Exciting News— Vittana’s New CEO!

What a few months! Vittana has been racing forward (10,000 students!), but there’s something even more special—

A new CEO! After reviewing hundreds of candidates, doing dozens of interviews, and spending many hours together, I’m excited to announce today that Robin Wolaner is taking the helm of Vittana.

Why Robin? Well, let me tell you. We set out to look for a unicorn and we found her.

Robin is a veteran executive, bringing both her incredible non-profit heart and proven business brain. She’s the founder of Parenting Magazine, former CEO of Sunset Publishing and executive VP of CNET. Most recently, she’s been a business author, startup advisor and board director.

But, she’s been itching to get back in the fight. Not just any fight — a real fight, a fight that matters. In Vittana, Robin found a non-profit that thinks different — a business-minded non-profit, one that understands scale and sustainability, one that measures impact like shareholders measure profit.

And in Robin, Vittana found that unicorn: a veteran executive who embodies hard-headed idealism, one who’s willing to sacrifice to make a difference, and one who’s built from startup to sustainability. (Not just once, but many times!)

And in each other, Robin and I found an exciting partnership. One of our donors put it recently: “You guys are like yin and yang… I just don’t know which is which!” She challenges me to think process and deadlines, I challenge her to imagine even bigger. We’re excited to work together and help Vittana reach the stage it deserves.

Finally, I want to recognize the extraordinary work done by my colleague and friend, Rebecca Lovell. Rebecca stepped in to run Vittana while I was occupied with the search for a permanent CEO; it’s a thankless task, being interim anything, so I want to make sure to thank her from the bottom of my heart.

Please join me in thanking Rebecca and welcoming Robin to the Vittana family. The global team, whole board and I are very excited to have Robin on board. I hope the whole Vittana family will show her the same enthusiasm and support it has shown me.

Here’s to creating something big, meaningful and lasting — something bigger than any of us, something that’ll outlive all of us. Onward and upward!

Onward and Upward, Vittana!

What an adventure, guys.

And like the best adventures, sometimes you have to be bold. I’m announcing today that I’m stepping down as the CEO of Vittana.

I’m moving upstairs and becoming Co-Chairman of Vittana’s Board of Directors. The reason? It’s simple. Given Vittana’s growth and impact, it’s time for a new generation of leadership. My commitment to Vittana hasn’t changed — I’ll still be very involved, albeit in a slightly different role.

It’s been an incredible few years —

Five years ago, the idea that you could actually invest in education was crazy. We did our homework and pioneered the Vittana Loan — a $750 student micro-loan that can triple a girl’s earning power.

Vittana is now a multi-million dollar organization that’ll reach tens of thousands of youth this year. Every month, 1,000+ youth escape poverty because of Vittana. They are strong, inspiring.

Folks have taken notice. Vittana’s impact is regularly highlighted in world press. We’ve been backed by legendary people and institutions like Vinod Khosla, Rich Barton and Google.

Janice Macalisang – an amazing, inspiring Vittana student in the Philippines
Janice Macalisang – an amazing, inspiring Vittana student in the Philippines

And some extra fodder for your imagination —

How long does it take to raise $100,000?

It took 304 days to raise our first $100,000. But, then…

We had our first $100,000 month in January 2012. Our first $100,000 week? Last week of July 2012. First $100,000 day? December 13, 2012.


But here’s the thing —

My gift is product. Whether it’s a website, a personalization engine or a student micro-loan, creating good products is basically the same. Fundamentally, it comes down to one thing: finding the sweet spot of what’s useful and what’s buildable.

With Vittana’s fundamental product scaling at hyper-growth rates, what we now need is someone who thinks about things like organizational development and efficient processes. And, if I were being really honest with myself, that’s not me today. I feel it’s really important for leaders to understand their strengths and limitations.

I’m absolutely, heart-burstingly proud of everything we — the core team, our local partners, our global network of friends and supporters — have achieved over the past five years. But, it’s time for someone new to lead Vittana to the next level.

We’ve brought on Rebecca Lovell, former Executive Director of Northwest Entrepreneur Network and Chief Business Officer of GeekWire, as Interim CEO to prepare the team for the next stage of growth. She’s a seasoned, entrepreneurial non-profit executive and I’m very excited for what she’ll bring to Vittana.

To round out the leadership team, we’ve also added two great new hires: Megan Beck as Development VP and Nick Merriam as Operations Director. Finally, we’ve begun a nation-wide search for Vittana’s long-term CEO, which I’ll help lead.

I’m feeling really good about where Vittana is today and where we’re going. The past five years have been amazing — the next five will be epic. We’re positioned to help tens of thousands of youth this year, prove you can sustainably invest in education and lay the foundations for even greater growth. I’m genuinely excited for Vittana’s next chapter and I feel lucky to be a small part of it.

