Listen to this article here
Brother Tyler Weitzman (Stanford, 2018) uses his love for AEPi, entrepreneurship and leadership every day in his role as the president and co-founder of Speechify. From coding and using the program to help advance his education, he has created an app that is at the forefront of text-to-speech technology.
Brother Weitzman was born in Israel and moved to the U.S. when he was 11, living first in L.A then in the Bay Area. “My community in the States wasn’t as extensive as in Israel because I have 20 plus cousins in Israel and we’d have Shabbat dinners with extended family.” He later attended Phillips Exeter Academy where he became the co-head of the Exeter Jewish Community. He led Shabbat dinners and Passover seders for everyone at his high school with 30 people in attendance each Shabbat.
Brother Weitzman’s family is involved in tech. His older brother, Cliff, has always been his best friend. “He’s my co-founder and we’ve worked together on quite a lot of things growing up.” His sister, Alex, also went to Stanford and studied computer science and founded a dating app called Amori. He has another sister Geffen who went to University of Southern California and his youngest brother Erez is at UC Berkeley and was initiated into AEPi’s Chi Alpha chapter. His sister, Geffen, lives in L.A and is working on a real estate modern tech brokerage app.
At a very young age, Brother Weitzman was an impressive coder. “I first started coding in third grade. I was obsessed with a TV show called Dragon Ball Z. I wanted to learn how to make a fan page for it. I went and Googled how to build websites.” In fifth grade he started taking a class in Visual Basic, a simple programming language for Windows. He started making some games and got into a game called MapleStory which was very popular in Israel at the time. “I wanted to learn how to debug it and I started learning about Assembly Language and low-level systems. I also was very much into security from a very young age.. I learned about encryption algorithms in fifth grade.”
That interest in security led him to found his first startup which was an encrypted messaging cyber security app. When he moved to California he started taking community college courses while in sixth grade. “I would go in the evenings after middle school and I took Java SQL database design and web design. I started running out of courses in computer science.” He started working on iPhone apps specifically and entrepreneurship while he was taking those classes. Learning from YouTube, he taught himself how to program iPhone apps. “iPhone apps were brand new and the App Store just came out, so I started building apps for iPhone and iPad.” Later, he was able to get all of the university credits that he earned in sixth grade transferred to Stanford.
At Stanford, Brother Weitzman majored in math and did a co-term in computer science. “My computer science degree was specialized in artificial intelligence, and I did research in text-to-speech as part of that. So, that has lent itself really well to doing the work that I do now, leading innovation in text-to-speech technology.”
“I was already programming apps before going to Stanford, but the education I got at Stanford helped me to reach a more expert level of understanding of the theoretical side of the research needed to actually innovate and invent new technologies rather than just implementing applications that use existing technology.”
Brother Weitzman didn’t even need a college education let alone a master’s degree. “When I was choosing which college to go to, the main thing that I cared about was who I would become friends with. I had already spent a lot of time learning by myself or taking courses at community college or learning things online like iPhone development.”
Brother Weitzman joined AEPi his freshman year. “Immediately, I felt that it was something that had been missing for me in college. The level of friendships that I built in just 10 weeks during the new member process was really strong.” Unfortunately, the Sigma Tau chapter was struggling. The chapter was mostly run by graduating seniors and was beset with financial problems. His sophomore year they were left with just four Brothers in the chapter. “There was no real lasting community even though we had gone through the new member process together. We were still very close but there wasn’t really a chapter. For chapter meetings usually two of us would show up and hang out at Hillel and that was really sad for me.”
“AEPi became my startup sophomore spring semester.”
Wanting to do something about it, Brother Weitzman stepped up and became chapter president his sophomore year. He rallied everyone to put a big effort into rush. “I did a reorganization a week or two before rush started. I got advice from alumni of the chapter who were now running their own companies and had a lot of experience with leadership and recruiting.”
During his sophomore year, Brother Weitzman ran an intense recruitment process. “I built a lot of tools that automated emailing, texting, and finding who to reach out to in the first place.” He met one-on-one for coffee and meals with potential new members. Holding rush events with 40 Jewish freshmen, giving bids to 20 with all of them accepting. “When we recruited all those people, a lot of Brothers who had dropped previously decided to come back. Originally, they didn’t see any chapter. Now that there was a chapter, they wanted to be involved and so we actually grew back to 30 plus people.” He also implemented a fundraising campaign so that they were able to recover financially. They put a constitution in place and continued to get help from AEPi International and alumni. “The chapter was in a much better position.”
At Stanford, he was involved with several different startup accelerators like Cardinal Ventures, Stanford StartX, and Pear LaunchPad. “AEPi actually helped me the most when it came to entrepreneurship because the relationships that I built with alumni through the process of bringing the chapter back together and the communication I had with those alumni led to many of the relationships I later built with my investors. I would have figured out a way to do it without it, but AEPi made it a lot easier.”
“They (the alumni) actually became really important mentors for me not just for AEPi but later when I started my entrepreneurial endeavors. Not just as a solo programmer but raising money and hiring people and everything else that’s needed to actually build an organization.”
Brother Weitzman worked full-time on his startup while completing his undergraduate degree, studying for his Masters degree and dedicating time to AEPi. “So at one point I took two years off completely from school just to work on the startup. Then I went back to take a class or two on the side and eventually finished but I only was really a student until my second year at Stanford. I actually didn’t think I would ever go back to finish and only later decided that I wanted to keep learning. I never went back to being a full-time student.”
