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Breaking the Language Barrier

Ryan Skolnick speaks Mandarin Chinese. He knows Latin. He’s studied French and took Spanish back in kindergarten.

So as a guy who loves learning new languages, Skolnick says he was shocked to uncover data on how few people who study a second language ever master it. Now he’s made it his mission to change that.

Skolnick is a junior in the Stillman School of Business, but he’s also working to start his own business — a software company with immersive video games to help students learn new languages.

He came up with the idea for Aveho Learning (pronounced “A-way-ho”) as a senior in high school. Skolnick had grown up playing video games and knew how engaging they could be — and how sometimes you learned something, too. He’s aiming to create a photorealistic game that’s appealing enough to play for fun, but that also teaches languages. He’s still figuring out exactly what that will look like, but in the meantime, Skolnick says he’s been in touch with the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages to connect with language experts.

As a freshman, Skolnick entered Aveho into Seton Hall’s annual venture fund competition called Pirates Pitch and won first place: $6,000 plus legal, marketing and business services.

“He was the only freshman there and yet immediately he seemed like the most experienced and seasoned entrepreneur,” says Ray Hoffman, who helped judge the competition. “I saw qualities of a much older person than a college freshman. He behaves like an adult. That would be the simplest way for me to say it.”

Hoffman was so impressed that he invited Skolnick to appear on his radio show, “CEO Radio” on WCBS Newsradio 880.

Skolnick has continued competing with Aveho since winning Pirates Pitch. In 2016, he was one of 32 semi-finalists in a national student startup competition. A few months later, he entered the first statewide collegiate business model competition, UPitchNJ, and won second place — a $1,000 prize that came with business services and a private coaching session.

Brian Fitzpatrick ’75, CEO of Bentley Laboratories, helped Skolnick prepare for UPitchNJ. He advised the sophomore to tone down the technical details and make sure his pitch was relevant to the people who’d be hearing it.

Fitzpatrick says that ditching the jargon and a “zoomed-in” view is something even seasoned entrepreneurs struggle with. But Skolnick “got it right away,” he says. “That makes him a very unique individual.” “I was excited about his business plan because he convinced me it had a lot of relevance in the marketplace,” Fitzpatrick adds. “He really had those numbers buttoned up.”

But even with his competition successes, Skolnick needs money to make his game a reality. And to get that money, he needs a fleshed-out demo version, which he says will cost roughly $50,000 to produce. He’s been meeting with potential investors to drum up seed funding for Aveho, and he plans to work on the company full-time after graduation.

Skolnick has been an entrepreneur since he was a child. When he was 10 years old, he created DogEats, a nonprofit gourmet dog treat company. His parents taught him about website design and search engine optimization, and with those skills Skolnick says he managed to make DogEats spring up as a top result when someone searched the words “dog treats” online.

The business was so successful that Skolnick and his parents had to eventually shut it down. “It was growing too fast,” he remembers, and would have required the family to remodel their kitchen and find a warehouse. The Skolnicks chose to hit the brakes — perhaps sensing that their son would have plenty of other business ideas in the future.

In fact, Ryan says he thinks of at least two or three new ventures every day.

“I come up with some weird ideas sometimes,” he admits, “but it’s just part of being creative: come up with a weird idea and just see where it goes. Sometimes the crazy solution turns out to be the best way.”

Written by Molly Petrilla

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