Posted May 5, 2020
This is part of a series of stories about how student entrepreneurs have adapted or shifted their business in the face of a global pandemic.
SESP senior Matt Zients’ company, Connect & Care, has experienced the inverse of most companies during a nationwide shelter-in-place. While most companies have transitioned from having a centralized office with employees physically present to a remote workforce, Connect & Care finds its whole team under the same roof instead of scattered across the country. Matt co-founded Connect & Care with his younger brothers, Josh Zients, a freshman at Brown University and Jonny Zients, a rising freshman at Stanford.
When they all returned to their home in Washington D.C. in mid-March, Matt gathered the team to regroup. “I sat down with my brothers and said ‘We’re all going to be under the same roof for the foreseeable future, let’s see if we can do something useful.’
Connect & Care originated in an after-school social entrepreneurship program that Matt took part in during high school. Although the company has taken many forms since then, the mission has remained remarkably stable. “From the beginning, we wanted to create something that would use today’s technology to encourage more young people to be engaged with volunteer work and civic-engagement oriented work.”
Over the years, Connect & Care has ranged from an app meant to make donating to non-profits nearby and around the world easier for young people; to a BuzzFeed-style quiz, which matched students to volunteer opportunities; and for a few months last year, a service that would text students about relevant volunteer opportunities around campus.
Just before COVID-19, the company found traction with a new model. “We were starting to work with companies in the Chicago area to help them connect with young talent in a different way, through community service. We hosted our first event at Slack’s Chicago offices back in March, when we brought 10 Northwestern students and worked with the Slack team to create greeting cards for children in the hospital through a great organization called CardzForKidz. We had some ideas based on that event to improve and continue working with Slack and other companies in Chicago. But then everything hit, and we all headed home.”
After brainstorming with his co-founder brothers and fellow Northwestern student teammates Andrea Albanez and Annie Goss, the team decided to find a new way to be the bridge between the non-profit organizations that they had forged relationships with and young volunteers. “Connect & Care has always had around 15-20 non-profits that are in our network. So we reached out to those partners in the third week of March and said ‘If we have a group of college students in our network who have a little bit of free time on their hands, is there anything they could help out with that would help them sharpen their professional skills and benefit your great causes?’ We received a great reception, and within a few days, 80% of our partners got back to us and said ‘Here are our wishlist items that we would love your students’ help with.’ Since then we’ve paired 50 students to different opportunities, and most of them are already up and running as interns, or taking on specific tasks for the non-profits.”
Matt credits his experience and relationships at The Garage with his ability to iterate ideas and pivot quickly. “When I got to Northwestern, my first stop was The Garage. I tried to embed myself into the community early on, and started to build really special friendships and relationships with the staff, mentors, and peers. It’s easy to say ‘Learn from your mistakes and fail fast,’ but I think The Garage has given me the backbone and support to actually do that. At times, The Garage has helped me to stay centered and focused on executing day-to-day, but it has also really helped me build the skills of being imaginative, learning from others, and getting creative on how we can deliver on our mission.”
Now, working remotely from his home in D.C. for his last quarter as a Northwestern student, he has continued to stay involved with The Garage community. “Almost every day I’m doing something Garage-related. I know the support is really just a message or click away. Honestly, I feel just as connected to the community as ever, and it’s almost more tangible remotely right now what we can all offer each other, because it’s all out there on Slack, and people are attentive and ready to share. There are a handful of other students who have their own ventures from The Garage community who I lean on at least once a week for advice and thoughts.”
Since he has spent four years at The Garage and working on different iterations of Connect & Care, Matt has become a staple of the community, and is available for “Peer Office Hours” for other students, either currently involved with The Garage or curious about becoming involved. He says the demand hasn’t changed with the shift to The (Virtual) Garage. “I did two Peer Office Hours this week. There are still people knocking at The Garage’s door, albeit virtually, to join our community. Two undergrads that I talked to have really great ideas and are eager to be engaged with the community.”
After four years, Matt looks back fondly on his time at The Garage, and hopes to return to the physical space one day. “I couldn’t be more grateful to have been at Northwestern and at The Garage. The Garage was really one of the core parts of my experience as an undergrad. I definitely want to stay as engaged with the community as possible. I’m sad I won’t be back on campus, but I’ll definitely visit in the future. I hope current and future Garage students will continue to think of me as a resource and someone who is always excited to talk to anyone about their project or their passions.”
Although he is graduating next month, Matt hopes that Connect & Care will continue to exist in some form or another at Northwestern and The Garage. “The goal has always been to continue working on Connect & Care either full-time or part-time. I think for me personally, it’s going to be a part-time engagement after graduation, but definitely something that I’m hoping will continue to have a presence at Northwestern.”