Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

January 10, 2012

VSU dropout named to Forbes 30 Under 30

VALDOSTA — A Valdosta State University dropout has been named to Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 in technology.

In or out of school, Douglas native Justin Lewis says the most important lesson he has learned is that a person cannot be afraid to fail.

Along with Edward Saatchi and Aharon Wasserman, Lewis, 25, earned the Forbes distinction for the development of NationalField, a social networking company that “has built private social networks for the Obama campaign, Kaiser Permanente and the UK National Health Service,” according to Forbes. “Once the UK NHS, which signed a deal with the company eight months ago, gets all of its 1.3 million employees signed up with accounts, its NationalField account will be the largest private social network in the world.”

NationalField’s origins began while Lewis attended VSU.

Born and raised in Douglas as the youngest of three children after brother Stacy and sister Angie, Lewis graduated Coffee High School in 2004. He credits his mother for raising him with a strong work ethic.

“My mom, Dennia Lewis, is probably the one person who has taught me the most in life about hard work. I watched her stand strong as a single mother, waking up before the sun to read her Bible, working long hours so that my life might be just a bit better than hers,” Lewis says. “We didn’t have much growing up but certainly had what we needed. She was the one who encouraged me to learn everything I could about computers as a kid, even when it would make the other

kids in school label me a nerd or a geek. She was the one who would look me in the eyes every day and tell me that I could do anything I wanted to.”

Lewis was the first in his family to attend college. He studied political science at VSU.

In 2007, Lewis founded Students for Barack Obama at VSU. Between the 2008 New Hampshire primary and Super Tuesday, Obama campaign staffers visited Georgia. Lewis spent several weeks working with those staffers.

He found these staffers to be “young, smart and energetic.” Lewis liked them. Following the spring 2008 VSU semester, Lewis applied for an internship to work with the Obama campaign in Savannah. There, he met Saatchi and Wasserman.

“Within a few days, it was clear that Aharon, Edward, and I had clicked as a team,” Lewis says. “We were brainstorming ideas for how we could help the campaign work more efficiently internally. That’s when we came up with the idea for NationalField.”

Through many late nights and gallons of Diet Mountain Dew, Lewis coded the software prototype. Obama campaigners throughout Georgia were asked to log onto the site.   

“By the end of the summer, NationalField had spread all around the country inside the campaign,” Lewis says. “The campaign ended up moving me to Ohio, one of the most important states, so I could focus on building NationalField. I was building something that was making it easy for everyone on the campaign to talk with one another — to easily communicate and share best practices, challenges they were facing, and give an easy way for ideas to flow from the bottom of the organization all the way to the top.”

 NationalField developed technology that knew the difference between a campaign volunteer in rural Ohio and the campaign manager in Chicago.

“It let people’s feedback flow bottom-up in an instant and allowed people all around the organization to see the data they needed to do their jobs,” Lewis says.

After the 2008 election, Lewis, Saatchi and Wasserman decided to push NationalField beyond the campaign. They felt they had a social network specifically for businesses.

 “NationalField is like an internal, private Facebook for your company,” Lewis says. “It helps organizations around the world become more bottom-up, more transparent, and more data-driven.”

He had only planned being away from VSU for the summer. As NationalField grew within the campaign, he became more focused on helping Obama win the election.

“At some point, I made the judgment that helping to elect the President of the free world was a bit more important than finishing my college degree on time,” Lewis says.

With other opportunities possible for NationalField, Lewis put his college education on the backburner.

He now lives in Washington, D.C., traveling often to NationalField’s offices in San Francisco and London. To the best of his knowledge, he and the NationalField team were selected by Forbes because of their work with the Obama campaign in 2008 and again with the 2012 campaign as well as being a leader in “enterprise social software,” which is expected to be a $6.4 billion market by 2016.

In terms of leaving VSU, he has no regrets.

“Dropping out of college, joining the campaign, and not being afraid to fail with our little idea to change the way the campaign was working was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Lewis says. “... I think you see this trend a lot with young people and technology companies — Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs — where you get one shot to building something that can change the world and, when you get that shot, you should take it.

“I think that’s the best lesson I’ve learned so far — and something that I never would have learned in college — don’t be afraid to fail,” Lewis says. “Most people use failure as a reason to give up or never even try. Instead, failure should be the number one reason that you keep trying. If you fail, so what? It happens all the time. But if you succeed, you might change the world.”

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