I grew up with the internet and cell phones at my fingertips– Gene Gurkoff, the founder of Charity Miles would call me a technology native, while he calls himself a technology immigrant because those technologies came out as he was growing up. What Gene hopes to do with Charity Miles is catapult the current movement of social entrepreneurship.
Walk with a purpose everyday
He wants to create a movement where people are purpose native instead of purpose immigrant. He wants people to “walk with purpose everyday” because as a purpose native “you care more, you see the neighborhood differently, you see trash on the street and you want to pick it up, you order lunch different, you have more empathy for your friends, parents, and people you’ve never met before, and you just start to see the world differently and make decisions differently and I think that will ultimately be more transformational for impact than any amount of money that we can raise.”
Before talking to Gene I looked at Charity Miles solely in the lens of how much money it can raise but Gene pointed out that Charity Miles is so much more than that, and that Charity Miles can truly transform the way we live and walk through life— as Gene put it so eloquently, “ the money can address the symptom but the way that we walk through life will change the cause.”
Eager to learn more about Charity Miles, Gene graciously and willingly woke up at 5 am to share his story with me pointing out that “you don’t wanna get tired of telling that story… you want to be proud to tell that story and really find meaning in what you do.”
In the photo: Gene Gurkoff, founder of Charity Miles
Q. How did you come up with the idea for Charity Miles?
A. I used to be a finance lawyer and in 2002 I started running marathons for Parkinson’s research because my grandfather has Parkinson’s. I had friends and family supporting me and I always wanted companies to sponsor me too so I could raise more money, but they would never do that because I’m not a professional athlete, I’m not a celebrity. I figured if I got enough people together we would have the clout of a celebrity and be able to drive some sort of market result for a company and they would then spend their big advertisement budgets on sponsoring us. That was the idea: to get enough people under one banner that companies could then take their big advertising budget and repurpose it for good. When mobile phones came out I started becoming interested in the power there was to crowdsource anything and I felt that maybe we could use phones to crowdsource our collective power to have the clout of celebrity so that companies would want to sponsor us— that’s how the idea came about.
As a lawyer, I was running every day with a cause in my heart and without me even realizing it I saw my priorities changing and I realized this is what I care about. I thought to myself, “I’m going into a job that I don’t care about…why am I doing this, I need to make a change.” Ultimately, I left and started Charity Miles (which might be the right change to make for some people and not the right change to make for other people).
I think that when you walk with purpose everyday you care more. You see the neighborhood differently, you see trash on the street and you want to pick it up, you order lunch different, you have more empathy for your friends, parents, and people you’ve never met before, and you just start to see the world differently and make decisions differently and I think that will ultimately be more transformational for impact than any amount of money that we can raise.
All of the things that we are trying to raise money for, whether it be cancer, Parkinson’s, diabetes, hunger, or nature, the money can address the symptom but the way that we walk through life will change the cause.We can slash our risk in half by walking 30 minutes a day, so if we spend billions of dollars a year on cancer and we raise a few million dollars a year to treat it its like a drop in the bucket– But if I walk 3o minutes a day I can cut the risk of cancer in half, thats a much bigger impact. If we can change the way we walk through the world so that we just care more about what our footprint is on this planet we will start to change the way we live.
In the photo: The Charity Miles App
Q. How does Charity Miles work?
A. It’s a very simple app. You download it to your Apple or Android, choose a charity, and start walking, running, or biking and for every mile you’ll earn money from corporate sponsors like Johnson and Johnson, humana, master card, timex, etc. These are companies that want to help you to live a healthy purposeful life, they want to support you and they’re repurposing their big advertising budgets to do that.
Q. How did you choose your charity partners?
A. We are a very small company— it’s basically just me, two developers, and two part-time community builders right now. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse that every charity wants to be in charity miles and we just don’t have the resources or the infrastructure to do that so we set a very high bar for what kind of charities we want to add at this time. It’s not to be exclusive or judgmental its mostly because we can’t add everyone so we have to be very selective about who we add and who we have the sponsorship resources to support. For that we look at a number of criteria, the most important being: 1. Does the charity do good work? 2. Can we get a lot of people to walk for them? 3 Will our sponsors be interested in sponsoring them?
