“I believe that we all have a responsibility to give back and there are so many ways we can all contribute to society and the world.” – Carol Luong
The world is filled with creative, innovative, caring people. Every day we’re hearing stories of people disrupting the system, taking risks, and choosing to build a world that empowers others.
These stories inspire me daily. I truly believe despite all the bad we hear from the news cycles, there is SO MUCH more good in the world than bad. And the army of people linking arms to collaborate and combine their talents, knowledge, skills, and passion is growing exponentially.
Carol Luong, creator of Great Positive is one of those people. Unsatisfied with the digital fundraising model that existed for non-profits, she decided to leap into the unknown and create a format that maximizes the benefits both the donor and the non-profit.
As this week’s #WCW Spotlight, she shares what inspired her to create GreatPositive, how she stays motivated, and why her skills as a poker player became an important life hack.
Me: Like so many others in our generation, you started your career working in for corporate America. What was that experience like?
Carol: Working in the corporate world was like a short rollercoaster ride for me. There were plenty of ups and downs, excitement, happiness, struggles, and tears, but like all rollercoasters, it quickly came to an end.
I remember approaching my graduation at Binghamton University in one of the worst times to graduate (2008) and decided it was better to just continue schooling since I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get a job. I felt like I was still slowly clicking up that initial rollercoaster hill. I ended up getting accepted into Binghamton’s 1-year fast track MBA program and when I quickly graduated from that, it was like I experienced that first steep drop of the rollercoaster. I was amped and ready to ascend up again.
Funny enough, I’m going to make another entertainment and game reference and say that Corporate America became like playing a game of poker. I hope I don’t sound like a heartless cutthroat person, but most of it really was about knowing how to play the cards you were dealt and putting on a poker face. Even if I had the weakest hand, I knew how to win by being aware of everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and sometimes just played the board. In fact, I just read an article in Fortune Magazine about how women need to spend more time networking. I’ve always lived my life on the principle of working smarter, not harder and I guess a big part of it had to do with not having much during my childhood. I was always eager to get ahead with the little resources that I had before me.
And of course, I worked hard and was respectful and made some great friends along the way, but I was mostly in it for the thrill of moving up the corporate ladder and winning. This quickly got old though since it obviously didn’t fulfill a deeper part of my existence. And so, after a few more drops and loops, the rollercoaster finally came to end. And it was time to move on and try skydiving instead. That feeling of being on top of the world and flying is something everyone should experience in their lives.
Me: Over the course of your career, you jumped back and forth between larger corporations and smaller start-ups. Did you find you took to one world more than the other?
Carol: I definitely enjoyed working in the startup environment more because it was faster paced and I was more inspired by the risk-takers around me. It’s not in my personality to have a steady 9-5 job. I thrive more on uncertainty and the idea of exponential growth and impact. Being around other entrepreneurs gave me the confidence to take the leap into pursuing my own passions and brought out the entrepreneurial spirit in me. And only time shall tell if I’ve made the right decision because as of now, I’m poor and struggling and kind of envy those with steady jobs and paychecks. And yet, there’s no where I’d rather be than working for my own startup.
Me: When you finally made the decision to leave the corporate world and focus full time on building GreatPositive, how did you feel?
Carol: I actually transitioned from working at a startup (not the corporate world) to working on GreatPositive full time. I remember taking a romantic vacation with my boyfriend in Paris and when I got back I immediately put in my notice! It’s funny how that always works out for me because in another previous job I quit immediately after I got back from vacation too.
Anyway, I felt vindicated, excited, and naively confident. And when I say naïve, it’s because no one actually knows how hard it’ll be until they experience it. I thought I had it all figured out and patted myself on the back for “planning” it well. Months ahead of when I actually quit, I made sure to have the right relationships in place to have part-time remote work available to me so that I’d still have some income and all the flexibility in the world to start GreatPositive. And then a month later, my boyfriend unexpectedly quit his full-time job and things got real. We basically both took the leap with both feet in, which forced us to work faster and harder. There were many moments of fear, doubt, insecurities and tears to come.
