Digital technology for social good
Alumna and student harness their passion for volunteering through entrepreneurship
It’s admirable to start your own venture or build a successful business of any kind, but some entrepreneurs aim to do more than just make a profit; social entrepreneurs want to bring resources and opportunities to people and organizations who need it most.
Carol Luong ’08, MBA ’09 — who co-founded GreatPositive, a technology platform intended to “fix” the broken industry of online philanthropy — was introduced to giving back at a young age.
“I’ve been volunteering since I was 12, and that has shaped who I have become and what I am doing today in my career,” says Luong, who received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration from the School of Management (SOM). “My first volunteer experience was with a nursing home and then at a pediatrics center in Queens. Those opportunities exposed me to the many different aspects of community and to giving back.”
Once an aspiring lawyer, Luong changed course and was accepted into SOM for her sophomore year, where she made close connections with faculty and peers.
“SOM allows students to dig deep and get our hands dirty by working on projects with outside businesses and local communities,” Luong says.
One assignment she remembers is conducting informational interviews with executives and CEOs in New York City. The exercise was intimidating for Luong who wasn’t used to speaking with such high-profile people. Eventually she relaxed, enjoyed great conversations and made strong connections.
“This taught me the skill of networking that I still use today,” she says.
After graduating from Binghamton with her MBA, Luong held several positions in the corporate world and at various startups, but the work left her unfulfilled.
“I felt restless at other jobs because I wasn’t working on what I was truly passionate about,” she says.
Three years ago, Luong quit her full-time job to follow her passion to help nonprofits succeed in their fundraising initiatives. She and her fiancé and business partner, Matthew Martindale, co-founded GreatPositive.
Luong says her volunteer experience exposed her to the hardships nonprofits face on a daily basis. GreatPositive is a technology platform that assists these organizations with their online fundraising.
“In my experience, nonprofit [administrators] always have a lot of ideas but can’t implement them because of budgetary restraints and technology that doesn’t suit their needs. Right now, nonprofit organizations rely a lot on third-party services for collecting donations, and they can charge a lot of additional fees,” she says.
Martindale is the platform’s product designer and engineer. Luong oversees the GreatPositive’s marketing, customer relations and business development and says her coursework at Binghamton gave her the tools she needed to succeed.
“Professor Manoj Agarwal’s Marketing Research class taught me a lot about gathering information and surveying people, as well as understanding the importance behind the results,” Luong says. “Associate Professor Kim Jaussi’s leadership course, where we worked with a local non-profit, taught me about marketing and programming. We learned about ourselves, and who we were as leaders and professionals.”
Luong says GreatPositive is transparent with low-cost fees and doesn’t charge based on a percentage of the overall donation. The platform allows donors to opt to cover the credit card fees as well so that 100 percent of the donation can go to the participating nonprofit.
“Competitors out there are taking 8 percent to 10 percent of the donation,” Luong says.
Luong has set small, tangible goals for GreatPositive and credits the Binghamton University Marketing Association (BUMA) for its assistance in the company’s early stages.
“When GreatPositive started, I was able to connect with the president of BUMA for brainstorming and feedback. It was great that I could reach out to my alma mater and have current students provide valuable business recommendations,” she says.
GreatPositive has assisted more than 20 nonprofits, raising over $100,000 for the organizations. Luong plans to roll out a new online product in the next year that will assist hundreds of additional organizations.
App helps those in distress
Satvik Sethi, a sophomore majoring in business, also founded a startup venture to fulfill his passion for helping those in need.
Soon after arriving on campus, Sethi — an international student from New Delhi, India — began meeting with faculty, staff and students.
Sethi says his early initiative and involvement provided him with the business skills and confidence necessary to launch his startup. Called the Runaway App, his nonprofit aims to bring positive change to the world by offering virtual support to people who are in distress, whether they’re battling a mental-health issue or just in need of a friend.
Sethi says that his eagerness to help others was instilled in him early in life.
“Since I was a kid, I would go with my grandparents and parents to animal shelters and senior centers to volunteer. I remember, one time, my family donated an entire truckload of bricks to a nonprofit organization that was rebuilding a home.”
Long before officially sharing the concept of Runaway, Sethi was using his personal Instagram account to offer a listening ear to those who wanted to private message him to talk.
“I’ve spoken to over 150 people over the years and still stay in contact with many of them,” he says.
For now, he’s turning his attention to developing Runaway’s platform, with plans to launch next year.
“I’ve taken a break from finding new people who need friends and am focusing on redoing Runaway’s website and building an app that gives users easier access to support. The website is going to have more features like ‘the positivity zone,’ a page filled with art, music and things that can make someone who is feeling low, feel better. In simple terms, I call it the happy place,” Sethi explains.
Sethi is working on another feature so app users will receive immediate responses despite being in different time zones.
“I’m working with friends who are building an artificial intelligence bot that will allow website visitors to speak to someone at any time,” he says.
Being proactive on campus has also helped Sethi find resources to advance his app and other goals.
He applied to the University’s Emerging Leaders Program, which allows freshmen and transfer students to work collaboratively with faculty, staff and undergraduate peer mentors to practice leadership skills. He was accepted to the program’s Business and Entrepreneurship Knowledge Community.
“Case competitions are one of the best resources for School of Management students. I’ve already participated in five during my freshman year — which is unheard of — and I’ve taken first place in two of them.”
His advice to others, especially those new to the United States and looking to pursue their passion?
“I would tell someone moving to America for the first time, or being an international student to chase your dreams and passions with all of your heart,” he says. “Good things come to those who work for it. There’s an abundance of opportunities available, especially at places like Binghamton; we just need to find them and utilize them.”