Katie Blomquist: “Even with a nonprofit, there are going to be “haters” when you are successful”

Don’t get your hopes up every time something exciting might happen. Lots and lots of people have great intentions but the follow through isn’t always there. I’ve had countless meetings where I left feeling like something massive was about to happen as a result of the meeting but sometimes it just doesn’t. That’s not to […]

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Don’t get your hopes up every time something exciting might happen. Lots and lots of people have great intentions but the follow through isn’t always there. I’ve had countless meetings where I left feeling like something massive was about to happen as a result of the meeting but sometimes it just doesn’t. That’s not to say this is the case every time. We have had a lot of amazing things happen because wonderful people have kept their promises! But don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Otherwise, you’ll find yourself disappointed a lot!

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Blomquist — Founder and Executive Director of Going Places and Katie Blomquist, LLC. Katie grew up in Los Angeles, California, studied sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and then began a five-year career in marketing while living in Chicago, IL before realizing she felt a desire to find a career aimed at making a difference in people’s lives. She then received her Masters Degree in Elementary Education at Roosevelt University. At a time when the Chicago Public School system closed eighty schools, Katie decided to move to Charleston, SC where she taught in low-income, high poverty elementary schools for six years. In 2016, Katie began a GoFundMe raising over 80,000 dollars and bought all 650 students in her school a new bike, lock, and helmet. Because of the tremendous success of that campaign and her passion for the Title 1 community, Katie made the difficult decision to leave teaching and further this work on a much larger scale by founding Going Places where she can impact hundreds of thousands of kids. Katie also has launched, Katie Blomquist, LLC, where she is a professional speaker who gives motivational talks, hosts seminars and intensive workshops on how to start and grow a successful nonprofit so that she can help others with their dreams of bettering the community as well.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I had the most wonderful childhood! I was an only child and have two very involved, loving parents! Growing up in Los Angeles as a “real live valley girl” certainly was a wildly different experience than the average person has as a child. It was really fun growing up on TV sets and knowing celebrities! However, my parents ensured I was not growing up unaware of the disadvantaged kids out there and made sure I knew how fortunate I was to not only have a loving family, but to have the means that we had. My mom was a stay-at-home mom who devoted full-time work to a local charity, serving the disadvantaged kids of inner city LA. I spent most of my childhood helping her, volunteering, and working with kids who didn’t have what I had. Then in high school I furthered my passion to help others by being a co-chair of the philanthropy committee for our high school and served on the high school version of a Board of Directors for a summer camp for disadvantaged youth where I was a camp counselor for several summers.

When I wasn’t volunteering, I spent my days in the pool, riding my bike, playing with the neighborhood kids, hanging out at the Coffee Bean with my friends and endless sleepovers!

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

I was inspired to start a GoFundMe campaign in the spring of 2016 when a little boy from my 1st grade class and I were out for his birthday and he asked for a new bike. It shocked me he didn’t have one. Being a teacher, I could not afford to buy him one, but it got me thinking about how many other kids in my class and school didn’t have a bike either. It was something that I couldn’t get off my mind and it really bothered my knowing so many kids were growing up without the memory of joy that owning a bike brings.

As a society, most of us have these memories of specific childhood joys like riding a bike that I feel we take for granted and just assume everyone shares. Knowing that 95% of the kids who attended my school lived below the poverty line, I didn’t want to leave anyone out so I decided to get all 650 students in my school a brand new, custom bike.

That’s when I started a GoFundMe campaign! Little did I know how fast this would take off. It went viral, and almost every news station in the nation wrote stories on it, including The Steve Harvey Show which flew me to Chicago to be a guest on the show and where Steve donated a generous 20,000 dollars! TjMaxx also selected me to be highlighted in a week long Twitter campaign which focused on inspirational women in society who are doing something for others. The NBC New York Nightly News with Lester Holt even covered the bike reveal as well as The ABC World News! The work we have done has been mentioned in Time Magazine, Woman’s World Magazine, The Post and Courier, Huffington Post, USA Today, and online The Today Show, Inside Edition, and Good Morning America!

It was during a phone interview I was asked, “So what’s next?” to which I replied, “What do you mean? I did it. It’s done…” and they said, “Oh no, you can’t be done! You have something very rare- a national following!! If you were able to raise over 80,000 dollars in 3 months with no tax id, imagine what you COULD do with a tax id!” That was it. I knew right then I could do so much more. So I founded Going Places so that I could further this work on a much larger level, spreading joy to hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged kids.

