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Awesome, Inc.: Rising talents in tech, business and sustainability
Story by Andrew Kiraly and
Photography by Bill Hughes
These innovators in tech, business and sustainability aren’t just creating a buzz — they’re making Las Vegas a better place to live
Seems like you can’t hop onto the Internet these days without reading yet another mythic overnight-success story about some mop-haired twentysomething selling a novelty app for umpteenbazillion dollars to Yahooglebook. Indeed, as the flow of venture capital meets the rise of bedroom software whizzes to fuel what looks like another tech bubble, we’ve perhaps forgotten that technology is about more than clever Vine videos and grainy Instagram snaps of sandwiches — and business is about more than boasting the biggest bottom line. The designers, developers and entrepreneurs profiled here flaunt “killer apps” of a different kind — ones that solve problems, build community and inspire change.
Conversation starter: Nihongo Master
Call it Taylor’s Big Japanese Vacation. In 2011, the software engineer planned to spend three weeks exploring the country that brought us sushi, ninjas and Playstation. Aiming to brush up on his high school Japanese, Dondich cobbled together a crash course with the usual suspects: Rosetta Stone, online tutorials, books and apps. “Over six months, I studied my heart out,” he says. “And I had a fantastic time in Japan. But while I was able to get my point across in conversations, I still struggled.” Dondich suspected there was a better way to learn a language — a way that didn’t involve boring solo cram sessions in front of a computer or textbook. “Learning a language on your own is a very isolated experience that becomes very tedious very quickly,” he says. “If you’re not in a classroom setting, it’s likely you’re going to lose interest and drop off.”
Dondich sat down at the computer and put to work a language he was fluent in — software code — to create a new language-learning platform, sinking in $70,000 of his own money to kick it off. In August 2012, the Las Vegas native launched a beta version of his Japanese language-learning website Nihongo Master. (“Nihongo” is the Japanese word for the Japanese language.) “I took some of the best things I saw from the tools out there and tried to make language-learning a more social and more entertaining experience to help motivate language-learners,” he says. No more lonely cram sessions: Nihongo Master (nihongomaster.com) employs many of the hallmarks of the social media age to teach language: community, collaboration and competition. Member profiles are decorated with cartoon achievement badges for acing quizzes or completing grueling drills. Teams with names like “Ice Cream Sailors” and “Imperial Voltron” vie to outrank each other. Learners post shout-outs and good-natured digs on each other’s profile pages. If Facebook gave birth to an anime baby obsessed with Japanese, it’d be Nihongo Master.
With about 11,000 registered users so far, Nihongo Master is already generating revenue, says Dondich, thanks in part to his commitment to running a lean operation, comprising him, a full-time Japanese teacher and a handful of contractors. Which isn’t to say Dondich isn’t thinking big about his next phase as he begins the process of courting investors. “People are asking for (a similar system for teaching) French, German, Italian, even Yiddish,” he says. “We’re also looking at our system’s possibilities for teaching English as a second language.” Translation: Dondich is on the verge of a big success.
Declaration of wardrobe: Combatant Gentlemen
Vishaal Melwani was expected to carry on the family tradition. His family owned and operated the 17 Gianni Versace stores in Las Vegas, and Melwani was in line for the throne. But when it came time to take on the mantle, Vishaal rebelled — politely: He chose the classroom over the dressing room, enrolling in law school. That didn’t last. “I spent my time in the classroom reading fashion blogs,” he says with a laugh. “I dropped out within the first year.” Besides that, in the meantime, he also got tangled in a torrid affair: “I really fell in love with tailoring denim.” His latest venture in couture is menswear website Combatant Gentlemen, which he launched in May 2012.
If jeans seem a bit, well, basic for a menswear website, that’s kind of the point. Combatant Gentlemen (combatgent.com) focuses on core alpha-male closet standards, on clothing as a tool — to snag that promotion, score a date, make an impression. Melwani’s unlikely inspiration: broke friends. “I saw a lot of them coming out of law school, friends who were strapped with debt, expecting these huge paychecks that would pay off their loans in the first year.” Of course, that didn’t happen. “They could barely pay their rent, and they’re sharing business clothes!” he says. Their challenge became how to live a GQ life on something closer to a Reader’s Digest budget. “So, we said, let’s create a brand that focuses on that guy, the guy who wants to get ahead and get the job done. Let’s focus on the basics — the business basics.” At the website, downticket dandies can score things like a two-piece wool suit for $160 and “Daily Grind” woven shirts for $25. Since the site’s launch, Melwani says he’s served more than 150,000 customers.
But Melwani’s Vegas-based business is more than a url and a few servers. Combatant Gentleman is now getting into the manufacturing side as well. The team recently relocated nine factory production machines to the Stitch Factory downtown, where Melwani expects to be able to put out up to 300 pairs of a jeans a week and employ at least 20 people. “If we can make great denim in the U.S. cheaper than in China, why not do it in here?” he says. Originally bootstrapped with $125,000 in friends-and-family money, Combatant Gentlemen is wrapping up its first round of $1.8 million in venture capital funding, Melwani says. “For me, having grown up in Las Vegas — and having seen the economic devastation that occurred — I feel like this is my chance to be like a baby philanthropist. It’s a great place to help get people back to work.”
Charity ball: What Gives?
