ALEXANDER BROWN/THE HOYA A SIMPLE CONCEPT Knowing that donors like seeing how their money is used, James Li (MSB ’15) started Encore to help charities share their stories.
ALEXANDER BROWN/THE HOYA
A SIMPLE CONCEPT Knowing that donors like seeing how their money is used, James Li (MSB ’15) started Encore to help charities share their stories.

When James Li (MSB ’13) saw a void in the nonprofit sector, he used his passion for business and philanthropy to create Encore last December with two fellow Georgetown students. Inspired by a collaboration of classroom and real-life experience, Encore is a web platform that makes it easy for charities to tell their stories in order to inspire donors to give more. Using hard work and dedication while balancing both a hectic academic schedule and life as young entrepreneurs, Li and his team developed their simple idea into a successful business and now have plans to expand Encore further after graduation.

 

What sparked the idea to start this business?

Back in high school, I did a lot of YouTube surfing, and I found a channel called Uncultured Project. It was one guy named Sean in Bangladesh doing a lot of water projects, which wasn’t really extraordinary on its own, but the big difference was that instead of the really stereotypical black-and-white sad commercials that get you to donate, he was doing a lot of positive storytelling and capturing how he was spending his money. He showed the smiles of the kids after they got the school supplies and the wells, and as a result, he got more YouTube subscribers than Save the Children or the Red Cross. I asked myself how come he was getting all of this buzz and support, and I realized it was a really simple concept. People really love to see where their money goes, and most of the time when you donate to a foundation, you don’t get to see how your money is being used. Just going off that concept, Encore was sparked by the simple idea that if you show somebody how their money is making a difference, they’ll trust you a lot more, and they’ll give you a lot more money. We’ve taken Sean’s model and applied it to organizations all across the world because there is no reason why other organizations shouldn’t tell their stories in the same way.

What gave you the motivation to put your ideas into action?

Coming into Georgetown, I didn’t necessarily have the mindset that I wanted to be a social entrepreneur but I jumped head first into the Compass Fellowship. I was really inspired by all of the mentors and the advisors, and they really inspired me and got me started on this path. In the business school, you end up spending a lot of time in a room with a whiteboard planning things out, but you have no idea if your ideas are actually practical in the real world. Another motivation behind Encore is to be able to learn by doing — to be able to apply the ideas we learn in class in an actual business environment and see how they do in the real world.

How has being an entrepreneur changed your perspective on your life as a student?

We see ourselves not as students who happen to be entrepreneurs but entrepreneurs that happen to be students. That dramatically changes things, because I’m the sort of guy who wants to get my homework done as soon as I can so that I can work on Encore for the rest of the time. That’s not to say that my classes aren’t engaging — it’s just that I love putting what I learn into practice a lot more than just reading the textbook and memorizing terminology. I would say that everyone in Encore would agree that it’s made school a lot more exciting because there are immediate applications of things we’ve learned, which makes our experience a lot more enriching.

How has it been juggling your schoolwork with your business?

It is a big trade off in terms of your lifestyle here at Georgetown because the fact of the matter is that the business world doesn’t wait. Just because we have finals in the next couple of weeks doesn’t mean we can stop working on our business because someone else somewhere else is working on the same idea. If you are an entrepreneur that happens to be a student, you have to have the mindset that you are always working and that you are always working for your goal. I’m really proud of the work that our team has done so far not only because we have come this far but also because a lot of us have made sacrifices. The one thing that we always remind ourselves of is that the hardest things are the ones worth doing.

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