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Entrepreneurs / Good Works

How this Penn undergrad is disrupting volunteerism

Tess Michaels's startup, Soceana, offers a new twist on philanthropy.

Mark Weier, head of the Gore Automotive division Courtesy photo

Tess Michaels is not your ordinary 21-year-old entrepreneur. She’s a full-time college student at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing two degrees, one in the life sciences, and another in business at the Wharton School. Yet she manages to spend upwards of 30 hours each week on her social enterprise, Soceana.

Bridging philanthropy and volunteerism.

Soceana is an online platform that connects volunteers from corporations and student organizations to volunteer groups. It also incorporates a mix of data analytics, feedback systems and a LinkedIn-type of social volunteering platform.

“We started out as a one-stop shop for corporate volunteerism then we became this one-stop shop for corporate and youth volunteerism,” Michaels said. “Now we’re this disruptive vehicle bridging philanthropy and volunteerism through social currency.”

Disrupting volunteerism

This social currency Michaels is particularly excited about is “Philas,” which the team just finished filing the patent for.

The concept behind Philas is that philanthropists will still be giving the same amount of money; but now there’ll be conditions and challenges for volunteers to unlock.

Call it the gamification of giving.

Every time someone volunteers, that volunteer will be able to get social currency which she can use to unlock some of the money from the philanthropist. The volunteer can then choose to send funds to a nonprofit or charitable organization.

This doesn’t only give donors and philanthropists more visibility, but it also creates a multiplier effect that incentivizes people to volunteer more.

“When I look at Soceana, I look at it as an idea of generating social tides, like an ocean, every drop counts,” Michaels said. Thus the name: Soceana is a combination of “social” and “ocean,” she explained.

Finding a cofounder

“One thing I do love about Soceana are the sharp learning curves, this is what keeps me excited because I’m always learning something new,” Michaels said.

She mentioned how it was hard during the start, when she would walk into tech and entrepreneurship meetups as the only female college student. Overtime, she got used to it and started pitching at every meetup she went to in hopes of finding a technical cofounder.

You are what your startup stands for.

Before she knew it, Michaels had met Peter Menninger at a Philly Tech Breakfast, an expert technologist who offered a few hours a week to help build up the Soceana platform.

Fast forward a few weeks and Menninger was sold on the mission. He joined Soceana full-time. Last summer, Michaels added full-time interns from schools like Rutgers and the University of Texas.

“Everyone is just becoming attached to the mission, the potential,” Michaels said. “You are what your startup stands for.”

Enjoying the ride

For Michaels, that even extends to the ski slopes.

She participated in this year’s “Peak Pitch” event organized by High Peaks Venture Partners. As the youngest entrepreneur there, Michaels had to give three-minute pitches to investors on the way up the mountain, then ski back down and repeat.

2014 also brought an appearance at the 1776 Global Challenge Cup in Washington D.C.

That came after winning in the Smart Cities category of the NYC Challenge Cup.

“It was such an incredible experience to meet so many other innovative, driven, passionate entrepreneurs who were focused on disruptive ways to make a tangible difference in the world,” Michaels said of the experience.

Advice to student entrepreneurs

  • Work at the edge of your competence.
  • Follow causes you care about.
  • Find the right supporters early.

Ultimately, Michaels wants to be remembered as the woman who left a legacy in every thing she joined or participated in, whether it be Soceana or the biotech club.

She hopes to continue reaching out to more corporations, employees, students and volunteer networks. With the way Soceana is growing, social impact may be where Michaels makes her biggest mark.

Companies: University of Pennsylvania

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