Three local high school students with backgrounds in leading non-profits have founded an accelerator to help other young leaders do the same. Andy Xian and William Li (both juniors at Stuyvesant High School, and Niv Levy (a junior at the High School for Environmental Studies), met when all three served as interns for Borex Capital, a venture firm in Midtown that seeks investment opportunities among startups in the energy and climate sectors.
In their spare time, both Andy and Niv also helmed non-profit organizations—Excelsior-Learning.org (which brings algebra tutoring programs and standardized test prep to low-income middle-school students around New York City) and WeCareActNYC.org (which collects donated computers and electronic devices, then distributes them to underserved students), respectively.
While not common, public-service organizations founded by teens are actually less rare than a casual observer might suppose. But such groups often run into predictable roadblocks. “Fundraising is an issue for all non-profits,” acknowledges Niv, “and this doesn’t get any easier when the founders are not yet adults.”
Andy adds, “becoming a 501(c)(3),” which is the legal status that allows such groups to accept tax-deductible contributions, “is widely seen as conferring legitimacy, but the process is complicated.”
William says, “many new public service groups also struggle when they hit a plateau, which consists of receiving too many donations in kind, but not enough capital to fund logistics, like storage units, for example.”
Finally, high school students with the ambition and personal bandwidth to start up a charity from scratch almost inevitably move on to college, which means that successors must be lined up to take over, or else the organization will languish.
“We have all implemented ideas we were passionate about,” says Andy, “but we’ve also learned through experience that good ideas are not enough.”
Seeking to solve each of these problems, they developed “a tool kit to help young people like us overcome all these hurdles, which allows them to focus on the actual mission of the organization they are building,” says Andy. The result is Surreality: a not-for-profit that helps other teens kickstart their own public-service projects. “The name comes from our goal of surmounting obstacles to translate visions that seem like dreams into reality,” he explains.
“We’re starting by reaching out to prospective donors,” says Niv. “Our first target group is alumni of the specialized high schools. At the same time, continuity is priority. So we’ve structured this in a way that we are able to continue engagement even after we go to college.”
William says that the concept is also scalable: “We have a simple business model that can be ramped up to national or international scale, after local rollout.”
Andy says, “the non-profits we previously started were about the mission, rather than the money. In this case, the money is the mission, because we are serving the vision to the founders who will be helped by Surreality.” He adds, “all of the funds we raise are allocated to make a difference. We aren’t spending anything on administration, and we won’t take any compensation.”
“Our plan is to deploy capital and leave the implementation to the individual non-profits, so they will have to struggle less on the financial side,” Niv notes. “What incubators and accelerators do for startups in the for-profit world, we are doing for non-profits—emphasizing mentorship for students who are starting their own organizations, while also providing funds.”
Initially launched as parallel clubs at Stuyvesant High School and the High School for Environmental Studies, the second phase of the project will “roll out the concept in other high schools, in specific neighborhoods, such as Lower Manhattan and Riverdale,” says Niv.
“This will allow connections to parents through PTAs at all the schools where project launches,” Andy says. “From there, we’ll keep scaling, regionally and then nationally, by plugging into our own network of other founders, and then connecting with more via LinkedIn. In the longer term, we hope to launch internationally.”