Streamlining the Giving Game

Clay Neigher

July 6, 2011 · 10 minutes read

Uncategorized

DESIREE VARGAS-WRIGLEY DOESN’T JUST WANT YOU TO GIVE; she wants what you give to get to the right place. Her focus and find-a-way spirit were evident at an early age.

“When I was growing up, I was the type of person that if there was something I wanted to do, I figured out a way to make it happen. I remember my church hosted a trip that lasted three days and they didn’t tell you where you were going. It was $300, but that was just too much money for my mom. They gave us the option of being able to raise the money with a candy bar fundraiser. I sold so many candy bars, more than anyone had ever sold in the history of the church. I didn’t sell enough to cover my trip, but they were so impressed with my saleswoman-ship that they got the pastor to donate the rest of the funds, so I got to go for free.”

That kind of chutzpah helped inspire Desiree to start a business later in life. But before a business can be created, one must come up with an idea. Desiree created GiveForward with co-founder Ethan Austin and $5000 in angel investment money from her late grandfather, to streamline the online fundraising process to help those in need while maintaining a viable business model.

A COSTA RICAN GAL FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS, Desiree was born in Escazú, Costa Rica, a suburb of San Jose. Her will and strength were forged at an early age.

“I was dying to study in Spain when I was in high school. I applied even though I knew we couldn’t afford it. I was eligible for a scholarship, but wasn’t going to know till the very last minute. So my back up plan was to apply to all these community centers and small non-profits that gave out money in case the scholarship didn’t go through. I scraped together enough money and I worked my butt off. Between that and working a job putting together urinalysis kits for drug tests, I made enough money to go on this trip for a month. I think that is entrepreneurial behavior.”

DESIREE’S ROOTS AS AN ENTREPRENEUR came from butting heads with her grandfather. “My grandpa played an important role in my life. I think he was very much a men-rule-this-world-type of guy and I liked butting heads with him a lot about things, so he helped me to be driven.”

Though Desiree never took her grandfather’s old world stereotypes to heart, the fact remains that women are in the minority when it comes to pioneering a business in the US. This statistic coupled with her head butting sessions with her grandfather was something that Desiree always kept in the back of her head, but never let it deter her.

“I think men have a better way of dealing with the anxiety that comes with having their ego married to their business. They think, ‘Yeah, it’s my company, this is my ego and they are tied together.’ I think women are a little more sensitive about it. But what I have seen is strong women starting companies in Chicago. We are all fighting so hard to make a place for ourselves among the men who are doing the same thing. I don’t want to be known as a woman entrepreneur. I want to be known as a successful entrepreneur.”

“Also, how do you ride the line without coming across as a bitch when you are just trying to be a decision-maker? How do you talk to male employees who are actually older than you are and who consider you to be less experienced than their last boss? I am excited that there are so many more women coming into the spotlight. I think Excelerate (a Chicago based incubator) did a lot to help. That’s very rare for an incubator and I hope that continues to happen. I hope that we can figure out a way to help each other and build a network that is maybe a subset of BuiltInChicago. (a resource for “digital professionals” working to build web and mobile businesses in Chicago)”

GETTING A GOOD EDUCATION WAS A MANTRA IN DESIREE’S UPBRINGING. She knew it was the only way to level up in this world. Growing up with less then most of her classmates meant that she needed to snatch up every possible opportunity, whether it was a scholarship, a study abroad experience or an unpaid internship. Desiree’s upbringing made her painfully aware of the limitations that are organically placed in front of you without a solid education.

“My mom didn’t finish school until I was in school, so I grew up learning that if you don’t go to college, your life is going to be a lot harder. Getting into college was always my priority and I was working really hard in high school. I only played hard on the weekends. But I thought once I got in, basically I was done with having to work hard. That sounds so silly to think that now.”

FOR AS LONG AS DESIREE COULD REMEMBER, she dreamt of going to Georgetown to pursue international studies. But after one visit to Yale, coupled with a desire to be with an “edgier crowd” the decision was clear: Yale. But how to pay for it?

“I decided to write a letter to the Admissions Office at Yale saying I really want to attend, but Princeton made me this offer that was pretty hard to refuse. I got a letter back saying that they would match the offer, and I was eligible to take advantage of a unique scholarship program, so I took it.”

After graduation, Desiree was tested again. When she couldn’t afford to take an internships in big cities like New York or Washington D.C, she instead had to take an unpaid internship back in Kansas. It was during this internship that her future began to reveal itself.

“I couldn’t find a job so I was waiting tables in Kansas City at a bar and grille. I ended up waiting on this guy who said he worked at the Kaufman Foundation (an organization that educates, promotes and connects entrepreneurs) and that if I gave him my resume he would see if he could help me get it to the right person. I gave him my resume and he said it was terrible. He helped me fine-tune it a little bit. He circulated it and it ended up on the desk of this woman named Judith Cohen who was the Vice President of Entrepreneurship. I didn’t know it at the time, but the guy who had my resume just scheduled meetings for the Conference Center. He had no clout at all, so the fact that it got into her hands was pretty incredible.”

“She gave me this job that didn’t exist at the time: being a specialist in collegiate entrepreneurship. I didn’t have any responsibilities. I was just kind of her right hand while she was building this program called the Kaufman Campus Initiative. The whole point was to help non-business school students recognize entrepreneurial potential. It was about teaching students how to recognize good ideas, conducting feasibility studies and seizing entrepreneurial opportunities. Whether it’s about getting to be student council president or marketing yourself in the right way to get the job you want at the company you desire, an entrepreneurial mindset can push you forward in a lot of different areas of your life, even if you are not actually starting a business.”