At the end of the 2016–2017 school year, I made the very difficult decision to leave teaching to run Going Places full time. Even though my passion is with the low-income community, I realized I wasn’t changing lives in a classroom at the guided reading table, it was at recess when I got to bond with the kids, ask what their favorite movie and superhero is; it was in the memories and the bonding I was making with them that was changing their lives.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

I honestly think I’m missing that part of my brain that makes people afraid of taking risks or of failure- you know, the little voice that says, “What ifwhat if no one likes it? What if no one comes? What if it’s not successful?”I didn’t, and I still don’t let fear hold me back from taking any risks in life. A life led by the fear of failure can’t and isn’t an option for me.

I truly feel that nothing truly great can be done without someone fearless and persistent behind it — this is what makes us powerful. I was a “just” a teacher, unassuming and under the perception of powerlessness outside of my classroom, but I took a chance on an idea, acted on my passion for disadvantaged kids, and because of that, have made an impact on the lives of almost 1,600 kids in my community.

When I decided I wanted to take this idea of leaving my stable job as a teacher, start a nonprofit, run it full time, and try to duplicate my viral campaign over and over on my own, some people thought I was crazy. They said it was “too risky” and “what if it didn’t work out.” My response was, “so at least I’ll know I tried. Who’s going to fault me for trying to make a difference?” I knew if it didn’t work out I could go back to teaching.

To me, “success” is how I treat others and the impact I have on them. Many people are afraid to “fail” but since when did we decide that our success in our careers is what defines us as people? When I reflect on my life, I want to say, “I know I helped make other’s lives better” and “I’m so glad I tried that.” At what point did we stop leading by example? We tell our kids, “You can be anything you want to be,” “You can accomplish anything you want in life,” but what about ourselves? We continue to instill this belief in our kids but when did we stop believing it for our own lives? This wasn’t going to be me. Too many people are so afraid of the idea of “failure” but what we really need to do is redefine it. The actual definition of “failure” is, “the omission of occurrence or performance”- in other words, “something you didn’t even try.” At the end of my life, I would like people to reflect on the impact that I made on them and those around us. They’re going to talk about HOW we led our lives, not the risks we took.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

I couldn’t go back to working for someone else if they paid me. My time is MY time now. I don’t get the “Sunday Scaries” anymore. I actually look forward to my work week because everything I do all day long is what I love, it’s mine, it’s my creation and it’s making a difference.

Nothing is going to get done if you don’t do it full time. While you are getting it going, do what you need to do to survive — work night’s at a bar, nanny and get work done while the kids nap…find a way to make it work even if it’s not ideal and tough for a little while. It will pay off.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

Everything I do all day isn’t about me. Every meeting I have, every Friday night I work until 11:00 p.m., I know is for the good of a child who doesn’t have the life I had growing up. I know if I don’t work my butt off, my mission of helping others won’t happen. But at the same time, it’s fun watching other people get excited and want to help us! When I present to companies or have a meeting with someone, it’s exciting because they are there because they want to be part of spreading joy with us.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

Making my own schedule is by far the best thing about running my own business. I’m never not working but at the same time, I can run errands if I need to or make appointments during the day all while working from my phone. I can take a vacation and book the dates based on the cheapest flights because I don’t have to ask permission for days off- I can work from anywhere at anytime.

The drawback is that I’m never not working. This isn’t a job that you work 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. and then when you get home you are done for the day. If I don’t do the work, it doesn’t get done. It can be very hard to step away from the computer or put the phone down and enjoy life. It’s a lot of pressure when the success rides 100% on you. In my case, a total overall goal of about 2 million dollars in fundraising relies on me. I have made a promise to the community and to the disadvantaged kids in it to get them the joy of a bike and that is something that will promise to keep you up at night.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

How much work it is! I know it sounds silly, but it’s true! You don’t know what you don’t know until you need to know it! It’s a lot more juggling several moving things all at once than I anticipated too. But all that being said, I absolutely love very moment of it all!

