Corporate Social Responsibility, commonly referred to by the acronym CSR, is a policy for corporations to enact ethical and sustainable business practices, as well as being involved in the public, specifically through interaction with causes for social good, examples being charities or environmental sustainability NGOs (non-government organizations). iLab team PurPics is enabling efficient and effective CSR between businesses and Generation Z consumers, who are young adults who have grown up in the digital age. The goal of PurPics, in the words of co-founder Victor Layne, is “to make fundraising as easy as posting a picture for students as well as providing brands with a valuable way to connect with young consumers.”
The PurPics team is wholly composed of these “Gen Z” students who have recognized the prevalence of social media and the Internet in the lives of young people. “I actually started the company in my senior year of high school as an offshoot of a prior project,” says PurPics founder and CEO Aneesh Dhawan. “What Victor and I noticed when we came to college was that student organizations are constantly trying to raise money for different causes.”
“On top of that,” Aneesh continues, “we know all of our friends and peers are constantly on their phones and computers using social media, especially Instagram. So, we wanted to make fundraising fun, easy, and turn social media into a way of raising funds for causes that people care about.”
“At the same time,” Aneesh adds, “we realize that brands are constantly trying to market to students and younger audiences, and we saw this as an opportunity to solve two problems -- not only making fundraising easier for students, but making it easier for brands to get in touch with those students. PurPics is a two-sided platform,” Aneesh concludes.
Student fundraising is a massive effort across schools and colleges nationwide. For example, the University of Virginia’s largest student fundraiser, Pancakes for Parkinson’s, an annual event for the Michael J. Fox Foundation to research the brain disorder known as Parkinson’s Disease, raised over $60,000 in 2017 during last year’s one day event. And according to the University of Virginia’s student activity page, there are currently over 800 active clubs and organizations at UVA. Considering the fact that, as reported by the Washington Post, there are approximately 5,300 colleges in the United States with approximately 20.4 million college students as of 2017 (according to the National Center for Education Statistics), the amount of fundraising that goes on each year at colleges and universities is staggering to contemplate.
On the corporate side, CSR has seen a huge expansion in spending, awareness, and “soft laws” -- rules that groups of companies agree to follow regarding best practices within their industries and involvement with social causes. In 2014, India put the world’s first CSR minimum investment on companies with a net worth of over 500 crore, a measurement of 10 million Indian rupees which amounts to approximately 72.5 million U.S. dollars in net worth (as of the exchange rate on June 28th, 2018). Outside of India, the Financial Times reported that US and UK companies within the Fortune Global 500 spent over 15 billion dollars on CSR-related activities in 2014, according to consulting firm EPG. That number continues to grow, and that growth is not limited to just large companies and corporations. Just last year in 2017, the US Small Business Administration (SBA) posted this article encouraging small businesses to start their own CSR programs and providing resources for small business owners to kickstart that process.
PurPics is bringing these networks of young consumers and businesses together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and the research done on today’s Gen Z attitude toward company ethics are the strongest of any generation yet. Public relations and marketing agency CONE Communications has put out a 2017 Gen Z social media study that finds that “94% of Gen Z believe companies should help address social and environmental issues,” with “81% believing they can have an impact on social or environmental issues by using social media.” (CONE Communications) PurPics wants to put those Gen Z ideals into action by making it easier for companies to get in touch with younger, more tech-savvy audiences and vice versa. “Young consumers are supporting businesses that further a social mission or support a charitable cause,” says Victor, “and I think that’s really important to know moving forward. The younger generation today doesn’t want to connect with businesses in the same way that brands are used to, so it’s vital that brands find creative, innovative, and different paths to making those connections, and I think mutually bonding with customers over a social cause is a fantastic way to do that.”
However, working with both the fundraisers and the supporters creates some tough logistical challenges for PurPics. Banning Stiffler is responsible for developing student networks for PurPics, and when asked what keeps her up at night, she responded that “what’s keeping me up at night is developing our network. There are two parts to how we work: bringing businesses on board and getting our users to do the same. So, if we only have one or the other, then we don’t have an app.”
Aneesh offers up the tricky navigating that has to be done on the business end, too. “We’ve made this jump to working with larger companies,” Aneesh expounds, “and part of that process is that the sales cycle has lengthened significantly. From introducing ourselves to closing a deal with companies, we’ve gone from under a month to… we don’t even know, actually, because every campaign is different, especially with larger brands. It’s nerve wracking not having anything to show for all this work until the very end.”
The PurPics team has already shown that they can power through these obstacle and produce results, though. In total, they’ve garnered over 300,000 likes, just shy of 1,000 posts, and over $12,000 dollars in fundraising through their student and brand pairings via Instagram.
