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UT Student Startup Pops College Social Bubbles

Yoon Lee, a McCombs Business School graduate, on how to make friends and find your community even if you aren’t on campus.

Team photo

Being stuck in quarantine doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t meet new friends. At least that’s what Pop Social Inc. founder and CEO Yoon Lee believes.

Lee is a recent management information systems graduate from UT’s McCombs School of Business. Just last year, he and his team launched Pop, a social app that aims to be a casual and hassle-free way for UT students to connect with others primarily through common interests.

He says this idea has been in the works since 2018, when he first noticed that many newer students, be it freshmen or transfers, had a difficult time finding a solid group of friends and feeling a sense of community and belonging. At the start of each semester, there is a time that Lee dubs the “golden window of friendship,” when clubs and organizations hold orientation meetings, meet and greets, etc. After those first few weeks, it becomes especially difficult for newcomers to join in and assimilate into already established groups and social bubbles.

Lee recognized how isolating and stressful this could be for students looking to find their community, especially at a university as large as UT. He wanted to help others out by extending this window of friendship.

“How can I solve this problem of loneliness and isolation that this generation is facing now more so than ever because of the increasing use of social media?” he asked. “I wanted to help people socialize better. I wanted to unconstrain these groups and pop social bubbles to allow for new interactions.”

And that’s how the idea for Pop came to be. Unlike other social apps or websites, Pop anonymizes users, freeing them of their social identity and removing unnecessary extrinsic factors so they can narrow in on their interests and passions and focus on connecting with others over those topics.

Copy of Future of Social (5)
Pop app's mobile user interface. (Credit: Pop Social Inc.)

On the app, users with a utexas.edu email account can sign up to meet other students, and only basic information such as gender, major, year and hometown is displayed.

You are given an auto-generated nickname, you select from a list of cartoon avatars for your profile picture, and finally, you choose certain interests to display on your profile. These vary from genres of books, movies, TV shows and music to outdoor activities, academic interests and social causes.

Pop provides an easy interface that allows users to pursue other users’ profiles and decide whether they want to message them over common interests or even unique interests they are curious about. Once the other user accepts the request, they can immediately begin chatting in the app. The app sparks that introduction and initial meeting period. Lee said that ultimately, users can decide which relationships they want to strengthen and keep going.

We made it purely interest-based, so it strips away your bias and allows you to form genuine connections with people over things you are both passionate about.

Yoon Lee, Pop Social Inc. founder & CEO

Users’ real names are revealed only after they strike up a conversation with someone and communicate a certain amount through the in-app messaging interface. These are basically unlockable milestones in your road to friendship with someone new.

“We made it purely interest-based, so it strips away your bias and allows you to form genuine connections with people over things you are both passionate about.” Lee said he really wanted Pop to become a judgment-free zone to meet diverse and interesting people. “Especially people who you maybe wouldn’t have met in person due to different backgrounds,” he said. “People really get the chance to branch out to create their own community.”

And of course, as the pandemic persists and schools begin remote or hybrid learning, the app is a great tool for new students looking to do just that.

“I really, really believe in the future of this app” said Vrishank Jannu, a recent computational engineering transfer student from Texas A&M. “One of the biggest things I value in a university or college is finding that place where I can interact with a lot of people, meet new people, build long-lasting connections. Given the pandemic and given that UT is a school of 50,000 students, I was really worried about that coming into UT.”

Jannu said that once he discovered Pop, it completely transformed his experience and gave him a much-needed confidence boost.

“I’ve actually been able to make friends with people who are not only in my own department or in my own engineering school but people who are in majors ranging from government to public health. These people are super chill, and I’d be totally comfortable hanging out with them in person once the pandemic is over!” He said he never expected this to happen and dubbed Pop a lifesaver for coming into UT.

Today, the app has over 1,000 UT users and is growing. Lee was blown away by all the support he and his team have received through their time at the university. “We are grateful for the Blackstone LaunchPad community, Sputnik ATX, University Housing and Dining department, to name a few,” he said. These groups have helped provide funding for, offered mentorship and helped promote the app.

What started off as a team of mainly UT students whom Lee knew from various entrepreneurship organizations on campus has grown into a national team consisting of a diverse group of university students, graduates and even some full-time employees.

When asked about how the pandemic has changed Pop Social, Lee responded, “It’s definitely been difficult — everything’s virtual nowadays, but on the bright side, our efficiency has actually increased since there’s no more commute time and being remote we are now able to leverage talent from other states.”

As for their next steps, Pop Social is looking to expand the app to more universities across the U.S. And, of course, the team is also constantly tweaking and improving features.

“Hey, perfect timing,” Lee said chuckling. “But we’re actually going to be coming out with a new release very soon with additional customization of your profile and interests. It’s super exciting, and we can’t wait to hear even more feedback from the community.”