Chapel Hill: Opinion

Laurie Paolicelli: It’s a Learned World in the Bentley Building on Franklin Street

Terra Dotta, at 501 W. Franklin St., offers license and service options for offices of all sizes.
Terra Dotta, at 501 W. Franklin St., offers license and service options for offices of all sizes.

They were so close.

It was 2001 and UNC Ph.D. students Garrett Christian and Brandon Lee had almost completed their dissertations. But, a funny thing happened: the two became intrigued by the idea of launching a software product in the field of international education.

The idea soon became a vision. No clichéd garage start-up for them: the two used the janitor’s closet in Dey Hall at UNC – and then Lee’s spare bedroom – to give their vision shape.

A few years later they launched Terra Dotta (Learned World in Italian), now located in the Bentley Building on Franklin Street. Their software business remains true to their initial vision: international education and innovative software capabilities that serve educational and business offices through web-based interfaces available on any computer or mobile device connected to the Internet.

“While at UNC, we assisted professors and graduate students implementing technology in the classroom,” Garrett says. “While content-management systems were able to organize textual data, they did not address the multimedia needs of many classrooms. To address these needs, we created our first software product, Edufolio, which was used by UNC until 2009.”

When UNC’s Office of Study Abroad wanted to automate their student application process, it hired Christian and Lee to develop the new system. A year later the office was live online with program brochures, automated reminders and decision letters, insurance calculations, and much more.

This experience provided the basis for Terra Dotta’s web-based software program. It is designed to save users time and money by automating processes and to make it easier to ensure that applicants, staff, administrators and parents receive the important information they need.

With a reputation for creating international study abroad software, Terra Dotta began to work with inbound student and scholar records, interfacing with government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program. The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) tracks and monitor schools, exchange visitor programs and nonimmigrants while they visit the United States and participate in the U.S. education system.

Today, with a staff of 30, Terra Dotta regularly meets, dines and brainstorms in the heart of Chapel Hill. These tech entrepreneurs love being in the middle of a college town and regularly walk to local businesses where they support restaurants, shops and transportation-related businesses on a regular basis.

“We love Chapel Hill and want to stay here and grow our business,” says Christian.

Terra Dotta recently announced the signing of their 400th client, and the future looks good. In 2015, they plan to introduce a dynamic workflow system that will streamline everyday tasks in the office and SEVIS reporting integration for ISSS.

For a company that started in a custodian’s closet on the UNC Campus, and now employs 30 staffers whose average age is 30, there are a lot of questions one could ask its leaders about education, hard work and the Carolina way.

But there’s one thing co-founder Garrett Christian wants to make clear: Geeks are cool.

Laurie Paolicelli is the executive director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.