In 2012, seven female students from the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz were admitted to a unique scholarship program at eBay. Eight years later, four of these students can call themselves inventors, having developed technology at eBay that has been granted two separate patents, with the latest being issued just a few weeks ago.
Although the second patent wasn't granted until March of 2020, the work behind it began years earlier when Neel Sundaresan, a current Baskin Engineering adjunct professor of computer science and engineering and then senior director of eBay Research Labs, created the Inspire! Scholarship Program. The scholarship, which was first issued for the 2012-2013 academic year, included monetary support for female undergraduate STEM majors from disadvantaged backgrounds, and also provided them with an opportunity to intern at eBay over the summer.
Enrica Beltran, Kristy Brambila, Esmeralda Carrillo, and Cassandra Gordon, four computer science and computer engineering students in the Baskin School of Engineering, were among the first cohort of Inspire! students. When they began their two-month internship at eBay during the summer of their first year of college, Sundaresan thought that a good project for them would be to create an ecommerce app for smartphones.
“I called them up and, during our conversation, said ‘You are all of a generation with iPhones, why don't you think about developing a mobile commerce app on the iPhone?’” Sundaresan recalls. Back in 2012, however, smartphones were still something of a luxury, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. “I immediately realized that I had started on the wrong foot, as none of them owned a smartphone.”
“I’m so proud of these patents but even more than that, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had so early in my career." -Cassandra Gordon
Sundaresan brought the students to eBay and got them phones and mentors to teach them to program the devices, and in only a few weeks they went from knowing next to nothing about the technology to creating a shopping app.
Looking back on the experience, Cassandra Gordon speculates that it might have been how new the technology was to them that allowed them to be so innovative. “We had such fresh eyes,” she notes. “I worked with such amazing and such incredibly smart people, but our scrappy little team of first year students had an easier time thinking more abstractly without worrying too much about process or the ‘right’ way of doing things, because we hadn't been exposed to a lot of it yet.”
The four women quickly recognized some of the limitations of using small-screened mobile devices for shopping, and began working on ways to optimize the shopping experience for smartphones. Eventually, eBay decided to patent their ideas. The first patent, filed in 2013, was granted in August of 2017, and the second was awarded in March of 2020.
When asked how it felt at the time the patent was filed to realize that she had invented something new, Gordon responded, “At the time I don't think I really grasped what it meant to have something patented... I was so early in my college career that everything was new to me… As time went on throughout my college and industry career, however, I look back at this patent and this experience to remind myself that there are infinite possibilities of what you can create, and there's no such thing as ‘it's all been done before.’”
“The summer we spent at eBay was so impactful, not only because of the patents, but because of the wealth of knowledge we gained and the connections we made with each other." - Enrica Beltran
The patents are a major accomplishment for anyone, but for the four women, the biggest thing they got out of the internship was the early experience in computer science that helped shape the rest of their careers.
Gordon, who currently works at Intuit as a senior software engineer, says, “I’m so proud of these patents but even more than that, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had so early in my career. That summer shaped the rest of my college career both in what I should focus on while I was in school but also these friends and the support group I had made.”
Beltran, who currently works as a software engineer at Apple, shares a similar sentiment. “The summer we spent at eBay was so impactful, not only because of the patents, but because of the wealth of knowledge we gained and the connections we made with each other,” she says. “These girls are some of my closest friends—I know that we can lean on each other when we need help, personally or professionally.” According to Gordon, she and Beltran remain best friends to this day, a testament to the close relationships that this program allowed them to cultivate.
Although the Inspire! program at eBay ended when Sundaresan left the company in 2015, other companies have found various ways to give UCSC students “real world” experience, particularly through the Corporate Sponsored Senior Project Program, which engages companies with groups of seniors by providing real-world problems, company “customers,” and financial resources. The program was launched in the 2011–2012 academic year and over the years has partnered with major companies such as Amazon, Anthem, Applied Materials, Cisco, eBay, Google, HP, Mercedes, Oracle, Zero Motorcycles, and others.