How To Join The Ranks Of Tech Philanthropists, Even If You’re Strapped For Cash

The Young Entrepreneur Council’s Scott Gerber challenges entrepreneurs to find one hour to give back what matters most–mentoring and social capital. Are you in?

How To Join The Ranks Of Tech Philanthropists, Even If You’re Strapped For Cash
[Dolls: STILLFX via Shutterstock]

On the face of it, Scott Gerber’s organization might sound as snooty as they come. The Young Entrepreneur Council, or YEC, is an invitation-only network for entrepreneurs 40 years old and younger. Its roughly 1,000 members have some $3 billion of venture capital backing them; over 15,000 more are clamoring to get in. Like other elite communities (like IvyConnect), exclusivity is on some level a part of its DNA. And yet Gerber claims his organization is different–a fact underscored by a new partnership with Junior Achievement, a nonprofit that teaches entrepreneurship to K-12 students across the country. The team will launch what Gerber calls “the largest peer-to-peer mentorship program in history,” with YEC members visiting classrooms across the country to sell entrepreneurship as a viable career option. It all comes back to YEC’s motto, he says: “Do well and do good.”


But this giving season, how is an entrepreneur to do good–especially if he or she isn’t doing well just yet? $3 billion in venture capital, of course, doesn’t necessarily translate into outlandish salaries or revenue. And assuming you’re not on Gerber’s shortlist and have less VC behind your own venture, you’re probably not raking in the cash just yet. How, I put the question to Gerber, should a young entrepreneur be philanthropic?

Scott Gerber

“I’ve been dying to answer this question,” Gerber says. “For an entrepreneur, it’s not about money–it’s about time.” In countless success stories–especially the most remarkable Horatio Alger-like ones–the key ingredient wasn’t a bit of donated cash. Rather, it was that “someone gave an hour at the right time in your developmental cycle.” Time and mentorship: these are the currencies that matter for an entrepreneur looking for a way to serve. The capital that matters–and it’s what has made Gerber a successful superconnector” as well as budding philanthropist–is social capital.

“The thing that kills me the most about many entrepreneurs,” Gerber goes on, “the thing I can’t stand, is when someone says, ‘I don’t have time.’ I know you have an hour. Give back to someone five steps behind you, and you could literally be changing someone’s life.”

Gerber knows this from experience. He would have been spared a lot of headaches, he says, if someone had reached back to mentor him at the right point in time.

Some years back, as a filmmaking student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Gerber launched a film production company. He was a junior in college, but he lied on his resume, suggesting he was 30, and began freelance producing for commercial film shoots. At first it went really well: people believed he was a full-scale production company, and “I was getting the job done.” But then he got cocky. He started making dumb decisions, “like taking clients out for $1,000 meals,” he recalls with a laugh. Soon, everything went bust, and he was left with a measly 700 bucks from which to try to rebuild. Which is finally what he did–with a new focus on social capital: on nurturing trust and relationships, rather than worrying too immediately about the bottom line.

A few years later, in 2007, an old professor invited him back to give a talk to students about Gerber’s rise, fall, and his subsequent climb, bruised but wiser. He didn’t think much of the talk he gave–until about a year later, when a girl from the class emailed him: “Scott, I just wanted to let you know: thanks for coming to class a year ago. I wanted to let you know that I started my first production company. Thanks for giving me the inspirational bug.”


It was the simplest of email messages–almost dashed off. But for Gerber, a light bulb went off. “That’s when I realized, I changed this girl’s direction,” recalls Gerber, who resolved to make mentorship central to his mission going forward. (In addition to the partnership with Junior Achievement, he does much work personally with the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, and proudly mentions that a team he advised went on to win a national championship for its vision of a revamped soccer sock.) He’s thrilled, now, to head an organization of 1,000 high-achieving people eager to pass along their know-how to people a few–or many–steps behind.

So just because you’re not absurdly profitable yet, says Gerber, don’t use that as an excuse not to give back–in this or any season. And even if you are profitable, give time, too. “With money, you never know where it’s going. Whereas with time, you’ll see your impact on the faces in front of you, in the relationships you’re building, and the access you’re providing. Those key metrics can’t be defined by a dollar amount.”

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.