Inside Z Fellows with Ali Debow

An interview with Ali Debow regarding her experience as a Z Fellow.
February 24, 2024
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Background

Ali Debow is the Founder & CEO of swsh. Ali participated in the Z Fellows program in March 2023. I talked with Ali about what they’re looking for during the application process, what happens during the program, and the most valuable parts of the offering.

Highlights

  • While the one-week program to fast-track into Silicon Valley is valuable, most of the value is derived from the community afterward. Fellows are active and engaged in Slack and attend events. Ali mentioned several of her closest friends have come from the program.

  • Z Fellows looks for people who are ambitious, talented, driven, and kind. It’s an excellent opportunity for students or young founders who are builders and working on something they are passionate about on nights and weekends. They care less about the specific iteration of your project and more about who you are.

  • Z Fellows is positioned to support founders at the very beginning, even if they have just an idea or initial mockup.

Interview Transcription

Edited lightly for clarity

Kieran: Thanks, Ali, for joining me today. To kick us off, do you want to introduce yourself?

Ali: Thank you for having me. I’m Ali, the Founder & CEO of swsh. swsh is a social app that helps you deepen the connections of people you meet in person. We’re based in New York. We’re a strong team, super excited, and I look forward to speaking with you.

Kieran: Awesome, I reached out because you participated in the Z Fellows in March 2023. Is that correct?

Ali: Yes, Z Fellows is awesome. We did it earlier this year. We knew Cory for a little bit and were able to do the one-week program in March.

Kieran: How did you originally hear about the program and meet Cory?

Ali: Yeah, it was so funny. I was thinking about this the other day, and there were four points of interest slash entrance to how I learned about Z Fellows and Cory. The first engagement was last summer. I was living in SF, and I was on LinkedIn. This is so lame, but I found Cory through mutuals, and I DM’d him. I was like, hey, I think what you’re doing with Z Fellows is super cool. I have a friend who dropped out of school to work on a company. I had never heard of anyone dropping out of school to work on a company. That was the most foreign thing in the world to me. But I knew a friend who was doing it and told Cory that he should talk to him. Even though I didn’t know him, he responded and was like, yeah, you should recommend him. Then, I met some other people that summer who knew him. Then, I moved to New York, and he was living in New York, too. I went to a friend’s startup office party and ran into him there. Then, I had another mutual friend introduce us when we started to build swsh. I put my application in officially when we began building swsh in January, and we wanted to raise some money and leave school. He’s been a really wonderful supporter since then.

Kieran: Can you give an overview of the application process?

Ali: Two people run the Z Fellows right now. It’s Cory and Baylor. I think they ask some basic questions like what are you working on, what’s exciting, and they have some funny questions too. Maybe they’ve changed the application a little bit, but at least when I did it, they had a question about what’s something about you that’s weird or something along those lines. I’m obsessed with cities, urban design, and that sort of stuff. So, I had this insane spreadsheet of ranking every city I’ve lived in or want to live in over 10-20 cities across 40 criteria. I have such a specific reason for each thing. So, there are hundreds and hundreds of cells worth of ratings. I think it’s a little neurotic thing on my end, but after the first submission, you do an interview. The interview is super short. It’s 10 minutes and straight to the point. They want to know who you are, what you are building, and it’s just a vibe check. What is really awesome about Z Fellows is they get to work with people from an early stage. Any founder or entrepreneur knows that you change a lot over that time. So, it’s cool to be able to work on something from the beginning and then be able to invest in the person rather than the product at a particular time. I think we really benefited from that because we’ve been able to pivot, change, and evolve since then.

Kieran: What are they looking for during the application and interview calls?

Ali: I feel they’re looking for people who are super passionate, smart, and building without needing external validation to get started. People who are working nights and weekends on something that they really care about. I would say another aspect other than being smart, talented, and driven is kindness. There are a lot of awesome programs out there. There are a lot of awesome, talented people in New York. I think what’s so distinguishable about the Z Fellows community as compared to really anything else is it’s a group of really kind people. I speak from my experience; some of my closest friends are from Z Fellows. It’s a community where people are helping out both professionally and on the personal side. I think that comes with bringing together this aggregation of awesome, talented, driven, ambitious people who are also kind and have a good heart. 

Kieran: What stage are most of the founders when they join the program?

Ali: People are at a really early stage. Most people haven’t raised any money yet. They may have a prompt and can build quickly. Maybe they have a co-founder, maybe not, but it’s definitely early stages. It’s really awesome for passionate students who are working on a side project or something. 

Kieran: Z Fellows is a short, intensive program. It’s one week long. What happens during that week?

Ali: I don’t even think about the one week so much. Maybe because there was a big world event that happened that week, the SVB situation occurred that week. So, that’s more pivotal to me than the program or the week itself. During the week, we got to be with 10-20 other founders. We got to speak to many extraordinary founders who have started billion-dollar companies. Moreso than that is the community that comes afterward. There are over 500 Z Fellows, and we’re all on the same Slack. There are a bunch of events that Cory and Baylor put together. They’re very active and personable, too. It’s not just a text blast. It’s more of a hey, I want you to come to this, this is going on, or this is someone you should speak with. It’s very specific intros. So, I’d say the value of the one week is there for sure, but I think any program can do that. The one-week, off-site retreat thing is not super special. I think what’s so special about Z Fellows is the retention. To our point, similar to our values at swsh, we want to help people see each other again somewhere, somehow, which is something that Z Fellows does.

Kieran: How are people using the community? Are people getting introductions to investors, customers, etc.?

Ali: All of the above, there are different Slack channels. It could be stuff around hiring, office listings, or software to use. Anything you can imagine from A to Z when running a company. You can put a question out there and get an answer that’s curated and personal.

Kieran: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that is important to know if you’re considering Z Fellows?

Ali: Reach out to people who have done Z Fellows. A lot of them can speak to their experience and be helpful there. The network and introduction network from there is second to none for young, ambitious founders in New York, SF, and around the world, where there are tech hubs.

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