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

Never. Once I got a taste of the freedom to work when and where I wanted, I knew I couldn’t commit to anyone else’s timetable again. It takes a very ambitious person to live this lifestyle and be successful and you have to go into knowing it’s a life of stress and pressure, but the reward weighs so much more. I’ve never been happier and more fulfilled in my entire life than I am now!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I try to laugh through most mistakes if I can because it’s the only way to survive them. Once I went to a networking event where I met one the Charleston City Council members and he messaged me on Facebook messenger later in the day saying it was nice to meet me. After I replied the same back to him, my phone’s screen was still open and I was rushing to leave my apartment. I was juggling my phone, keys, and several other things in my hands at once ans as went to lock my front door, my phone took a selfie of me from the worst angle- view point from under my chin, looking up! I had about 8 chins in the photo and I am partially looking down into the camera! The photo sent automatically to him!!!! Thankfully he had a good sense of humor about it and we laughed for a good bit of time afterwards!

LESSON: make sure your phone screen is locked when moving around and texting with someone important and of high stature!

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

South Carolina Congressman, Joe Cunningham! This is by no means a political stance- he won the election from votes from both parties- but I feel Joe Cunningham exemplifies grace when under pressure, persistence for what he believes is right, not just what’s “popular”, strong integrity when it comes to staying true to the values he ran for office on, and class when proving a point. He is someone I very much look up to and hope I can always exemplify those same qualities as a leader.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Numerous organizations focus on providing the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, yet one thing often overlooked for children in need is their social-emotional need for joy. For many kids living in poverty, it is when they get home from school that their real stress begins.

These kids can live in less-than-desirable and unpredictable circumstances, and a bike provides them with a sense of freedom, escape, and a way to de-stress while exercising. It also builds self-worth by being the first item of value they can call their own, which builds their self-confidence. Riding a bike is also a means to return innocence when often times, it has been taken from them. We often forget about all of the factors that can negatively affect disadvantaged kids social-emotional health and how joy can play a pivotal part in restoring it.

A person may have all of the basic needs in life, but what kind of life is one without joy? What kind of adult will a child grow up to be if they have lacked joy?

We have given almost 1,600 bikes and 1,200 Halloween costumes to disadvantaged kids in 2.5 years, completely altering their childhood. We have inspired whole communities to rally together, kids and adults, to fund-raise and have seen 100’s and 100’s of people come to volunteer at our events to give these kids the joy of a bike!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Even with a nonprofit, there are going to be “haters” when you are successful. I was shocked that as I was on the news more and more and Going Places was doing well and getting attention, how many friends I lost. This nonprofit isn’t about me, it’s about helping kids, and without attention on the nonprofit, it makes it really hard to raise money. I just learned to focus on the people in my life who support me, Going Places and our efforts.
  2. Even though this is a nonprofit, it’s still a business and people might still lose their temper and scream at you in meetings just like in the corporate world. Naively, I thought I had some magical barrier around me since I’m not benefiting from the nonprofit and therefore, people would “be nicer.” Nope! “Hot heads” don’t care where the money is going and don’t change the way they behave, speak, or communicate.
  3. It was easier to raise money before I had a 501(c)3. The public viewed my initial GoFundMe campaign as a “teacher doing a nice thing” and now it’s viewed as “a business” which is frustrating because the only difference now is your donations are tax-deductible and I’m able to put full-time effort into the mission.
  4. Don’t get your hopes up every time something exciting might happen. Lots and lots of people have great intentions but the follow through isn’t always there. I’ve had countless meetings where I left feeling like something massive was about to happen as a result of the meeting but sometimes it just doesn’t. That’s not to say this is the case every time. We have had a lot of amazing things happen because wonderful people have kept their promises! But don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Otherwise, you’ll find yourself disappointed a lot!
  5. Make sure you raise the money you need to raise and don’t depend on a promised donation. I made this mistake once and we almost missed the required payment for the bikes. This means we wouldn’t have been able to give then bikes when we promised we would because the promised donation was very late. I should have pretended like the donation wasn’t happening and made sure I raised what we needed and then when that donation came in, it would have been a bonus.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I want to inspire people to Spread Joy! “#SpreadJoy” is Going Places’ hashtag and our hope is that when these kids receive their bike, one day, whether it be now or when they are an adult, they will think back to the day their community rallied together and raised funds to do something to bring them joy. Hopefully they will take that feeling and it will inspire them to spread joy to someone else in whatever way they are able.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Take the risk or lose the chance” -unknown

The way I live my life is embodied in this quote. My GoFundMe and Going Places were built on a foundation of “risk” but was also structured by great ambition and determination. Had I just had the idea to get every kid in my school a bike but never took the risk, I’d have lost the chance to be in the position I’m in now; spreading joy to hundreds of thousands of kids.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would give anything to meet Ellen DeGeneres! She embodies giving back and helping those less fortunate by using her platform for spreading joy and awareness!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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