StartX Q&A: Everybody Dance Now!

As StartX’s first non-profit organization, Everybody Dance Now! aims to change lives of underserved youth through dance.  Largely youth-led, EDN! uses dance to promote both healthy lifestyles and social change among students. The organization is now operating in seven U.S. cities and has been featured on America’s Best Dance Crew.  Jackie Rotman, who founded the company at the age of 14,  spoke about her experience creating a startup at such a young age.

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The Dish Daily (TDD): Could you tell me a little bit about the history of Everybody Dance Now! and the original idea behind the company?

Jackie Rotman (JR): When I was 12, I performed a hip-hop dance for teenagers with disabilities. Half way through my hip-hop duet, the music stopped working. An audience member shouted, “We want to dance!” so we invited audience members on stage to learn dance and perform for their peers.  Watching them perform showed me that dance is a powerful means for bringing people together and empowering them.

This experience inspired me to found Everybody Dance Now! at age 14 to use dance to help underserved youth build self-esteem and establish healthy lifestyles.  In my hometown of Santa Barbara, CA, 1,800 kids are at risk of joining a gang, and the average age of entering a gang is 14.  This represents a larger problem in our country—4.5 million young people have no safe place to go after school, so they fall into violence, crime, drug and alcohol abuse and other behaviors that keep them from reaching their potential.  After school programs like the arts have been shown to be a powerful solution—low-income high school students who study the arts are 2 times more likely than their peers to vote and volunteer growing up, 2.5 times more likely to pursue professional career fields and 3 times as likely to obtain a BA!  These are the benefits we’re helping make possible for kids using dance. EDN! has provided free hip-hop dance programs to more than 4,000 youth in 12 cities.  Our organization continues to be largely student-led.

TDD: What was it like founding the company at such a young age?  What were some of the difficulties/benefits?

JR: Founding a nonprofit at 14 was the best experience I had as a teenager, which I’m really grateful for.  Before starting EDN!, I was actively searching for meaning and a way of giving back. EDN! enabled me to throw myself into this vision that was outside myself, learn to be a leader, and form meaningful relationships with local leaders in youth development, policy, education, nonprofit administration and the arts – as well as students.  My whole life changed after starting the organization, as I had a purpose and a place to channel my creativity and hard work ethic.

One difficulty was balancing running a growing nonprofit that expanded from one city to five cities my junior year, with academics. Doing both at the same time was difficult, so if I were asked for advice on this, I may encourage other founders to take time off school if they’re running a company—depending on their goals.  The other challenge was leadership succession planning.

The benefit of being young when I started the company were that: 1) I had no expectations around its revenue or scaling at the very beginning, so I was able to do it out of an intrinsic passion and love; 2) I had a lot of time to devote as a high school student and could volunteer; 3) We were able to get an early start and build a strong foundation early; and 4) We could attract publicity opportunities and funding opportunities that were specific for youth-led organizations, including being featured on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew my sophomore year at Stanford in 2010.

TDD: As the first non-profit to participate in StartX, how do you think your experience has differed from other companies?

JR: At first I felt unsure what it would be like coming into StartX as its first and only nonprofit, but the StartX community quickly dissolved any doubts or fears.  StartX founders constantly emphasized, “What you’re doing is the exact same – you have the same challenges!” We’re all dealing with meeting payroll for our companies, hiring and firing, fundraising (though nonprofits don’t deliver a financial return on investment), communicating a vision/plan/strategy, and more. Before joining StartX, while I lived in NYC, I had fewer people to relate to in my social group when it came to the challenges of entrepreneurship and start-ups.  StartX has provided me with an amazing community and sense of support, beyond it being really beneficial on more technical levels.

One funny moment was deciding which of StartX’s four “industry” groups EDN! would be in. Our options were consumer, medical, hardware, and enterprise – we picked enterprise because we provide our program to after-school programs, but StartX’s accelerator director and I both laughed at the match.

I’ve also enjoyed being a “go-to” person when someone has a social sector related question, like where to find a data set on the nonprofit sector, or who to connect with about a marketing idea related to charities and celebrities. Best of all, one StartX founder needed to volunteer for 40 hours to get a parking ticket off his record, so he’s making a phenomenal web back-end system to help EDN! to track our data!

TDD: What have been your biggest challenges along the way as the company has developed?

JR: The biggest challenge we’ve had has been making EDN! sustainable in the long term.  My senior year at Stanford, I appointed a volunteer Executive Director as my successor who was amazing, but a year later she realized she could no longer do it – balancing a national org with being a full time student is tough – and the team working with her dissolved quite suddenly.  This happened a week before I moved from Calif. to Manhattan to start my full time job at Bridgespan – the leading nonprofit consulting firm, which spun out of Bain. For close to the next year, I chaired EDN!’s Board, hired and trained a 42-year-old ED, and tried to fundraise, but it wasn’t working.  I ultimately decided to leave Bridgespan and become EDN!’s first full time Executive Director.  We’re now focused on building up our funds (we’re tripling our revenues this year), Board of Directors, and strong infrastructure to eventually hire several full time staff, so that we can be sustainable for many years to come and reach more of those 4.5 million kids in need in the US.

TDD: What are your hopes and plans for StartX Demo Day?

JR: Of the 160+ venture capitalists and community members attending, we hope to connect with advisors and connectors who can put us in touch with potential Board members and funders/resources, and support our impact.  We’ll be inviting attendees to visit our classes in East Palo Alto and get involved. I also hope the other StartX companies presenting do a great job and succeed in fundraising!

TDD: What are your short-term and long-term goals?

JR: In the short term: triple our organization’s revenues this year and more than double them the next year, so that we can do our work much more effectively.  Expand the number of students we’re serving annually from 1,500 to 3,000 in that time.  Build a strong standards-based dance and socio-emotional learning curriculum, as well as system for measuring our impact effectively.  In the long term: make EDN! a go-to provider in many cities, and a household name, making dance accessible to millions of kids throughout the United States as a positive, expressive, and healthy after-school alternative that gives kids an opportunity to build confidence that will translate into all areas of their lives.  Then, I also have a dream of taking cross-cultural service-learning programs for young people that are rooted in dance international.

TDD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JR: I’m just so grateful to Stanford and to StartX for the opportunity to go through the StartX program.  All of us at Stanford are blessed to have such giving mentors and peers who know the importance of paying it forward, in addition to the educational resources around us.  StartX is launching some awesome programming for the Stanford community more broadly through a spring session called OpenX, so definitely check it out!  My other shout out is that we have an EDN! chapter at Stanford as a Volunteer Student Organization – email if you’re interested in getting involved in that chapter or our national organization.