Say the words “white guilt” and Brian Kreiter bristles.
The concept of helping others in order to appease some class-inspired guilt has never occurred to him. “I’d like to think that whether you’re white or black or green or blue, you can find motivation to help someone else,” says Kreiter, a Yale University senior and co-founder of National Student Partnerships — a non-profit organization that mobilizes students as advocates for needy people in their communities.
Still, the 21-year-old Chicago native struggles to translate into words his own motivation for devoting untold hours and energy to a socially conscious startup that will not issue an IPO, will not make its founders rich, and will not offer much initial job security. Kreiter’s explanation begins with an analogy borrowed from the Saturday morning cartoons of his childhood. “Handy Smurf makes chairs because it’s his job and he makes chairs because other smurfs need chairs. Is that capitalism or altruism?”
He starts again: “There’s something that connects your fate to the people around you. Helping others benefits you, not in a material way, but in a very real way.”
Kreiter is by no means alone in his struggle. Most of us grow tongue-tied when asked to articulate the motivations behind the work we do. For so many of us, the answer is a complex formula of financial needs, professional ambitions, personal interests, and happenstance. In Kreiter’s case, the question is further complicated by the fact that his leadership position with National Student Partnerships is entirely unpaid.
Whatever spurred Kreiter and co-founder Kirsten Lodal, 20, to build NSP, it is most assuredly not tied to personal profit. Because, simply put, NSP is a startup of the heart. And passion doesn’t vest after 12 to 18 months.
Kreiter and Lodal met at Yale in September 1997. Interested in helping recipients of public assistance affected by the welfare time limits imposed by 1996 reform legislation, the two befriended people on the streets of New Haven, Connecticut, and helped them apply for jobs. Over time, they fiddled with the idea of recruiting more people – friends, colleagues, entire communities of college students across the nation – to serve as personal career agents for those less fortunate than themselves.
“We had this grandiose notion we would create a program to help save New Haven,” says Lodal. “I guess I was about the one-millionth student to say that.”
Rather than circulate petitions or host sit-ins like their idealistic forefathers, Kreiter and Lodal got to work. They drafted a comprehensive business plan and sought out investors who were willing to fund a series of student-staffed drop-in centers designed to provide one-on-one counseling to welfare recipients and other folks just trying to get back on their feet. In January 1999, a private foundation contributed a $50,000 seed grant that allowed Kreiter and Lodal to open the first NSP office in New Haven.
Within the last 10 months, the organization has grown at Internet speed — opening a national office in Washington D.C., hiring two full-time directors, and launching NSP chapters in 22 cities including New York, Atlanta , and San Antonio, Texas.
“I never would have imagined how much we’d accomplish,” NSP Chief Executive Officer Peter Groves says. “When I first accepted the job, I thought it was entirely possible that my salary would just dry up.” So far, Groves’ paychecks have cleared. But he earns just $25,500 a year — about half the average salary of an entry-level consultant at one of the nation’s Big Five firms. And that was precisely the kind of safe and lucrative job offer Groves was planning to accept before Kreiter, a close friend and fellow Lacrosse player, offered him a paid position at NSP.
“The only thing really missing is the chance for any of us to make a lot of money,” says Groves, 22. “But if you’re going to work ten hours a day, you might as well find a job you can throw your heart around.”
Thankfully, the work pays off in tangible results as well: a $25,000 grant from the Fannie Mae Foundation, an invitation to the National Welfare to Work Convention in Chicago, and a handshake from President Clinton. “I really feel empowered by what NSP allows us to do right now as recent college graduates,” Groves says. “The idea of working my way up the ladder and paying my dues is just really unattractive.”
Last April, on the way to a job interview with a major consulting firm, Groves called Kreiter and Lodal to tell them he was rethinking his decision to join NSP. “But the interviewers kept asking me all these asshole questions, like how many golf balls can you fit in a phone booth,” he says. “By the time I made it through, I was wondering, ‘What am I doing here?'”
For Groves, a political science and international relations major who spent summers working for Pepsi Co. and an international investment bank, the opportunity to build an organization from the ground up just one year out of college makes work at NSP well worth the financial strains. At the same time, growing NSP from a dream to a reality has tested everyone’s will and determination. Both Kreiter and Lodal left school last spring to work on NSP full time. Kreiter, an economics and African American studies major, returned to Yale this fall and will graduate in May. Lodal will return in January as a junior. The rewards, however, began trickling in when NSP learned it had won the support and admiration of Eli Segal, president and chief executive officer of Welfare to Work Partnerships — a nonprofit that encourages businesses to hire former welfare recipients.
“I love how they came up with a big idea and then were able to execute it,” says Segal, first executive officer of Americorps and chief-of-staff for Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. “It’s an extraordinary story of young people doing good right now.”
In these heady economic times, we more often hear and tell the stories of young people making millions, than of young people making a difference. Our society, always infatuated with age, has perhaps never been so taken by the convergence of youth and money. And as the stock market soars, so do the income expectations of college graduates. In a recent poll conducted by KPMG LLP, 42 percent of student respondents said they expect to earn upwards of $50,000 in their first job.
Cory Sorensen, national program coordinator for NSP, has the esteemed task of convincing future breadwinners at campuses across the nation to volunteer for a fraction of those projections. A recent University of Michigan graduate herself, 22-year-old Sorensen knows how focused students become on their professional goals. During campus recruiting trips, she appeals directly to their career ambitions.
“For the future social worker, this is an incredible hands-on experience working with people in the community,” Sorensen explains. “For the people who could care less about welfare but want to go on to Salomon Smith Barney, we put them in charge of finances.”
In the end, NSP’s true aim is to convince volunteers that they needn’t choose between business and public service. In order to stress the “both-and” rather than the “either-or,” NSP has adopted the non-hierarchical model of new economy startups. By doing so, they hope to inspire volunteers’ commitment and creativity by giving them the freedom to define the organization and pursue projects that interest them.
“We resemble other modern day companies in that we are very concerned with our bottom line,” Kreiter says. “Our bottom line just happens to be improving our community and giving others a hand.”