It was a Vegas Spring Break trip that turned into a long medical nightmare for Traci Menga and her husband Robert. In March 2002, they had driven to Las Vegas from their home in Agoura Hills, Calif. to visit her husband’s parents. Sure, Robert had a history of health problems related to depression, but they considered themselves prepared. When he woke up in the middle of the night, complaining of not feeling well, they figured they were in for a routine trip to the hospital. Instead, the couple endured a drama that would turn into a three-year medical ordeal that would tie them to Las Vegas. According to Menga, her husband reacted badly to a prescribed sedative, which set off a chain of events that led to kidney failure and, eventually, his death in November 2005. But Menga’s memories aren’t of the countless, emotionally wrenching hours spent in the hospital. Rather, her memories are of the caring presence of people and organizations who were there for her during her husband’s illness.
“I had people I didn’t even know sitting with me in the critical care unit, offering their support — people from Big Brothers Big Sisters, people from Nathan Adelson Hospice to help me through grief counseling,” says Menga. “When I moved to the place I thought of as Sin City, I never realized there was a community here. That’s what brought me to creating What Gives.”
Think of What Gives (whatgivesdeals.com) as Groupon with a conscience. In addition to dishing out bargains — say, a $100 Restaurant.com gift card for $30 — the site lets users pick what nonprofit gets a slice of the sale. But any comparison to deal-dishing giants like Groupon ends there.
“When we launched the site, we thought we’d be fighting to attract the deal-surfers,” says John Bamforth, the site’s technology advisor. “We found that those aren’t our people at all. Our people are educated and engaged, and when they purchase a service, they want it to benefit the community.”
Menga sold her family’s motorcycle dealership in California and moved to Las Vegas, sleeping on the floor of her in-laws’ home while she built the business. “I could have been fully funded if I were in California, Chicago or New York, but I scoffed at the idea,” she says. “I decided to launch in Las Vegas because Las Vegas gave back to me when I needed it.” For the next eight months, she spent countless hours and $150,000 of her own money building the website, which launched in January 2012. She’s since offered nearly 200 deals for 120 different merchants, and raised money for groups such as Aid for AIDS of Nevada, Ronald McDonald House Charities, and the Animal Foundation. Menga hopes to amplify that giving power — and score some big-name retail partners — with a new web platform she hopes to unveil soon. She’s got three investors on board, and is waiting for a few more to close the funding gap.
“I can’t imagine sitting in a rocking chair someday, thinking how I once had a great idea that I never pursued,” she says. “I’m pursuing this idea and I want it to give back to the community.”
Domestic policy: The DesertSol home
In the renderings and computer-animated videos, there’s something odd about the DesertSol home. It’s not the shape or the size. It’s something else. It takes a second to put your finger on it. Then you realize: The house looks situated. It looks perfectly in place. You kind of expect otherwise. The laundry list of features that make the DesertSol home wildly efficient are so advanced — and yet so common-sense — that you really couldn’t blame its student designers for wanting to make the house stand out proudly against the desert like a Southwest version of a Jetsons dream home. But the reclaimed Douglas fir and weathered steel is part of the point — a reflection of the home’s commitment to existing in harmony with the Mojave.
“If you age the material already and work that into the design, that’s what the house is going to look like both now and in 10 years — meaning the house is timeless,” explains Jinger Zeng, project engineer for the UNLV Solar Decathlon Team.
The home, currently under construction on the UNLV campus (solardecathlon.unlv.edu), is part of an international competition put on by the U.S. Department of Energy that challenges college students around the globe to design and build a solar home.
“What makes our design so powerful is that it’s integrated,” says Zeng. Among the wonky stuff: new-school, high-efficiency photovoltaic solar panels; a ductless heat-pump system; LED lighting; a “tight-envelope” design to decrease energy load; and a home automation system that turns off lights and tweaks the thermostat as needed. (Also, it looks cool — imagine the home of a hipster Jawa.)
The secret to that integrated design is another kind of integration: An unprecedented collaboration that literally spans the UNLV campus, engaging 60 students in disciplines from architecture and engineering to business and communications. But this is no ivory-tower project. “The competition really challenges us to use commercially available products instead of custom-built ones, to educate the public about what products they can use to make their homes more energy-efficient,” says Zeng. “It’s about a lot more than putting solar panels on top of your house. It’s about making the whole house energy-efficient.”
The team is also raising money to complete the house and transport it to Irvine, Calif. for the final competition in October. They estimate the house will cost $320,000 to build. It’ll cost an additional $430,000 to ship the house — and the students — to California for the showdown.
This is the first time the UNLV Solar Decathlon team has made it to the finals, something they ascribe to their unprecedented collaboration. They’re also encouraged by a new contest criterion: affordability. They joke that in previous contest years, German students won handily with a $5 million home essentially covered in solar panels. The new affordability measure encourages these idealists to pursue realistic solutions.
“Hopefully the public will look at this and think, ‘I can get this dishwasher, or get a house with this kind of insulation,’” says Project Manager Alexia Chen. “One of the goals of this contest is for us to learn, but also for the public to learn — and be inspired to imagine what they can do with their own homes.”
Pick up your Desert Companion today at one of these Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf or Jamba Juice locations.
Also available at Clark County and Henderson libraries.