Gene Gurkoff, Founder & CEO of Charity Miles
When Gene Gurkoff, Founder and CEO of Charity Miles, ran his first marathon nearly 15 years ago, he never imagined those first steps would lead him down the path to CEO of his own company. An athlete and former lawyer turned entrepreneur, Gene shares his extraordinary commitment to social impact in the form of a free iPhone and Android app that enables anyone to earn money for charity by walking, running or biking.
As our Millennial Maker, Gene shares the story behind Charity Miles and his advice for integrating passion and purpose.
What inspired you to start Charity Miles?
I started running marathons in 2002 in honor of my grandfather, who is living with Parkinson's but turns 95 this week! Since then, I have felt lucky to be sponsored by my friends and family for over 40 marathons, but always wanted to find companies who would sponsor me. I thought that if I could get enough people together for an event, then we'd might have enough clout for a big brand to sponsor us. With the advent of the iPhone, I saw an opportunity to do just that. If I could get enough people on one side of the phone, then companies would want to be on the other side of that phone, and we could all give back.
How is Charity Miles empowering big brands like Chobani and Johnson & Johnson to have a greater impact?
Companies like Chobani and Johnson & Johnson are mission-driven, just like us. And while the people who work for those companies would much rather put their budgets towards the greater good, they also need to drive ROI for their business. So we provide a platform that enables our sponsors to connect with each of our members personally as they move for a cause that is close to their hearts. In doing this, we're changing the relationship between brands and their customers by forging partnerships based on a common purpose. And since all of our ROI is measurable, our sponsors are empowered to use their marketing budgets for good.
We provide a platform that enables our sponsors to connect with each of our members personally as they move for a cause that is close to their hearts. In doing this, we're changing the relationship between brands and their customers by forging partnerships based on a common purpose.
How important is community for the Charity Miles' model?
I always say we are not building an app; we are building a community. But really, it's our members who are forging the community, and I just feel lucky to be a part of it. One of our members suffers from Crohn's disease, and at times it is particularly bad and she is unable to run. She has made friends with a number of other Charity Milers through Facebook and they have rallied behind her, dedicating their miles to her when she can't participate. She sent me the nicest note the other day. It's stories like these that keep me and our team inspired.
What has been the biggest challenge you've faced when it comes to engaging millennials in charitable giving on a continuous basis?
One of the biggest challenges is that people have a limited amount of attention, and a million different things vying for it at any given second. This is particularly true for millennials who each have a highly sophisticated mobile slot machine (aka smart-phone) in their hands at all times, constantly beeping and buzzing with notifications from all sorts of apps and social networks that are algorithmically engineered to addict us. Breaking through all that noise can be very challenging. But we can also learn from the other apps and social networks to co-opt their habit-forming secrets for good.
What advice would you give future Millennial Makers?
You don't have to leave your job or found a startup to make a difference. Get involved with something that you are passionate about, and walk with that purpose in your heart each day. It will begin to infect you, change the way that you see the world, and also affect many of the decisions you make every day. Take your first steps and be open to where the road might take you. When I ran my first marathon in 2002, I never could have imagined that those 26.2 miles were just the start of a journey that would lead me to this.
Get involved with something that you are passionate about, and walk with that purpose in your heart each day.
Most memorable startup moment?
In our first year, we almost went out of business. I had flown to LA for a meeting with a potential investor, and the meeting didn't go well. On the redeye flight home, I sent a newsletter to our members. It was a regular newsletter that had nothing to do with our tenuous business status, but my mood must have come through somehow. One of our members wrote me back a very meaningful email about what Charity Miles meant to him and said, "Don't worry, boss. We've got your back." I'll always remember that. I'm so grateful to our community for always supporting and inspiring us-- and me personally.
Favorite activity for logging charity miles?
My favorite way to log Charity Miles is simply to walk. I walk a mile to and from work each day. I walk my 3-month old son, Max in his stroller. And I try to walk wherever I'm going in New York City. When I started Charity Miles, I didn't realize how powerful a simple walk could be. But walking with purpose has changed so much for me. I see and experience the world differently now. And it's impacting all sorts of big and small decisions I make every day. I believe that this impact will be far greater than any amount of money that we can raise for charity. Which is why our mission at Charity Miles is to grow a movement of people who walk every day with a cause in our hearts.
Words to live by?
Ten miles behind me, ten thousand more to go... - James Taylor