Sounds Good is the weekly podcast that hosts hopeful conversations with optimists and world-changers about the headlines we can be hopeful about — and how you can get involved and make a difference.

Develop for Good Is Pairing Ivy League Students with Nonprofits

About This Episode

Develop for Good pairs students with nonprofits to use tech to make a difference. The founder of the organization, Mary Zhu, is no stranger to the experiences of underserved communities. She’s the daughter of two Chinese immigrants and her cultural background was a huge driving force in helping see disparities in marginalized communities… and how to bridge those gaps. In high school, Mary even founded her first nonprofit organization — which aimed to sponsor children in underserved communities by selling cakes to the community. After spending four years at Stanford University, Mary noticed that technology and innovation weren’t intersecting with nonprofit spaces — so she decided to change this on her own.

Now, she’s the co-founder and executive director of Develop for Good, a nonprofit program that “pairs, trains and supports student volunteers as they develop technical product solutions for nonprofits.” Students who are pros at technology are able to gain hands-on experience doing innovative and world-changing work for nonprofits. And nonprofits are able to take their work to the next level through technology.

In this episode, Mary talks about how her childhood experiences impacted the work she does now, the value of social work, and the unique nature of her nonprofit — one that affords young people the chance to work in the tech industry without the financial burden Mary is so familiar with.


Guest: Mary Zhu, co-founder and executive director of Develop for Good

Visit Develop for Good’s website, developforgood.org

Sponsors

For purpose-driven brands and organizations looking for an agency specializing in collaborative problem solving and expert craftsmanship — learn more about Moon March moonmarch.com

Listen to the podcast Breaking Glass at breakingglasspodcast.com/good

Transcript

Branden Harvey
Mary, you're the-co founder and executive director of Develop for Good and on the organization's website. Your bio describes how you founded your first nonprofit when you were in high school and you sold cakes to sponsor children living in underserved communities. And when I meet people who are doing good, especially people who are doing good in unique and creative ways, like you are, I'm always just so curious how they got their start and whether their childhoods play a role. And so I'd love to start off just by asking you what you think it was about your childhood that set you up to start making a difference so early.

Mary Zhu
I guess, like, this value of helping others. And I guess, like, in social work was sort of like, installed in me at a very young age. So both of my parents are actually immigrants from China, and they grew up in a very rural portion. They were very, very fortunate to be able to immigrate to the US, like, right before I was born. During that time, I remember, like, hearing the story of how I was born. So my dad was actually, like, a research assistant at the University of Wisconsin at that time, and we couldn't afford a cell phone for the family.

So my mom was actually starting to give labor at home in their apartment while my dad was away studying in the library. So she was, like, already giving labor when he finally got home because she couldn't reach him. And he was like, oh, my gosh, Mary is about to be born. And when I was born, so my family of five actually lived out of a one-bedroom apartment in Wisconsin. So my grandfather slept in the living room. My dad, my mom and I in the bedroom, and my brother, who was only, like, three or four years older than me slept in the closet at the time, and he still likes to compare himself to Harry Potter. So, yeah. So during my early, early childhood, we definitely relied on nonprofit support. We kept by. When I understood this as I grew a little bit older, I was just like, wow, those nonprofits definitely played a huge role in, I guess, like, my upbringing, and were a huge source of support for my family. So as I grew older, I was like, I want to like, one day like, you know, like, give back to this -- in this field as well.

So fast forward a little bit to high school. I guess in late middle school, I started getting super into the hobby of baking. So I love baking. I love decorating cakes. And it was something that I would just search up on YouTube and then figure out how to do on my own.


Branden Harvey
I was going to ask, are you watching cooking shows, reading books or is it YouTube? I love that it's YouTube.


Mary Zhu
Yeah. Well, one of my favorite shows was definitely like, Master Chef and they would often have some dessert specials and stuff. So I was just like, I was just really drawn to the art of, like, just like, making beautiful decorations out of sugar and frosting and putting it on cakes. And I have a huge sweet tooth myself. So after a little while, after just doing baking cakes and sometimes bringing it to some social events, whether it was family parties or that sort of thing, people are just like, wow, this looks like these cakes look really, really well-made.