Me: How did the idea for GreatPositive come to life?
Carol: GreatPositive came to life after a year and half of passionate conversations between my then boyfriend, now fiancé and business partner. Whether it was over meals or late at night in bed, we couldn’t shake the idea. I remember once waking Matt up at 3am because my mind was racing with ideas. And over time, our ideas just evolved into where we thought we could make the biggest difference given our experience, knowledge and current resources. We talked about it to the point where we couldn’t talk anymore and just had to do it.
Me: Has giving back always been a priority in your life? Or is it something that has developed later in your life?
Carol: I’m sure everyone knows this about me by now because it’s in my email signature and I usually talk about it when I’m at events or meet new people. I’ve been volunteering since I was 12 years old. Time has always been the consistent thing I’ve been able to give and I always imagined myself growing to be crazy wealthy one day so that I could “go into philanthropy.” Of course, as I grew older, I had a better understanding of what philanthropy actually meant – it’s not just about donating money to make an impact. There are so many other ways to give back including, time, talent, network and resources.
Me: Creating donation platforms that benefit both the donor and the non-profit has been a tough arena to crack, but you have really created something special with GreatPositive. What motivated you to take on this challenge?
Carol: Thank you for the kind words! All these little words of encouragement help me get through the toughest times of entrepreneurship. My motivation to carry out this idea stemmed from two main things. First, comes from my own personal experiences. As mentioned earlier, time was the only thing I really had to give and the random $5-$100 donations never felt enough for me. And yet, I was aware of all the wealth around me and aware of the many people that had good intentions, but just needed a bit of prodding to get involved with philanthropy. Which is why we focus so much on the peer-to-peer fundraising aspect and not just crowdfunding or donating in general. Secondly, I’m just sick of our hard earned money and donations being gouged by online fees. Especially in a day and age when technology is just so much cheaper to build and maintain, those cost savings need to be passed on to nonprofits.
Me: What has been the most surprising part of your experience creating a socially responsible business? What about the most inspiring part of your efforts?
Carol: I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but a part of me is surprised by my commitment. I’m so used to switching from job to job that there was a small part of me that wondered if I’d actually stick with building GreatPositive. Passion is a beautiful thing. It’s what’s getting me through all the gut-wrenching anxiety and stress that comes along with being a first-time entrepreneur. It was also surprising to get push back from nonprofit leaders. Many of them didn’t take well to me in the beginning because they viewed me as another typical vendor trying to make a quick buck from them. Non-profits turned me down harder than any other corporate professional has. People say the corporate world is cutthroat, but I learned the contrary.
The most inspiring part of this whole experience has been all the people and businesses in the social good space that I’ve been exposed to. The list just keeps growing and it’s amazing to meet others who want to make the world a better place. I’ve also been exposed to the concept of Benefit Corporations and having a triple bottom line of People, Planet, and Profit, as well as B-Corp certified companies that have to go through a rigorous audit to show that they are mindful about all of their stakeholders. GreatPositive admires many of these companies and looks forward to joining this movement of doing business differently and more responsibly.
Me: As you build GreatPositive, what are some of the surprising things you’ve learned about non-profit giving habits along the way?
Carol: Understandably, giving is just not top of mind for most people – bills, rent, food, and entertainment take precedence over donating to charity. However, there is something magical that happens when a friend asks you to donate. Ideally, everyone should get involved with causes that they care about and spend the time to research the appropriate organizations to donate to, but sometimes it takes a nudge from a peer to donate. And the more nudges we get, the more that donating climbs higher on the list of priorities.
Me: Are there other areas in the give back arena you hope to one day take on through GreatPositive?
Carol: I believe that technology has left non-profits behind. There aren’t enough platforms out there that focus on non-profit needs and many of them are status quo and are out to make a quick buck. GreatPositive is on a mission to fill this technology gap and help nonprofits with all of their online fundraising needs. Beyond peer-to-peer fundraising, we’ll also provide a better solution for event ticketing, product sales, website donation tools, data intelligence, and email marketing.
Me: You’re lucky enough to work on this with your best friend (now fiancée). What has that experience been like?
