We fundamentally believe that every student and business deserves a free ticket into the digital world to learn how to compete and prosper, and that’s what we’re building towards.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Littleton and Walker Post.
Alex Littleton is a product manager on J.P.Morgan’s Interbank Information Network (IIN): the world’s first live blockchain project developed by a financial institution — a role he secured after winning a 1,000+ person global “hackathon” at the firm. While in college, Alex built a student-led venture capital consulting organization, a first-of-its-kind initiative. With a track record of driving innovative ideas into market-ready solutions, Alex was compelled to take action when COVID-19 hit his community.
Walker Post is a social impact consultant at Prosper Strategies, a strategic advisory firm that helps nonprofits scale their impact. He also serves as a fellow at GreenHouse::Innovation, an innovation consultancy that uses Innovation Dynamics™ — a proprietary, norms-busting methodology — to tackle complex challenges and opportunities that are unique to this century. Award-winning journalist turned savvy problem-solver, he is at his best when he’s breaking down narratives to address complex business and social problems.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Alex: I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago in a single-parent, low-income household. As a child with an unstable household, I sought stability through education — an asset no one could take from me. Higher education was empowering, but it was also expensive and my only option for accessing it was through scholarship. I began finding ways outside of the classroom to make myself a competitive applicant. I placed 1st and 2nd in the Future Business Leaders of America competition as a Junior and Senior and took on leadership roles within my highschool. I served as student class president, president of multiple honors societies, and started an anti-bullying club. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offered me a spot in their Business Honors program and I received enough scholarships and grants to pay for my entire tuition. As a freshman, I wrote about my experiences in an application to JPMorgan’s Early Advantage Program and was one of two UIUC students selected, resulting in two internships and my current full-time occupation. Without financial assistance, I would not be where I am today. It’s my mission to create new ways for democratizing access to higher education and help students, regardless of their background, realize prosperous futures. The COVID-19 Business Fellowship Program is my first step towards fulfilling my mission.
Walker: I grew up on the Northwest side of Chicago in a small neighborhood called Irving Park. Since I can remember, every morning, I’d watch my parents read the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. When I became old enough, I’d comb through the papers myself looking for stories that piqued my interest. My fascination with storytelling grew and by high school, I began writing for Lane Tech’s newspaper. A year later, I was editor in chief and a student investigative reporter at Young Chicago Authors. The stories that drew me in were those of the marginalized — I covered race relations, police brutality, homelessness, and the problems with our education system — all at the ages of 16–18. I became the first Chicago Public School student to win the Illinois JEA High School Journalist of the Year Award and competed nationally for the award. I then went to college convinced I had a career in journalism ahead of me, but by senior year, I realized my fascination with telling the stories of those I wanted to help could be more impactful if I pivoted my career trajectory. After graduating, a brief existential crisis, and an internship, I was hired by Prosper Strategies, a strategic advisory for nonprofits. A year and a half later, here I am with Alex starting the COVID-19 Business Fellowship Program and living my dream of making an impact on local communities and peers that I care for.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Businesses, universities, and students were not prepared for the digital transformation COVID-19 thrust upon them and many are struggling to adapt to this new normal. 35 percent of businesses had to cancel internships because they were not prepared to operate virtually, universities across the country are struggling to build a business case to justify the enormous expense for a degree that can be taught online, and students are bearing the burden while their employers and educators scramble to innovate.
Families are currently making a pivotal decision: Do we pay $30k to send my child back to a university or do we find an alternative? Unfortunately, there aren’t any proven alternatives that are accessible to the tens of thousands of students actively searching — a frustrating truth. We’ve created a short-term, free alternative for students with cancelled internships and delayed fall enrollment to gain the real-world experience they eagerly crave. This summer, we’ll have over 50 students pilot our program which will include two-weeks of hands-on, virtual training and 6-weeks of digital marketing projects for small businesses in their local communities. Not only are we helping students, but we’re helping businesses build their digital identities as the country begins to reopen. We fundamentally believe that every student and business deserves a free ticket into the digital world to learn how to compete and prosper, and that’s what we’re building towards.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
As we sat at home working in jobs largely unaffected by COVID-19, we felt obligated to find a way to leverage our business and social impact acumen to find a way to give back to our peers, businesses and communities most affected.
In mid-April, we noticed dozens of our younger peers posting on social media that their internship had been canceled and we empathized with them knowing they had spent significant time working to secure those offers. Many went to LinkedIn, desperate to find an employer for the summer. They knocked and we didn’t see anyone answering.
