Featuring Service Never Sleeps
Welcome to Students vs. Startups Episode 13! This week we talk with Whitney Parnell, founder of Service Never Sleeps, a non-profit which promotes “allyship” based on the idea that we can be bridge-builders who work together towards the common purpose of ensuring equality, opportunity, and inclusion for everyone.
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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups Showdown in the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy and I’ll be your moderator today. The structure for the podcast is quite simple. We put a leader of a tech startup in the hot seat, students ask questions, we find another innovator, and then do it again. The founding sponsor for Students vs. Startups is The Radiant Group. If you enjoy solving problems and like to work with bright people, The Radiant Group is the place for you. Contact Al Di Leonardo or Abe Usher at theradiantgroup.com. Well, let’s start off round one. All three of today’s students have been involved in Georgetown’s technology management program. One is a graduate and two are wannabes. We have three students here. Our first student is Yasir. Yasir, a little background on you and what you’re studying here, please?
Yasir Khalid: Thanks, John. I’m Yasir Khalid. I come from a marketing research and insights background. I’m doing my technology management program and I’m a full time student at Georgetown.
John Gilroy: A full time student, that’s rare. Mike, you succeeded and got your masters degree, huh?
Mike Abel: And glad to be done with it.
John Gilroy: Where do you work and what do you do for a living, Mike?
Mike Abel: My name is Mike Abel. I’m the IT service delivery manager for NTT Data. I graduated back in 2012, and very much enjoyed the program, and continuing on with it in any facet I can.
John Gilroy: Oh, great. Will, your background please?
William Paterson: I’m a federal employee, management analyst, and also in the military reserves and a father of four.
John Gilroy: Father of four, wow. He’s getting an award for that, huh? On the other side of the table, we have Whitney Parnell, and she is the founder of a company called Service Never Sleeps. Now ’cause technology, I thought you’d be maintaining computers, or data systems, or something, but a different type of service all-together. Why don’t you explain your background and then your company, please Whitney?
Whitney Parnell: Sure. I’m the daughter of a foreign service officer so I actually grew up all over the world. Identity is very fluid for me, as is the question, where are you from? The most stressful. I definitely identify as African American but spending a lot of time in West Africa, feel like my roots are from there, but also really connect with the Latino community because I spent most of my time growing up in Mexico. So very diverse lifestyle that really exposed me to a lot of experiences, beautiful cultures, but also seeing everybody didn’t start at the same place or have the same opportunities. In college, a sneak peek of what Service Never Sleeps is about, people used to always say, “Whitney, calm down. It takes time to change the world.” My response was, “That is not true. If I went to bed right now and a good fraction of the privileged society did something little to make a difference, I’d wake up after a full night’s sleep and see a huge social change.” Little did I know that that was planting the seed for this idea of service never sleeping for as long as social injustice existed.
John Gilroy: I normally ask for-profit companies what business problem they solve, but I’ll ask you what social problem or what problem do you see that your company solves?
Whitney Parnell: Actually, I’d say there’s alignment there.
“What we believe, the Service Never Sleeps idea is that for as long as social injustice never sleeps, service combating it should never sleep either.”- Whitney Parnell
For us, we’re really about “allyship”, being rich builders through empathy that are making us all share our humanity and see that we all deserve opportunity, inclusion, and equality. Our programming is three-prong, two of the prongs actually very much relating to corporate America. We host a year-long fellowship of part-time service for working young professionals so these are the people who work in the private sector but who want to give back, that millennial generation that is so in tune with social injustice, and we partner them or place them with local non-profits to do skill-based service over the course of the year while working full time, getting leadership development training. Basically, this great value proposition for corporations to say, “We’re developing your next generation leaders and we’re allowing you a way to effectively give back to the community.”
Our second programming actually does something similar where we partner with corporations to implement this model in house for more of their employees of skills-based service, helping non-profits grow in capacity, developing employees’ skills, also allowing the company to give back in a meaningful way.
Most recently, we’ve launched our last program, which is a workshop that trains people in how to be effective allies to promote social justice.
John Gilroy: Wait a minute, I’m the radio professional here, not you. You sounded pretty good there, aren’t you?
Whitney Parnell: When you’re excited about what you do, it just flows.
