How A Darling Of The New York Tech Scene Gives Back

Robert Reffkin has done it all: Ivy League, Wall Street, the White House, a fast-growing startup. The greatest achievement? His now-national nonprofit for first-generation college students.

A few years ago, Robert Reffkin met the young man whose life he was going to change–or perhaps it was the other way around.


Lorik was born in Prishtina, Kosovo, and like many new Americans, he could remember the exact date he arrived: July 2, 2008. He and his parents had won a green card lottery in Kosovo and had decided to move to America to seek a better life, despite the fact that his parents hardly spoke a word of English. Lorik had grand aims and an entrepreneurial drive–but he needed help.

Robert Reffkin

Reffkin’s own rise to prominence–his startup, Urban Compass, just raised $25 million for a $150 million valuation–was also checkered with obstacles he’d had to overcome. Reffkin had grown up in a single-parent household; his mother, an Israeli immigrant, had fallen in love with African-American jazz musician who died when Reffkin was young. Reffkin’s mother had had the foresight to involve her son with seven different nonprofits that lent him educational, social, and career support. One had helped him launch an early DJ business, Rudeboy Productions; another helped him get into the private San Francisco high school he would spend four hours commuting to and from each day. Before his tech venture, Reffkin would go on to two Columbia University degrees, a decade on Wall Street, and an advisory position at the White House.

So when Reffkin first met Lorik, he was reminded of someone a little like himself at that age–a man with a long road ahead, but driven enough to attain his goals, with the right help. This was why Reffkin had founded a nonprofit of his own– New York Needs You–along with 20 friends and colleagues back in 2008 to help people like Lorik. The nonprofit aims to help students who are the first in their families to go to college; 100% are low-income, and half are below the poverty line. New York Needs You offers a two-pronged strategy of college support and career development: Over a three-year program, “mentor-coaches” meet with fellows every three weeks over an eight-hour block to help educate fellows about making their way in the world. Eventually, New York Needs You helps place its fellows in internships and jobs, leveraging private-sector partners like Goldman Sachs or the law firm Skadden Arps.

New York Needs You rapidly found success and expanded to a New Jersey chapter last year. It has served more than 1,000 students in New York and hundreds in New Jersey. In the next few months, it will be rebranded as America Needs You, with Kimberly Harris, formerly of Skadden Arps, as its CEO. The next few cities on America Needs You’s road map include San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Reffkin says he hopes the group will be in 20 regions in the next five to 10 years. The group would also like to wade into policy. “Nonprofits are amazing if you want to have impact by the thousands, but if you want to have impact by the millions, it has to be through government,” says Reffkin.

And what impact, in the end, did Reffkin have on Lorik? After spending hundreds of hours prepping the young man, it was finally time for Lorik to have an interview at Macy’s, in the corporate department. “That’s the big opportunity,” Reffkin recalls, “getting the interview and succeeding at it.” He advised Lorik on how to dress, prepare his resume, and respond to questions. The day before the interview, Reffkin called Lorik to say “You’re gonna do great, and no matter what happens, we’re proud of you.” Then Reffkin hung up the phone, and waited.

The next day the call came: Lorik got the job. “I let out a huge sigh of relief,” says Reffkin. “He was like family. It made me incredibly proud of him and confident that the program is doing work that helps, that the simple act of giving your time and expertise to somebody who deserves it is worthwhile.”


In the spirit of American entrepreneurialism, Lorik vacillated on whether to take the Macy’s job or to strike out on his own. Reffkin urged him to start within an established institution before trying the entrepreneurial route, saying the experience would serve him later. Lorik took the advice.

In the end, Reffkin wasn’t sure who benefitted more–him or Lorik. “It was an incredibly meaningful and motivating experience,” he says. “I felt ,as a mentor, I got out of it more than he did as a fellow. He helped me remember why I was working so hard. Sometimes in New York you get in a day-to-day routine–you forget what it’s all for, and how privileged you are to be in the place you are, and how hard you worked to get there. And how all this privilege comes with responsibility towards others.”

What’s next for the 34-year-old, who has already launched a fast-growing New York tech startup and a nationally expanding nonprofit? About what you’d expect: in November, Reffkin will complete an old ambition, running the 50th of 50 marathons: one in each state. “It’s been a great way to raise a million dollars” for his favorite charities, including New York Needs You, says Reffkin. His mom comes along to cheer him on for most of them. “I get to see the country, be with her, and stay in shape. It’s a win-win-win.”


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.