The PurPics team’s passion for weaving social causes and business together has made their startup experience incredibly rewarding. Phoebe DeVito, a William and Mary student interning with PurPics, says that the double-sided student and business approach really appeals to her interests. “I’m a student who does fundraising, so I can see how PurPics is immediately relevant and helpful to college students,” she explains. “But then on the business side, I’m really interested in a career in marketing, so I get to see that firsthand as well as the startup experience and what that’s like.”
Banning seconds Phoebe’s opinion, adding on her interest in the entrepreneurial workplace. “I’ve learned a lot about how much I love thinking on my feet, and especially the autonomy of what I’m doing. I’ve decided that this is how I want to work,” Banning reflects. “But I’ve also learned that I’m very goal oriented and team oriented, so I just love having these three wonderful people here and working together towards the same ultimate goal, but each bringing our own skillsets and ideas to the table.”
At the iLab, PurPics has found a deep appreciation for the community culture the iLab cultivates. “The greatest value for us in the iLab has really been the structure,” Victor says. “That is so important, just being with a group of people working on startups together, and I think it doesn’t always get recognized.”
“Our iLab mentors and all of the workshops have also really helped shape our approach to what we’re working on,” Victor adds. “It’s even influenced things like how we decide what subject line to put in a cold email, small details that you wouldn’t normally think are that important.”
With the iLab as a launchpad, PurPics has greater aspirations to evolve beyond college organizations. “Operating at its full potential, PurPics should not only be a fundraising tool on college campuses, but also revolutionizing the way people are raising funds and how brands do social outreach,” Aneesh envisions. “Optimally, PurPics would be part of every single person’s list of apps that they download and use on a daily basis if they’re involved in fundraising or corporate responsibility efforts in any way.”
The PurPics team had some final comments to share about their journey in the startup world thus far. On having joined the PurPics team, Phoebe gushed about the opportunity, saying, “When I go out there and other people ask me about PurPics and I get to give them the pitch, they’re always so impressed, and it’s so cool to think that the people I work with here every day built this idea and made it happen, and I feel so lucky to be a part of it.”
Aneesh talks about how his whole outlook on his life and the future has changed through PurPics. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I love taking risks a lot more than I thought I did,” he says. “It’s crazy to think that my whole life, I wanted to go down the “normal” path. I was so dead set on going to work at an investment banking or consulting firm, something like that. And now here I am with my own startup, and I have no idea what’s in store. I always thought I’d be a lot more uncomfortable where I didn’t feel like I had clear path forward, but… I love it.”
Aneesh’s advice for any young, budding entrepreneurs out there? “You have your entire life ahead of you, you know? Even if you ‘waste’ five years of your life working on a startup that’s ultimately unsuccessful, I don’t think it’s a waste. I’m positive that along the way, you’ll learn an amazing amount of crazy stuff. I’m not asking everyone who thinks they have an awesome idea to drop everything and become an entrepreneur, but I really believe that this is the best time in your life to go out and do that. Go make it happen,” he says assertively.
Banning sums up PurPics, the team, and their mission in one simple sentence. “We’re just a couple of fun kids trying to make a difference,” she says.
About The Team
Aneesh Dhawan is a rising 3rd-year at the University of Virginia. He previously founded and ran Feed A Friend in the Norfolk, Virginia area for almost three years, the foundation of which would later become PurPics. He is also an avid traveler and endurance athlete, having completed an Ironman 70.3 this past summer.
Victor Layne is a rising 3rd-year in the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia, and is also a Kairos Fellow. He has previously volunteered with Operation Smile, a nonprofit organization providing surgical care to children with facial deformities, and interned with Equity Development, Inc. and Harbor Group International.
Banning Stiffler is a rising 4th-year at the University of Virginia Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. She has previously interned with Hatch, an entrepreneurship support agency, and with the finance department of both Virginia Beach City Hall and a senate committee in Washington, D.C. In her spare time, Banning also works with Big Brothers and Big Sisters and is on the Batten Undergraduate Council.
Phoebe DeVito is a rising 3rd-year at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. She has previously volunteered at the Martha Jefferson Hospital to help with community outreach. Phoebe has also done a marketing internship with Foodio, a service for creating custom ordering websites for restaurants, and with management and consulting firm Affinity Management.
If you want to know more about PurPics and their mission, check out their website at https://purpics.com/. You can contact them through their website at https://purpics.com/contact/, and follow their Instagram account athttps://www.instagram.com/purpicsofficial/ with the handle @PurPicsOfficial.
About the Author
Christopher Nelson is a rising second year at New York University in Shanghai, China. He has experience in business operations as well as legal research and contract work. Christopher is currently interning at the UVA Darden School of Business Innovation Lab this summer as an interviewer and journalist.