Student Paralyzed at Frat Party Tackles Entrepreneurial Goals: 'This Isn't Going to Define Me'
"I don't want to just be known as someone in a wheelchair," Anthony Zhang tells PEOPLE
Anthony Zhang, 21, was riding high in April 2016 when his world was suddenly turned upside down.
Not long after receiving a $100,000 grant from billionaire Mark Cuban, Zhang had dropped out of the University of Southern California—where he was studying business—to focus on his rapidly expanding on-campus food-delivery service that he’d been running out of his dorm room.
And then one evening at a fraternity party in Las Vegas he dove into a swimming pool and smashed his head on the bottom. By the time his friends pulled him from the water he was paralyzed from the neck down.
“I misjudged the depth,” Zhang tells PEOPLE, describing the accident that shattered his neck and spinal cord, leaving him a quadriplegic. “All I remember is not being able to move anything.”
In the year and a half since that life-changing moment, the upbeat, focused young business whiz has fought to regain the use of his limbs while also continuing to tackle his entrepreneurial passions.
He spent weeks in the ICU as doctors fought to control his numerous medical complications and was eventually flown to Denver’s Craig Hospital, which specializes in spinal cord injuries.
“The last thing on my mind was business,” says Zhang. “I was having to relearn how to breathe by myself and other basic tasks of living, like raising my arms.”
For much the preceding two years, however, Zhang had been consumed with business—most specifically the start-up that he created as a freshman with four of his buddies in 2014.
The idea behind the business was hatched one night while studying in the library at USC, where, like many of the campus buildings, only students and staff are allowed—not food delivery drivers.
“I’d always hear my friends saying, ‘I’m so hungry right now that I’d pay someone $10 if they brought me a burrito,’ ” recalls Zhang. “One day, I was like, ‘I’ll do it for $10 if you pay me.'”
Before long, he was making $50 a night delivering food to dorms and study rooms, calling the service EnvoyNow. In the months that followed, he and his friends created an app and began hiring students to deliver everything from Chipolte to Chick-Fil-A and the business took off, expanding to two other universities.
When Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban and Mark Burnett appeared on campus the next year during a speaking event, Zhang was in the audience.
“The professor who organized the event asked, ‘Who wants to pitch them an idea?'” Zhang remembers. “The next thing I knew I was telling them about EnvoyNow and Mark (Cuban) was grilling me and finally he said, ‘What’s your ask?'”
Zhang admits he had no idea how much of an investment to ask for. “So I just pulled out the first two numbers that popped into my head—$100,000 for a 10 percent stake and Mark said, ‘I’ll do the deal,'” he recalls, still sounding shocked by the investment.
Over the next two years the business grew to 22 campuses and employed nearly 1,500 students.
And then Zhang’s accident happened. In the months that followed, he spent countless hours each day in physical therapy, fighting to regain some sense of control over his body. When he finally checked in with his partners, he learned that the once-booming business was floundering without him and they wanted to shut it down.
Instead, once Zhang was strong enough, he began juggling physical therapy with focusing on getting the company back on track—which he managed to do. By March 2017 he sold EnvoyNow to the food delivery firm JoyRun for what he describes as a “pretty decent” amount.
Now, the unstoppable Zhang—whose college girlfriend McKenna Weinstein has remained by his side since his accident—is focusing on his next venture—Know Your VC, which will allow startup founders to anonymously share vetted reviews on venture capitalists and angel investors.
“I don’t want to just be known as someone in a wheelchair,” says Zhang, who has begun to regain the use of his arms and hands and is hoping to one day make a “full” recovery. “It would be easy to stay in bed all day and feel sorry for myself. But I’m not going to let this define me. I’d much rather be known for my business skills.”