(Photo by Juliana Reyes)
Shari Shapiro has always been an entrepreneur in the making.
When she was a sophomore in college at Brown University, just as the internet was taking off, she built a program to teach college students about international development. She debuted it at the United Nations Conference for Women in Beijing and garnered attention from the Wall Street Journal, but she got spooked and ended up dropping it. (She turned down the Wall Street Journal’s request for an interview.)
A few years later, after she graduated from college, she founded a company aimed at helping college students transition into the real world. She raised seed money and saw some traction but ultimately ditched the idea.
She decided to go to law school instead.
Now, after nearly 20 years as an attorney and lobbyist, the 40-year-old mother of two is doing the damn thing.
“I didn’t want to turn 40 working for someone else,” she said, with a laugh, but something about the way she looked at us made us think this wasn’t a joke.
Her startup is iVocate, a “Match.com for advocates.” She wants it to be a way to connect advocates around specific issues, essentially a digital answer to boots-on-the-ground organizing work. Her thinking: if large advocacy organizations like Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association can use iVocate to team up with like-minded groups, they’ll be even stronger and more successful at pushing policy at the local level — that’s where much of this work is being done, she said.
She’s still running her consulting business, where she works as a lobbyist, but she’s landed some pilot customers and built the prototype with Jeff Chan, a Media-based developer at a pharma company whom Shapiro met at civic hacking group Code for Philly. (We noticed a Code for Philly sticker on her laptop.) Chan is no longer working with iVocate, Shapiro told us.
What if advocates are using the platform to rally around issues she doesn’t believe in? That’s actually part of the magic, Shapiro said.
“If this is going to work,” she said, “it needs to be a politically-neutral platform.”
Her hope is that organizations that don’t usually see eye to eye might find common ground on iVocate and be all the better for it. That’s important now more than ever, she said, because of how partisan politics has become.
“We can’t stay stuck in the positions we’ve always had, with the allies we’ve always worked, within the jurisdictions that we’ve always worked,” she said.
According to Shapiro, competitors include NationBuilder, which focuses more on grassroots advocacy organizations, and FiscalNote, which helps organizations stay up to date on legislation but doesn’t offer the matchmaking portion that iVocate does.
We spoke to Shapiro at CityCoHo, the coworking space at 24th and Walnut where she works and is known as the resident decaf champion. (She’s been fighting her caffeine addiction and has gotten down to one cup a day.)
“Your New Year’s resolution is to drink less caffeine,” she posted on the coworking space’s decaf pot, which she makes when she arrives every morning from her home in Lower Merion.
People have gotten so used to her “derogatory notes” that they get upset when she doesn’t post one, she said.
As for her late bloomer entrepreneurship story, she said that the tech scene needs to see more types of founders.
“The image of a tech innovator as a 23-year-old wunderkind” is problematic, she said.
“If grownups are not willing or feel alienated from stepping into that [entrepreneurship] space, we’re going to lose a lot of value.”