Our Campus: Sophie Berger blends computer programming, entrepreneurship and local shopping

Everyone has experienced the panic of scouring the Internet for a last-minute gift during the holiday season — furiously scrolling through Amazon until, finally, you find something just right for that special someone. You put the item in your basket and realize there’s no way that it will arrive before your family Christmas gathering tomorrow. Now what?

The average person would settle for a nice scented candle or a box of chocolates. Instead, last Christmas, computer science and master’s of management student Sophie Berger got to work. Within six hours, she created Local, a chrome extension that locates Amazon products in stores in your area.

“During the pandemic, everybody got so comfortable just going on Amazon, ordering things, and getting them shipped to [them], because [they] didn’t want to leave [their] apartment and go to stores. Now, since the pandemic is slowly shifting back to normal, there are a lot of people that are trying to find these local alternatives again, and I feel like this gives them a tool to do that.”

Berger’s work quickly started to attract international attention from marketers and fellow programmers. Since she didn’t come into the project with a business plan, Berger approached her entrepreneurship professor for advice and is currently in the beginning stages of negotiating with potential buyers to establish Local as a full-fledged business.

Local is Berger’s most recent endeavour, but it is far from being the only impressive computer programming achievement on her resume. In her teens, she became a founding engineer of Mindstep, a UK health startup that created a dementia screening app. As her first major project, it helped her begin to “see all the blood and sweat that goes into [creating a startup], and learn about both the technical side and the business side.”

“Of all my personal projects that I’ve done,” Berger said excitedly, “I always feel that the ones related to artificial intelligence and that space are the most fun. It’s cool to see a computer do stuff by itself.”

This is why she loves to participate in hackathons and computer programming competitions. Her favourite program that she created at one of these events was a physiotherapy tool that could measure the angles of a person’s limbs, then tell them whether or not they were doing the exercise correctly.

It is out of pure coincidence that much of Berger’s work has been related to health care, but she has come to realize that it genuinely is an area of interest for her.

“At one of the hackathons, I worked with a former UBC student that did his undergrad in pharmaceutical sciences. We developed an app that would let you, using near-field communication technology, tag prescription bottles and it would read out to you when and how you should take them. We ended up entering a competition with Microsoft and got pretty far in that,” Berger said.

Starting in grade nine, Berger knew she wanted to work with computers. She always enjoyed the creativity in programming. But above all, Berger finds herself most drawn to the entrepreneurial aspects, along with the freedom programming gives her to pursue passion projects.

“I [saw my parents] always complain about their work, and how they’re having a bad day … I thought that I don’t really want to be in that same position, of being in a job and not really enjoying it and just staying there for whatever reason,” said Berger. “That’s how the idea of entrepreneurship and working on these side projects really started for me. I wanted to take something that I was passionate about, an idea I believed in and turn that into my work.”

Although Berger grew up in Austria, she was drawn to Vancouver and UBC by the resources the university provides for programmers. She loves her home country, but since it lacks “space for entrepreneurship and innovation,” she emphasizes how grateful she is to be at a school with more support and opportunities for advancement.

In just a few months, Berger will begin working for LinkedIn as a software engineer, following a summer internship with the company. She will move to San Francisco for the job, which she describes as scary, exciting and “a logistical nightmare.” Though she has never been to the city before, she already has a suspicion that she will be returning to Vancouver at some point in the future since she has fallen in love with its possibilities for outdoor exploration — a key aspect of how she maintains some peace of mind in her busy life. However, she recognizes that her transition to a new city is a prime opportunity to “just get out and see what’s out there.”

Going into this new stage of life, she holds tightly to a principle which has helped guide her to success: “Stick with your idea, and know why you want to stick with it … because that’s what’s going to allow you to tell other people why you’re passionate and get them onto your side.”