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Most Creative People

When Tragedy Struck, She Chose To Found Her Startup Closer To Home

Envested, a Chapel Hill-based local-giving startup, launches today. Its founder's story will move you.

[Photo: Kamal J via Unsplash]

Isa Watson grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in a close and loving home. She remembers gleaning two lessons in particular from her father and mother: "The clear value of hard work" and "the importance of doing the right thing," she recalls. Her mother, Theresa, was a stay-at-home mom who was passionate about nonprofit work, often bringing needy members of the community into their home. Her father, Doval, had been born in the British West Indies. An engineer, he'd studied at Hampton, the historically black university in Virginia. As an alumnus, he helped sponsor an annual bus trip for local high school kids to visit the school.

The family was active in the local Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. And since there were six Watson kids, including Isa, at any given time they ranged across two or three public schools. The Watson parents were active members of each school’s community. "My parents really believed that it was not just about their kids," recalls Watson, "but that when all the kids in a community thrive, the whole community thrives."

Isa Watson

When she was 7, rather than buy her a computer, Watson’s father bought her the components of one, and made her build it. She grew to love science, and wound up at Hampton, his alma mater, studying chemistry. From there, she began a career at Pfizer, synthesizing drugs to treat diabetes, from which her grandmother suffered. From Pfizer, she pursued an MBA at MIT Sloan, and moved into an exciting and high-paying job at JP Morgan.

Then on April 5, 2013, tragedy struck. It was Hampton University’s Open House Day, and Isa’s parents had chartered a bus, as they had every year for nearly a decade. They rose early and piled in the bus, operated by Horizon Coach Lines, along with six teenagers from the Chapel Hill community. A light rain fell through the morning. At 7:05 a.m., one of the bus’s right tires veered slightly off the side of the road. The bus teetered, then toppled on its side.

The students were fine, as was the driver. The students scrambled to dig and free Theresa from the wreck; she was flown to a local hospital and treated for severe injuries. She survived.

But Isa's father, 58, died in the crash.


Isa Watson's parents

It didn’t hit Watson right away that she wanted to change her life, she recalls. She cites the date of the accident as a turning point, but she stayed at JP Morgan a good deal longer, and indeed, she was learning a lot there. It was a longer evolution, a slow bloom. There was a quotation that floated through her mind a lot that she’d heard attributed to Pablo Picasso: "The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away."

She wasn’t quite sure what that meant for her yet. In the two and a half years following the accident, Watson found herself doing a lot of strategic work for JP Morgan on a national and international level, shuttling between New York and Hong Kong. But she kept thinking about the importance of local communities, and how her parents had been so invested in their own. "I evolved to the point where I was excited to take those skill sets [from JP Morgan] down to a very local scale," she recalls. By the summer of 2015, she resolved to quit and try her hand at something entrepreneurial, centered on giving to local charities.

In mid-September, she went home to Chapel Hill to be with her mother. Her plan was to pack up and head out to Silicon Valley by the end of October, in just a few weeks’ time. "That’s where I thought I had to be, to be in technology," she says.

But then something surprising happened right there in Chapel Hill. Since her parents were so well known in the community, people kept contacting her. "I was a little bit overwhelmed by the level of support I had here," she recalls. Senior business leaders reached out. So did the heads of several nonprofits. She found a local tech hub, American Underground. One day that fall, she realized that she had all the support she needed to start her venture right there in North Carolina's Research Triangle, in part thanks to the network and goodwill her parents had built there.

By that time, Watson was narrowing in on her interest: getting millennials to donate locally. She was taking meetings with nonprofits and charities in the area, and again and again she heard that millennial engagement was low. Meanwhile, Watson knew millennials to be a charitable, mission-driven generation—but when she talked to them, she found that while "many wanted to give locally, they didn’t have a convenient way to do so." The local nonprofit sites were clunky, the donation systems full of friction. And the prospective millennial donors didn’t have clarity on what programs or projects their money would be supporting, which frustrated them or at least failed to excite them into action.

So Watson and some collaborators built Envested, which launches online today. It’s something like a social network that aggregates local charities—currently just in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. Nonprofits upload specific fundraising challenges, Kickstarter-style. And there’s a feed that shares the donation activity of your friends, Venmo-style. Watson is also working with an MIT data scientist to build an algorithm that should help "promote the kinds of challenges that best resonate with a particular user," says Watson.

Envested App

Though local in emphasis, Watson has ambitions to scale. She says her expansion plan isn’t finalized yet. She knows that she wants to grow in North Carolina, and then on the East Coast, with her sights set on Atlanta and Boston in particular.

Watson says she’s glad she finally found her way into living out that quotation about the meaning and purpose of life. And she’s glad she chose to start her social enterprise in the same community where her father loved to give back. "It’s definitely more meaningful, because my dad worked in this community," she says. "It’s not uncommon to walk around and hear people say, ‘Your dad really inspired me to do this. Your dad really inspired me to do that.’"

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