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Building a Community for Vulnerable Loved Ones (Without Wearing a Banana Suit)

by Sarah Stankorb

November 4, 2014

Ethan Austin initially moved back into his childhood bedroom in Newport Beach, California as a freshly minted American University law school grad, awaiting his Bar exam results. Austin was scoring in the 99th percentile on practice tests and feeling confident. Then, in the summer of 2007, he got an email linked to a list of those who’d passed. His name wasn’t there. He’d failed the California Bar exam.

“I felt horrible,” says Austin. He’d done well in law school and was embarrassed. He adds, “no one wants to be a failure.” He took a day or two to sulk and, fittingly, watched a lot of Arrested Development. Suddenly, he wasn’t a guy crashing his parents’ house for a brief break before a bright and busy future in law, he was a guy living with his folks, indefinitely.

But something started churning in the back of Austin’s mind. He had a wild idea for creating a crowdfunding website, something everyday people could use to raise money for all sorts of charitable endeavors.

Back in law school, he’d done a marathon raised funds for St. Jude’s, one of the 25 approved nonprofit partners for the run. He got a rush from raising his first $2,500 from family and friends, but then hit a wall. “I had to get more creative,” recalls Austin. So he promised he’d run the marathon in a banana costume, and soon started training in it, running around Washington, D.C. dressed like a banana and passing out business cards directing people to his fundraiser.

He raised more than $6,000, and came to a realization—there should be a platform for people to fundraise for whatever matters most to them.

Despite spending his days at home on a regimented schedule in preparation to retake his Bar exam, the notion that he should create this other thing nagged at him. He told his friends his fundraising platform idea, but none of them were willing to quit their jobs and start a company with him, and he didn’t have the guts to do it on his own.

In February 2008, he retook the Bar, and a chapter in his life began to close, even before he got the results back. He heard from an ex-girlfriend who’d met a woman named Desiree Vargas at a Super Bowl party. She, like Austin, was full of ideas for a sort of pick-your-cause fundraising site.

“Most people would just nod,” as he described crowdfunding to them—back before crowdfunding was a term—remembers Austin. But once he talked to Vargas, “We both finally felt like, ‘ah, somebody else gets it.’” He began to think, “this could be something really big.”

Within a month, the two had agreed to go into business together, developing what would become GiveForward. They each fundraised small amounts of startup capital in their respective hometowns. Remotely, they pored over wireframes, created an original business plan, figured out their LLC structure, and by August the new business partners had moved to Chicago and launched the site.

During that busy startup period, Austin received a surprise text from a friend congratulating him on passing the Bar. Austin hadn’t even known the results were coming out. “I was definitely so committed at that point and excited about what we were doing with GiveForward,” says Austin, that he no longer considered practicing law.

Austin moved to Chicago, scraping by as a freelance writer, all the while building GiveForward—without taking a salary—living off some savings his late father had left him (and a steady diet of cereal and burritos). He says that he would give anything to have his father back, but at the same time, it was what he left him—inspiration, and yes, that inheritance—that allowed him to start a platform that helps families going through difficult circumstances.

Today, GiveForward has helped people raise over $128 million toward all sorts of needs—from covering their loved ones’ medical bills to recovering from home fires. Vargas—who lost her grandfather to lung cancer—and Austin were both made more compassionate by their families’ health battles. “[But] I don’t think we understood at the time the scope of how big the problem really was,” says Austin.

He’s where he is today because of that sensitivity, because back at law school he cared more about raising money and running around in a banana suit than studying, and because, when he needed it, his mother did what most families would do if they could.

The free rent and food his mother provided, says Austin, “gave me time to decide what I really wanted to do.” He adds, “had I not been living at home, I do not think I would be doing what I’m doing today.”

This is the second part of a series on Millennials who moved back to their parents’ homes during the 2008 recession—where they ended up building awesome things. Read the first entry here.

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Building a Community for Vulnerable Loved Ones (Without Wearing a Banana Suit)