John Gilroy: I’ll have one of my students jump in here. Mike, why don’t you ask the first question, please?
Mike Abel: I’d love to. How long has Service Never Sleeps been around?
Whitney Parnell: Well, we celebrated our first year in October. Heyo! Not long at all.
Mike Abel: So you had a very interesting time to come into existence. With the current political climate what it is and all of the different energy that has come out of this, how are you taking advantage of that right now and all the different energy that seems to come from certain younger demographics that probably would fit right in your wheel house?
Whitney Parnell: We believe that we’re really coordinators and facilitators of energy that’s already in the community, non-profits that have the solutions to pressing issues to support marginalized communities and millennials of the professional generation who want to give back in a meaningful way and actually have skill sets to help these non-profits grow in capacity. We really leverage what’s already there and the energy that’s already there, but I think that recently we’ve also seen that there’s so much division. SNS’s focus is promoting social justice through bridge building and seeing that we’re all one humanity here and what we work towards is getting everybody on the same level. The best way to do that is to connect with each other, and build bridges instead of being like Us vs. Them, and seeing how we have things in common, and letting that be the root of how we move forward together in a way that helps everybody.
Will Patterson: Yeah. It sounds like you have a great mission, a very focused task. You’re focused on business professionals, young people. There’s probably a big percentage of those out there that aren’t involved. How do you get them to wake up if your service never sleeps?
Whitney Parnell: Well, we definitely believe in being allies and that the root of allyship, what we call it, is empathy, that connection to each other’s’ humanity and really caring, seeing that if certain people don’t have certain opportunities, or access to equality, or just basic human rights and human needs, then that’s something that we should all care about. The good thing is especially with the millennial generation that is tweeting up a storm all the time about everything, there is so much of that energy there. I say that really, we’re not spending too much time having to say, “Hey you, get involved.” We’re moreso figuring out how to leverage opportunities to really provide all these people who want to do something with a tangible way to do so.
Yasir Khalid: So everything you talked about, building bridges. I was wondering, there are so many organizations that are within DC and in the US that are working towards your ideals, your goals, towards social justice. What makes Service Never Sleeps different from the rest? Of course, there will be some element of competition.
Whitney Parnell: Yeah, I’ll try to answer that question two-fold. On the one end, I did Americorps so I did a year of full time service and my service was actually planning service days for corporate America. So while I was 22, 23, I was engaging with other 22, 23-year-olds who were saying, “I used to be so involved and now I do PowerPoints and spreadsheets all day,” no offense to consultants. “How do I stay involved?” Then I went into homeless services. I worked in homeless services for three years, very intense work, and I felt the frustration of working for an organization that literally had the solutions to a pressing issue and just lacked the capacity to execute it as fully as they could.
“I really like to say that Service Never Sleeps is not seeking to compete with any of these organizations. We’re seeking to really empower them and build leaders in the process.”- Whitney Parnell
We know that these organizations have the solutions so why compete with them to really support these marginalized communities as opposed to give ’em the support that they need through tapping into this energy that is so willing to be there but hasn’t quite been tapped into in the way that they want it to yet. I’d say that’s how we really make a difference and that furthermore, I think especially adding this allyship training workshop is that last distinguishing piece. Our programming is very distinctive in that we’re connecting people to do skills based service for non-profits, but this allyship training is really taking all these people who are saying, “I just want to figure out how, in my everyday life, to be the best person that I can for everybody else,” we’re giving them the skills to do that in terms of their everyday behavior, but also empowering them with tools to be able to engage with people who make that comment that is not appropriate about a certain person, and instead of shut down, create an avenue for connection and learning. I’d say those are the way that we’re different and that it’s all connected to this larger vision of promoting social justice.
Mike Abel: So what’s your marketing strategy?
Whitney Parnell: Well, I’m very excited that we’re entering 2017 a lot better. I’ll be honest. I’m a millennial myself, but I’m probably the one millennial who is just not into social media that much. One thing that I learned in startup life was figure out what you’re good at, figure out what you’re bad at, and then figure out what you need to learn, but what you are just never ever going to learn. One thing that we learned was that marketing may not have been my strongest skill set, but we could bring the right people on the team to help us do that.
