The Civically Engaged Startup Created — Where Else? — at Drexel
When Drexel University’s Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship officially opened in the fall of 2013, Evan Ehlers was one of the first matriculated members of its inaugural class.
“I knew that an entrepreneurship education would allow me to practice and develop a business of my own that I am truly passionate about,” he said. “The Close School emphasized self-initiated action and rewarded good ideas with startup space and seed funding. To me, this path at Drexel was a no brainer.”
For years, he took classes on everything from social entrepreneurship and early stage venture funding to leading start-ups and managing entrepreneurial growth. Then, in his pre-junior year, he experienced something that changed his life so profoundly that he was inspired to take the knowledge he’d learned in class and the experience he gained on co-op to form his own start-up.
It was just two days before winter break, and Ehlers realized he had a lot of “meal swipes” left to be used at the Handschumacher Dining Center and the Urban Eatery that would expire at the end of the term. All of those meal swipes were just … going to be wasted. And he didn’t want that to happen.
So, he went to the dining hall and swiped his card until he couldn’t swipe it anymore. And then he took all those meals, piled them up in his car and drove around the city giving the containers of food out to people that needed it.
“Honestly, that was one of the best days of my entire life,” said Ehlers.
Afterwards, Ehlers realized that it didn’t have to be just a day of his life. This was something he could do every day — and on a bigger scale, and with more students involved, to help even more people. Up to 40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten, even though one in eight Americans struggles with food insecurity. In Philadelphia, that number is one in five.
“If we can get those numbers to be nonexistent, that would be our ultimate goal,” said Ehlers. “But we absolutely have a lot of potential in our ability to help companies become more socially responsible.”
That realization led Ehlers to turn that momentary feeling into an everyday reality — and his own company.
“I've been studying entrepreneurship and innovation since my first day at Drexel,” he said. “We were taught from the very beginning to sort of see everything as an opportunity, especially if it involves your passions and what makes you happy. And this was something that really made me feel the most fulfilled that I had ever felt in my entire life.”
Ultimately, Ehlers wants to create standardized donation programs that allow students to donate excess meal swipes to community members in need. After founding ProjectSELF (SELF being an acronym for “Sharing Excess with the Less Fortunate”) in 2016, he spent the next two years building up the company and planning how it would grow and create partnerships across the city.
“I always had this inkling that I wanted to run something on my own,” said Ehlers. “Now, I am doing something that I started and I'm able to lead myself and appropriately lead others. I couldn't think of a better thing to get up for in the morning. I couldn't be happier in the position that I'm in right now. And it's absolutely because of the co-op experience at Drexel —and more specifically, the entrepreneurship co-op experience at the Close School of Entrepreneurship.”
In April of 2018, Ehlers’ food-donation company got a new name — Sharing Excess — and a new home at the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, a startup incubator in the Close School. He also received $15,000 from the school to spend his third and last co-op working for his own company — his first two were spent working at TJX, the parent company of T.J. Maxx and Homegoods to see what he could learn there as an entrepreneur trained to think in a Fortune 100, brick-and-mortar company. Working for himself over the spring and summer through the Close School's entrepreneurship co-op, Ehlers used the seed funding, and the office space, and his small staff, to grow the company and get it to a spot where he can continue to work there after graduation.
“We are both a social organization and a nonprofit — which is interesting, because when you think about startups, you don't really think of a nonprofit startup,” he said. “But Sharing Excess is also a strategic company that looks at where businesses might have excess and can show them how to utilize that so that the excess is seen as an asset.”
This past summer, Sharing Excess launched its Community Excess Program to receive and redistribute unused food from major food providers like local grocery stores, restaurants and even universities. He’s building a client base to support large-scale redistribution of food between the places with food waste (like the Trader Joes near Drexel’s campus) and the places that could use that redistributed food (like the First Stop recovery house and St. Francis Inn in Kensington).
“Right now, we're trying to help relief organizations that are currently feeding people that are suffering from hunger,” said Ehlers about his Community Excess Program.
But for university donations, he wants to use the excess meals to support surrounding Philadelphia city schools
“We also really want to focus on that cradle to college approach — helping students in the surrounding community from pre-K all the way to college-level receive the developmental nutrition they need,” he added.
Ehlers and Sharing Excess were named one of the winners at the Philadelphia Inquirer's 2018 Stellar StartUps Competition last Thursday. He aims to start his donation model at Drexel and hopefully spread to more universities in the Philadelphia area once it has been validated.
Ehlers also wants to get more college students involved through his company while Sharing Excess works with Drexel to develop a viable donation program. He’s working with his team and other partnerships to ultimately make it as easy as possible for students to give back. After all, he said, he goes to Drexel — which is committed to become “the most civically engaged university in the county” under the leadership of President John Fry — and as an entrepreneurship major, he wholeheartedly believes in the importance of social responsibility even in a corporate setting.
“This form of giving back is something that I really feel is what I was meant to do, and that feeling that I've had from starting Sharing Excess is something that is unmatched by anything else in my life,” he said. “I think I'm answering a call right now to do something big and I can't see myself ever not pursuing this in some way, shape or form.”