George Bell – Fast 50 2003


The promise behind Upromise is compelling: Parents rack up the equivalent of frequent-flier miles to help fund college tuition when they purchase goods and services from companies such as AT&T, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Staples, and Toys ‘R Us. In late 2001, eight months after Upromise’s launch, the company was closing in on its 1-million-member mark. That’s when CEO George Bell decided to make a fast-growing idea grow even faster, by partnering with supermarkets and pharmacies. Today, Upromise’s membership is approaching 3 million.


George Bell
CEO, Upromise Inc.
Needham, Massachusetts


Tell us what you do (or what your team or organization does) and the specific challenge you faced.
Imagine a “frequent flier miles” program for college savings. Launched in April 2001, Upromise is a free service that allows parents to save for college when they purchase goods and services from companies like AT&ampT, AOL, ToysRUs, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Staples and many others. Every time a member buys something from participating companies, a portion of the purchase price is contributed to the Upromise members’ tax-deferred 529 college savings plan. An incredibly cool idea, but not a piece of cake to launch. The challenges included a) convincing the public that the service had no “catch” and that with minimal effort they could actually be saving for their child’s education and b) convincing America’s leading brands that participating would be worthwhile in terms of enhancing brand loyalty. Without the buy-in of either party, the business model would have failed.

What was your moment of truth?
During Q4 2001–just 8 months after the service was launched–Upromise was approaching the million member mark and was hailed as one of the fastest growing coalition marketing programs in history. As CEO I faced a crossroads–what direction do I take this company growing at lightning speed? At the time partners included retail shops, services and restaurants–but we were considering expanding to grocery stores that would allow even more families access to savings. What kind of back-end IT system would Upromise need to develop to support tracking millions of members, buying hundreds of products at thousands of grocery locations each day? In a defining moment we decided to take Upromise to an entirely new level, and partnered with grocery stores and pharmacies across the nation by launching Upromise Grocery–sparking an entirely new way for the “average family” to save for college. We met with the nation’s biggest brands including Coca-Cola, Nestle, Kellogg’s, along with hundreds of grocery store chains, and completely revamped our IT infrastructure to support the expansion decision, but it was completely worth the risk! (The exact date? 5/1/2002)

What were the results?
We estimate that the average family will save approximately $15,000-$20,000 for college during a period of 15 years through services offered by Upromise. We hope this inspires parents to start saving early! Also, in just over a year and a half, we have signed almost 3 million members, partnered with grocery stores and pharmacy chains at some 15,000 locations, tens of thousands of retail locations, over 100 online shopping sites, and over 7,000 restaurants.

What’s your parting tip?
Never underestimate the power of doing well by doing good.