I would buy that. So I was like, that's an interesting concept. Like, why not sort of, like, look into how I can do something bigger out of this than just, like, a hobby. So then I thought, you know, what better way than to sort of delve into my interest and, like, nonprofits and social work, then to create a nonprofit out of something that I really, really love doing at the time, which was baking. So that's sort of how my nonprofit back in high school, which was called A Little Peace of Cake with piece being like, p-e-a-c-e.


Branden Harvey
Brilliant.


Mary Zhu
That was how that was born at that time.


Branden Harvey
That is awesome. And I love that you got that early taste. That almost sounded like a pun. I mean, it was a pun, but not on purpose. That taste of volunteering, giving back, and specifically using something that you are already talented in to do that. And that place, I would imagine that plays a pretty key role in what you created later, which I don't want to spoil it. So we'll get there in a second.

But when you were deciding what you wanted to do next, did you entertain the idea of maybe I'll keep on baking cakes? Maybe I'll keep on running a nonprofit, or did you kind of see this? This is what I'm doing in high school, and I'm going to go and move on, go to college and do something else.


Mary Zhu
Yeah. I guess after I entered, like, my freshman year at Stanford, my family lived in New Hampshire for most of my life. So I flew across the country to go to college. At first, I was like, kind of considering maybe I should continue doing this nonprofit from college. But as soon as I got to college, everything kind of changed. I was just so busy with classes. And if you've ever seen the state of kitchenettes in college doors, that's not the environment, you want to be baking stuff in--


Branden Harvey
Great point.


Mary Zhu
It was just, like a totally new way of life for me because I was really busy trying to make friends and depending all my classes. And there's this whole grind now for, like, trying to study deeply into your field and getting internships and that sort of thing. So I realized that, like, baking. I knew that in my heart that I still really wanted to do nonprofit work at one point. But I knew that like baking was probably not something that was very feasible to me, like, across the country, sort of on my own in college.

It was kind of trying to set that chapter of my life aside when it came to that baking nonprofit. So I ended up having to dissolve that nonprofit after getting into college. But it was always something that was still in the back of my mind, like me knowing that I really still cared a lot about social impact. I just didn't know what the best way, what the best use of my skills and how to do that while I was a college student.


Branden Harvey
Okay. So when I think of Stanford, I think about how we've seen just in this huge influx of iconic and successful folks who come out of Stanford. And I almost imagine that there's some kind of expectation being put on you and all of your classmates for what perhaps you could go down, which from my outsider's perspective, would probably be like, tech. You can work at Google, you can work at Facebook, you can work at something that's small that will hopefully become a Google or Facebook. Or you can probably go down, like, the financial world.

That's my outside perspective on what Stanford is. What is it like going into your freshman year and what kind of expectations are they putting on you, I guess, is a part of that was the nonprofit or social impact world presented as an option at all?


Mary Zhu
I remember my freshman sophomore, even beginning my junior year. I was like, exploring different pods in finance and tech, like, when you go to, like, the career fairs, big universities like this. All the tables are for the hottest startups, the Ubers, the Facebooks, the Googles, and going into Stanford, I thought that the only thing that I could do with a CS degree was to work at a big tech company, and that was definitely the most glamorous thing at the time. Everyone was getting internships at big tech companies or big finance companies, and it was everything that everyone sort of wanted.

On the other hand, when it came to social impact, there is like a hot center for social impact at Stanford. However, it's treated as like a very alternate career path. So it's definitely not mixed with a more mainstream way of doing things, which is like getting, like, a high-paying, like, glamorous, like, job in industry. It's sort of set aside as something totally separate and that you have to, like the way that it was presented. It would seem like you would have to, like, sort of dedicate -- sort of sacrifice your career or sacrifice your internship to do something public service-related.

So as a result, it's kind of naturally, like, like a turn off to a lot of students who, like, as soon as they get into college, they see these big career, like booth, sort of like flash newsletter blasting, like, go and like, try to recruit for a big tech company that is so interesting.