This hasn’t been an easy decision. Even in the past couple days, the faith, generosity and support the community has shown me has blown me away. While it’s always bittersweet to say goodbye, I know this is the right thing for me and most importantly Vittana.

As for me, what’s next? —

Well, maybe I’ll sleep a bit more. 😉 After five years of 100-hour weeks and countless sacrifices (just ask the ex-girlfriends), I’m going to let my body, brain and heart rest for a bit.

Team Vittana rolling deep at last night's GeekWire bash
Team Vittana rolling deep at last night’s GeekWire bash
I'm going to regret this, aren't I? Rebecca, this is totally, completely your fault :)
I’m going to regret this, aren’t I? Rebecca— this is totally on you…

5 Things I Learned When I Fried My iPhone

Seattle — it occasionally rains here.
Matthew Inman nailed it
Long story short, I fried my iPhone — there was a small incident involving a nice Seattle day, an open sunroof and a freak rainstorm.

(I live in Seattle. It occasionally rains here.)

The phone kinda works. Somehow, the screen part of the touchscreen got fried. The touch part still works.

Technically, I can receive calls (the slider works) but can’t make them or send/receive texts. Forget looking up directions, checking mail, using apps.

My iPhone 5 is on order (one more week!), so I decided I’d tough it out. It’s been a helluva week.

  1. “Um. Do you know where Blanchard is?” Stopping and asking someone for directions? That’s so 90s. But, apparently I’ve lost all ability to follow old-school directions — you know, the kind you looked up on MapQuest and printed out?

    Solution: Well, you’re pulling over and asking the nice stranger.

  2. Spatial & temporal amnesia. I go to a lot of meetings these days. Forget figuring how to get to 2nd & Blanchard, how do you even know you’re supposed to be at 2nd & Blanchard?! Oh, and you can’t call anyone.

    Solution: I found this beautiful little app, Sunrise.im — total lifesaver.

  3. (Actually) Addicted to email. If I have a free second, I’ll check email. (You know, just in case.) Or, “let me just fire off this quick note.”

    A couple weeks ago, I was at an event with a board member — I spent most of it firing off emails. He called me out afterwards, gently but sternly, for being rude. He was right.

    Solution: I didn’t realize how bad it was — I found myself struggling with a few spare minutes. The first step? Admitting you have a problem.

  4. How many pings we get. My phone has been on — I feel it buzz every time. Maybe because I can’t answer them, I notice more how often it buzzes. Normally, each one of them would’ve been an interruption.

    My half-broken iPhone
    My half-broken iPhone
    And those little red badges — all those missed calls, unread texts, unread emails? That’s a whole ‘nother kind of cognitive pressure.

Being a proud nerd, I ran the numbers — DiskAid, Graph Your Inbox & some Python. In the past few days, I—

  • Received 1,042 emails.
  • Have 248 unheard voicemails and missed calls.
  • Still need to read 100+ texts.

But, you know the deepest, darkest thing I learned about myself during my week with no iPhone — no on-the-fly email, no realtime directions, no iCal?

  1. I liked it. Being fully present, focused & available with another human being is absolutely magical.

    I’ve always been a data geek — I’ve always liked numbers & data and people have always been a little confusing to me. I’ve been working on it this year. But without my phone, I found myself engaging fully … and in the magic.

    While the pace of my life continues to accelerate, this week was a nice reminder that disconnecting can bring back some humanity to life.

    Solution: Be present, available. Turning off the ringer isn’t good enough — you might still check who it is (“just in case”). Try leaving your phone behind entirely and see if you feel a difference.

In the end, I conceded defeat. A replacement iPhone just arrived and, as of today, I’ll be back online. So, if you haven’t heard from me in a week — well, I’m sorry, I’ll call you back now.

NOTE 12/22: This post is actually from November. Ironically, after I got my iPhone back, I got pulled back into the whirlwind so quickly I never had a chance to finish it.

Why I Walked Away From $1 Million

Four years ago, I walked away from Amazon and a million dollars — thousands of stock options. I was a twenty-something kid running a billion-dollar team but I wanted more.

I started Vittana, a non-profit trying to end youth poverty. I wanted to help people like Ana Lizbeth, a mother who dreamed of becoming a programmer.

Since launching in 2009, Vittana has helped over 8,000 youth in 12 countries on four continents. After getting a $713 Vittana Loan, Ana Lizbeth graduated in 2011 — she doubled her income and already fully repaid her loan.

In fact, the average Vittana graduate triples their earning power. 99% repay their loans. This year, we’ll be a $5 million organization.