Carol: You used the perfect word, “lucky.” I am so fortunate to be able to work on GreatPositive with Matt. It adds a whole new level of passion to the relationship and I suppose it’s kind of like having baby. None of us really knew what we were getting into and just learned as we went. There was definitely a learning curve with balancing out the relationship versus the business, but what got us through tough times was our ability to communicate with each other and our trust in each other. There have been plenty of moments earlier on when we argued about work at a restaurant when we should have been enjoying our date. We quickly learned how to separate work from personal though.
I know common knowledge says that you should never start a business with your significant other, but I think that’s all rubbish. If you have a solid foundation in your relationship, you should be able to run a business with each other. But I suppose since many relationships are unhealthy or are doomed to fail, it makes sense that starting a business together just wouldn’t work in many relationships.
And I must admit, I’m not sure I could be building GreatPositive without Matt. His support and complete understanding of how I feel has gotten me through the worst of times and through all the gut-wrenching doubt of starting a business. Even though I have plenty of people out there who support me, it makes a whole world of a difference when someone actually knows and gets what you’re going through. And I’m not trying to downplay my ability as an entrepreneur, but as a first-time one it helps to have Matt by my side. Beyond GreatPositive, I’d be ready and confident to start other businesses without Matt if the situation ever arose.
So yeah, I’d say communication, trust, and shared passions are the key factors in successfully running a business together with a significant other. We have these down-pat (or as down-pat as humanly possible)!
Me: Another passion of yours is poker; a skill you feel translates into many other arenas outside of gambling, including giving back and social enterprise. What is it about poker that makes you so passionate?
Carol: I’ve been meaning to write a blog about poker because I think there are so many parallels between playing poker and being an entrepreneur. But in general, I enjoy poker so much because it is a game of skill as much as it is luck. Sometimes you have to play your cards, and other times you play the player. There’s a lot of math, psychology, and cognitive skills involved and you constantly have to be engaged with what’s happening at the table and learning who your opponents are.
Poker has also helped me learn how to control my emotions because if you don’t, you can easily make stupid decisions, which commonly happens after losing a big hand. It’s kind of like when something or someone angers or disappoints you – it’s probably best to go for a walk or give it several days before reacting to the situation. Except in poker, you don’t have the luxury of time, and so you better get your emotions under control quickly if you want to hold onto your chips.
I also love being viewed as the underdog or being a minority when I sit down at a table because I’m typically one of few women that will be at the tables. So when I do win, it’s a great feeling to beat all the testosterone out of the other players on the table.
I’ve met some of my closest friends through poker and I used to make some great extra cash when I was in college, so of course I love it! Overall, it’s just a fun game and a great release.
Me: A little known secret about you is that you’re a superior bowler. How did you discover this talent?
Carol: Ha! The friends I frequently bowl with wouldn’t call me superior. I typically bowl the worst out of the group, but I’m better than the average person! Yes, I have my own ball and shoes and my highest game was 226 points, but I typically only bowl around 150-160. I wouldn’t say I ever discovered this talent, but rather it was just something I enjoyed doing growing up. My family used to take me bowling and then I remember having the luxury of taking bowling gym in High School, which was awesome. But it wasn’t until college when I took it more seriously and finally bought my own ball after joining the bowling club. I remember bowling 4-5 times a week and being at my prime! It was fun and I wish I had more time to do it more often.
(And secretly, I have bad ankles and terrible hand-eye coordination, which eliminates me from being good at most sports. I’m also allergic to cold weather. So by default, I stuck to bowling, a nice, warm, and safe in-door activity.)
Me: What is the one piece of advice you would want to share with someone who wants to follow in your footsteps of using their own unique talents and life experiences to give back?
Carol: I believe that we all have a responsibility to give back and there are so many ways we can all contribute to society and the world. Whatever it may be, just do it. It’ll all come together. You’d be amazed at the support you’ll receive to achieve your mission, whether it’s through current people you already know or the people you’ll inevitably meet along the way. Together, we will make a positive difference in the world.
Connect with Carol and all her GreatPositive adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.