Written by Beth Miller.
From the time he was a child selling candy to neighborhood kids and writing a neighborhood newspaper, Jeff Nelson has been an entrepreneur. That longtime entrepreneurial spirit, combined with a degree from the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, prepared him for his current role as a founder and co-founder of several companies all aimed at solving problems.
Nelson, who earned a degree in applied science in 2010, now spends his time running Cinchapi, an Atlanta-based startup that helps companies and organizations use the data they create to best optimize their businesses. The company's name, a blend of the word cinch, meaning easy, and API, a set of tools used to build programs, is designed to show power in simplicity.
"Engineers tend to complicate things because we live in a very technical world, and we are so consumed with details that sometimes we don't come up to see the big picture," he said. "Because data is changing in real time, people can't understand it and use it quickly enough to have it make a difference in their businesses. We're solving that problem by giving people real-time insights on their data with the power to act on what matters."
Nelson said he thinks of himself as an optimizer.
"What that means to me is surveying my surroundings, my community, the organization or company of which I'm a part and really figuring out how I can make things more efficient, how I can make things more productive, and how I can understand problems and come up with solutions," he said.
“The hardest and most fascinating part of being a software engineer is trying to build a solution to a common problem and building an architecture that can scale and is secure.”
— Jeff Nelson
In addition to being founder and CEO of Cinchapi, Nelson is co-founder and CTO of Blavity, one of the fastest-growing media and tech startups aimed at African-American millennials with more than 10 million visitors a month. Founded with fellow WashU alumni Morgan DeBaun (Arts & Sciences, 2012); Jonathan Jackson (Arts & Sciences, 2013); and Aaron Samuels (Business, 2011), Blavity grew out of a term the group developed while they were WashU students to describe how black students gravitate toward each other.
"Being at WashU was the first time I was in an environment where everyone wasn't black," said Nelson, who was Student Union president his senior year and represented scholarship recipients in the $150 million university scholarship initiative. "What I learned was how different black people were. With Blavity, we wanted to celebrate the diversity within the black culture and create this platform where black people can gravitate toward it."
In the past year, Blavity has acquired two companies, launched a brand for women's empowerment called 21Ninety, and hosted two conferences: EmpowerHer for black women in technology and AfroTech for black entrepreneurs and technical professionals.
To get ahead in computer science, Nelson advises current students to contribute to open-source projects.
"The wonderful thing about computer science is that there are very few barriers to experience," he said. "If you are privileged enough to have access to technology, you can get experience and contribute to open-source projects. When you go for an internship or a job, you're going to be competing against people already doing those things, so make sure you're doing those things."