Tanya Van Court, a mom of three from Brooklyn, N.Y., wanted to plant a seed with kids, particularly her own.
On her ninth birthday, Van Court's daughter Gabrielle said she only wanted two things.
"She hoped that people gave her enough money to start an investment account, and she wanted a bike," Van Court tells Mom.me via email. "I thought those were amazing goals for a 9-year-old, but knew that in lieu of support for those, she would instead receive a tranche of 'stuff,' including rainbow looms, sew-your-own-purse kits, make-your-own-gum kits and a host of other well-intentioned gifts that she didn't want, need or use."
That's what inspired Van Court in 2015 to launch iSow, a gift-giving site that allows users to earn money for things that mean the most to them—whether that's a bike, a charity or their own college education.
Van Court, who has now-11-year-old Gabrielle, 6-year-old Hendrix and 9-month-old Maxwell, talks to Mom.me about how she got her business off the ground, what she juggles to maintain (some) balance, and her advice to other moms looking to start their own company.
What sets iSow apart from other fundraising sites?
iSow was actually not conceived as a "fundraising" site. It was conceived as a way to fix problems with the gift-giving process—specifically problems that we all experience when giving gifts to young people.
Our aim from the beginning was to introduce a way for kids to get support for goals instead of goods. We let them sign up for goals in three important categories: saving for the future, sharing with others, and spending on things that really matter to them. This means that on birthdays, holidays and other gift-giving moments, the people who love them can support their experiences, future goals and important causes—things that are far more important than the "stuff" they traditionally get.
iSow makes gift-giving meaningful and simultaneously teaches children to be both socially responsive and financially responsible. Once kids receive money toward their goals instead of receiving more plastic goods, we aim to teach them how money can be used for good instead of goods, so we introduce them to philanthropic causes, long-term savings vehicles like investment accounts and college funds.
Traditional fundraising sites encourage young people to spend money on short-term goals. We encourage them to save money for long-term goals, share with others, and spend wisely only on things that really matter to them.
Describe the moment you first felt successful with iSow.
We launched iSow on December 3, and my son's sixth birthday was on December 4. As a result, he was the very first one on the platform to start "sowing," and we sat down to talk through his goals. We landed on four goals: college (I said "Stanford" because it's my alma mater; he said "college" because he didn't want to offend his dad), an investment account (he had heard his sister talk about saving for one, so he wanted one, too), a big-boy bike with no training wheels and Food 4 Kids USA.
After four days, he had more than $350 in gifts toward his goals. When I opened the site to show him his profile and the donations that he received, his eyes lit up like it was Christmas morning. That's when I realized how excited kids get about progress toward their goals and that as parents we can start to talk to them very early about long-term goals that are important for their future.
As a successful female entrepreneur, what are some ways that you want to teach your kids about "girl power"?
My daughter is in sixth grade, and earlier this year one of her teachers asked her to name her hero. I was shocked that she said me, but so proud. She indicated that I was her hero because I had the courage to start a business that has the potential to change the world. In that moment, I was reminded that my actions have far more of an impact on my kids than my words. So I want to show them girl power by being tenacious and never quitting, even on the bleakest days. I want to show them girl power by helping other women along the journey, because we won't truly have a stake in the game unless there is a critical mass of us sitting at the table. I want to show them girl power by defeating the odds of the tech space and the funding environment, which are so heavily stacked against women.
My daughter is in sixth grade, and earlier this year one of her teachers asked her to name her hero. I was shocked that she said me.
Has there been anything about building iSow that has surprised you or inspired you in a way you didn't expect?
Before building iSow, I was a senior executive at several large companies—and unaccustomed to asking for help. I was happy to offer help, but asking was counterintuitive to my DNA. The fantastic people that have supported and helped me along the way—including my amazing team members, long-time friends, experienced entrepreneurs and other new entrepreneurs—has been incredibly inspiring and touching.
What's your advice for moms who are looking to start their own business or community?
You need a network to support you in every facet of your life. A network to support you financially (it's not easy to walk a road that requires two years of not taking a salary), emotionally (it is the hardest job I've ever had), logistically (someone needs to pick up the kids when you're out pitching your company) and professionally (women have been the fiber from which my success has been sewn together).
What sacrifices have you made as a mom and a business owner to keep everything in balance?
I'd be lying if I said that I had balance. I don't, and am trying every day to achieve more of it. As with most moms and women, I have mostly sacrificed myself—my me-time, my down time, my exercise time, etc. And sacrificing yourself is not sustainable, because it will ultimately tear you to pieces. So I am trying to re-integrate pieces that give me balance: I go to church and get spiritual grounding at least twice a month, and I ask my friends and family for the gift of a massage for every holiday during the year, including Abraham Lincoln's birthday and St. Patrick's Day.
What would you say are the most important skills and experiences you've brought from previous positions to being the CEO of iSow?
The most important skills that I've learned are: Always be willing to do anything that I ask my team members to do, because in start-ups you do everything; to be able to talk to anyone, anytime, about your ideas, because you are constantly pitching; and to value all people, because you never know whose idea or network will propel your business to the next level.
If you could have lunch with any business person/mogul/entrepreneur/nonprofit founder living or dead, who would it be and why?
I would like to sit down with Warren Buffett, a person who imparts so much common-sense wisdom about money, promoting both the importance of developing healthy financial habits early and of giving back regularly. Both are cornerstones of good money habits and social responsibility. At iSow, we hope to impart Buffett's wisdom and values into our platform, instilling every young person with both healthy financial habits and a tremendous giving spirit. Our aim is to transform the next generation into goal setters and achievers, wealth creators and philanthropists. And, if we succeed, the world will be a far better place.