Editor’s note: The video in this article was produced by Nina Zou
SmileyGo, an online service connecting companies to nonprofit organizations serving underprivileged communities, hopes to become “a Match.com for philanthropic outreach,” says company founder Pedro David Espinoza in an interview.
In his home country of Peru, Espinoza’s parents constantly told him that “it’s better to share.” Espinoza said he was particularly inspired by his mother’s hard work in creating her own educational non-governmental organization.
Now the work of the 20-year-old entrepreneur’s Berkeley-based start-up extends to more than 40 countries across six continents.
Since its creation in July 2014, SmileyGo has attracted more than 350 volunteers around the world. Espinoza has ambitious plans to play matchmaker between cash-rich corporations and struggling communities, and to grow into a profitable public company. Currently the company relies on donations, angel investments, personal savings, and impact investments.
If SmileyGo continues its expansion, Espinoza said that in theory, large corporations such as Chevron, Shell, and ExxonMobil, for example, could fund charities like Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity in seconds in the event of an earthquake or other disaster.
The service is designed to be user-friendly. A prospective company first registers its mission, location, and industry on SmileyGo’s website. SmileyGo then matches nonprofits that identify with the company’s areas of interest. Most of the matches are determined by geographic proximity.
Espinoza said that SmileyGo aims to offer win-win solutions for donor corporations and charities in need. Although there are numerous nonprofit organizations, many have trouble locating funds. SmileyGo creates a shortcut connecting them with wealthy, deep-pocketed companies and foundations.
SmileyGo can also assist participating companies in meeting their social responsibility and philanthropy goals. In return, nonprofits receive tangible assistance such as textbook, donation and monetary support, building possible long-term collaborations with their donors.
Just as Facebook is made for friends, and LinkedIn for professionals, SmileyGo is an online platform for the socially aware, Espinoza said. “SmileyGo is a social business,” he added. “We connect smart students, smart companies and smart non- profits to make a possible and tangible change to the world.” Explaining the company’s name, he said “Smiley” suggests bringing joy, and “Go” suggests standing up and taking action.
Espinoza is no stranger to enterprise. At 15, he founded Yatay, a nonprofit organization that sends wealthy children to poorer communities to share their passion for music. “We were merging the upper and lower classes in Peru,” he said. Through Yatay, more educated children could teach poorer kids to play guitar, piano and drums.
His prior business experiences, working as a sales representative in Shell and a car mechanic at Toyota, shaped his entrepreneurial spirit to strive for something global. “In order for me to do something big, I had to first network with people,” he said.
At Stanford and UC Berkeley, Espinoza extended his social circle through playing tennis and golf. He later recruited “SmileyGoers,” or SmileyGo volunteers, through these extracurricular activities.
Through the help of their first impact investor, Stanford professor Tom Kosnik, personal savings and relatives, Espinoza’s team was able to pay their expenses and turn SmileyGo into a real business.
Studying business administration at UC Berkeley, Espinoza worked with fellow students including his “tech genius” Michael Ingraham, the newly appointed CEO Dante Leon, and Chief Evangelist, Samuel Hu, who spreads news about SmileyGo to his fellow classmates.
Leon said he wants to help young children with vision to get the resources they need. “We go to school and we learn about math, we learn about science and we learn about English,” Leon said in an interview. “Why don’t we use that knowledge to help others?”
In Casablanca, Morocco, Espinoza and his team convinced a construction company to donate ingredients such as salt and minerals to a cultural center. For their second project, they convinced Toyota Autoespar in Peru to start a SmileyGo campaign. The company invested in a firm called TECHO, a nonprofit construction that build houses for jobless and homeless people. He considers them his early successful projects.
Last year, Espinoza and his team were quarter-finalists for the Hult Prize, the world’s largest student competition for social good. One of Espinoza’s dreams is to help young professionals become global leaders. Espinoza gives advice through Skype to overseas CEOs on how to recruit and motivate volunteers.
Espinoza said he often receives mail asking the secret of his fast-growing business. He says, “It’s hard to find a person who hates a business or group of people that love helping others.”
From the summer of 2015, Espinoza and his team plan to start paying coders full-time. Since the beginning, they’ve worked on a pro bono or volunteer basis. But now that they are generating revenue through membership subscription fees, company advertisement and data licensing, they are able to start paying employees.
SmileyGo’s growth plans include an initial public offering of company stock. “In less than two years,” Espinoza predicted, “we are going to go IPO.”
For SmileyGo China, visit www.smileygo.org/china
Editing by Mike Cormack (@bucketoftongues)