Discovering your human potential is the moment we live for, and Keith Friedlander may have discovered the remedy. Keith is a jack of all trades who’s mastering the art of cultivating an ecosystem for good.
He’s funneling his years of sports coaching, mentoring children, tutoring high school math, leading his rugby team to win a silver and gold medal at the Maccabiah Games, and his experience building Trivia College (a sports trivia mobile app dedicated to supporting the nonprofit world), into creating Virtueconomy. Virtueconomy is a new concept that’s redefining how we support social enterprises and nonprofit organizations that are advancing humanity and protecting our world.
Born in South Africa and raised on the beaches of Australia, he uprooted and transplanted from Sydney to New York City to start a new life. That move led to the realization that he could use his “white male privileged background” to support women entrepreneurs, and encourage women-owned enterprises through a new type of business.
Virtueconomy does more than just donate money to nonprofits. It teaches and provides critical resources to the nonprofit organizations who don’t have access to the capital they need and haven’t figured out the best model to grow and sustain themselves.
Keith is working to provide creatives who believe in the mission of Virtueconomy and the nonprofit partners he supports, with jobs and to be part of socially conscious and impactful projects. He’s doing his part to close the gender gap as it pertains to pay, resources, and opportunities for women and women of color to build and expand their businesses and organizations. He’s providing a way for consumers to get involved with and support nonprofits that could invariably affect our lives.
Through his story, Keith teaches us that even when you have to pivot from an original idea, there’s still room to grow into what you originally envisioned, and that even when it feels hard, to lean into the infinite potential you possess to stay committed to your dream.
Read what he has to say about being in the midst of building and cultivating an incredible community of businesses, nonprofits, creatives, and consumers to improve the world we live in; recognizing opportunity; following your intuition to completely change your life (and possibly an entire industry) with just one idea; and why it’s so important to stay true to yourself to accomplish your goals, and leverage perspective to live an incredible life.
Watch a snippet and read the entire interview below.
AP: Tell me a little about you, Keith, and what led you to start Virtueconomy.
Keith: I’ve always been big into following your passions, because when you discover what you love and you work at it, you thrive at it.
I’m originally South African born and I transplanted to Australia for the majority of my life. A couple of years ago, I moved to New York City to take it on.
I would say my journey began with years of education. I was a math tutor straight out of high school and I just loved helping make other people better. That transcended onto the sporting field through leadership and coaching – I just have a knack for wanting people to be better, and that starts with me, making myself to be better.
I was always meddling somewhere in between the intersection of sports, education, and helping others. When I stumbled into social entrepreneurship, which, I guess I always born to do, that was the first time I realized I could finally mesh those passions together.
I initially created a mobile game called Trivia College. It was a sports trivia game that converted the passion and knowledge people had on the field for their favorite stars into the causes they supported off the field. That was great because I was always a huge sports nut, so it was an opportunity for me to leverage my passions and also do it for good.
Thorough that, I was working with a few foundations of star athletes and volunteering with a couple of nonprofits at the same time. There was this moment where I realized how these nonprofits and organizations, and the people working for the nonprofits, have committed their lives to changing the world, but were so often constrained from doing so.
The people we were dealing with as our points of contact, were the same people who were often doing the social media and creating the events. We just realized there’s something flawed about this having come from a for-profit background, to then see the way that these organizations were set up, and then treated with such double standards. There were two totally different rulebooks and it just seemed wrong.
“I’ve always been big into following your passions, because when you discover what you love and you work at it, you thrive at it.”
I then watched a TED Talk by Dan Pallotta called “The Way We Think About Charities is Dead Wrong”, and that was the turning point. That was the eureka moment. He had self-evidence of how irrational the nonprofit world is and how it actually constrains itself from growing. All of this just started bubbling together into the Virtueconomy model.
We realized the app we were building was just a subset of something so much bigger at play: That there’s an opportunity to disrupt and change the most important industry in the world, which is the industry that cares about advancing humanity, protecting the world, and some of the most important things out there… Let’s focus on that. Make that as good as it can be. So Virtueconomy was born.
AP: How does Virtueconomy’s business model work?
Keith: We realized we needed to help these organization in ways they often couldn’t help themselves. So the resources and expertise where they couldn’t help themselves because of the constraints of the nonprofit industry. For instance, very few nonprofits have marketing departments and very few are tech savvy or have beautiful brands out there.
We realized we needed to inject creativity into the nonprofit world, which comes down to the infusion of creative talent. There are a lot of talented freelances out there who are hungry to do good, but besides the occasional pro bono work, they often can’t help the nonprofit world because there’s just no money in it. We knew that was going to be the solution and we needed to find a way to fund them.