Branden Harvey
And it's too bad, too, because I think listeners of this podcast will know that there are some really cool non-profits that are using tech and innovation and just huge amounts of creativity that are traditionally in the business space, but they're using it for good. And the nonprofit space, like coming to mind. I know we're about to publish a story on the website about Thorn, which is Ashton Kutchers nonprofit that is fighting child pornography on the Internet, just using super wild algorithm stuff. Like, I think about New Story charity, which is very much like run kind of like a Silicon Valley startup and even has gone through some of the same incubators.

Then think about, like, charity, water and how they've upended the kind of nonprofit space. And so there's clearly so much room for, like, this innovation. But to kind of keep that separate feels very 1990s and earlier. And so it sounds like that was a problem that you were seeing. How did you kind of wrestle with that dichotomy? How did you wrestle with which path to go down and how to handle that?


Mary Zhu
Like, I would definitely say in, like, the earlier half my college, I definitely got swept up in, like, the the rush to try to get the best internships, to try to climb up the steps that were sort of laid out to me and that were like sort of being pushed on, like students to try to get the highest paying jobs in tech and that sort of thing. And, like, all this time, I definitely felt like some conflict in the back of my mind because I knew that social impact was still super important to me.

But as I tried to look for ways to sort of get involved and, like, volunteering or service work, all the opportunities I encountered were often things that were kind of like not really appealing to students who were, on one hand, being pulled into the fast pace, like race to get the best career opportunities. For example, a lot of traditional volunteer opportunities are things that involve a lot of manual work, like handing out water bottles at an event or signing up for a shift for something like packing boxes of books or food and things like that.

And those things are definitely super important. I know someone has to do them at these really impactful nonprofits, but at the same time, if those are the only volunteer opportunities that students who have so many things that are trying to fight for their attention. If those are the only things that they're being exposed to from the nonprofit world, then, of course, it's going to be a turn off. Like that's not the thing that they're going to be fighting to get. If there doesn't seem to be a lot of opportunity for personal growth or, like, refinement of your professional skills and those sorts of opportunities I've always really struggled with that idea of volunteering.


Branden Harvey
Because I think that I really did see volunteering as like, alright, I'm going to show up and I'm going to use my body for this work. But the thing is, I'm not, like, super strong, so there's going to be somebody who's better at lifting boxes than me. I'm not even like that. I don't even have that much stamina. I can't even do it for a long time. Like, there's somebody better suited for this to be. Or I think about my little brother who is a volunteer firefighter.

He has an absolute skill set to do that. If you put me on the front lines of California wildfires, I'm not helping anybody, but there are things that I can help with that are kind of unique to me. It seems like that is like this missing opportunity in our culture of volunteering right now.


Mary Zhu
We sort of have a representativeness heuristic in our mind of what volunteering is, and that's what, like the most, I guess like typical forms of volunteering art. It's just like doing a lot of manual work that's not very glamorous, but as a result of that sort of heuristic that people have in mind, it sort of limits their view of the different ways that they could help give back in the ways that they are talented, that they're uniquely talented and gifted, or the resources that they have access to.

So I definitely agree with what you're saying.


Branden Harvey
It comes right back to cake baking. You could have done a lot of things to raise funds, but none of them probably would have made as much money as the thing that you were already really good at. And so it made sense to lean into that. You obviously, now I guess if we fast forward to you being in Stanford looking back, you already have this experience starting a nonprofit when you're seeing this problem. Are you thinking through? Hey, maybe I should start something to fill this gap.

Maybe I should be the one to show up and make a difference for this problem in the world of volunteering.


Mary Zhu
I would say that the big impetus for the decision to, like, start something like, develop for good honestly happened when the pandemic happened, and I felt like I really just needed, like, although the pandemic was like a terrible thing that affected a lot of people in terrible ways. It also sort of provided me with a lot of clarity on, like, two sides of a marketplace that could sort of help each other. And one of them was like this little internal struggle that I had with, like, students not really wanting to help, but not really knowing how to help.


Mary Zhu
So when the pandemic happened, I saw so many of my classmates and my friends and people that I didn't even know, like on LinkedIn, on social media, saying that their internships had been canceled or their student activities were being canceled. And during this time, it was like a mass exodus off of college campuses all over the country. People are being sent home left and right. And a lot of students now just had a lot of additional time in which they were looking to, I guess, used to do something meaningful and at the same time, me still being someone who cares a lot about the nonprofit world.