We’re in the process right now of really revamping our marketing as a way to show now we’ve got a proof of concept. We know what we’re doing so now let’s let the world see what we’re doing through our service, through our great non-profits, through highlighting our millennials, but then let’s also really target our stakeholders. We have four. We gotta target our local non-profits by really showing that we’ve got a program that can support them.
We’ve gotta target our millennials by really tapping into that energy that they have saying, “I want to do something,” and us saying, “We can show you how to do something.” We gotta target corporations to really say, “Hey, you want to develop and keep your employees, your millennial employees transition every year? We can show you how to do that.”
Lastly, we really gotta have this bigger platform that’s really getting to the masses to say, “We can teach you how to be allies. Come to us.” Marketing plan in the works, but I’m excited that we’re figuring out how to reach all of these stakeholders.
William Paterson: You’re a young millennial, you hear about Service Never Sleeps, and you get involved. You go through this leadership course, what do you look like in five years? How are you really changed by being involved with Service Never Sleeps?
Whitney Parnell: The idea of this part-time service, part is to really root our young professionals in the fact that they can give back in a meaningful way and not have to sacrifice their professional goals. My calling is to be an activist, it is to be a professional humanitarian, but we all have different callings in life and the private sector is just as great. Part of it should really be able to implement that work life balance early in their careers to see that for the rest of their lives, they can give back and still achieve their professional goals. That’s one.
Two, we want to build our next generation leaders as allies. While we have a program that can train anybody to be effective allies, the people who go through this program should feel like they are the next ones primed to be leaders in that movement of allyship.
Lastly, the service is skills based service. If our young professionals go into a service year doing one of three things like learning an entirely new skill throughout the course of their service, implementing a skill that they have that they’re not able to use at work and developing that, or actually implementing the work that they do at work for this non-profit, either way, they’re really developing their skill sets and taking monthly leadership courses that range from soft skills, or what they call 21st century skills now apparently, and hard skills to really be the most effective employee ever back at their jobs.
John Gilroy: Whitney, I’m listening carefully to what you’re saying. You say you don’t know much about social media but you know your company, Service Never Sleeps, their handle on Twitter is @ServiceInsomnia.
Whitney Parnell: Yeah.
John Gilroy: Fits nicely, doesn’t it? If people who are listening want to find more information about you, what’s your website, please?
Whitney Parnell: Serviceneversleeps.org.
John Gilroy: That’s good. We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to eastern-foundry.com. Our monthly sponsor is a leader in enterprise cloud computing, natively converging compute visualization and storage into a software defined solution. For more information, visit nutanix.com.
Welcome back to Students vs. Startups Showdown on the Potomac, round two. The previous discussion was pretty lively, Whitney. Hope we can maintain in the second half of the podcast here. Let me introduce our students again. We know Yasir, we know Michael, and we know Wil. I’m just gonna toss right back to Mike and him question about Whitney and ask about her whole organization.
Mike Abel: How do you measure success, especially after a year? What is it that you’re looking at in terms of metrics and how would you say that you’re trying to grow this forward, and maybe it’s changed since you started a year ago?
Whitney Parnell: Especially our signature program continues to be our yearlong fellowship. We have so many metrics that we measure. On the one end, we really measure how our non-profits are able to grow in capacity, whether that’s through getting additional skill sets that they need from the fellow or getting a whole new thing developed, but additionally, we measure how their issue area was affected as a result of their capacity being increased. Separately, we also measure how our young professionals have grown in terms of skill set as a result of their service but also how they’ve grown as leaders as a result of the monthly leadership development programs that they have.
Additionally, with some of the service days that we do and especially this allyship training, we also measure how many people we’re able to impact and train through those different types of events as well.
Yasir Khalid: How did Service Never Sleeps get funded and did you have any specific challenges taking off?
Whitney Parnell: Yeah.
Yasir Khalid: Where do you see yourself down the road?
Whitney Parnell: A great friend of mine, Fagan Harris, who founded the Baltimore Corps, gave me some great advice when I first started this saying,
“Whit, count on your triple F’s of startup life, friends, family, and fools.”- Whitney Parnell
They definitely helped us out with a lot of our startup funds, but what really excites me is that our model sets us up in a way that really allows us to be sustainable and also to be able to scale and that our fellowship program has a fee for service model. So companies can sponsor their employees to participate in this program, whether from their corporate social responsibility funds that they can give back to the community or through their human resources funds to develop their employees through this program.