So the final piece of the puzzle was introducing consumerism: Using consumer purchases, the millions of dollars that are spent everyday in the economy. We said, “Let’s leverage a little slice of that.” And we do that by partnering up with for-profit businesses, then partnering them with nonprofits, and creating a sustainable long-lasting relationship between them.
The way we turn that consumerism into creative investments for the nonprofit is, you come along, you purchase from our for-profit partners, a percentage of sales from those particular items come to us, and we invest that into these services. We employ creative services for the nonprofits in order to help them innovate and grow. Not to go in and put out fires, but to actually inject the nonprofit industry with a much needed creative spark.
AP: Who have you worked with specifically? I know you work with women specifically, and I love that you focus on women. But what made you direct your focus toward women and women of color-owned organizations? How important would you say it is for people to invest in women-owned organizations and nonprofits?
Keith: It’s a great question and I get asked that a lot. If I’m being honest, it started out somewhat serendipitously. The first two founders I happened to speak to were women. They gravitated towards it. They absolutely loved what we were doing and they got the model.
It was Anjè, which is a local boutique, an incredible fashion brand that’s all locally made in New York. The other is Lux Beauty Club, direct to consumer hair extensions. I met these two founders within a couple of days of each other and fell in love with them.
They had this unbelievable ambition and drive, and immediate association with wanting to do good. We asked them, “In what area would you want to work?” Immediately they mentioned they wanted to support other women, other women entrepreneurs, other women causes and women’s empowerment. We realized there was something at play there.
At the same time, the Women’s Lab at the Centre for Social Innovation was opening up. We applied to that and then, within days, we had two nonprofit partners who we matched with.
“I began discovering there is the most enormous separation in gender equality in 2017. Women have to fight daily. They walk into a room and they start at minus four, before they’ve even begun, and we just take that for granted, this white male privilege. I had that epiphanous moment where I realized I was just born very fortunate in that way. I didn’t realize the hardships women actually go through everyday.”
The turning point for me: I was brought up in a really great household with high values and a huge respect always for women. I thought I was one of the better guys, right. Yet I realized when I immersed myself into this world, speaking to the founders and speaking to these nonprofits, I got totally humbled. I realized how ignorant I was thinking I understood that world.
I began discovering there is the most enormous separation in gender equality in 2017. Women have to fight daily. They walk into a room and they start at minus four, before they’ve even begun, and we just take that for granted, this white male privilege. I had that epiphanous moment where I realized I was just born very fortunate in that way. I didn’t realize the hardships women actually go through everyday.
The more I dug into this and the more I got educated, the more I realized there is an enormous fight on hand and this is not a fight that should be fought just by women alone. It is so important that men join the cause and forge out our space. It’s not something we want given to us by women. There’s an incredible quote where feminism isn’t about men being given the space by women, but us actually taking the space we currently occupy in society and turning it feminist.
For me that was eye opening. Now there was this opportunity for me to use our platform and our model. And what better place to start, than to connect incredible women entrepreneurs with the founders of amazing businesses and with women founders of nonprofits. And we’re working out of CSI’s Women’s Lab to do that. There’s something so incredible about that.
I’ve still got a lot to learn and I’m humbled by that. I cannot wait to continue to champion the movement and be a part of it, to help close the gap somewhat in gender inequality and wage inequalities. We looked at all these different verticals and there’s such a gap that we need to close.
AP: Can you give me an example of how Virtueconomy has helped a woman-owned business and a women-owned nonprofit organization?
Keith: The most important thing for us when we first partner with a business is, we get to know them and the passions of the founders. Based on that, we then match them with relevant organizations.
“If you look at it, over 50% of the US GDP comes from small businesses. And these small businesses are run by founders, individual people who want to connect with causes, who want to use their businesses and platforms for good, but don’t know where to start or how.”
The founder of Anjè, was taken by the Koto Alliance because she’s a big believer in women’s entrepreneurship and she wants to help that ecosystem. When it came to Lux, one of the co-founders was a former cancer nurse. So she had an immediate affiliation to You Can Thrive. For them to be able to leverage their product, and tell their story in a way that can actually help these incredible and courageous survivors, was amazing. There was a beautiful chemistry there.
So the first thing we do is make sure it’s the right fit between our partners. We then help these businesses plug in to this cause marketing movement. When we first spoke to them, their first reaction was: “I absolutely love it. We’ve been wanting to do charity work and social impact for forever.” But either they didn’t know where to start, who to support, or how much to give.
If you look at it, over 50% of the US GDP comes from small businesses. And these small businesses are run by founders, individual people who want to connect with causes, who want to use their businesses and platforms for good, but don’t know where to start or how. So we help them along their journeys to connect, to tell their stories, and to tell the stories of the causes.
