Desiree Vargas Wrigley & Ethan Austin, GiveForward

Desiree Wrigley Vargas and Ethan Austin are reinventing healthcare coverage as co-founders of GiveForward, an online fundraising platform that helps patients handle out-of-pocket medical expenses through crowd funding. Since 2008, the company has helped thousands of people raise millions of dollars online for things like general medical expenses, cancer treatment, transplants, funeral costs and disaster-relief.

When GiveForward launched, crowd funding was in its infancy; popular crowd funding destinations Kickstarter and Indiegogo hadn’t even launched yet. The team bootstrapped in those early days and didn’t take salaries for the first two and a half years. Today, the Chicago venture is holding its own, with over 30 employees and and more than 146 million raised for people in need.

Name: Desiree Vargas Wrigley & Ethan Austin
Ages: 34 & 33
Venture: GiveForward
Hometown: San Jose, Costa Rica/Kansas City, MO & Newport Beach, CA
Chicago Since: 2007 & 2008

How did you start out in your career?

Desiree: My first grown-up job was working for the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City. After college, I knew I just didn’t want to take any job. I really wanted to have a sense of purpose in my work. Working for a foundation gave a really great introduction to the intersection of for profit (because generational wealth through business is usually the reason foundations exist) and non-profit beneficiaries. While there I fell in love with entrepreneurship and the power it has to build communities, employ people, and make a positive impact on any of the stakeholders connected to the business. The things I learned at the Kauffman Foundation helped determine the structure and vision for GiveForward.

Ethan: We bootstrapped and didn’t take salaries for the first two-and-a-half years. It taught us to be scrappy. I think this mentality has lived on in the DNA of the company.

Tell us about your business venture.

Desiree: GiveForward is a crowdgiving platform that is changing the way loved ones care about each other during a major life event.  To date, we’ve answered the question “What can I do to help?” for over 1 million friends and family, enabling them to contribute more than $160M for loved ones in need.

How did you come up with the idea for your business?

Desiree: It was a combination of things, but mostly I was inspired by Hurricane Katrina and how it was impossible to give directly to people trying to rebuild. Eventually, I realized that there was no way to raise money online if you weren’t a registered nonprofit. That was the “aha” moment.

When did you first realize you wanted to become an entrepreneur?

Desiree: I originally wanted to do Corporate Social Responsibility for a major company operating in Latin America. But after working at the Kauffman Foundation and seeing so many young people starting businesses, I thought to myself “Why not me?”

Ethan: When I was six. I think I was probably the only six-year-old in America that wanted to be a real estate developer.

Desiree Vargas Wrigley & Ethan Austin of GiveForward in Chicago

Photography by Kelly Peloza

What advice can you give to young people looking to launch a startup?

Desiree: I would say that before you launch your business, make sure that you really are bringing something new to the market. Look for where the puck is heading and not where it is. That’s where opportunity lies. For us, Ethan and I both saw what was happening with social media, we saw that people were getting more comfortable with online banking, and we thought to ourselves that online fundraising was next.

Ethan: Leap and the net will appear. The hardest thing about running a business is not running it, it’s having the courage to start. But once you take that leap that’s when all the magic happens.

What were your best resources when it came to launching your business?

Desiree: Local entrepreneurs were so helpful in the early days. Chicago didn’t have the startup scene it has today, so getting together was a lot more about networking and grassroots in its organization. Those early founder friends are how we found out about TechStars, how we met our first investors, and how we started to build a name for ourselves here.

Ethan: I remember reading Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki and Purple Cow by Seth Godin. Both of those were really helpful. Purple Cow, in particular really resonated with me changed the way I thought about business.

Why did you decide to open your business in Chicago?

Desiree: Chicago is one of the greatest cities to start a business. The city is affordable, centrally located, has easy airports, great public transportation, and plenty of talent. Since we launched GiveForward in 2008, the city has exploded with resources for tech startups, including great tools like Built In Chicago that serves as a social networking platform and job board for people in our space.

 

Desiree Vargas Wrigley & Ethan Austin of GiveForward in Chicago

Which tools do you find most useful for your business today?

Ethan: Sanebox – to keep email flow down to a minimum. The CommitTo3 app to help prioritize and improve personal productivity and accountability.

Desiree: SaneBox, Asana, ShipBob, InstaCart, and X.ai.

What is a typical workday like for you?

Desiree: An insane mix of inspiring meetings, visioning, and relationship building.

Ethan: There is no typical workday. I think that’s one of the fun parts.

Best part of owning your own business so far?

Desiree: When we hit our first $1M in donations. It was one of the first times I remember thinking “We’re building something really important.”

Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?

Desiree: Helping to run a business that helps millions of people care about the people they love most.

What advice would you give your 20 year old self?

Desiree: Your main job right now is to learn how to be interesting. Find your passion. Of course finish school, because you’re halfway through. Use the luxury and protection of these years to figure out what makes your heart race and your brain ignite. Those are the things you can turn into the job of your dreams…if it doesn’t already exist today.

The second thing I would say is: stop caring so much about pleasing people! You go through school trying to earn good grades. That’s not the point of school…that’s just a means to an end. The really important thing is to actually learn. Learn the things that matter to you and will be useful in your life. That can still be Shakespeare (the ultimate literary innovator–inventing words and funding works into production) or history (full of innovators and dreamers).

Ethan: Don’t go to law school! Go out and get a job, see the world, do anything! But don’t go to grad school just because you don’t know what else to do. Grad school is not a stepping stone to anything. Only go if you truly understand why you want to go.

Desiree Vargas Wrigley & Ethan Austin of GiveForward in Chicago

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Desiree: “Leap and the net will appear.” It’s a zen saying my mom sent me on a magnet when I was launching GF.

Ethan: Follow your heart.  From my uncle when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a lawyer or start a business.

Where are you favorite places to eat in Chicago?

Desiree: I love Latin food, so any of our eclectic New American and upscale Latin/Spanish restaurants.

Ethan: Too many to list but here are a few: Cellar Door Provisions is the best bakery west of Tartine in SF. My wife and I go every weekend for breakfast. La Patron for tacos, Xoco for the ahogado, which I think is the best sandwich in the universe. And of course, Chipotle, which I probably eat at once or twice a week.

Shop?

Desiree: I have two small children…I don’t shop!

Ethan: Bric-a-brac. It’s a record store in Avondale with all sorts of amazing tchotchkes from the 80s.

Hang out?

Desiree: Ditto.

Ethan: Parson’s Chicken and Fish because they have an outdoor ping pong table.

Favorite part about living in Chicago?

Desiree: The way the city comes alive in the spring.

Ethan: The comida. Chicago’s an amazing food city!

If you could have lunch with any entrepreneur in the world who would it be?

Desiree:  Howard Schultz from Starbucks. I’d love to pick his brain about how you keep multiple stakeholders a priority as you scale but also how he understands the role of his company in the broader, global conversation on the environment.

Ethan: Steve Ellis, the founder of Chipotle.

 

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About the author

Kelly Peloza

I Am Young Chicago Lead CitySpotter. Kelly Peloza is is a Chicago-based photographer and stylist specializing in food, editorial, and advertising work at Kelly Peloza Photo. She holds a BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, where she studied photography and writing. She also blogs at Seitan Beats Your Meat and is the author of two vegan cookbooks.

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