From senior year to startup launch, without missing a beat

December 7, 2020

Graduation is still a few weeks away, but Fall 2020 graduate Samantha O’Brien is already starting her career as a tech entrepreneur.

A graphic featuring a headshot of student Samantha O'Brien

Samantha O’Brien says her friends often tease her about being the person who always has a new side hustle. She was the kid with the lemonade stand. The kid who inventoried her stuffed animals and tried to sell off the less-loved to the neighborhood kids. More recently, she had a successful home bakery and cake decorating business, marketing her sweets and services through Facebook. When she decided she needed a new hobby, she bought a vinyl cutter and started a custom printing business. It’s always something.

It doesn't shock her friends and family all that much then that O’Brien’s first job post-graduation is something entrepreneurial. Technically, she’s not even waiting for the diploma. Her new company, of which she’s co-founder and chief technical officer, is actually something that grew out of her computer science capstone senior design project. With some help from Professor Bruce Maxim, she and her classmate Joshua Shewmaker initially connected with two tech entrepreneurs based in Texas to work on developing a debt management app. But one idea led to another and now the four of them are just a month or so away from full launch of an app-based system designed to protect homeowners from contractor fraud. It’s actually a huge, often silent, problem in the construction and renovation industry right now, and there aren’t any straightforward solutions. O’Brien says theirs aims to be preventative: Using their app Divvy, homeowners can put money for home renovations and repairs into a secure escrow account, which is then used to pay contractors after satisfactory completion of a job. This way, contractors can see that folks have adequate funds to pay for work, which protects them. And homeowners are protected against contractors pocketing money for a job half done.

O’Brien says her interest in programming started in high school, when she took a chance on a coding class with a favorite teacher as a senior-year elective. But it wasn’t always a lock that she’d pursue computer science as a career. It took a few years to navigate the diverse discipline and find a kind of programming that clicked. In fact, computer science isn’t her only major. French is her other big passion, one that took her overseas for a study abroad experience  junior year, where she stayed at a language school in southern France and got to do cool things like attend the Cannes Film Festival. “Part of it is I just love the sound of the language. But I think it also goes back to me being a DIY person,” O’Brien explains. “It just made sense to me that if I wanted to travel, knowing the language meant I could be free to do things that you wouldn’t be able to do if you needed someone to translate for you all the time.”

O’Brien says there will definitely be more travel in her future. First on her list is a return to France, this time to explore the northern part of the country. But that trip may have to wait a bit. Launching Divvy is keeping her plenty busy for the foreseeable future, so much so that she often forgets she’s technically still a student for a few more weeks.

“There definitely are moments where I have to say to myself, ‘Sam — you have to study! You haven’t officially graduated yet!' But I guess it’s also kind of exciting to think that even before I have my degree, I get to use what I've learned. I mean, we’re starting a company. I have a title. Maybe that doesn’t mean much yet. But I guess that officially makes me co-founder of a tech start-up. And really soon, it won’t be just a side project.”