Mary Zhu
I was seeing, like, on the news site, a third of global nonprofits which be projected to shut down because of the pandemic.


Branden Harvey
Whoa. I did not hear that. That is wild.


Mary Zhu
Yeah. It's like a combination of, just, like, financial stress. And I think one of the huge factors is just like the lack of digital access. A lot of nonprofits around the world are still sort of living in the dark ages in terms of technology. There's a whole number of reasons that just kind of contribute to this. One of them being, like, a lot of funders typically want their donation dollars going to direct relief services. And as a result, there's not enough money from nonprofits being invested in technical solutions.

So as a result, there's, like, a lot of reliance on, I guess, like manual or human communication and labor rather than digital automation, which was a huge, like, like reason for why nonprofit struggled when the entire world was forced to, like, transition virtually during the pandemic and because of the economic downturn, just like donations drying up and that sort of thing. So during this time, there are a lot of other things happening in addition to the pandemic, like, the Black Lives Matter movement was like at full swing at that time.

And so many of my friends and peers were just, like, coming out and supporting the black community during this time. And one of the things that actually sort of inspired me to sort of take action was seeing one of my friends. She was a very talented artist. She's one of my classmates at Stanford, and during this time, she was actually selling pieces of art that she had drawn in the past to raise funds for the Black Lives Matter movement. And just seeing her sort of it kind of brought me back to, like, my high school self, like selling cakes to, like, support causes that I care really a lot about.

And it was just, like, really inspiring to see other students sort of taking their unique passion and skills and applying them in a way to, like, help the most vulnerable communities at this time. And just, like, a combination of all of that sort of resulted in this idea of, like, being a computer science student. I have so many friends in the computer science community who are really passionate about helping others. Like, what if we created a way for which it would be easy for them to use their really talented in these skills to help the people or communities or organizations that are in need most at this time.


Branden Harvey
I think it's so cool that there was clearly a problem and a solution on both sides of things, and you were able to fill that gap. What were the first steps that you had to take to bring this to life to start actually pulling together those both sides and creating that bridge?


Mary Zhu
So me and one of my good friends at Stanford. So we ended up co founding developer good together. But in the very initial stages, we were definitely just, like, talking every day about just this idea now that we sort of through our own firsthand experience of observing and just seeing and reading things, like, we knew that there was, definitely, like, sort of like a need in the market for something to connect these different parties together to help each other. So we definitely spend a lot of time, just, like, talking, planning about how we could make a program like this work.

We definitely took a did a lot of, like, scrappy methods to do additional lead finding and try to set up our first, like, sort of iteration of what this program could look like. So in the very beginning, we cold email, like hundreds and hundreds of nonprofits to try to see if there was any need for technical help on any projects that they could have potentially had already ongoing or that they had started but was on the back burner, or if they had any, like, new technical needs at all.


Branden Harvey
Obviously, you and me can see that nonprofits need to get out of the dark ages, and the pandemic made it more clear. But our nonprofits outside of kind of the really innovative ones, our nonprofits thinking about tech and solutions and development and how it could help them, or does it take a little bit of convincing envision casting?


Mary Zhu
I think because of the pandemic, so many nonprofits just became aware of how important it was to have a digital solution because of everything going virtual, like, they had to shift their operations completely online. And a lot of nonprofits are realizing that they didn't have systems in place for that, or, like, they couldn't really mobilize volunteers the same way that they did before because everything was in person, or they couldn't even reach their beneficiaries or serve their beneficiaries in the most impactful way possible because of that, a new barrier that the pandemic is brought up.

So I think, like, I have read before that like, there have been, like, nonprofits that are hesitant to, like, sort of transition out of their traditional ways. But because of a pandemic, I think it was sort of, like, adult to the nonprofit. Yeah, there definitely needs to be digitalization of operations. There needs to be automation. There needs to be a way to do things virtually. And as we sort of sent all of these cold emails out, we got a lot of responses back and hopped on calls and interviewed dozens and dozens by just like, talking with nonprofit management and executives got to understand what their technological needs were.

