FOLLOW THIS: JOHN WEILER & JEREMY MEIZLISH
by Kendra Hovey
A dollar may not get you a lot, but five of them will get you into a group video chat with America’s favorite zookeeper Jack Hanna, and the chance to be one of eight to speak with Hanna face-to-face. It will also make you an instant philanthropist, as four of your dollars will go straight to Hanna’s charity of choice—The Wilds.
The chat (April 9th: get your tickets soon) is one of many “memorable conversations” for “meaningful causes” from Heroes2U, a new social enterprise that connects inspirational people with their followers to raise money for charity. Hanna is the latest hero. TEDxColumbus speaker Decker Moss was the first. Future heroes include country music star Phil Vassar, NFLers Kurt Coleman and John Hughes, as well as two wildlife conservationists (who with Hanna form a kind of Earth Day trilogy).
The project is the brainchild of two Columbus twenty-somethings, John Weiler and Jeremy Meizlish, who developed the idea while still undergrads. After a seed investment last June from the Tony R. Wells Foundation, Heroes2U hosted its first beta chat in October, one day after TEDxColumbus (along with Moss, speaker Scott Gaudi was also an early hero). The website launched mid-February. It’s where you’ll find videos of past chats and all the need-to-knows regarding webcams, tickets, etc.
Millennials are the target audience for Heroes2U. Not your typical gala-goers, it’s a group that charitable outreach tends to reach right over. Quoting research, John Weiler says that millennials give at a price point of 1 to 100 dollars, and they give on-line. “Our generation is a largely untapped force for philanthropy,” he says.
As a kind of gateway to giving, Heroes2U breaks down this barrier between young people and philanthropy. It also breaks through the assumption that Gen-Yers are more into instant gratification than generosity. Not surprisingly, barrier-breaking is a favorite pastime of John and Jeremy. It’s the subject of their own 2012 TEDxYouth@Columbus Talk, where the first barrier to go is the label Generation Y. They rename it Generation Y Not, turning implied judgments of “lazy, entitled, un-experienced and uneducated” into possibility—because, as they see it, techno-savvy Generation Y Not has a huge possibility advantage.
Technology has already reduced the barrier between celebrities and us regular folks, but it’s one thing to “follow,” another to engage, and John and Jeremy want more from this new accessibility; they want meaningful interaction, and to break through yet another barrier: Status. As they say, “we bring the heroes to you, and bring out the hero in all that participate.”
And how exactly do they get these heroes? So far, by making and utilizing every single connection they can. But once they have an in, Heroes2U is an easy sell: 30 minutes, the hero chooses where, when and which charity. Plus, most speakers say the best part of any event is the Q&A. Getting the word out, both to heroes and participants, is still their biggest job right now. For both Jeremy and John it’s full-time and unpaid. They have one paid employee—a web developer—but as owners they made a decision that they‘ll get paid when they have “completed their mission” and not before.
In the meantime, “it’s a really cool journey,” says John. “Until I saw our local charities, up-close” he says, “I didn’t fully grasp the giving community we have here—it’s very inspirational.” Also, while he and Jeremy hoped that the distance of a video chat would not lessen the quality of interactions, they weren’t entirely sure. But after one “chatter” teared-up and the hero offered a virtual hug, they both knew that facilitating meaningful connections was not going to be a problem.
They have some details to work out, such as achieving their goal of fundraising (helped along by big famous names) while also still being able to share the powerful stories of lesser-known heroes. Post-launch, their commitment remains strong. In fact, they recently had an experience that all but confirmed their mission.
A few months back, they shelled out $150 each, put on their best suits, and went to a black-tie fundraiser. Their thinking was: since the inaccessibility of traditional charity events, such as galas, is part of their pitch, they ought to at least attend one. The honored guest that night was basketball star Shaquille O’Neal. On stage, Shaq told a room-silencing story about how, as a kid, everyone expected him to be a bully, so he was. But one day his bullying caused a boy to seizure, and right then he made a very emotional decision that he didn’t want to be a bully, and he wasn’t going to be. The MC that night, newscaster Jerry Revish, commented that more young people needed to hear this story … and in the audience, two people, John and Jeremy—the youngest in the room that night by far—couldn’t agree more.