And Seattle? You rock! Dave Schappell took my first meeting when I was a wide-eyed wantrepreneur. Glenn Kelman gave me the best advice ever in 2010: “You should’ve asked for more.” In 2012, Rich Barton is helping us scale even more. Tim Ferriss just donated his birthday, raising $130,000 in 10 days to fight youth poverty.

Today, with GeekWire, we’re launching the Geeks Give Back challenge. Already teams have raised $5,000 $7,000 $17,000 $32,000+ (!) and CEOs like Alex Algard from White Pages and Kevin Merritt from Socrata are matching their teams dollar for dollar.

Why should you join their ranks? Your company will get counted towards Seattle’s most generous organizations. If you win, you’ll be honored on stage at the GeekWire Gala on December 6. And not to mention get all that good karma!

So sign up today. With a few dollars, you can help someone like Ana Lizbeth escape youth poverty.

Ana Lizbeth — A Mother's Dream & Determination
Ana Lizbeth — A Mother’s Dream & Determination

So why did I walk away from a million dollars? For me, education was a second chance at life — I wouldn’t be here without my education. Would you? As a tech geek, it was a chance to do something about a real, tangible problem in the world.

I’m blessed to be part of a community and generation that has the means and ability to really change the world.

Not only do I not regret it, I feel lucky.

Cross-posted from GeekWire, our wonderful partner for this year’s Geeks Give Back challenge. Buy your tickets for the GeekWire Gala today!

UPDATE 12/01: Wow, thank you for the kind words — hundreds of FB posts & tweets.

UPDATE 12/05: Picked up by Huffington Post, Nick Kristof, Vinod Khosla, Tim O’Reilly and many others. Feeling very honored, humbled. Thanks guys.

Stop Building Dumb Stuff

We don’t need a Facebook for dogs and we don’t need a 300th link shortener.

Non-profit folks sometimes tease me about tech entrepreneurs building useless stuff. (I’m the token techie at a lot of conferences.) But really, non-profits aren’t much better. So often, we just put in bandaids.

How long did it take us to find a malaria vaccine? We’re so close. Mosquito nets are great, but what if we’d really taken a chance and thrown our weight behind a vaccine earlier?

Nathan Myhrvold at Seattle's Social Innovation Fast Pitch
Nathan Myhrvold at SIFP last week; photo credit GeekWire

A few days ago, I attended Seattle’s 2nd-annual Social Innovation Fast Pitch. Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft and the keynote speaker, came out guns blazing:

It’s great you can kill aliens with Xbox at a faster rate than ever before, but we didn’t really need our lives changed. The fact is, there are people who do need their lives changed.

You know something? Most of your ideas will fail and I’m completely OK with that.

Whatever you think of sometimes-controversial Nathan (he’s also the CEO of Intellectual Ventures, which has an aggressive patent stance), this is something near and dear to my heart. And he’s dead right.

When I was starting Vittana in 2008, I remember getting laughed out of several meetings. “This’ll never work,” people said. “If I give you money and you fail, that means I wasted my $1,000 — I could’ve given to Red Cross instead and been sure of impact.” (It turns out education does work and it’s hard to be sure.)

Nathan and I got a chance to talk for a few minutes before his keynote. He’s a razor-smart guy (obvious, really — not anyone ends up Microsoft’s CTO) and I’m excited he’s challenging folks to think differently. A bit of our discussion:

Yes, there’s a direct cost of failure. But, there’s also the opportunity cost of not trying. Looking for a malaria vaccine might be riskier than simply buying a mosquito net, but once you find the cure, you’re done — once and for all. But, if you never try, you’ll be buying mosquito nets forever.

If you never put down a big bet, you’ll never change the world. It’ll just stay the exact same place. What’s the point of that?

And let’s not even get started about trying to build (another) link shortener. For-profit, non-profit, B-corps — it’s tax status, not religion. Anyone can build cool stuff.

Make meaning, not money

Guy Kawasaki

Worm-free World: Finding a cure for kids with worms in Africa
Wormfree World on Microryza (also photo credit)

One of the SIFP finalists, Microryza, has an awesome project up right now to find a cure for parasitic worms that affect malnourished children in Africa. (Disclosure: I’m an advisor.)

These are exactly the sorts of innovative projects that’ll never get funded through usual means because they shake things up. Check it out and see if you can contribute — I just made a $100 donation.

UPDATE 10/22 10am: Woah! Hello Hacker News! Sorry for the slow site — I wasn’t expecting 4,000+ hits/hour.

UPDATE 10/22 12pm: Caching enabled and available memory quadrupled — site should be stable now. Let me know if you run into trouble.