Ali Abdullah claims his place in the tech world

Mikhael Simmonds | 11/26/2015, midnight
Nestled in a recently renovated East Harlem building, Ali Abdullah runs around his office in preparation for our interview.
Ali Abdullah in his office. Mikhael Simmonds

Nestled in a recently renovated East Harlem building, Ali Abdullah runs around his office in preparation for our interview. This Harlem-born and -raised entrepreneur is in a good mood. His latest endeavor, Claim It!, recently scored $1.1 million in seed funding from angel investors and is preparing to launch the second round of fundraising in hopes of gaining much more.

“If the guys could do it in San Diego or in Silicon Valley, why can’t we do it here in Harlem?” Abdullah asks.

His app, Claim It!, allows users to win free swag such as gift cards, headphones and cameras after watching 15-second ads. Brands such as Starbucks, Garmin, Ultimate Ears, Kettle Chips and Crumbs Bake Shop have all partnered with his barely 2-year-old company. Claim It! also attracted some high-profile sports investors, including NBA star Al Harrington and former Detroit Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson, as well as some big names from the finance world such as current and former directors at Blackstone, Saks and Goldman Sachs.

At 29, Abdullah’s success makes him one of the few Black tech CEOs in an industry where Blacks and Latinos make up only to 2 percent to 3 percent of the overall workforce, according to Fortune magazine.

“I always have to work harder than the next man, but I find a way in,” said Abdullah. “My mentor always told me that there is no such thing as no.”

While in school, Abdullah says he excelled in math, but his dyslexia affected other areas of his schoolwork. He later attended Bread and Roses High School in hopes of becoming a basketball star, but as a junior, he was introduced to coding.

“At the time I wasn’t too happy,” Abdullah said, joking. Back then, the class was mandatory at his high school. “It’s something I feel that every school should have.”

It wasn’t straight sailing from there. He came up with the idea for Claim It! in 2008, but there was still a long road ahead.

By the time he had officially founded his company in 2013, Abdullah had transferred from Alfred State to Columbia University only to drop out one year later. He then left a stable job at New York City’s Department of Education, became homeless and had a kid on the way. These tough times taught him how to hustle.

After getting back on his feet by becoming a freelance coder, he found his way to Google as a senior engineer. His time there taught him a leadership and management style he tries to emulate into his own company today.

“[Google] opened my eyes to how you treat your employees. It opened my eyes to the importance of culture, of what a company culture should be,” said Abdullah.

Even at Google he wasn’t content. Abdullah wanted to build a legacy of his own from scratch, and he knew uptown was the place to do it. He connected with Khalid Mills and Kaza Razat at a Harlem tech mixer and the three became the founders of Claim It!

“My thing was to get a group of people from the neighborhood who could innovate but have credibility,” Abdullah elaborated. He wanted not just to build a company, but to motivate people as well.

The company is now based out of East Harlem and has 10 employees. His office space looks like any modern tech startup should — large windows, multilevel-floor plan with lots of white boards, video games and motivational quotes painted across the walls. From the rooftop there are views of Harlem and the Upper East Side.

Abdullah is looking forward to expanding his company into new cities, adding 20 to 30 people in the coming months and rolling out his app for Android phones. Even with his company’s expansion, he doesn’t expect to be moving from his neighborhood anytime soon.