Smith Tanny came to the United States from Indonesia on a one-year exchange program.
But as he was nearing the end of his exchange, something happened that changed the trajectory of his life — and the lives of thousands of people in his home country.
This tragedy would also ultimately lead to the founding of Roomdock, a website that connects traveling students with American host homes.
It was 1998. Smith Tanny, who goes by the nickname Smitty, had grown up on a tropical, U-shaped island in Indonesia, where his grandparents had immigrated from China, escaping a widespread famine in the 1800s.
Due to his heritage, Smitty grew up feeling like an outsider. He was bullied and picked on for being different.
He even had to change his Chinese name, Tan, to the Indonesian version, Tanny. The “Smith” came from the name of a pilot who crashed and died on an island nearby: Adam Smith.
“My parents wanted me to be a pilot when I was growing up,” Smitty says.
Although he did not get a Chinese name, he did inherit his grandparents’ drive to work hard and strive for a better life, which led to a natural curiosity in travel.
That’s how he ended up in the United States, after graduating high school in Indonesia. His exchange program enrolled him in an extra senior year, so he could learn about the American way of life, live with a host family and learn from them, and experience the traditional American rites of teenage passage, like prom.
“I was interested in the adventure of it, the excitement of being able to immerse and live and find my own path through life,” Smitty says. “More importantly, I wanted to be able to make a difference in this world, and I was unable to do it in my own little cocoon.”
He was 18, living in a small town in Vermont, getting ready to head back home, when riots broke out in his home country.
The riots were sparked by economic problems, and targeted especially at Chinese immigrants, such as Smitty’s family. More than 1,000 people are estimated to have died in the riots. people were burned to death, he says. Smitty’s neighborhood was burned to the ground — fortunately when his family was visiting another part of the island. They were smuggled onto a boat and left for another island.
The currency inflated massively, too, leaving both Smitty and his family financially strapped.
“My family told me, ‘I know you’re supposed to go back home but the situation is not improving. You can come back and you may not survive; there are a lot who got killed,’” Smitty says. “‘Or you can stay and survive.’”
With only $200 to his name, nowhere to live, no legal way to stay and only a short period of time before his visa would expire, he began frantically searching for options. He says he sent thousands of letters a week to universities around the country, looking for enrollment and financial aid.
He didn’t know where to go for this help; there was no central, educational website at the time. Craigslist was unreliable, at best, and he was worried about its safety. Other lodging websites, like AirBNB, had not yet been invented yet.
While searching for a home (his time with his host family was up), he learned firsthand how hard it is to find a reliable, safe place to live.
“There’s a trust factor. You don’t know anybody. You don’t even know where to begin,” Smitty says.
He was admitted to a technical school in Colorado, which was more than lucky, because he also had an uncle who lived in Denver. He had enough money to buy a one-way ticket to Colorado and a few days of food.
In school, he worked 20 hours a week on campus tutoring other students. He enrolled in night school until midnight, and then embarked on a three-hour bus ride back home.
“There were days that all I ate was apples, because I didn’t have anything,” he says. “The family I was living with were already just scraping by, too. Starting out, like me.”
He says he had no idea what his future would hold, but he focused on studying hard and keeping his faith that his path would lead to success — and the opportunity to bring his family here to give them a better life, too.
“I would survive, no matter what. It’s for my family, I must be able to sponsor them over as soon as possible” Smitty says.
And he did. His sophomore year, a company recruited him and offered to sponsor him; he was one of the top computer science students in his class. That’s how he bought a car, paid off his schooling and graduated with no debt.
After meeting his wife and launching his career, one question kept looming in his head: “How can I give back to the world?”
He thought about all of the people who had supported him through his hard times, and he realized it was now his turn to help others who needed it. He thought about the big problems he experienced as a young student, in particular, how to find a reliable place to live.
He decided to combine his love of travel, real estate and computers and camp up with a website concept to help international students find housing. In 2014, it turned into Roomdock, and the website launched in 2015.
Since then, Roomdock has about 6,000 users, 30 percent that are international students. The website is growing quickly and Smitty has big plans for its future — and its potential to help more people.
As for his family, he did help his two younger brothers leave Indonesia. One lives and works in the United States and one is in Canada today. Smitty is married to a woman he met in Colorado and he has two young children.
It’s important to remember where you have been, Smitty says, because this makes you humble, never give up and always appreciating what you have in life.
“I don’t take a day for granted, because every second counts for me, and I’m in a race with time to contribute while I am still here and to leave my legacy before I die,” he says. “I have energy and passion and I’m alive. No matter how much bad I experience, I always think, ‘I am still alive, so I can still make a difference.’”