Liberal arts education helps economics major develop agency, confidence, and clear focus — as well as the skills to launch a tech startup

Author: Beth Staples

Renee Yaseen Headshot
Renee Yaseen

In the early days of the pandemic, when students of all ages were learning at home, Notre Dame senior Renee Yaseen noticed how much her 10-year-old brother, Daniel, missed his friends.

Since they couldn’t get together to play, they played online games. For hours. 

Yaseen learned that even before the pandemic, youth in the United States averaged only about 7 minutes of unstructured outdoor play a day, and a whopping 7 hours in front of a screen. And active play, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, is essential to children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being.

She brainstormed about how to help Daniel safely and meaningfully interact with his friends and be physically active.

“He wasn’t going to have the childhood that I had,” Yaseen said. “I wondered, ‘How can I build the best possible way to use screen time?’”

So the economics major who’s minoring in theology and in philosophy, politics, and economics set out to design an online platform on which kids could connect, explore, move, create, and play with peers and family in real time.

The result: FriendOver, a startup that is harnessing computer vision technology (artificial intelligence that enables computers to process images and videos in the way people do) and machine learning to promote goodness in gaming.

The software, which is now available for beta testing, combines features of videoconferencing with motion-interactive games. It works on any computer with a webcam; a remote or controller isn’t needed.

Yaseen is FriendOver’s founder and CEO, while Daniel earned the title of “Boy Wonder.” Together with a committed circle of students, Notre Dame alumni, and mentors they plan “to pioneer a global shift to engage with technology in healthier ways.”

Renee Yaseen Illustration
Yaseen digitally drew the majority of the art for FriendOver by hand.

Their plan and execution have already drawn support and attention. Last spring, FriendOver was named the Equifund Best Undergraduate-Led Venture and awarded $10,000 in the Notre Dame IDEA Center’s McCloskey New Venture Competition. A few months later, it won the IDEA Center’s Race to Revenue Summer Showcase prize in the Proof of Concept category. And it was awarded a LookUp StartUp Social Innovation Grant for “designing a ground-breaking solution to digital wellbeing and humane technology.” 

Throughout the process, Yaseen has worked with the Children’s Screen Time Action Network to share ideas and build momentum for ethical tech among youth, educators, and parents. A local software studio has built out Yaseen’s vision. And Yaseen, who wants to someday illustrate and write a children’s book, digitally drew the majority of the game art by hand.

FriendOver plans to formally launch in spring 2022, and Yaseen will be overseeing a wide range of tasks — including marketing, product, customer feedback, design, accounting, and recruiting. 

“My hope is that FriendOver will suggest a ‘middle path’ to online socialization, education, and gaming,” she said. “Healthy tech use can be bridged with the real world and grounded in the motion of our bodies. And it still has that magic and fun that new technology brings — we like to say ‘more human, less hardware.’” 

“The College of Arts and Letters has given me many diverse experiences. Curious students and interdisciplinary engagement really helped me grow.”

Yaseen had time to dedicate to the startup during a gap semester she took in fall 2020, a formative break that helped clarify her goals and direction.

“It was nice to stop barreling forward so fast and wait a minute,” Yaseen said. “I came here really unsure of what to do. I like to do a lot of different things and hadn't explored any one thing deeply and independently.”

Renee Yassen And Danny
Yassen with her brother, Danny, the inspiration for FriendOver.

That interest in exploration is evident in the myriad activities she engages in. 

Yaseen, who has taken advanced coursework in Arabic and speaks it fluently, taught English to a Syrian refugee through the nonprofit online tutoring group Paper Airplanes. She also helped write grants for Career Analysis Organization of America, a nonprofit that seeks to provide students of all backgrounds with high-quality vocational preparation. That year, she got her start in social entrepreneurship as a finalist for the $10,000 C-Prize in Conservation, Climate Change, and Clean Energy innovation — her entry harnessed the power of behavioral science to increase campus reusable cup use.

She wrote columns for The Observer, including “Food for faith: what it’s like to be Muslim at Notre Dame,” which earned third place in the Indiana Collegiate Press Association Spring Division I awards, and “Where is the love?: Why fear is the wrong approach for climate activism” which was featured as part of Eaarth Feels Podcast’s “Best in Climate” series. 

Three of her commentaries were published in the Wall Street Journal’s Future View section, wherein college students respond to prompts about salient current issues. Yaseen also co-reviewed a book of poetry for The Adroit Journal, published a comparative politics paper in the Department of Political Science’s Beyond Politics Review, and had her poems published in Re:Visions and Bluing the Blade

Across her multitude of projects, Yaseen has applied the knowledge and skills she’s gained from her broad liberal arts education at Notre Dame. 

“The College of Arts and Letters has given me many diverse experiences,” she said. “Curious students and interdisciplinary engagement really helped me grow.”

Renee Yaseen Snite
Yaseen reading one of her poems at the Snite Museum of Art, her favorite place on campus.

Intellectual opportunities inside and outside the classroom have boosted her agency, confidence, and focus. Yaseen relishes debates with peers that continue long after philosophy classes end. And while some Notre Dame students plan to one day reserve the Basilica for their wedding, Yaseen’s friends joke that she’ll get married in the Snite Museum of Art because she spends so much time there.

Last fall, she co-produced the Snite’s ArtWords event, during which people shared poems inspired by the Jim Dine: American Icon exhibition. The Snite sent one of Yaseen’s poems to the innovative and acclaimed American artist and poet. He sent back a package with a sneak peek of both new (written in 2020 during quarantine) and reshaped pieces slated to be published this July in Jim Dine: A Beautiful Day: Seventeen Poems.

“In museums, I listen to the voices of all of these ingenious artists and creators, and I silently respond in my writing,” she said. “In this case, Dine actually heard me and replied back — and that was so meaningful. I’m grateful to everyone who works to make the Snite the most wonderful place on campus.” 

Yaseen’s academic experiences at Notre Dame got a jumpstart before her senior year of high school, when she attended a summer Leadership Seminar through the Office of Pre-College Programs that collaboratively examined "Religion and Conflict: Toward a Just Peace in Myanmar." Her first exposure to multidisciplinary research solidified the University as the place she wanted to be.

“After that, nowhere else came close,” she said. “I admire and respect its goal to be a force for good in the world.” 

After this spring’s Commencement, Yaseen will have significant responsibilities with FriendOver. She’s also been invited to apply for journalism internships and wants to continue writing.

“The support of my family, friends, and mentors helped me make the most out of these four years,” she said. “Notre Dame has taught me to live out my values and dreams to the fullest, and that there’s a community of people in this world who are there for me through every successful and unsuccessful attempt.”