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Student Stories

Senior Spotlight: Ben Stanfield

Tell me a little bit about your journey to the Academy? What were you looking for in an undergraduate program? 

Shortly before I was born my parents started their own small business together. My dad was an engineer and my mom was a businesswoman. I grew up around business, but it didn't resonate with me. It wasn't until early high school that I discovered how business could be mixed with creativity and design, and that's when I realized I wanted some mix of design, business and engineering to be my career. Even with this realization, I struggled to find schools that satisfied even two of these three desires. The Academy came onto my radar pretty late, but I fell in love with it right away. Putting together the "acceptance puzzle,” a laser-cut jigsaw acceptance message from Jimmy and Dre, and realizing I made it into this wacky and wonderful program is a memory I will cherish for a long time.


Describe a passion project you’re currently working on or interested in?

Right now I'm working on a project to deliver plant-based fast food alternatives that are healthy, affordable, and nearly carbon-neutral. It's radically different than anything I've worked on before. This is my first time venturing outside of software and it’s an absolute thrill to build with my two co-founders, Landon Brand and Mimi Tran Zambetti. Right now, we're testing on beta customers at USC, personally delivering orders on my bike, and constantly going back to the drawing board with new feedback. The project is called Picnic.



What inspired the project? 

I've been collaborating with my two co-founders for over nine months now, but Picnic was not the product we started with.

For the first eight months, we dove deep into a market we knew nothing about -- human resources. The product we built was called Skipper, and it helped HR teams aggregate and analyze different sources of data, which updated anytime a new employee was hired or a salary changed. We learned a lot about how to build software and familiarize ourselves with an unfamiliar market and its problems. We interviewed hundreds of HR professionals; helped aggregate and analyze workforce data; and raised traditional venture capital. Skipper was the single greatest period of personal growth in my life.

During this time, we realized we weren't growing as fast as we needed to, so we pivoted. I want to say it was hard to give up something we had spent the better part of a year building, but we were more excited about building something people wanted. So, we took this opportunity to step back and talk through what really got us excited and riled up.

We kept coming back to the same thorny problem that we all care about deeply: climate change. There's a huge food culture in Los Angeles and the three of us are certainly part of it. Even working over the summer together in Berkeley, we had so many delightful culinary experiences and often talked about the future of food. We combined our love of food and passion about climate change and channeled it into our new product direction with Picnic. We’re making plant-based fast food alternatives that are healthy, affordable, and near carbon-neutral. New trends like Cloud Kitchens and direct-to-consumer brands really get us excited, and could help Picnic scale like a software startup. I couldn't be more excited to be continuing with Picnic after graduation in Mountain View!

Is there a leader or mentor who inspires you? 

A particular thought leader that comes to mind is the Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari. Harari is best known for his novel “Sapiens,” but I have been most impacted by his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” In “21 Lessons,” Harari tackles philosophical topics like how "computers and robots change the meaning of being human," and the "relevancy of nation and religion" in the 21st century. Authors like Harari have challenged me to think outside of my own bubble and to think more critically about my bias and ignorance. I highly recommend checking it out.


What advice would you give to a freshman? 

Apply to everything once. Use your first semester to really push yourself and get out of your comfort zone. I wish I had tried this more myself! Once you've found the things you really care about and enjoy, don't be afraid to dig deep and invest in that community. Applying to Spark SC (a student entrepreneurship club) my first semester is something I'm really glad I did, but the smartest decision I made in college was to push myself and become really active in that community. Spark is the reason I met and got to know my co-founders and where I got my first true leadership experience.

Also, TAKE NOTES -- not just in class, but throughout your college experience and life. I've kept a journal for the past few months now and it's changed my life. I reflect much more deeply on what I'm doing and why, and I wish I could look back on all four years in such detail.

Describe one thing most people don’t know about you? 

I'm really big on astronomy! I started a design firm called Standard Candle a few years ago with my friend Jenny Zhang. Standard Candle is also the name for an object whose distance can be computed by observing its luminosity. Often, the intense light emitted after a supernova explodes is used as a "standard candle." These candles helped determine the age of the universe!


What's the one thing your parents taught you that you’d like to share?

This isn't something that my parents explicitly told me, so when they read this, it will be news to them as well. Whenever my parents do something they put their entire weight behind it and pursue it wholeheartedly. This kind of passion and commitment, to even the smallest hobbies, inspired me to pursue design and engineering as a career path; to obsess over brewing the perfect cup of coffee; and to devote myself entirely to launching my company with Landon and Mimi.


What are the essential things you always keep in your backpack? 

I always have this tiny, foldable chess set with me. It's great for lazy afternoons when you'd rather just sit, talk and play with someone than work.


Favorite app or website? 

I'm a sucker for good data visualization and my go-to site for numbers is fivethirtyeight.com. Fivethirtyeight is a site that focuses on politics, economics and sports and always has a strong emphasis on data. I've visited that site so many times for design inspiration. Also, Nate Silver is someone I look up to a lot in the data journalism space.

Favorite class at USC and why?

If any of my close SC friends read this post, they are going to roll their eyes because I talk about this class constantly — "Ottomans and Empire.” This was the last general education class I took at USC because I wanted to challenge myself on a subject I knew so little about. I could barely point out where the Ottoman empire was (it was all over the Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe), let alone tell you anything about it. I learned so much about culture, religion, and empire throughout this class and recommend this GE if you aren't afraid to put in a little extra work. The class discussions are worth it!


Favorite way to de-stress? 

Since sophomore year I've had one of those tiny kid basketball hoops on my bedroom door — like tiny hoop with a plush basketball. It's kind of embarrassing. Whenever I need a break or just need time to think, I'll get up from my desk and shoot baskets.


Guilty pleasure?

I like watching YouTube videos of Gordon Ramsay yelling at bad chefs on his TV shows. Thanks, Gordon!

Thanks, Ben!