With a degree in business administration and computer science, and experience in the business and development departments of Bell Sympatico and Research in Motion, Greg Overholt was set for a successful and lucrative career in the tech business world.
Upon his graduation from Wilfrid Laurier University, however, his focus shifted from the corporate world to one of social entrepreneurship.
But Overholt’s entrepreneurial product is not the latest cell phone application or ultra-thin laptop design – his first product was a four-stall washroom for a school in Belize.
By working with students from across Canada over the last five years, Overholt has used Students Offering Support (SOS) to champion student engagement, active citizenship, and the promotion of education to fight child poverty.
SOS also helps students at home by co-ordinating and running group exam review sessions in exchange for a donation. At the end of the year, the money is used to build education-based sustainable development projects in Latin American nations, which are built by student volunteers who travel there on outreach trips.
To find out how Overholt came up with SOS, what advice he has for other young social entrepreneurs, and what he hopes to accomplish in the future with SOS, check out the interview below.
Q. How did you come up with the business model for Students Offering Support?
A. I started a club at Wilfrid Laurier University. We knew we wanted to help our peers at home, as well as help others around the world who were less fortunate than us. We did not know how to connect our two goals, so we had a brainstorming session and came up with the idea of tutoring our peers in interactive sessions before exams and then donating the money raised to non-profit organizations doing development work in poorer nations.
Q. When did you know that SOS would become more than just a project?
A. In SOS’s third year, we had an exponential increase in growth, tutoring 1,100 students and raising $65,000. That year, in August, we travelled to Belize with 18 student volunteers to build our first development project. The tremendous effort that the volunteers put into the SOS model, as well as on the project site in Belize, was nothing short of amazing.
After seeing the full model of raising money at home and the impact we had in other communities, I knew this idea was bigger than just a student club. This was something I wanted to see grow in order to help more students in Canada and more communities in Latin America.
Q. What was the biggest hurdle you faced when starting SOS?
A. Personally, it was making the decision to pursue SOS as a career, forgoing other more lucrative career options in high-tech marketing. I had the opportunity to make a very sizable salary at a high-tech firm. Pursuing SOS meant I would have to be OK with being financially insecure.
Knowing the impact that SOS could have if launched nationally, the decision to pursue SOS was a lot easier then I thought it was going to be. Many of the children we support are without access to education – something we take for granted a lot of the time. SOS and supporting education meant so much more to me than money.
Organizationally, the biggest hurdle for SOS was expanding to become a national organization. Finding the capital to support our growth was (and still is) very hard.
Being a social venture, SOS was built to sustain on its own value. We did not want to rely on charitable donations from individuals or corporations as it is not a sustainable source of income. SOS needed to grow, creating revenue through our Exam-AID initiative and through national sponsorship from corporations. Through the support of my advisors and SOS’s growing community, we were fortunate to find corporate support to get us of the ground.
Q. What advice would you give to other young people who wish to start their own business?
A. My advice would be on the importance of building mutually beneficial relationships. When starting something from nothing, relationships are so important for not just the now, but also for the future. We have kept people involved in the growth process of SOS, and these people remember us. In fact, some have come back to help us two or three years later.
A common problem that many young entrepreneurs face is the tendency to look for quick wins or people who can help you now. This will only help you in the short term and you will exhaust your support network in this time, substantially hurting your ability to grow in the long term. For long term success, foster and manage your relationships, making sure the relationship is two ways!
The classic message for being young and starting a business is: You should do this while you’re young! Many people head into the workforce and say they will start a business when they are 40. Generally speaking, when you are 20, you have less to risk than when you are 40 (no family to support, no mortgage, etc.). If you can continue to live on a student budget and take a start-up’s salary (or lack thereof) then go for it now! You will be more motivated and learn so much, which will definitely help get you good jobs if you decide to take a safer career path later in life.
Check out Part 2 of my interview with Greg, this time on the topic of why volunteering is such a valuable experience for students and recent grads.