They are the digital dreamers, the Internet innovators, the social media savants. In Kansas City, with its robust culture of creativity, we have more than our share. So, for the new year, we found three local tech stars with bright futures.
While no one can be sure which ones may change our world, they all have that potential.
The app master
Riddhiman Das has met President Barack Obama at the White House, where he received an award. He won a Microsoft scholarship and met Bill Gates in Seattle. He created his own programming language when he was 13. And the first app he made sold 20,000 copies at $3.99 a pop.
Not bad for a 25-year-old.
Born in the eastern India town of Guwahati, Das is the son of two Cambridge-educated doctors. But since he was 5, he has had a different passion. Computers.
His first PC, a Windows Pentium II, ignited a blistering curiosity about what the magic machine could do. He used it day and night, took it apart and put it back together. And when chickenpox forced him to stay home for three weeks in the first grade, his mother bought him his first programming book.
“I started learning C++, and I’ve never looked back,” he said.
The Kansas City man, who has no trace of an accent, went to Catholic schools, where he studied in English and grew up idolizing Microsoft founder Gates. He continued reading computer books and taught himself to use Linux (an open-source operating system). His skills soon surpassed those of his teachers.
“In 2000, when I was a fifth-grader, I did my science fair project in Linux,” he said. “This was before my computer teacher had heard of Linux. He thought I made it up and gave me a zero.”
Das knew then that if he was going to have a future in computers, he would have to go to America.
“I wanted to work on challenging, innovative projects in a startup situation,” he said. “I’d read stories of people in their garages starting multimillion-dollar companies, and that is what I wanted to do.”
In 2008, at 17, he immigrated to Kansas City on a student visa. He enrolled at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where his uncle, Deep Medhi, was a part of the faculty that started the school’s department of computer science. He studied computer science, math, entrepreneurship and innovation.
Along the way he applied for internships, including one at Microsoft. And while he ultimately turned down the Microsoft internship in favor of one offered by Qualcomm in San Diego, the Microsoft brass did not forget him.
“So in my junior year I get this random email saying, ‘You’ve got a golden ticket to come see Microsoft. And we’re giving you a scholarship.’ ”
Cool. He hopped on a plane and flew to Seattle.
“It was amazing because I got to meet the people who worked on Windows and my favorite games,” he said.
And actually getting to meet his hero? A dream come true.
“He was very down-to-earth,” he said. “It was very inspiring that someone like him would come talk to these 50 sophomores in college and encourage them in a career in computer science.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in computer science, he started a consulting company called Galleon Labs in 2012 and even hired one of his professors. Among other things the company builds apps. To date, Das has created six of his own and many more for others. His first, a gambling app for the Chinese domino game pai gow, helped put him through college.
Then in the spring of 2013 the White House named him one of its Champions of Change and invited him and 11 other honorees to meet the president.
“I was by far the youngest guy,” he said. “Everyone else had taken companies public or sold the company for multimillion dollars. I had severe impostor syndrome. … I went up to the security guard and said I’m here for the Champions of Change program, and he didn’t believe me. He thought I was one of the sons. But I showed him the email and said I’m for real.”
He is still doing consulting work. But now he’s also back in school, pursuing advanced degrees in computer science at UMKC.
And you can be sure he has a bunch of creative ideas bubbling around in his brain.
“Oh absolutely,” he said. “All the time.”
Hiring made easy
Erika Klotz is going to be successful. You can hear it in her voice, see it in her eyes.
And while she still knows how to have fun, the 25-year-old Kansas City native isn’t wasting time. After graduating from St. Louis University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, she moved back to Kansas City and started an online magazine and “digital media brand” for “hippie chicks” called We Are Fine Line.
“You know, like walking a fine line?” she said.
What does a college student know about starting a magazine?
Nothing. But that never stopped her. She got online and taught herself the basics of publishing.
She was just getting started. She used what she learned to start a second business. Klotz, who lives on the Country Club Plaza, is now the co-founder and CEO of Pop Bookings, a Web application that makes it easier for big companies and staffing agencies to hire temporary workers for large events such as concerts, sporting events and trade shows.
Before, staffing agencies had to post help-wanted ads, sift through hundreds of emails and bounce back and forth among different programs (such as Excel) to hire temporary staff.
“We have taken all of those processes and streamlined them on one easy platform,” Klotz said. “It caters to exactly what they do.”
Now, every time an agency pays talent found through Pop Bookings, the company earns a 3 percent fee.
Klotz is beta testing the business with 10 staffing agencies, including Focus Talent & Promotions in New Jersey, which works with Verizon and PNC Bank. She offers services at a discounted rate in return for feedback.
The company plans a full launch in January.
It has been a tough road. Klotz studied hard in college, where she caught the entrepreneurship bug. She worked long days and even spent a few nights in her office. To date she has raised a quarter million dollars from investors and government programs. And just this year she won a $50,000 grant from LaunchKC, a business accelerator program from the Downtown Council and Economic Development Corp. of Kansas City to stimulate startups downtown.
Pop Bookings co-founder Scott Hanson describes Klotz as a born leader.
“She said, ‘Will you meet me at Starbucks? I want to throw an idea at you.’ She ended up pitching the whole company, and it was mind-blowing. I had never met somebody who was that well put together at that young of an age. I just knew she was going to make some serious moves in her life.”
Social media queen
Not everyone involved in the tech world in Kansas City grew up knowing that’s what they would be doing with their life.
Take Danuta Janiszewski (Yan-ee-SHEF-ski), an associate content strategist for Barkley advertising.
Growing up in Massachusetts as the daughter of Polish immigrants, she wanted to be a writer or a professor. After college she went through an accelerated program and became a middle school math teacher in Kansas City.
But that wasn’t her passion.
Today Janiszewski, 26, is a wizard of Wi-Fi, a sultan with a smartphone. She’s so adept at using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope and more in her job that the Kansas City Social Media Club voted her rookie of the year.
That’s an unlikely honor, especially for someone who didn’t get her first smartphone — a Samsung Galaxy — until 2010. (The iPhone became the first smartphone three years earlier.)
But while she wasn’t an early adopter, she was a passionate one. The technology was intoxicating and transformative. She experimented, pushed her limits, made mistakes and learned. Soon, she wielded the phone like a wand.
“Smartphones have changed how we think, how we work, how we communicate with people, how we define culture, how we shop, how we research, also how we express ourselves,” she said.
They even changed what she wanted to do with her life. With no advertising experience, she cold emailed Barkley’s director, seeking a job.
And got one.
Jimmy Keown, a senior strategist at Barkley, said Janiszewski is so fluent in social media, she teaches it to her superiors.
“It’s about having that curiosity,” Keown said. “She’s always asking why, digging deeper … and it’s her understanding of the technology and her curiosity to always test and learn that helps fuel that education.”
Today she is discovering new ways for clients to not just sell products to their customers but to connect with them.
“What we do is not static,” she said. “There’s no such thing as written rules. As soon as somebody tells you there’s a rule, you should aim to break it. Especially in this industry. Open source data and open source API (the format that a lot of apps are built from) is an ever-changing field where people are constantly innovating and constantly tailoring their solutions for user needs and the way users are interacting with digital.”
In the future she wants to use technology to help people achieve their dreams.
“My biggest mission in life is to try to create doorways for everyone at the table and in the community to connect with people no matter where they are in their lives or on the socioeconomic spectrum, and to try to create opportunity for all,” she said. “There are so many creative, amazing thinkers out there who never get the opportunity to shine because they are never given the opportunities or resources to help them make it.”