U Mass Lowell Students feed Lowell and the Web

When looking for a place to take his date for dinner, Aldo Beqiraj, 22, U-Mass Lowell senior and Salem native, quickly became overwhelmed by all the websites he had to visit to get the restaurant’s information.

“I was on Groupon and I bought a deal there and I found a cool place,” said Beqiraj. “I had to go on Yelp and look at reviews for that place, and then I had to go to opentable.com to make the reservations and then I had to go to All Menu to look at the menu. Then I realized that I didn’t want to go there anymore so the whole process started over.”

The frustration inspired Beqiraj to create a website that had all the services in one place, and the idea for the Grab a Bite website (www.graba-bite.com) was born.  And while Beqiraj searched for a way to get his idea off the ground, Jennifer Ho, 24, another UMass Lowell senior and Lowell resident, was securing plans for her business.

Though both students will be among the 3,169 students graduating on May 18th, they represent the emerging entrepreneurial vision that distinguishes them. Beqiraj an electric engineering major, has a few job opportunities in his field when he graduates, but is open to working for himself and growing the Grab a Bite website. Just weeks after graduation Ho, a business major, intends to establish her restaurant, Snowdaes a specialty shop that serves shaved “snow” located at 1075 Westford Street in Lowell, MA.

Ho got the idea to introduce the east coast to the new desert after a trip to California visiting family and friends. Shaved snow is a Taiwanese desert, served in many parts of Asia as well as the west coast.

“I fell in love with it, ate it countless time before I had to come home,” she said. “Once I got back there wasn’t anything that compared to it.”

Beqiraj, on the other hand, contacted Dr. Steven Tello, 54, Associate Vice Chancellor of Entrepreneurship and Economic Development in September of 2012, who encouraged him to enter UMass Lowell’s DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge.

“At first it was just me, and then I talked to my good friend Andrew Webb, who became the co-founder and head of technology,” said Beqiraj. “At first it was us for a while, but then as we grew, we needed to bring in more people.”

They recruited UMass Lowell seniors, Andrew Macrobert as developer and Denis Lemos as designer of an iPhone app. Beqiraj’s team was one of the nine winning groups out of the 45 that entered the DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge. UMass Lowell’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship created the challenge for students to design creative and innovative solutions to issues that affect their region. From the beginning of the challenge, Tello was confident Grab a Bite would succeed.

“It was clear that Aldo has been working on this plan,” said Tello. “He was advanced in his thinking in terms of business opportunities.”

Ho also has always exhibited business leadership qualities, according to her sister and Snowdaes marketer, Julie Ho, 22.

“She’s (only) three years older than me but she’s always taken care of me,” said Julie. “She’s really mature for her age.”

Being one of the only workers in her restaurant and hoping to create Snowdaes into a franchise, Ho believes that leadership is tied in with her ambition.

“I intend to be involved in every aspect of it (the business),” said Ho. “I want to be hands on with it. I don’t just want to set it up and manage it from the back room. I want to be at the counter serving the people and interacting with the customers and getting to know who my clientele are.”

Besides managing her restaurant, Ho spends the majority of her time with her two-year old son or doing schoolwork. And Beqiraj focuses his time on MassChallenge. Similar to the DifferenceMakers Challenge, MassChallenge is an annual one million dollar global startup competition.

“There’s more opportunity in business,” said Ho. “You’re a lot more able to express yourself.”

Published in The Boston Globe on May 16th, 2013

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Jennifer Ho, 24 UMass Lowell senior

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