AP: Why did you decide to pivot from continuing with your mobile app, Trivia College (which was a really great business model also), to stating Virtueconomy?
Keith: We realized the app was a subset of a much bigger model. So we shelved it, took a step back, and pivoted to building the Virtueconomy model.
There were purchases within the app and we were giving a quarter of our profits in the form of a donation. But through our experience with the nonprofits and through research, we realized, a donation is a handout. The way we saw it is, we were giving them a fish if we give them a donation. And yes, they live on that. They keep their lights on through donations. So by no means am I saying don’t donate.
But if we want to work towards the long-term and we want to make them sustainable, because financial sustainability is the number one concern of every single nonprofit, we can’t focus just on the immediate. We need to give them a leg up. We need to help teach them to fish, not just give them a fish. And we decided we could weave in the 25% we were using as a donation, use the skills we have on deck – our designers and our animators – as a means of helping them.
AP: What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the last year since starting Virtueconomy in 2016?
Keith: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, as I said, getting humbled about the male’s place and status in society. I mean, that was mind-blowing for me.
“…it’s incredibly important to surround yourself with the right people. That’s huge for any enterprise, for any nonprofit, for anything. Make sure you’ve got the right talent of people around you.”
More specifically on Virtueconomy, I think it’s incredibly important to surround yourself with the right people. That’s huge for any enterprise, for any nonprofit, for anything. Make sure you’ve got the right talent of people around you.
AP: What’s the most rewarding risk you’ve taken in your life or in business?
Keith: The most rewarding risk, I think the move to New York, to leave my family and the beautiful beaches, especially when we’re in the heart of winter in New York…to think that right now I could be on a beach in Sydney (laughs).
But leaving my family behind, coming to start a new life in the craziest city in the world, that was a big risk. But I couldn’t be happier that I did because I get to meet the most incredible people who are all doing amazing things. You look at the ecosystem where we work, where I met you through the Centre for Social Innovation, the common thread is that we’re all trying to do good. I meet people like this and build community around this, and it just makes that decision incredibly rewarding.
“As far as a professional risk goes, I think staying true to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is hard. It is so hard. It’s glorified by a lot of people. But anyone who’s been through it, realizes it’s the hardest thing.”
As far as a professional risk goes, I think staying true to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is hard. It is so hard. It’s glorified by a lot of people. But anyone who’s been through it, realizes it’s the hardest thing. I’ve always lived my life with the notion that: Entrepreneurs do what others won’t in the short term, so they can live the rest of their lives like others can’t.
That is so powerful to me. And it’s been a few years of pivoting and changing directions and changing focuses and different team members in and out, and a rollercoaster ride on a daily basis. You think you’re conquering the world and then you think, “What the hell am I doing? I’m in so far over my head.” And that can be incredibly hard. That is probably where most entrepreneurs fail…they quit when it gets hard.
So for me, the professional risk is that I’ve had to fight for years to stay true to my passions because I know that this is my calling. Fortunately I have a very supportive wife and family, and they’re prepared to sacrifice a little bit in the short-term to benefit from it in the long-term, and to allow me to chase my dreams.
“I’ve had to fight for years to stay true to my passions because I know that this is my calling.”
You’ve gotta put yourself through the self-education in order to get there. Stay true to that. Stay committed and not quit on it.
AP: Do you believe anything is possible?
“I believe in the infinite human potential.”
Keith: I do – I’m grounded in math and science.
I believe in the infinite human potential. That’s the key differentiator. I hear stories – you tell stories – first hand, of people who have come from nothing, or have come from everything, but managed to channel that into something bigger, and as a result, amplify that through and affect a lot more people through it. So human potential, I believe everything’s possible there.
AP: What does having an Amazing Perspective mean to you?
“You are what you focus on, you’re the power of your focus…”
Keith: So I’ve always been a big proponent of: You are what you focus on, you’re the power of your focus, and that, given the same situation, two people can totally misinterpret it in wildly different ways. One person can feel grateful for and blessed about a situation, and the other can feel dismayed and upset by it.
You put on the Amazing Perspective, and you have the power to control that, to control your perspective, and as a result control your destiny. I’m very big on that because sometimes when you’re in a negative state, it is so easy to start viewing the negatives around you. And the more you do that, the more you perpetuate a negative cycle.
The same can be done in a positive way. You focus on the positives that are around you and that has so much potential for you to develop. But what that does for those around you, it magnetizes them towards you, and also lifts them up.
So as far as an Amazing Perspective goes, it is all about how you see the world and how you choose to react to it.