And some of them needed things, like built completely from scratch. Some of them already had ongoing projects, but we're struggling to find the support they needed to finish them. Basically, every nonprofit that we talked to just like, had technological needs. So through this, like cold reaching out, we did verify that a lot of nonprofits were in need of this sort of service. On the other side with students, we also sort of took this cold reaching out, like, email blasting method as well. So we first started out with just like the Stanford community, and both of us are computer science students.

Like, we have a lot of access to different computer science mailing lists. So we just blasted out emails saying, like asking students, are you interested in helping a nonprofit with your technical skills, like being able to create a project that will have real world impact, like looking for something meaningful to do now that you're home and, like, not on campus anymore. And we got quite a bit of interest from students. So with this, like, sort of initial interest from a few nonprofits and that we ultimately scoped project for and with this first handful of students, that's when we launched our first iteration of the program.


Branden Harvey
I love that it very much felt like testing the waters. Just saying, is anybody interested in this and then treating that as the first step and then going from there and then I would imagine you got to just follow a similar model to how you approach, like, traditional work for people who have had internships or for people who had already started taking jobs doing development stuff. I would imagine that you just took a similar approach to that just doing it with nonprofits. And so it really was that early first steps of just making sure that there were people interested on both sides that really mattered.


Mary Zhu
Yeah, definitely. I think it's helpful that, like to be able to apply different things that we've seen work in our own experiences and working on collaborative projects and teams. I guess now that we're a little bit over a year old, we still do have a lot of similarities in our first iteration of projects, however, because we've been able to sort of go through so many iterations. One of the things that we definitely try to do is get as much feedback as possible from all stakeholders at every point of our program and apply that to make sure that we're constantly improving and making the experience as enjoyable as possible for the volunteers and the products of high quality as possible for the nonprofit clients.


Branden Harvey
Now that you are more than a year old, like, what has the impact been? What have the ways that you've been able to make a difference look like?


Mary Zhu
We've been able to scale up a lot. Like quite a lot over the past year or so. So our first iteration of projects, we only had around three projects and maybe 20 Stanford students. I think that project started in April 2020. After a few months, a lot of students from other colleges started emailing us saying that they were really interested in participating in our program was open to non-Stanford students. Of course, we wanted to make our opportunities as inclusive as possible to as many different types of students as possible. So since then, we've deployed 920 volunteer students across over 80 nonprofit projects, and each project cycle, like some of our projects, go on for longer than a cycle.

So that figure does include repeat students as well. But we mostly do try to incorporate as many new students as possible. As a matter of fact, our students come from over 260 unique universities. So we really want to try to make our community as welcoming as possible to students from all types of universities. And one of the things that we also really prioritize is making our volunteer opportunities as accessible as possible to underrepresented groups in tech as well. So historically, one third of our volunteers have actually been first generation or low income, and two thirds have been women.

In addition to getting students like computer science students from the Stanford and Berkeley and MITS, we also want to welcome students who come from sort of non-target computer science schools as well, because this is truly a great opportunity to gain professional skills and to refine on your existing skills while also making a real world impact. I guess like, one initiative that we're about to launch is like providing like a grant for a select few, like first generation low income students every project cycle. One thing that we recognize, and we came to understand while sort of hosting our program through the pandemic is that volunteering is definitely a privilege socioeconomically.

For example, we had some students who had to actually drop out of volunteering because their family was suffering like financial hardships during the pandemic, and they had to prioritize finding paid opportunity and volunteering is officially not unpaid. So we really wanted to make our opportunities as successful as possible to students who do have to have that prioritization. So we've been able to get some funding to administer these first generation low income student grants, and we're excited to start administering those to be able to attract more students more under represented in our program.


Branden Harvey
And it's not even just that those who experience a little bit less privileged don't get the opportunity to get to be a part of this. It's that the nonprofit sector and the tech sector also don't get the opportunity to work with these brilliant students. And if the whole tech world and non profit world looked like me, we would have a lot of missing gaps and mis-perspectives and so I'm really glad that you've created a system that empowers more folks to be able to join, even if financially, it hasn't historically made sense for people with that experience.

So that is such a great approach. Looking forward, you've got this new program, where do you expect this organization to be in five years or ten years? What would your greatest hope be for the impact you can make?


