Kids Are Heroes is a non-profit startup dedicated to supporting and encouraging social entrepreneurship in kids and teens around the globe. Kids are Heroes was founded in 2008 by Gabe and MaryMargaret O’Neill (father and daughter) when MaryMargaret was just 9 years old. Over the past 6 years, the site has featured and connected over 400 young social entrepreneurs. Kids Are Heroes has also been featured on Richard Branson’s “Pitch TV,” Richmond’s Disruptive Thinking Conference, and even on the Ricki Lake Show. Their passion for fostering entrepreneurship in young leaders drives their work with Kids Are Heroes and inspired their recent move from Maryland to Atlanta. MaryMargaret and Gabe moved to Atlanta just a month ago for their Young Leaders Summit in February 2015 and in hope that Atlanta is the right ecosystem to let Kids Are Heroes truly flourish.
What’s the story of Kids Are Heroes?
When my daughter was 9 years old, she came to me and asked me to build her a website. MaryMargaret learned about all these endangered species in school and she wanted to help save them. I knew this would be a good opportunity to be involved in my daughter’s life in a meaningful way, so I thought, “Let’s do it.”
I didn’t want it restricted to animals, so I asked if we could help people and the environment, too. And she agreed, so we put some ideas together. She had given up her 9th birthday gift for Defenders of Wildlife and I had heard about some other kids doing some pretty cool things. We featured some of these on our website with the idea of getting some other kids involved. Other kids wanted to support Defenders of Wildlife because MaryMargaret did it and other kids wanted to support what the kids on the site were doing. That’s what we did.
We started with 3 heroes and then we scoured newspapers to find others. We started getting their parents’ permission to put them on the site and we had 5, then 6, then 10, then 20. Our local newspaper picked us up. Our local mall decided to get involved by having a Kids Are Heroes Day where we invite the children from the website to the mall for a day celebrating what they’re doing and bringing them together. That’s how things started and things have snowballed since then.
What have been the most rewarding and difficult parts of growing Kids Are Heroes?
The rewarding part is getting to meet and getting to know all these different kids who are doing these amazing things. The difficult part is that since we are very different and we are a charity, people want to give money to the kids. They don’t see why we need money. Getting funding has been difficult for us. We’ve been through different iterations and we now have a good plan to actually make a company out of it.
We’ve also done a good job of raising awareness, but we want people to—when they hear the name Kids Are Heroes—say, “I know who they are.” That’s been the difficult part. It’s great when people find out about it and there have been a lot of people from all over the world who have blogged about us. That’s great, but we’re still a grassroots organization trying to make it very big and that’s honestly a challenge.
You recently moved to Atlanta for the Young Leaders Summit. What excites you the most about the Atlanta entrepreneurial ecosystem and what impact do you want to have?
We moved from a smaller market (Frederick, Maryland) because we had difficulty getting traction. Honestly, they tend to look inward to their own community; Kids Are Heroes not only looks outside its own community, we look around the world. It was a challenge to get anywhere within that small market and we were too far from the Baltimore/Washington market for them to get involved.
We’re hoping that Atlanta will be a much more open and welcome market to embrace something like Kids Are Heroes. We’ve only been here a few weeks so that remains to be seen, but that’s what we’re hoping. Atlanta is a much more progressive market that could welcome something like this. From the reactions we’ve gotten—with the combination of what we’re doing with the Leaders Summit and what my partner’s doing with the Kids Business Expo and teaching kids entrepreneurial skills—we’re hoping to make a big splash and continue to this yearly in Atlanta.
What’s the vision for Kids Are Heroes?
We want Kids Are Heroes to be as big and well known as Boy Scouts of America or the Boys and Girl Club. We want to have different chapters in every state. We want to branch out to the rest of the United States to host events around the country. We have a lot of kids in California and a lot of those kids can’t make it to Atlanta because they’re on the other side of the country. We would like to host events around the country and in other countries. We have a boy in Kenya who desperately wants to come.
As we get more and more kids—we have 400 now—and as we get to 4,000 and 40,000, we want to be able to get all these kids and allow them to network with each other and help grow what they’re doing. We see ourselves as becoming a household word and a big company in the future. We want to be as lean, smart, and efficient as possible, yet we want to have the real structure to be a real company. Gaining more kids and breaking different limits each day and each week means we’re touch more lives and inspiring more kids.
These kids are basically the same from around the world. They have different cultures and different languages, but they all have big hearts and they all love it when they get together. At our last event, we had a boy from Abu Dhabi interview a boy from West Virginia and vice versa. It was the coolest thing because they both really prepared their interviews and they cracked each other up. It was just wonderful. This is something that really helps. Kids who take this track become compassionate leaders. We’ve seen it. We’ve seen the opportunities it’s brought them. If parents see this and if investors see this, it’s absolutely a no brainer that what we’re doing is right. What we’re makingis having a strong impact and we want to do that on a much larger scale.
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The Author: Kristine Santos. Entrepreneur. Anthropologist. Writer. Runs social media and blogging for Atlanta-based startup PEAR’d, a virtual collaboration ecosystem for entrepreneurs. A vegetarian who’s learning how to sew and wants to know all about your startup. Let’s talk on Twitter@PEARdUP