That’s just a really great way to set us up so that a good portion of our revenue actually is set up in this fee for service form. Additionally, we always tap into the friends, family, and fools through events, non-profit giving campaigns, all the usual stuff that non-profits do.
William Paterson: You’re talking about these non-profits and these companies. How are you targeting them and how are you doing specific things to reach? Do you have specific people that you’re trying to target or reach out to or is it just kind of as it comes? What’s your strategy there?
Whitney Parnell: We definitely realized that the skill set that seems to very much match this program are consultants, just their adaptability in terms of a wide range of skill sets to a lot of strategy support that they can provide these non-profits. That’s definitely where our sweet spot is in terms of participants. One thing that has been very exciting is that millennials get so excited about this program so we can really leverage that. When they say, “I want to apply for this, I want to do this,” they can really help take that back to their employers and provide a partnership opportunity there.
Additionally, we definitely target our consulting companies in the area. It really helps that now we are about to launch our second class of fellows in less than a month actually, and now we have a proof of concept. We have a year under our belt after having done our first year of fellowship.
So companies can see and our millennials can see, “Look, we can make impact here. We have made impact. You can see how the employees have developed, you’ve seen the impact that they’ve had in their non-profits.” That proof of concept is also really helping us secure those partnerships.
To be honest, with non-profits, it has not been hard to make those partnerships. Being a non-profit myself, working in homeless services, for them it was just like,
“”Really? A consistent volunteer for a year and skills base to help us grow in capacity? Okay.” That’s probably the easiest avenue that we have.”- Whitney Parnell
John Gilroy: I have to jump in here, Whitney. Why did you select Eastern Foundry as the place for you to plant your company?
Whitney Parnell: Eastern Foundry’s wonderful. I found out about it ’cause one of our board members actually served in the marines with the CEO, Geoff. That’s how I heard about it, but we just moved in maybe six months ago. That was a year after we’d gotten off the ground, and I have never experienced more psychological warfare than being a sole startup person. To be a part of an incubator where I’m around people who are also in this process of starting up and trying to keep their sanity, I just jumped at the opportunity to really be a part of that. I’ll even add too, I really appreciate Eastern Foundry’s culture. A lot of the staff is under 30, just like myself, and so it feels like a really good fit for innovation and incubation, particularly for my own spirit.
Mike Abel: I like to hear happy stories. Tell me about some success. Tell me about a community that you transformed through all this millennial energy.
Whitney Parnell: We just launched in the DC area, but I can already say that we’ve made so much of a difference. I can give a few examples, one being with Serve Your City. Serve Your City’s an amazing organization located in Capitol Hill area that serves at-risk youth in the urban area and the organization actually does tutoring but also coaching for these youth who may not have access to things like rowing and tennis, which actually get some of the better scholarships out there for college.
This is what that organization does, does great work, had very little infrastructure. Our Fellow came in and actually created their accounting system, and ran their accounting system, and actually just finished her fellowship year and will continue running the accounting system. That’s a really great example of being able to give their organization the internal support that they need so that they can do the excellent work that they need to.
Another Fellow placed at Collective Action for Safe Spaces is an organization that prevents sexual assault and sexual harassment that give training workshops all over the area for bystander intervention for that. She took over running at that programming workshop and actually is responsible for helping the organization give over 300 trainings all over the DC area.
So really seeing the difference between what consistent skills based service can look like, and I just say additionally we had 10 Fellows in this year. Now we have 10 leaders walking out, 10 leaders who are committing to saying, “I did this, I’m gonna keep doing this, and I’m gonna mobilize my people to do that.” That’s how you start a movement. You start a movement by really getting those leaders, those what I like to call pitchfork people at the end of the spectrum who are like, “Gimme the pitchforks, gimme the signs, I’m ready to go,” and then you just have them poke along all their peers to really join the movement. I’d say that’s really the impact that we’re having.
Yasir Khalid: Whitney, have you considered expanding your services? Let’s say you have a one-year fellowship that you are doing with individuals and trying to take companies on board as well. Does that limit your market or the potential that is out there?