A BORN BUSINESSWOMAN ON A MISSION, Desiree knows that it is so easy for startups to become set back by defeat, whether it’s investors falling through or facing personal financial hardships. What separates the businesses that fail from those that succeed is owning the fact that you’ve only failed if you quit. Startups need to see the difference between a roadblock and the end of the line. That is why the percentage of failure in the startup world is so high, especially in the tech business, where a virtual graveyard has been formed by great domain names without a site.

“It is a hard thing to quantify and at the same time it is really important to teach people that the don’t need to get a job at a big company so they can rise, rise, rise. As a 22- year old you can step outside of that mold and consider start-ups as a great place to learn as much as possible. They can learn so much that can be applied to another job or to their own company. That was a big part of what the work was like while I was there, and I got bitten by the entrepreneur bug.”

“My contract was coming to an end and I decided to move to Chicago where my boyfriend was living. The relationship ended up not being a good fit but it was a big life-learning lesson. I think when you grow up without money and you meet someone who is very comfortable and well-off and is willing to take care of you, it is easy to think ‘I’ll give this a try’ but ultimately you have to go with what makes you happy. The relationship didn’t work out, but it was the start of a new chapter in my entrepreneurial life. I’m glad I learned that lesson at 25 instead of 35.”

GiveForward is a web-based business that empowers donors to generate financial support for friends and family in need. “I had the idea for GiveForward before I left Kansas City. We were talking about Hurricane Katrina and complaining about how we were forced to give to a charity through our paychecks without knowing where the money was going, especially when you know that 40% is going to overhead. I don’t really have a problem with non-profits using money for overhead when they don’t have super-inflated salaries and they are smaller, but at the time it seemed so ridiculous that an employee is forced to blindly give “x” amount of their paycheck without control over the money’s destination.”

“I remember talking about how great it would be to give directly to families who were affected by the hurricane. This way we would have a greater sense of accomplishment and we would feel connected to the recovery in New Orleans. At the time we were disappointed that there wasn’t an easier way to give directly to the people. That got me thinking about the role of small-scale donors and how they really are the backbone of American philanthropy, but they don’t have much of a say in where their money goes. I was thinking how there should be a better tool.”

But how to go from point A to B?

“One thing I learned from Kaufman was that a lot of entrepreneurs make the mistake of thinking that they have to hold onto their idea tightly so no one else will steal it. But really what they should be doing is telling everyone so others can help.” It was painfully obvious to Desiree that networking and sharing war stories while trying to breathe life into a start-up was simply the right thing to do. Desiree became a sponge for information as her own startup began to take shape.

THE CONCEPT OF GIVEFORWARD coalesced during a trip to Costa Rica.

“I put even more thought into what GiveForward could be. I had already named it GiveForward in my mind because of an idea I had heard from an entrepreneurship professor. He was talking about the current generation of entrepreneurs needing to give forward to the next generation not by giving them money, but by giving them expertise and teaching them how to succeed. I had never heard the words ‘give forward’ put together before. I started to think about it in terms of small-scale donors: if people gave small amounts of money throughout their life versus waiting till after they died, they could create a bigger impact. I was trying to think of it as the opposite of ‘giving back’. So in November 2007 I bought the URL for GiveForward. Now I had a domain name, but what was the business going to be?”

“One night I woke up to this little voice inside my head telling me just to get started. I sat down in front of my computer and I wrote out this three-page executive summary about how this company would be a donor driven site that created a way for donors to feel connected to projects around the world.”

“I sent that three-page write-up to a professor at Northwestern whom I didn’t know, but was a part of a small business clinic inside their law school. I asked him how I could launch this company. He wrote back the next day and said, ‘If you are half as good at selling the concept to others as you are at presenting this idea to me, you are going to be a great success.’

“After hearing words like that, I was inspired to launch our company. So with my business partner Ethan, we launched with a Mardi Gras-like celebration targeted to sororities and fraternities, long distance runners and small non-profits. We hired cute interns dressed in GiveForward swag to give out free hugs and beads to them. Then in March 2009, a girl named Amy Cowan came to our site because she needed to raise money for her sister’s kidney transplant. Her sister had maxed out her coverage when she had a heart transplant at 10-years old. Amy had some previous experience with fundraising, so with the help of GiveForward they put together a 24-hour Facebook campaign that helped them raise $30,000 and get their story into the Chicago Tribune and USA Today.”

“From that experience we discovered is that our brand lent itself so well to medical space, and we decided to focus our attention just on medical fundraising. Before we were trying to service all types of fundraising, but we learned that without a focus, it is hard for a small company to grow. When we focused, we started to see a real change in our SEO and the type of people coming to our site. Word of mouth was strong with medical fundraisers, and we were getting a lot of referrals from other fundraising organizations. Nurses really loved what we were doing. Patients really loved our blogging tools and how we looked more like a patient blog site with a fundraising component. In March 2010, less than six months after we started and on the birthday of my late grandfather, we hit our first million dollars in donations.”

Today, GiveForward continues to grow into a successful business that generates revenue for the company while providing a noble service to its users. Recently they closed on a $500,000 round of funding as well to further boost their growth.

“I feel like we are in a really lucky place because we are helping people give to others without much donor fatigue. Our goal for 2011 is to be the number one site that people think of when a friend is in need. I think we can do it. I think we might be getting close to being that site.”

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