At the same time, we drove down the streets we grew up on and saw our favorite restaurants, retail stores, and family-owned businesses with the doors shut and the lights off — some forever. These are individuals with bills to pay, children to raise who are back home from school, and a business to keep afloat. We reached out to over 50 businesses to ask how we could help and were surprised to learn more than 80% of them answered with digital marketing.
We decided to answer the students and businesses’ calls for help by marrying the two together. Fast forward a month and we already have over 50 businesses we will complete projects for and over 50 students we will create internships for. Since some of these students are in financial need, we launched a GoFundMe and all money raised will be distributed evenly amongst the students. All of the company’s startup costs are personally underwritten by Alex and Walker.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Like most entrepreneurs, there wasn’t one Aha Moment, there were a series of “moments” that led us to starting this company. The string of moments that manifest action are 1) Recognition of a problem 2) Ideation of a solution 3) Motivation to take action. Recognizing a real problem takes the most time, sometimes years. For us, it took months to understand the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact on local businesses and students. The idea was more of an Aha Moment and came to mind when Alex was on a Zoom call with colleagues. However, the vast majority of ideas never come to fruition due to a lack of motivation to take action. It’s exciting to brainstorm ideas, but it’s overwhelming to discuss how to execute on them. We decided the thousands of hours, hundreds of phone calls and meetings, and opportunity cost of starting this company were worth it. The only reason we started this and the main reason we will be successful is because we are relentlessly driven to fulfil a mission; democratize access to the next era of digital education and professional opportunities.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
The most common mistake inexperienced entrepreneurs make is keeping their idea a secret because they’re afraid other people will steal it. We did the opposite, we called and got feedback from dozens of friends, mentors and businesses to test our thesis and develop a plan of action. We spoke with lawyers, professors, students, entrepreneurs, marketers, strategists and other professionals who helped us launch our company. We encourage every entrepreneur to share their ideas, survey their target market and invest the time in research before investing it in a company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The day Covid Fellows launched, Alex posted about our mission on LinkedIn and over the course of a week, it gained over 250,000 social media impressions. We were not expecting so much support and interest from the community, but it drove thousands of inbound leads to our website — students, professionals and businesses from around the country (and around the world) who wanted to see how they could be of service.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
When visiting our first client to better understand their project needs, Alex pocket dialed the police and didn’t realize he had a dispatcher on the other end of his call until he pulled his phone out of his pocket to take pictures of the cafe. Fortunately, he was able to tell the dispatcher it was a mistake and avoid sending a squad car to our first client’s doorstep.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
As recent graduates of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, we leveraged our support system of alumni, professors and students to build this initiative. Our experience with the university is that it’s a breeding ground for caring, mission-driven and brilliant individuals. Every step of the way, we’ve called and they’ve answered. First, it was our fellow alumni and faculty who assisted us in helping us scale from a concept to an actual company. Now, we’re seeing an overwhelming number of students from the university place their faith in us by applying to be a Fellow for the summer. We appreciate you all. Without your belief in us, we may not have seized this opportunity to make a difference.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Our first client was the Martinez family who owns Little Branch Cafe in Chicago’s South Loop. Mr. and Mrs. Martinez immigrated to the U.S from Mexico in the 1990’s. The husband worked around Chicago as a cook since he was 16 and the wife worked as a waitress for decades. Their business’s website came from the old owner with an unusable, out-of-date menu. The company relied on people to order their food using their blackboard in their store.
One of our first Fellows built out their website and improved their brand identity. Through many conversations with the Martinez family and a photoshoot capturing all of their new food items, they are ready to engage customers digitally and bring more traffic into the cafe.
Unfortunately, Little Branch Cafe’s window was recently smashed during the Chicago protests. So, we teamed up with a friend who started a GoFundMe to support small businesses who were affected by looting. We plan to fully pay for Little Branch Cafe’s window so they can focus on effectively running their business.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Politicians: Free Press found that nearly half of all people in the country without home-internet access were people of color. Politicians must support policies that expand broadband internet access so everyone can have equitable opportunities to thrive in the digital-first era. Small businesses in low-income and minority communities will face significant barriers to reaching customers digitally unless our state representatives, senators and the FCC can expand broadband access in these areas.
Communities: Be intentional with where you shop. Buy local and support small businesses even if it means you have to leave your home or sacrifice receiving 2-day Amazon Prime deliveries. Also, students are looking for any opportunities they can get their hands on this summer and beyond as the internships become harder and harder to land. Even if it is unpaid, offer to help a student find work this summer so that they may prove to the world that they don’t need a corporate internship to be successful.