Mary Zhu
I think one of the things that our leadership team is looking into is just scalability. So we've already scaled significantly since our first project cycle. Right now, I think our carrying capacity is around, like, 200 or so student volunteers to around 30 to 40 nonprofit projects being managed at a time. And it's honestly all possible. This has honestly all been possible due to the amazing leadership team that we've had. But I think one thing that we want to do is figure out how to scale even more.

So our mission is truly to be able to provide this opportunity to as many students as possible and to serve as many nonprofits as possible and help them get more access to, like, a digital transformation within the organization. So right now we're sort of refining the development of a portal that we've been using, and this tool has been fantastic for helping us, like, sort of match like students and nonprofits and vendors together. And we're looking for ways to make this process even more efficient, and to increase our scale.

So definitely in the next, like, sort of year or two. We want to further, sort of, I guess, further automate this program so that we can serve a greater number of students and nonprofits while maintaining and increasing the quality of the products that we create and the experience that the students get out of it.


Branden Harvey
That is awesome. And that's so exciting to think about. And I just love the idea that future students who were in your situation who had this passion for making a difference but didn't quite know how to go down that path without sacrificing something else now have that opportunity. You created that solution, and now it's going to get to serve a lot more people.


Mary Zhu
Thank you so much.


Branden Harvey
As my final question before we wrap up, what kind of encouragement would you give to people who want to make a difference? And maybe when they look around at volunteering, at least historically, they haven't felt like the traditional ideals of volunteering were a perfect fit. And maybe the listener is a developer, but maybe they like to bake cakes, or maybe they have some other talent or passion or ability. What kind of closing advice would you have for that person?


Mary Zhu
I actually covered just this topic in a recent TEDxStanford talk that I gave called Rethinking Volunteerism, Donating your Comparative Advantage, and I think the solution is really identifying what your comparative advantage is. So comparative advantage is this term used in economics to sort of describe it's something that you can do that you do better than the other things that you do or that you do better than other people. So I guess the one to sort of describe that is like your talent or your passion. So it's really identifying what you're talented and passionate about and then thinking creatively about ways that you can make that you can do that to help other people, even if it's in a way that's, like, very unconventional.

So just like from my experience of seeing my peers, I guess my own life experiences and just like learning about other nonprofits that have really unique ways of leveraging their volunteer skills, I'm convinced that you can turn anything that you're passionate or skilled about and use it in a way to help others. So just as an example, there are some nonprofits out there, like, if you're really passionate and if you love hosting parties, for example, which is like, kind of like an unconventional skill or passion that you might have, there are non profit where you can host parties or, like, host birthday parties for homeless children.

If, for example, you love acting or singing. There are nonprofit where you can, like, dress up as like a Disney Princess for a day and, like, visit sick or underserve children and sort of brighten their day. Likewise, if you're good at designing or developing, they're nonprofit, like, developed for good that you can go to and sort of use those skills to create a really impactful project or a nonprofit limitless never ending list of things that you could do with what you're passionate and interested about.

It's just, like, really powerful to think about, because if you think about just like, the diversity of talented skills that people in our generation, the next generations have, like, there's just so much impact and good that could be done if everyone sort of really, like reflected on themselves and thought about what they could do with their talent for passion.


Branden Harvey
That is such a perfect advice, it's such a perfect way to wrap this episode. Thank you so much, Mary, for the good that you do and for being with us here today.


Mary Zhu
Thank you so much for having me. Branden.

Episode Details

October 4, 2021

About Sounds Good

Apple Podcasts – Spotify – Google PodcastsEverywhere Else

Sounds Good is the weekly podcast that hosts hopeful conversations with optimists and world-changers about the headlines we can be hopeful about — and how you can get involved and make a difference.

Every week, Good Good Good founder Branden Harvey sits down with the people driving positive change against the world's greatest problems. Each episode will leave you with a sense of hope about the good in the world — and a sense of direction on how we can all be a part of that good. Episodes are released every Monday.

Want to stay up-to-date on good news?

One email.
Every Tuesday.
Filled with the week's best good news.

Thank you for celebrating good news with us. We'll see you on Tuesday!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Please try again.