During the pandemic Stanford halted the Greek Life recruitment process for two years. After spending three months dedicated to growing back the chapter, Brother Weitzman was not going to let the chapter die. He helped to set up an alumni Advisory board for the chapter. The advisory board meets with the current president of the chapter every three months. “I’ve been personally in touch on phone calls helping out with advice, with every single AEPI president that’s taken over since. That continuity is what allowed the chapter to survive the pandemic fairly well. I have no doubt that the chapter would have been in serious trouble and potentially closed down if we hadn’t set this up. This is a really good system in place to have alumni continuing to help the chapter.” Last spring, the Stanford Chapter recruited over 20 Brothers.
Brother Weitzman isn’t the only entrepreneur on the alumni advisory board. He’s joined by Brother Ryan Breslow (Stanford, 2016), founder of Bolt and now the CEO of Love.com and Brother Andy Bromberg (Stanford, 2016) who co-founded Echo, a cryptocurrency. Brother Weitzman emphasized the importance they played throughout his AEPi leadership. “I prioritized AEPi for those three months and I would not have done that if not for conversations with Ryan. Ryan had dropped out of school just a year or two prior. He told me that now that he’s in San Francisco and running Bolt, all of Bolt’s investors that he met, the people that he hired, the people that he was still hanging out with and still friends with, all tended to center around AEPi connections. So, while he was at Stanford he didn’t realize just how important AEPi was to him but now that he was out of school he realized just how important it was.” Brother Breslow convinced Brother Weitzman that there was nothing more important that he could do with his time than making sure that AEPi thrived. “He was right that it would help me with my career more so than anything else I could contribute my time to.”
Both Brother Weitzman and his brother Cliff have challenges that make it difficult to read. Cliff has dyslexia and Brother Weitzman has a visual impairment. “I can read just fine but it’s eye straining for me and so there’s a limit to how much I can do it visually before I need to stop and take a break.” As kids, it was already a large limitation for he and his brother, both spending a lot of time using text-to-speech for school and homework. It became even more difficult for Brother Weitzman at Stanford and his brother at Brown University when there was even more reading. “Most content in college – such as textbooks and PDFs – that you are given to read don’t have audio books. If I was taking an English class where we’re reading Sherlock Holmes, it’s easy enough to find an audiobook but with a lot of other content you just can’t get lucky.” It’s even more difficult because some of the readings given out are skewed, low resolution and not easy to read. “I was registered with the accessibility office at Stanford and they would reformat a lot of these documents for me and would literally transcribe and print them out for me in really large font but it’s just really inconvenient.”
At a certain point, Brother Weitzman and his brother had the capability to build something that would be more useful to more people. They started creating an app that would allow other people to pursue their dreams, despite reading difficulties, as they had done. His brother built an early desktop version of Speechify that would read documents on his computer for him. Brother Weitzman, having a lot of experience with iOS, built the first app prototype. They were able to send stuff over from computer to phone instantly and then listen to it on a phone.
Speechify makes it easy to import any sort of content in audio form. They have a Chrome extension that works on your web browser automatically for any article. They have an iPhone app where you can take a picture of anything and it will read it to you. It can also integrate with Google Drive, Dropbox or Cloud. “A lot of the other text-to-speech applications out there are outdated and clunky, not modern and easy to use. We are the leader within the direct -to-consumer and direct-to-student text-to-speech market.” The company has a wide variety of very natural sounding voices and features celebrity voices like Gwyneth Paltrow and others. Brother Weitzman’s favorite feature is a PDF reader that you can import any PDF making it very convenient and easy to use.
Today, accessibility offices in colleges are starting to switch to Speechify because the students are asking for it. “There’s a lot of companies doing research in text-to-speech but we’re the leading ones in applying that for everyday productivity use. Whether that’s students or whether that’s professionals that want to listen to articles in the car; we make it really easy to import or scan documents into it.”
Speechify can also help you focus because it’s more than just audio; it lets you read and listen at the same time making it both easier walking around or commuting and also while sitting and trying to focus. Lawyers and medical school students use it to get through long and dense reading material. “Pointing your attention to one word at a time as it’s being spoken, you’re actually able to listen significantly faster than you’d be able to otherwise in terms of tracking the text. It’s scrolling automatically and highlighting each word as it’s being spoken.” In that way it is also helpful for people with ADHD.
Now, after five years working on Speechify as a company, Brother Weitzman has finished his Master’s Degree in research on text-to-speech and is paused working on his latest startup for cyber security. For Brother Weitzman and his brother, the passion is still there. “We’re smart people but sometimes when you can’t do something as basic as reading it’s very debilitating. We still want to be able to accomplish everything that we want to accomplish. We’re both very ambitious people and we don’t want to let something like that get in the way. It just gives me so much joy to work on something that I’m now able to help other people not have those limitations.”
Brother Weitzman has advice for his AEPi Brothers. “I would say that the team that you work with is the most important thing because you can’t do it alone. AEPi is a really great place to go and find those people. Focus on figuring out if they want to start something first. Not just what they want to start but why they want to start it. If you don’t have a really good reason to be giving it your all for several years it’s not going to happen. It can’t just be for money, there has to be some deeper underlying motivation because money tends to be a short-lived motivation when people start facing obstacles. Ideally, the entire team needs to be mission aligned and have that underlying motivation to build whatever it is.”
“This is the pitch that I give to every single person that I talk to when I recruit them. I like to tell people that the reason I went to Stanford was in order to get to be part of Stanford AEPi. That’s literally the reason why I chose Stanford – to be involved with the people and the alumni network. The reality is that the (Stanford University) alumni network is huge and can be kind of impersonal but within AEPi it isn’t. So, I literally went to Stanford in order to be in AEPi and that was a very convincing argument for a lot of people when we were recruiting.”