo helped Nabeel discover what was most important to him and what drives him. “What excited me the most was that drivers were so excited about it. [I’m excited by] anything where I feel a direct impact on people’s lives, anything where I feel that by doing it, it will make someone’s life easier or better, or [empowering] someone to unlock an opportunity.”
Nabeel explains that most people who work in tech are very removed from their impact. It's difficult in an industry marked by projects with massive audiences and lots of bureaucracy to observe your affect on people’s lives. He hopes that one day in his career, he will be able to work at a company or on a product that has a more direct impact.
Currently, Nabeel is still weighing his job opportunities for next year, and he is deciding between several startups in New York. “I’m taking some time assessing which companies are the best fit for me and which I can learn the most from. I really want to learn at a place that’s growing really quickly, scaling from 1 to 100, to get that skill set, so that one day in the future, I can start my own company and have a wide range of learning,” Nabeel says.
“What excites me is the prospect of completely changing an industry that I think is broken—things like health care, education, financial markets. They’re very broken in terms of access and equality. If I could, at some point in my career, create something or work on something that changes those industries, or improves people's lives, I would feel very fulfilled and motivated by that."