Meet The LeagueApps Team: SuitUp’s Casey Miller
On April 14th, 2019 LeagueApps hosted its annual Ballin’ For Charity 3v3 basketball tournament at Basketball City in Manhattan. The event, now in its fourth year, has raised over $100,000 for sports organizations in need. Ballin’ For Charity is the financial engine behind LeagueApps’ FundPlay and every dollar raised goes towards micro-grants and software grants for 501c3 sport organizations. Beyond the financial implications of B4C, the tournament also provides an incredibly fun and family-friendly atmosphere for all players.
This year LeagueApps partnered with SuitUp to be the 501c3 fiscal sponsor for Ballin’ For Charity. SuitUp is a charitable organization that connects leading companies in New York City with middle school and high school students for one-day business competitions. Casey Miller, LeagueApps’ head of Business Development, is the co-founder of SuitUp and a Ballin’ For Charity veteran. To gain insight into SuitUp, the B4C event, and how you can get involved in events like these around NYC, we sat down with Casey last week for a full feature!
How was SuitUp founded and what is the overarching goal of the organization?
Zach Graumann is one of my best friends from Duke. After college, he went into finance and started working at UBS and I started teaching 7th grade in Harlem with Teach for America. We were obviously on very different paths. Zach was always very philanthropic, and the finance industry definitely offers volunteering opportunities. However, the offerings were your standard volunteering at soup kitchens or cleaning up playgrounds…things that weren’t leveraging the many talented millennials whose skills weren’t being fully utilized. In my experience, I saw many students whose parents were janitors or nurses and didn’t necessarily have an understanding of the vast array of career opportunities out there for their children, like graphic design or journalism. Children weren’t motivated to excel in school for lack of connection to an end goal or a career they were excited about because they just didn’t know what was possible! So we had an idea to connect the two groups – young professional millennials and middle school students.
Now, SuitUp brings kids and corporate volunteers together – at the schools or the company’s offices – to partake in a one-day business competition. The volunteers manage teams of students to solve a problem, like creating a new shoe for Nike. The students are tasked with designing the shoe, naming it, identifying a target market, and creating a commercial. They’re learning so many aspects of business, including, in some cases, finance. At the end, they give a five-minute elevator pitch for their product and the winning team gets a prize. The professionals are leveraging their skills and working directly with students in a meaningful volunteer program. The students have the opportunity to expand their horizons by interacting with career people they wouldn’t normally meet.
How easy is it to connect these corporations and business people with the schools itself? Is there more red tape on the school side or on the corporate side?
Schools love us. It is free for the schools, and it’s incredibly easy for them to implement. They all see the end result and they all see how valuable the experience itself can be for their students. So we have a long list of schools waiting to partake.
To create these amazing opportunities for the students, companies pay a small fee. While financial institutions and banks are used to paying for volunteering initiatives, a lot of those options are provided during the Summer. Obviously, schools are not in session during summer, so we have to look elsewhere (ie. to camps).
Volunteers also love it once they do it. We have a 98% approval rating from the corporate employees. Once companies do one competition, they see what we’re all about!
How often do you partner with other charitable organizations or companies to put on larger events?
We have done it a couple of times but not to this extent. SuitUp has an annual gala every year that is coordinated with a few other organizations, but this is the first time that we are doing a true partnership of this sort. I have been at LeagueApps for three years and with SuitUp for more than five years, and I have been trying to find a way for us to work together because they both are so mission-oriented. Both serve youth in different capacities, but this will be the first time that we’ve come together to form a real partnership, which is incredibly exciting for me!
How do you quantify the success of a SuitUp event?
That is an interesting question because that’s how you get grants and we’re working on ways to quantify our results. The biggest impact we have seen is that this one-day business competition opens the door for growth and other opportunities. Measuring that impact is difficult because it’s indirect. Teachers will often say in testimonials that the experience totally turned a student around. Before, he or she was not interested, but because he now wants to do graphic design, for example, he’s become engaged in school. We receive a lot of similar testimonials and we survey both kids and volunteers. We ask the kids whether they learned something, discovered a new career, or became interested in a new area. Their responses provide us with data. The volunteers are asked whether they enjoyed what they did, whether they felt they made a positive impact, and whether or not they enjoyed doing it. Those surveys provide the bulk of our data. We’re working on ways to actually measure long-term impact, such as measuring improved school attendance after the competition.
The way that the events are captured on social media can make everything look very smooth. Can you give examples of hurdles you addressed that caused you to perhaps to change the course or go in a different direction from what you originally envisioned?
Yes, we had a bunch of hurdles. Overcoming them definitely shaped who we are today. At the very beginning, we had a curriculum that I had created for the competitions. As any teacher can attest, when you are using someone else’s curriculum, it’s not necessarily as effective, and this was our first time around. The first thing I found was that the volunteers weren’t pushing the students as much as they needed to be pushed. Students would arrive and start playing games, like saying “Let’s make the (product) blue.” Volunteers would respond – “That’s a good idea” when it wasn’t. That approach wasn’t teaching real innovation. We changed the curriculum to include advice on how to push kids by asking the right questions in the right way. This set a standard for teaching volunteers how to hold kids to a high standard. They have to raise the students’ level of critical thinking. Instructing volunteers about how to question students in ways to encourage critical thinking and how to handle behavioral problems, were two areas the revised curriculum addressed. The curriculum is designed for anyone, no matter the experience. Volunteers can read it the day of their event and it will provide everything they need to know, including everything from ice breaker activities to a section on advice from a teacher. As I saw more and more competitions, we wanted to make the curriculum as clean and simple as possible so that we could scale and not need me to be there. We now have an Executive Director – also a Teach For America alum – who attends and helps run the competitions, but the advice in the curriculum packet makes it a turnkey event.
Which initiatives on the horizon are you most excited about for SuitUp?
I would say we’re most excited about the potential impact of our newly hired executive director, Lauren Reilly. With her on board, I expect we can make a lot of progress on things we hadn’t been able to focus on in the past, like applying for grants. We also have a Corporate Leadership board (a few current and former LeagueApps folks are actually on it!). With these resources, we want to increase the number of competitions we hold, the number of corporations we contact and our fundraising goals for the annual Gala. To have a full-time employee thinking about all of that is an exciting change for us.
What do you think will be the biggest difference at this year’s Ballin’ For Charity as opposed to the first one you attended?
I expect it to run very smoothly now that we have more operating experience. We know all the things that can go wrong and have playbooks to account for them. We hope to get more teams this year as a result of a much more targeted sales effort. It will be cool to see the impact of partnering with SuitUp, as well.
As the Head of Business Development, how often do you reference experiences from SuitUp and events like Ballin’ For Charity as you’re pitching professional teams?
It is funny because I find that randomly, Ballin’ for Charity will come up organically in a lot in my conversations with pro leagues and pro teams. SuitUp also comes up because pro leagues and pro teams are trying to reach youth and get their brand out there. Specifically from a LeagueApps perspective, B4C actually just came up on a call with the Atlanta Hawks. They put on a charity 3-on-3 tournament for kids, so I was able to connect with them around commonalities. Every single group or organization that I talk to appreciates the fact that we know what they are going through, but even more so that we are so mission-aligned. It’s the idea that we are constantly looking for ways to give back… We share that service mentality, we are not just a vendor. We are genuinely interested in improving the lives of kids in any way that we can, and that sincerity shines through when meeting with teams.