Q. What has been the hardest part about starting Charity Miles?
A. Everything. Everyday is a roller coaster. I think every entrepreneur you interview would say that every day brings a unique challenge to it, but I think that the hardest part has been getting the sponsors. It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be, but we’re having a lot of success right now. The hardest part was getting the first. Nobody believes in it until you have traction so it took us awhile until we got traction and fortunately we did build the traction, and the traction is what sells.
Q. What have you accomplished with Charity Miles?
A. We just ended our third year. Since we have started, we have raised over $1.2 million dollars for charity. So we have exceeded the one million dollar mark this year. We’ve got over 1 million people downloading and using this app and we won a lot of awards, but I look of achievement more on a micro-scale because maybe you have to as an entrepreneur. The little wins are what keep it really exciting and what drives you— its the emails we get from our members everyday, or people tweeting or sharing a photo with me— those are the things that make you get up extra early in the morning and drive me… Those are the biggest achievements. We’re starting a movement, people really care, people who use Charity Miles love it and they send me the most incredible stories and notes.
I got an email from one of our members that told us about her five year old son, Griffin. She said, “My son, Griffin, loves Charity Miles, he wants to do Charity Miles everyday– he runs around the coffee table doing charity miles. We went on a 3 mile hike, which is the farthest he has ever gone, and we got back to the car and it was 2.9 miles so he ran around the car a bunch of times to get it over three miles”.
I had a vision of this kid and how he’s going to grow up and how he’s going to be purpose native. He’s five years old right now… He’s going to grow up with purpose the way that you grew up with the Internet and he’s going to see life through a different lens because of that. That’s what happens when you walk everyday with a cause in your heart.
An old colleague, from when I was a lawyer, started using Charity Miles awhile ago and he heard that I was the one who started it. We’ve reconnected, he uses it all the time, and he always sends me these great notes. He’s on vacation now in Europe. He went to Switzerland and he was hanging out with a Swiss family that has kids and the kids were using Charity Miles. He asked, “how did you hear about Charity Miles?” and they responded that they love Charity Miles, “we all use Charity Miles and all our friends use Charity Miles”. They didn’t hear about it from him, they heard about it from someone else.
Q. What is your best advice for new entrepreneurs?
A. What’s amazing to me is that when I was in college I got my first cellphone. We didn’t have Facebook, my dorms were wired for high-speed Internet the year before I got to college and that was a big deal. I’m considered a technology immigrant. When i was in law school Facebook came out… It was a big deal. You’re a technology native, you’ve grown up with it. Cellphones and the Internet have always been there, that’s the world that you know. Similarly, when I was in college there was two ways to go: (1) You got a job as a lawyer, banker, journalist or (2) You worked for a charity and made no money… And those were the options. You could make a lot of money and then give back if you were successful or you could go and not make any money and do something good with your life and it was a stark choice. Now, there’s a movement among your generation to do social entrepreneurialism. You want to go out and have an impact AND make money. I think it is common now for young people to want that, and I think it’s great! I think you’re not yet purpose native. You’re right on the border of purpose native and purpose immigrant and the kids coming up behind you will be purpose native. And I think that’s exciting.
So my advice would be first, to be an entrepreneur you have to really want it because you do starve. You go through periods where you don’t make any money and it is hard and it stresses your life in a million different ways, your family in a million different ways and it’s not for everybody. There’s nothing wrong with getting a job with a steady pay check… Everyday I wish for a job with a steady paycheck … So whether you’re looking to get a job at a company or be an entrepreneur, the most important thing is finding something that gives your life purpose and that you love. That is my advice. Whether you’re in a job or starting your own business there will be times that are very challenging and you need a “why?” and if you don’t have a good one, you will either be really unhappy in your job or you’re going to want to quit what you started as an entrepreneur.
Lets take the job situation. If you don’t have the purpose in your job, you’re just going to go into your job everyday and collect your paycheck and feel soul-less. Unfortunately, you need a paycheck so you will have to endure that and it’s going to suck– unless you quit and you won’t have any money but you might have purpose. If you’re an entrepreneur there will be times that are existentially challenging, that will challenge who you are to the core of your being. There’s been a time, for almost a year, when things were really bad and I was broke and I wanted to quit every single day. But the reason I didn’t quit was because our members were sending stories to us everyday about how our app was impacting them— people losing 100 lbs, people walking for their kids, grandparents, and children they’ve never met around the world. The stories they were sending us were incredible, and I thought, wow, this is special and I can’t quit this. I need to find a way to make this work.
It’s not about the money, there has to be a deep deep meaning.
Charity Miles Instagram