Shaun Emerson and his friends were having breakfast one day when they started talking about social entrepreneurship -- the increasingly popular 21st century practice of using business principles to help solve social problems.
It was time for a career change -- or at least an adjustment, decided Emerson, 49, a Glen Ellyn resident and father of three.
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About this seriesThis is the time of year when it never hurts to sit back for just a moment amid all the hustle and bustle and reflect on the people who make our lives just a little bit better, who always seem to be there for us, who put the heart and soul in our communities.
There are countless such people across DuPage County, of course, and we'd like to introduce you to a few of them. During a time of reflection, these truly are People to be Thankful For.
For the first 10 years of his career, he worked for "big companies." Later, he did consulting, but "didn't really like it." For the past 13 years, he's been his own entrepreneur -- but it wasn't until that breakfast about a year ago that one of his friends suggested adding the "social" element to it.
What came of it is ProjectBoost, a startup enterprise that helps raise funds and market local nonprofits through the design and sale of T-shirts tailored to each organization's mission.
You often hear of large, national and international charities that do good things, Emerson says, but not enough about local community organizations.
"I wanted to focus on individuals and families that may need help, and also community nonprofits that may not be well-known," Emerson said. "Part of my goal is to make sure we raise money and bring awareness that they're there."
Since Emerson officially launched his business in August, he's worked with five nonprofits to develop personalized T-shirt designs, then promoted and sold the shirts on his website.
Emerson starts the process by talking to those who are involved in a given organization to "learn about what they're doing, what their mission is and why they're in it."
For instance, his first project involved Kaitlin's Hideout, a Glen Ellyn play center for children with autism and other special needs. Emerson says founder Lisa Kelly told him one of her hopes is that those with autism be embraced and accepted as unique individuals.
Emerson consulted with Chicago artist Zack Scafuri, who developed a design featuring a tree made of children's handprints, representing individuals' uniqueness. Under the tree read the phrase, "Embrace Unique."
Another project design was a camera and the phrase "Say Cure" for the Flashes of Hope organization, which sponsors photography sessions for children with cancer.
Those who decide not to purchase a T-shirt can make a straight donation to the organization on ProjectBoost's website.
"The reason why I came up with the name ProjectBoost is it's meant to be a small boost -- a recognition or awareness of individuals or an entity we're supporting, or (donation) of a small dollar amount. I want to be able to raise as much money as possible for these folks. In the end, it's just trying to do good work and not worrying too much about whether we're raising tens of thousands of dollars -- though that'd be great."
Carrie Gowans, the Chicago area chapter director for Flashes of Hope, said group volunteers were looking for a new way to raise funds and get their message out. She says the T-shirt promotion was a good way for her friends -- including one in New Jersey and another in the Netherlands -- to support the cause.
And for her friends here in the suburbs, they were able to easily show their support with the click of a computer mouse, since it isn't always easy for them to come to in-person fundraisers downtown, Gowans said.
"It's a great way to do a third-party fundraiser for your organization without a whole lot of effort," she said.
A total of $8 from the sale of each $25 shirt and 90 percent of cash donations go to each nonprofit ProjectBoost supports. Emerson said he decided to make ProjectBoost a for-profit company because of the expenses involved, such as credit card fees, shipping costs and artist payments.
After a project is "launched," it remains online for only two weeks, as a way to encourage consumers to "support it right now," Emerson says, though he admits he'd extend the time period if there were significant momentum.
Emerson said he is often the first one to contact nonprofits to tell them about his business, often finding out about them in the newspaper.
"A lot of where I get my inspiration is from the Daily Herald," he said.
Emerson said his wife is a "silent partner" in ProjectBoost, because her "business success affords me the opportunity to do some of this."
"Ultimately I want to get what I'm getting out of it right now -- meeting incredible people doing amazing things for others. As long as that keeps going, I'm in the game."