You don’t start a business without learning a few important lessons, and Jesse Kay ’22 — already a successful entrepreneur in his own right — learned an important one in his latest venture: Don’t promise to shave your head if you hit a seemingly impossible milestone.
Kay spoke about his latest venture, a nonprofit coronavirus relief effort, from the safety of a backwards baseball cap — part of his typical uniform, but also an extra protection shortly after his little sister gave him a haircut.
“It didn’t seem like too big of a risk when we’d raised $3,000,” said Kay, a junior studying Business & Technology at Stevens Institute of Technology. “Suddenly, we’re at over $100,000 and there’s my 12-year-old sister making me bald.”
Kay’s newest venture, Makin’ Lemonade, was created alongside Alex Sheinman, a friend who graduated from Penn State University in 2018 and currently works as a sports and entertainment consultant.
“Our generation has such an ability and so much enthusiasm to be involved and make an impact in important causes,” Kay said. “So we decided to create a fundraiser, even though we knew nothing about the nonprofit world.”
Their strategy? Identify champions at the largest U.S. universities who could enlist Greek organizations, athletes and other supporters to raise money independently — like a franchise of sidewalk lemonade stands — then send the contributions to the central office. All told, students at more than 100 universities have raised a substantial amount of donations for the CDC Foundation, Direct Relief and Feeding America; the effort has been publicized nationwide, including on ESPN.
“I thought this would be a side project, but it’s become a full-time job,” Kay said. “We have near-daily meetings that run until 4 a.m. as we try to meet deadlines. But the whole process has been great.”
A sports marketing startup
Kay is already the founder of Vyber Media, which helps clients engage followers and monetize their digital presences. Most of the business is centered around sports — he’s worked with clients including Fanatics, Steiner Sports, skater Paul Rodriguez and Madison Square Garden. He also hosts the “Trendsetters” podcast — conversations with entrepreneurs, both digital natives as well as established players like Mark Cuban.
COVID-19 has created an interesting dynamic for Kay as he attempts to grow Vyber.
“For some brands, ad spends went through the roof, while others disappeared,” he said. “For me, the cool part is getting to show these guys that they’re able to build their own following without the external brands.”
“The thing I've realized from this project is that there are so many ambitious, entrepreneurial students at Stevens.”
He’s also focused on growing momentum in the NCAA to allow student-athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, which will open up the floodgates for Division I athletes in Kay’s age bracket.
“It’s an advantage for me because I know how to connect with them — I’m not a 60-year-old executive telling an 18-year-old how to use social media,” he said. While he lacks the experience of established agencies, “in business, being able to make a real connection with someone is definitely an advantage.”
The ability to make connections is helping him as he brings Makin’ Lemonade from GoFundMe campaign to 501(c)3 nonprofit status.
“The thing I’ve realized from this project is that there are so many ambitious, entrepreneurial students at Stevens,” he said. “The all-night calls, there were dozens of Stevens kids on every one. Our leadership team is half Stevens students. It’s incredible.”
An alumni support network
There’s also support from alumni, like Seth Kirschner ’18, a cyber consultant for Deloitte and founder of YourShiftForward, which offers coaching for students and young professionals. He serves on Makin’ Lemonade’s advisory team to pay it forward, “just like others have helped me,” Kirschner said.
As a student, Kirschner co-founded Mira Therapeutics with help from alumni, who generously offered their time and expertise; “I hope to continue working with Jesse and the team to advance Makin’ Lemonade to new heights and reach their next goal,” he said.
That alumni network is one Kay wants to become closer to. Like many entrepreneurs — he was working half-days as a high school student in Upper Saddle River, N.J. — he wasn’t sure about attending college at all; each of his six closest friends in business skipped college, but “I didn’t want to be one-dimensional,” he said. “And I felt going away to college would help me mature as a person. Stevens in particular, has a great Greek life community and is so close to New York City — and when you get off the train, you’re on a true college campus, instead of being in the big city itself. I’ve made some of my best friends in the world at Stevens.”
He’s looking forward to starting the discipline-specific coursework in the School of Business, having just changed his major from Marketing to Business & Technology with help from the school’s Center for Student Success and its director, Michelle Crilly.
“Jesse clearly wants to get the most from his education — he’s regularly in our office getting advised on what makes the most sense for his future,” she said.
For Kay, the immediate future is Makin’ Lemonade. Within six months, he’d like to hand it off to an executive director with a lot of experience in the nonprofit world; by then, he’ll probably have another startup or two percolating away.
“I never could have imagined the scope of Makin’ Lemonade — that within 45 days, we’d raise $100,000, have a team of 300 students, 100 universities, 120 Greek organizations,” Kay said. “It’s been mind-boggling to see the kind of impact we helped create.”
To become involved in Makin’ Lemonade, visit makinlemonadefund.com.