‘We’re a Northeastern startup at its core.’ Student-led company succeeds through university resources

Shaan Arora and Cory Gill working side by side on their laptops
Alia founders Shaan Arora, a fourth year Northeastern computer science and business student, and Cory Gill, a Northeastern fourth year finance and econ major, work in ISEC. Their company alia helps small businesses build out their brand online. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Walking down a beach in Hawaii about two years ago, Shaan Arora, a fourth-year Northeastern University student studying computer science and business, came across a woman selling bracelets. 

Out of curiosity, he asked her how they were made. In response, the woman said that every morning she goes out to the beach, picks up plastic debris that washes ashore and uses those materials to produce her bracelets. 

Her story inspired Arora to buy bracelets for himself and his entire family. 

“And now when I wear that bracelet or my mom wears that bracelet, we think of that woman, and we think of her story, and we think of what she does every single morning to produce these bracelets,” says Arora, a co-founder of Alia. “For us, that’s very impactful, and the bracelet has so much meaning to me.”

However, the woman told Arora she was unsuccessful in taking her business online. Her story got lost in an ecosystem with so much content to compete with. 

That’s where Alia steps in, Arora says. 

“We try to solve the problem of how small businesses compete online and build relationships,” Arora says. 

The software company builds a loyalty program featured on small business websites. The widget rewards users through store discounts for learning about the company in small, easy-to-take quizzes. 

Group photo of the Alia staff members
Courtesy Photo

Most other widgets that pop up on retail websites are transactional, Arora says. But these are about making an emotional connection to the owner.

“We’re disrupting that industry by allowing customers to learn and get rewarded by doing so,” Arora says.

Last year, Statista reported that over 60% of all online shopping goes to the 15 most prominent retailers, with Amazon pulling in the majority at 37.8%, followed by Walmart at 6.3% and Apple at 3.9%. As a result, the big players are pushing out the small businesses, Arora says. 

“We want to give them the tools to be able to compete more effectively online against these mega-retailers,” says Cory Gill, co-founder of Alia and fourth-year student studying finance and economics

The company recently won the Hult Prize Challenge, hosted by the Northeastern Entrepreneurs Club. The pitch contest focuses on sustainable fashion, one of the company’s primary customers.

In addition to the co-founders, the Alia team includes four other employees, all Northeastern students who met at the university. 

“We’re a Northeastern startup at its core,” Arora says.

The company plans to launch the product within the next few weeks with a pilot program featuring other Northeastern startups. Then, once that is proven successful, they will take those examples and sell them to companies outside the Northeastern ecosystem. 

The plan is to have 100 clients use the program in one year, with 25 clients showcased on the marketplace on Alia’s website. In five years, the company aims to shift the way people shop online—moving from big box retail stores to smaller sustainable companies. 

The success, the co-founders say, is based entirely on what Northeastern offers. 

“Northeastern has been amazing in the resources they have,” Arora says. “We’ve used every single resource we can possibly find, and we’ve been able to bootstrap since.”

Beth Treffeisen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at b.treffeisen@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @beth_treffeisen.