Chicagoan of the Week: Desiree Vargas Wrigley

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When you’re the CEO of a company whose offices are on the 18th floor of a building on Wacker Drive, right on the Chicago River, you’ve got to feel pretty good about yourself. And when your company raises over $3,977,451 for people in need, you’ve got to feel on top of the world.

Desiree Vargas Wrigley is that CEO, and she gave me an hour of her time to discuss her company, GiveForward, headquartered in our glorious city. But before Chicago, she was helping entrepreneurs access funding in Kansas City. It was during this time that several seemingly unrelated bits of knowledge were discovered. Little did she know they’d one day be the basis of a company capable of raising $500K in venture capital in its first round of funding.

In her last job, Desiree saw young kids secure loans and grants for their business ideas. If these kids can do it, she thought, so can I. Desiree eventually had her own great idea but when she went to raise money for it via the internet, she realized the tools just weren’t available. So, she made the tool, and ended up starting GiveForward.

GiveForward works like this: users create a profile detailing their fundraising effort. They can upload photos and video, share the story of their cause, and even have access to one-on-one coaching from a professional fundraising coach through the company. This coach helps them spread the word about their cause. Once the end date of the fundraiser rolls around, the user receives a check from GiveForward. And while popular opinion casts non-profits as righteous and for-profit companies as big business bullies, GiveForward is working to change that perception. It is a for-profit company.

GiveForward takes 4% of the money raised as their fee for hosting and coaching. Desiree was quick to point out the criticism they’ve received, stating one article even chastised them for “benefiting from the misfortune of others.” Yet, the numbers back up Desiree’s mission: most of the fundraisers on GiveForward seek to cover medical expenses. Without a fundraiser, these expenses would most likely be charged to a credit card at high interest rates — 20% or more. GiveForward takes 4%, and coaches you to make the most of your fundraiser.

Aside from mustering the gumption to start her own business, Desiree also had an experience with fundraising in Kansas City that left her feeling less than excited about philanthropy. After Hurricane Katrina, employees at her company were pressured into giving to a specific organization to help in relief efforts. She realized when giving to large organizations, you often don’t know how your money is being used. She did the research and learned that about sixty cents of every dollar you give to a non-profit goes to direct services; the other 40% goes to operating costs. But GiveForward’s for-profit model allows ninety-three cents of every dollar to flow directly into the hands of the fundraisers. They have more resources to devote to their mission, as they are not constantly fundraising to pay their employees.

And Desiree is excited about her potential employees — it’s one of the reasons she chose Chicago for GiveForward headquarters. She cites the amazing schools in our city, aiming to add to the vibrant business community in the Midwest, rather than losing all of our talent to the coasts.

When I asked Desiree to advise other young professionals, she talked about the word “entrepreneur,” and what it means. Sure, it could mean starting a company, but it’s also about looking for opportunities and seizing them, she said. She urged people to “be interesting,” citing your high grade point average and membership in the French club are great, but do something that stands out. Volunteer. Start a blog. Learn a language. And, don’t shy away from any idea just because you don’t count yourself an expert in every facet of the project.

“Don’t be scared of what you don’t know,” said Desiree. “Be excited about finding the answers.”

We’re lucky to have Desiree poking around for those answers right here in Chicago.

Mary-Margaret McSweene

About Mary-Margaret McSweene

Mary-Margaret McSweene makes her home in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago with the love of her life, a pit bull/black lab mix, named Jake. Buying old things that no longer function but offer extreme aesthetic pleasure is her vice; typewriters and rotary phones are favorites. Mary-Margaret also believes that anything in life can be articulated by a Tom Petty song.

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