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Walla app hops into the spotlight, wins Duke Startup Challenge

<p>Senior&nbsp;Judy Zhu created the Walla app to help make a more inclusive social environment on campus.&nbsp;</p>

Senior Judy Zhu created the Walla app to help make a more inclusive social environment on campus. 

Looking for something fun to do? The social networking app Walla can help with that.

The Walla app won the $50,000 grand prize at the 17th Annual Duke Startup Challenge this year, beating out seven other teams. Conceived as a way to help Duke students get involved in spontaneous hangouts happening around campus, the app allows users to create events or requests for social interactions and see who in the community is willing to participate in the event. Founder and CEO Judy Zhu, a senior, created the app over the summer as part of her involvement in the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurship Program.

"Winning the startup challenge is huge for us in terms of getting more users because now we have credibility behind our name," Zhu said. "This money helps us get more users at Duke, and we’ll eventually expand to all the N.C. colleges by next year.”

Initially known as Genie, the project began as a generosity app which sought to bring together people who needed services with others who could provide those services. However, the objective was transformed after Zhu became a resident assistant and realized what her residents truly needed.

“The app changed because I saw that there was a greater need for human connections, and it was a need that spoke to me,” Zhu said.

Zhu noted that she hopes the app will help make campus more socially inclusive.

She said that she did not anticipate that Walla would win the top prize. Rather, the team believed that Walla stood a good chance at winning the audience participation award of $2,500 because it was a consumer product.

Walla launched to the Class of 2020 on move-in day and to remaining undergraduates Sept 21. It currently has 800 active users.

However, Walla's creation was not without challenges. Zhu noted that a week before its launch, the bulk of the original team left the company due to burnout from the summer, leaving her to build a second team from scratch.

“Judy has a lot of hustle. Whenever there’s a setback, she tackles the setback head-on," said Howie Rhee, managing director at both Duke's Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative and Fuqua’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and Zhu’s mentor in the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurship Program, part of the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. "It’s not surprising that she’s managed to overcome so many things that have been in her way."

Zhu expressed that she feels blessed to have her new team.

“I get really excited when we talk about the app together," Zhu said. "They’re just as invested in the company as I am.”

Zhu noted that she hopes to expand to all U.S. colleges in the coming years. Over the next year, the team will focus on refinement, user acquisition and data collection, after which Zhu plans to work on Walla full-time.

She said that she anticipates that Walla’s biggest challenge moving forward will be retaining a culture of inclusion on the app while scaling it up, noting that social media can create the freedom for people to be less pleasant than they would be in person. Because of this, she is dedicated to "strategizing how to get good people on the app to set the culture of inclusion" when expanding to other schools, she said.

Although Zhu said translating Walla’s likable concept to actual users has been difficult, student users tend to keep coming back once they start using it.

“Whenever I’m setting up meetings with my friends, it would be hard to use GroupMe or iMessage, especially with all those notifications," first-year Jose Rivera said. "Using Walla is just so much more convenient because you can just send one big blast, and if anyone wants to come, they just message. It’s much more convenient and very easy to use.”

Correction: Zhu later noted that the audience participation award was $2,500, not $5,000.