NC State Senior Ryan O’Donnell has had a busy semester.
It began with a partnership between his startup nonprofit Pennies 4 Progress and San Francisco-based GoodLabs to let customers of 6,000 merchants around the nation round up their bills to provide donations to any of 60,000 schools. Pennies 4 Progress earned a grant earlier this year from NC State’s Institute for Emerging Issues to build a technology platform to allow the transactions to happen. It was then named a finalist in United Way’s Social Innovation Challenge, earning a spot in a five-week accelerator in Durham.
When O’Donnell and two co-founders learned of GoodLabs’ point-of-sale donation technology and relationships with thousands of merchants, they inked a deal to develop a Charity Checkout app with the company.
At the same time, O’Donnell and mentor Jeff Stocks formalized plans for a for-profit startup called EMPLOYUS and won one of seven spots in the Citrix Accelerator’s new Raleigh Innovators Program. They set to work building a way for employers to post open jobs and anyone to refer their friends or colleagues to fill the positions. The winner referral takes home a hefty cash prize.
The plan and the founders were compelling enough to win one of five NC IDEA grants this week. O’Donnell says those funds will be used to add more features to the site, which already lists 26 available positions from local tech employers. More than $50,000 in referral prizes are up for grabs.
O’Donnell and Stocks were introduced nearly a year ago and then met in February 2014 to talk about their mutual interest in human capital. Stocks previously owned the local franchise of the Manpower Group and now operates an executive search firm called the Nautical Group. O’Donnell has a personal mission to leverage financial and human capital to solve big social challenges. He was only hoping for an internship with the more experienced entrepreneur.
But the pair hit it off and by summer, had a plan in place for EMPLOYUS. O’Donnell calls Stocks “one of the best mentors I’ve ever had.” Plans for a Raleigh Citrix Accelerator were announced soon after, and they decided to apply. A structured program would let them test the concept with potential customers (specifically, fast-growing Citrix) and build some early traction in the Triangle. A $25,000 grant helped fund the experiment.
NC IDEA funding will be used to build a recommendation engine to let referrers mine their contacts and LinkedIn connections for candidates who might be qualified for specific positions open on EMPLOYUS. People searching for jobs can then ask their connections to refer them. And notifications will be built into the platform so users know when new jobs are posted.
“That will let us help people connect easier and companies hire faster,” O’Donnell says. He’ll also spend more time marketing to both employers and workers (in the tech startup world, for now). That’s a must for two-way marketplaces like EMPLOYUS. Both groups need to be on the site for it to be successful. He’s hoping large prizes, like Automated Insights’ $5,000 awards for referring a software engineer, data scientist or senior salesperson, will draw potential referrers in.
O’Donnell is fortunate to be an entrepreneurship major at NC State—his professors have been supportive of his efforts, often providing valuable advice outside of class, he says. He has two classes left before graduation, at which point he can pursue his business and nonprofit work full-time. “I’m looking forward to May 9th,” he says.