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UM Graduates to Compete at SEC Symposium

Alexander Ray (center) of Zyn Careers claims first place at Innovate Mississippi competition. Courtesy of Ole Miss Communications
Alexander Ray (center) of Zyn Careers claims first place at Innovate Mississippi competition. Courtesy of Ole Miss Communications

Two 2015 University of Mississippi graduates will introduce their business venture, a Web-based services that helps connect job-seekers with employers that match their personality profile, Sept. 20-22 at a pitch competition during this year’s SEC Symposium in Atlanta.

Jackson native Alex Ray, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, and Madison native Caleb Robinson, who earned his bachelor’s in computer science, will present their business plan for ZynCareers.com. The entrepreneurs, both 22, will make their presentation before 14 judges, all alumni of SEC schools.

“Their idea is a cross between eHarmony and Monster.com,” said Richard Gentry, assistant professor of management and director of the UM Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “There is a clear definition of a problem when hiring potential employees. Through research and management of this idea, it can help connect people with a style to an organization similar to their own personality.”

Ray began working on the idea last December after he grew frustrated in his own job search. He approached Robinson because of his background in computer science.

“When I started looking for a job, I was frustrated that I couldn’t find an exciting enough place to work,” Ray said. “I went to Caleb with the idea, and then in February we started researching traits that made people happy in their jobs.”

“Alex approached me at the entrance of the Turner Center talking about an exciting idea that he had,” Robinson said. “Usually I would be pretty cautious if someone approached me with a tech-based idea, but I know Alex is the kind of person to follow through on something that he starts, so I was really excited to start on it.”

Ray and Robinson spent countless hours researching factors that affect cultural fit between a prospective employee and employer, such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment and tenure. They also worked closely with a professor in organizational psychology to develop their algorithm.

“We have put in a lot of work over several iterations of the algorithm,” Robinson said. “I was familiar with algorithms before this venture because of my computer science background. The difference about this project was that the problem – matching people to jobs – is very broad compared to some of the problems that we might solve in class.”

The algorithm examines up to 60 factors to produce “Zyn” scores associated with levels of happiness at a job, Ray said. Zyn scores range from 1 to 100, with 100 being rated extremely happy.

So far, ZynCareers.com has amassed 150 corporate profiles to match with prospective users, with businesses such as Facebook, FNC Inc., Coca-Cola and C Spire.

Ray and Robinson started to introduce their idea last spring in competitions and to students at UM. In April, they entered the university’s Gillespie Business Plan and finished in the top three. Faculty members encouraged Ray to enter the business into the Rebel Venture Capital Fund, and he received $4,000 to help get the business running.

In a trial run, 100 Ole Miss students signed up for initial assessment and gave the site reviews, Ray said. In May, Ray and Robinson received a boost when ZynCareers.com placed first in the Innovate Mississippi New Venture Challenge.

“It’s been really exciting, and something that I’ve dreamt about since the creation of the idea,” Ray said. “At the beginning, I just focused on how I could use this to find a job. Once I talked to others and noticed this was a widespread problem, I realized that this could be a business.”

The summer got even hotter for Ray and Robinson. They did a major site redesign while getting prepared for their biggest competition, the SEC Symposium.

“To categorize, the SEC Symposium is like ‘Shark Tank’ without formal investments,” said Clay Dibrell, associate professor of management and executive director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “If you win the competition, you win a cash prize for your start-up.”

Dibrell and Gentry have worked with Ray and Robinson to help structure the business plan. Both faculty members agree that the site has many practical applications in the business world, and Ray and Robinson have been doing well with initial pitches to investors.

“It’s very rare to find people who are willing to invest in a company,” Dibrell said. “Pitching to other venture capitalists by taking meetings and making presentations are positive indicators of future success.”

“The site can make a big impact,” Gentry said. “It’s a huge problem that has not been well-solved. It could reduce selection costs significantly for big data businesses.”

Recently, Robinson encountered a student from Georgia Tech who was having difficulty finding a job. That instance just added more fuel to the Zyn Careers engine.

“(The student) said he only wanted to be accepted by a single company so he didn’t have to choose between companies because he had no idea where he would be happiest and didn’t want to make the wrong decision,” Robinson said. “He was extremely surprised when I told him that I had been working on that exact problem for the past several months.”

The SEC Symposium will pit Ray and Robinson against teams from other SEC schools. The competition promises to be their hardest yet, but it also could produce the biggest reward.

“I’m excited to see the ideas other groups will bring to the symposium,” Ray said. “But I believe Zyn Careers can make the world a happier place, so that motivates me to work harder and keep tweaking the website.”

Courtesy of Nathan Weber and the Ole Miss News Desk

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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