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Grassroots Action

Short of funds and long on creativity, tutor.com has funneled its startup ingenuity and excitement into a grassroots social justice campaign with heart.

On the startup checklist, community outreach often falls well below venture capital and market share. Even the most civic-minded startup entrepreneur inevitably asks the question: How can my company afford to give back without jeopardizing its bottom line or its precious time?

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George Cigale, CEO of the two-year-old tutor.com, is asking a question of his own: How can any company afford not to?

“Companies think they will devote resources to social justice when they become profitable,” Cigale says. “Unless you make social justice part of your business, and until you can see how philanthropy benefits your business, you will never truly devote resources to that charitable program. It’s not enough to want to do good; you must figure out how doing good will benefit your company.”

Despite its tenuous, tight-fisted startup status, tutor.com recently launched a long-term community-service program that sprouted at the grassroots level and now stands to improve the sad state of New York City’s public school system. This April, tutor.com’s 28 employees made a five-year commitment to educate, promote, and financially support the Choir Academy of Harlem, a public school with a tradition of excellence in music and mediocrity in education funding. Under Superintendent Thelma Baxter’s Adopt-a-School program, tutor.com has pledged to outfit touring students with laptops and an on-road tutor, provide two scholarships a year, supply year-round tutors and academic assistance, promote a teacher-of-the-year award, and open tutor.com internships to Choir Academy students. The partnership, which began with the presentation of a $10,000 check to the principal of the Choir Academy on April 10, has already spurred half a dozen employees of tutor.com to visit the school and to begin talking with students and teachers about the priorities and principles of their relationship.

“I want to do everything possible to enhance loyalty in the staff and to keep my people around,” says Cigale, a graduate of Bronx Science and the State University of New York. “That means paying them well and giving them stock options. It also means giving them a bigger vision of the change that tutor.com is making in society.”

One employee in particular brought the school adoption program to life through resourceful persistence. Former director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, Paul Lipson used his personal agenda and experience to form a relationship with the Choir Academy of Harlem and to educate his colleagues about the procedures of giving back. In part, Lipson also helped conceive the tutor.com Foundation, which will raise money from corporate and individual givers, and then distribute that money in $1,000 scholarships earmarked for students’ tutoring services. Tutor.com will contribute in-kind services — technology and tutors — as well as cash donations.

“We have formed this partnership with the Choir Academy and we have started the tutor.com Foundation in order to give back to the community and to promote social justice, but these initiatives are core to our company’s mission,” Cigale says. “We’re getting involved in schools because we want to learn from these kids and their teachers. We want to form a good relationship that will help improve our product, our services, and the participating schools.”

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The children and teachers at the Choir Academy have already begun to repay tutor.com’s kindness by participating in focus groups and providing feedback on tutor.com demonstrations. “We’ve already changed our product because of their feedback,” Cigale says.

Though the partnership is young, Cigale says tutor.com has the resources in place to launch the tutoring element immediately. When it first began registering tutors in July 1999, tutor.com asked users to check a box if they were willing and able to participate in volunteer programs in person or online using tutor.com’s online classroom technology. Nearly 70 percent of tutors checked that box, and today tutor.com is busy calling those people and asking them to act on their word. In addition to the volunteer program at Choir Academy, tutor.com is planning to connect tutors to needy learning centers and inner city schools through an interactive database.

“I had a complete New York public school education from kindergarten through college, so I have intimate knowledge of the state’s problems with teacher recruitment and pay, graduation rates, and standards,” Cigale says. “Anyone who wants to initiate civic or corporate involvement, sees this insurmountable problem and doesn’t know where to start. Dr. Baxter’s Adopt-a-School program made change tangible. It makes each company truly and intimately able to help a school. We feel we can make a huge difference by placing all of tutor.com’s resources in the Choir Academy.”

The first Internet company to participate in New York’s Adopt-a-School program, tutor.com hopes to demonstrate to other lean startups the power of youth and pliancy in answering strong, urgent community needs. Rather than focus on his company’s limitations — lack of funds, lack of staff, lack of time — Cigale zeroed in on tutor.com’s strengths — speed, agility, and enthusiasm, to name just a few — and designed a social justice campaign that suited the company’s strengths and stood to bolster its bottom line.

“Tutor.com can move on a dime,” Cigale says. “Trained in the fast-paced startup world, we saw an opportunity to make a difference in a school with daring, progressive leaders, and we jumped at it. Not only is it an opportunity to help the community and students, it is also a way to develop a good relationship with the school, and to establish an ongoing dialogue that will improve our product.”