Society: We were told growing up that in order to succeed, you needed to get good grades in high school, to get into a good college, where you had to land an internship, so that you could get a job after graduating. Gap years, lack of internships and not knowing what you want to do with your life are frowned upon in society — this puts unneeded pressure and stress on students. We believe it’s time to throw out these antiquated social norms and set a precedent for what education and internships look like in a digital-first world. We hope our model for experiential learning will one day become the gold standard for students and young professionals to learn by doing — therefore opening them up to a new virtual world of opportunity.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Manage yourself the way you’d want someone else to manage you. Starting a business for the first time is an overwhelming experience since you are acting as both a manager and an employee at the same time. We tend to be our loudest critics and quietest cheerleaders, especially being as young we are. This creates a “toxic work environment” where you as a manager hold yourself to too high of standards, and it makes employees want to quit. You need to hold yourself to fair standards and when you make mistakes you need to be a compassionate manager. Allow personal days and encourage healthy habits! Once you start being a healthy manager, you unlock the ability for you to rise to your full potential.
- Share your ideas with everyone — literally everyone. Our entire business would have failed without a conversation Alex had with a brilliant second grade teacher. She had no domain expertise, she wasn’t a mentor, she wasn’t familiar with business — but she was the first person to clearly identify a flawed hypothesis. We thought if we couldn’t raise $100,000 on GoFundMe then we couldn’t launch our company. Prior to Alex’s conversation, we were fixated on the idea that we needed to fundraise a large amount of money to fund student stipends and distribute them at the beginning of the summer. We were going to give ourselves two weeks and we would have failed. We pivoted our approach and will be fundraising throughout the course of the summer, which is advantageous in many ways. The point here is that we ran our ideas by no less than 50 people and only one person, someone with no experience in this domain, highlighted a critical mistake. We have many examples like this — share your ideas!
- Understand the opportunity cost of starting a business. Time is a finite resource, and starting a business eats up the majority of that resource. Nights are late and mornings are early. You’ll sacrifice some weekends, some dates (only Walker had to do this Alex didn’t… unfortunately), and some hobbies. Honestly, it isn’t worth the sacrifice for 99% of business ideas. The only time it’s worth it is if you’re working towards a mission that you believe at your core is bigger than you. Otherwise, you’ll fail. Be honest with yourself when you make this assessment.
- No one cares about what you’re doing more than you do. This is important to conceptualize so that you can be comfortable sharing your ideas without the fear of others stealing them and so that when you bring other people onto your team you don’t expect them to work with the same level of dedication.
- Create realistic success metrics and celebrate small victories. We often text each other messages like: “WE’RE GOING TO TAKE THIS GLOBAL!!! *insert rocket ship emoji*”. It’s awesome to have dreams, but, if you chase them recklessly you’ll end up living a nightmare. To mitigate this, we create simple success metrics. For instance, to start our success metric was: Connect one student with one small business. We accomplished this in our first few days and it felt great — we felt real… We celebrated and planned for the next goal: Ten students and ten small businesses. By focusing on small victories and channeling our energy to realistic goals, we’ve been able to achieve progress at a faster rate than we could have even dreamed of.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
We’ve spent our entire lives watching generations older than us run governments, companies and organizations. Where did that lead us? Our world has lost half its wildlife in the last 50 years, black and Latino students continue to lack opportunities for educational advancement, deaths from gun violence have reached its highest rate in over two decades and we have less than a decade to figure out how to turn around climate change. We’re furious…and rightfully so.
Until this point, we felt powerless, like tiny ants in a massive field. But it’s time to let the next generation of leaders step up and be the pioneers of innovation in this new decade. So ask yourself “If not now, then when?” We promise you there will never be a perfect time and you will always find an excuse to stop you from jumping into the deep end. The world is ripe for people like you and us to make a social impact and tell the older generations that enough is enough, we want to take the world in a different direction.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Walker: Marc Benioff — As the CEO of Salesforce, he’s found the balance between a company being massively successful and mission-driven. A true leader by example, he calls out issues in society, and then actively pursues means to change them (check out Work.com). I’d love to discuss social entrepreneurship and team management with him over a salmon benedict.
Alex: Jack Dorsey — As the CEO of Twitter and Square, he’s tasked with the monumental responsibility of overseeing operations of two of the most exciting technology companies in the world. In addition to his professional success, he is always quick to speak and act in times of crisis. He donated $1bn to COVID relief, has claimed his workforce can work from home indefinitely, and has pledged $3mm to civil rights causes. I’d love to discuss his rise to being the CEO of two large technology companies and his vision for the future.
How can our readers follow you online?
Please watch for future opportunities on our COVID-19 Business Fellowship Program website as well as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram (@covidfellows) for new updates and information. You can find Walker on LinkedIn here and Alex on LinkedIn here. Or, follow us on Instagram @walkposts and @its_lit_tleton.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!