Whitney Parnell: Answering that question two-fold, we definitely plan to scale. What excites us is that we really just mobilize the energy that’s in the community. So many metropolitan areas have young professionals who want to make a difference, companies with those young professionals, and local non-profits who are the pulse of what those community issues are. Wherever we can find those partnerships in the future to really scale and have the sustainability model, we absolutely will, especially now that we’ve really figured out what we’re doing here.
To speak to your other question, I believe in social responsibility and I believe that everybody can do their piece to contribute to that eight hour dream of mass social change overnight. We don’t all have to kill ourselves over this, but if we all do our little piece, we’ll see huge change. While a year is a lot to ask, we’re asking for a lifetime of allyship and commitment with this year being a way for us to really support you in the foundation of that so that for the rest of your life, you can do that.
Quite frankly, to our employers and our company saying, “If you’re losing your millennials every year, maybe this is a way for us to help you keep them for longer than that.” That’s really our value proposition for making this a year.
Wil Patterson: Whitney, you’re completely passionate about that. You’ve kind of got me won over. I just want to hear, what’s a bad day at Service Never Sleeps and what’s the best day you’ve had?
Whitney Parnell: Often they come hand in hand. I have three sisters and I give my younger sisters lectures every day. Every week, I tell my baby sister to lean in, Sheryl Sandberg’s book. One thing that I told her, some of the things that I learned from this year, one was a two-fold sort of thing where if I have a grant due at midnight and it is 10:32, don’t cry about it, don’t freak out, just get it done ’cause either way, midnight’s gonna come. Then on the flip side of that, there have been times where the grant’s been due at midnight and then 12:02 comes and I’m like, “Welp.” That didn’t happen.
All I have to say is that startup life definitely has its highs and lows all in the same day, in the same hour. It’s been in the same 10 minutes sometimes and it’s really about how do you just focus on the goal, and getting to the next moment, and celebrating the highs. Celebrating the highs is a big one but then when the lows happen, validate those lows and validate that this is hard, but then say, “Hey, next grant is due at midnight tomorrow so here we go.”
John Gilroy: Mike, got any midnight advice here for her?
Mike Abel: I’m a late night owl myself. I’m usually not in bed ’til 3:00 AM but that’s for different reasons.
John Gilroy: Where do you see your company heading in the next couple years? It looks like you’re applying for grants. Is that an avenue for you to go?
Whitney Parnell: I’m really excited because now we’ve figured out our model. We’re allyship, we’re bridge builders with these three prongs of the fellowship, corporate partners, and then this allyship workshop. It’s really about making sure that we are absolutely solid here in the DC area with our partnerships with our sustainability and using the allyship workshop partly as a way to really go way beyond this area and extend. Then the goal is to look to where’s the next place where there’s that energy where we can really start a whole new branch and just keep this moving so that this dream becomes a reality through this movement of allyship and energy.
Yasir Khalid: I did not see any numbers. I know people want to keep it private, but in terms of success, you might want to come up with numbers that you can communicate to your audience. Your three prong approach is really interesting, being the enabler, the connector. I feel digital has a massive role to play going ahead for you to grow. You have anything in the pipeline?
Whitney Parnell: Anything in the pipeline for growing with digital?
Yasir Khalid: Like making all these connections happen.
Whitney Parnell: Absolutely. That’s where our marketing focus really is now, is how do we really take what we’ve got going on and let the world know about it in a way that, as much for free as possible, which we have the opportunity to do through digital channels. That’s absolutely in the pipeline for us.
Speaking to your first point, we just graduated our first year of fellows two weeks ago and so now we have this data that we can speak to that we absolutely will let the world know about.
John Gilroy: Thank you, students. Thank you, Whitney. Again, could you give the website for your organization, please?
Whitney Parnell: Yes, that’s serviceneversleeps.org.
John Gilroy: I’d like to thank our founding sponsor, The Radiant Group, our host, Eastern Foundry, and our monthly sponsor, Nutanix. If you would like to see a transcript of this episode, please visit the blog at eastern-foundry.com.
Signing off from high atop a nondescript building in lovely downtown Rosslyn, Virginia, I am John Gilroy and thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups Showdown in the Potomac.