Storms, Super Bowl Parties and Sexism: One Founder's Winding Road to Success

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“I saw a family raising money for their baby’s heart transplant. They needed $300,000 and they were trying to do it a quarter at a time. I remember thinking: If they could do it over the Internet, it would be so much more successful.” - Desiree Vargas Wrigley, GiveForward co-founder. By Carly Keyes (Staff Writer, Silicon Rust Belt)

A chance meeting started Desiree Vargas Wrigley on the road to entrepreneurship.

Born in Costa Rica, Wrigley moved to Kansas at age three. After graduating from Yale with a B.A. in Latin American Studies, she got a job at a restaurant. That might not sound like a promising start to becoming a successful entrepreneur, but one day she waited on a guy who works at the Kauffman Foundation, which funds entrepreneurship and youth development.

“He was working on a new initiative on college campuses trying to get entrepreneurship out of the business school and into the liberal arts and sciences where people have creative ideas but don’t know how to implement them. I came on as kind of a glorified assistant and ended up becoming a specialist in that field,” she said in an interview.

A Storm and the Super Bowl

The experience of working with young entrepreneurs inspired Wrigley to begin contemplating owning her own business one day. Then Hurricane Katrina hit while she was working at Kauffman, which sparked the fire that would eventually lead to her online fundraising startup GiveForward.

“I just felt really hypocritical blindly giving money to the Red Cross while there are 80 of us at the Kauffman foundation trying to think of the most strategic way to give money,” Wrigley says. “It just seemed like an undemocratic process. It got me thinking: why isn’t there a way for people just to give to people?”

Six months later, Wrigley celebrated her 25th birthday and had a personal and professional breakthrough.

“I was going to leave my job, move to Chicago, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to have a sense of purpose,” Wrigley says. As she contemplated the possibility of a company to help people find their passions, she stumbled upon a market opportunity. “The light bulb went on,” she says. “There was really no way, at the time, to raise money online if you wanted a registered 501c3, and PayPal was still kind of new and not a really well used.”

But Wrigley ran into some competition as she began to formulate a plan that was similar to Change.org, and The Point, both of which originally had fundraising components. But when Change.org became a social action site, and The Point turned into Groupon, Wrigley decided to take action. “I decided I’m going to just register this domain I’ve had in my mind, and miraculously the domain 'giveforward.com' had become available like three weeks before that day I went to look for it,” she says.

A month later at a Super Bowl Party, one of Wrigley’s friends linked her up with Ethan Austin, who at the time was looking to start a marathon fundraising site. They met in person in March 2008, Austin moved to Chicago in May, and together they launched the site for GiveForward in August.

Battling Sexism

As her business got up and running, Wrigley encountered a few drawbacks of being a female CEO in a world dominated largely by men. She describes a couple vivid memories of pitching her company to investors.

“I’m standing up there, in what I think is my power suit, really trying to sell [GiveForward], and the guy directed every single question to Ethan,” Wrigley recalls. “I was furious. Even one my favorite investors who saw me demo, I think he just thought I was like the marketing cheerleader-person,” she continues. “At the follow-up, he was directing every question at Ethan, who is redirecting them to me, and then at the end he shakes Ethan’s hand and says, ‘Ethan I can tell you’re really a hardcore businessman.’ And I’m sitting there going, ‘Are you kidding me? I answered every single one of your questions!’”

Now that her business has been operating successfully for five years, Wrigley says she doesn’t encounter those issues anymore, but describes another challenge: motherhood.

“I wouldn’t say I’m good at balancing career and motherhood, but I’m comfortable with the imbalance,” she explains. “It was more difficult when I was pregnant because of the unknown. One of our investors, when we were on a panel together, said, ‘Well the truth is we don’t know what’s going to happen when Desiree has her baby. Will she want to work? Will she quit?’ and I remember thinking, ‘You don’t know me at all!’ But I appreciated his honesty because that’s the truth, you don’t necessarily know. It can be a scary thing for an investor.”

Wrigley wanted to prove that she could be a mother and a CEO, as she feared being pushed out of the company by those who view having a child as a distraction. “And the reality is that it is a huge distraction,” Wrigley admits. “There’s this thing growing inside of you. You’re a little bit slower when you’re pregnant. You have a little bit of ‘baby brain.' But it’s a very short period of time, and people have to recognize that there are other things that are just as distracting for men like a divorce, or a death in the family.”

Wrigley offers one final piece of advice for women in tech: you don’t have to play the same games as the men in order to get to where you want to be. “Be yourself. You don’t have to just be all chummy chummy with investors. You can come into a board meeting and say: ‘This is what I’m about. I’m serious. I know my stuff. I can deliver a great company and a great team.'”

Women 2.0 readers: What lucky break was key to your entrepreneurial success?

About the guest blogger: Carly Keyes is a student at the University of Michigan and a staff writer for Silicon Rust Belt, which covers technology and cultural innovation in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Born and raised in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Carly studied at the Wharton School of Business at The University of Pennsylvania where she also played Division I soccer. After sophomore year, she transferred to The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She will graduate in May 2014.

 

Photo Credit: Ryan Buterbaugh