Breanna Digiammarino drives social innovation at Indiegogo
When she was 11, Breanna DiGiammarino danced in the Nutcracker with the Joffrey Ballet. Later she used her passion for dance as a benchmark for any interest she was pursuing, and asked herself four questions: Is it something I enjoy? Am I good at it? Am I learning while I do it? And is it changing the world for the better? Does her job as the Senior Director of Social Innovation at crowd-funding platform Indiegogo meet those criteria? “Definitely.”
FAST FACTS ABOUT Breanna
Where she’s from: Northern Virginia
Grew up with: mom and dad and two younger sisters
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Human Biology from the University of Virginia and an MPA in Nonprofit Management from New York University
Where she lives now: San Francisco, California
Growing up she wanted to be: a dancer
Now she’s: Senior Director of Social Innovation at Indiegogo
Tell us about yourself growing up!
I remember I wanted to be perfect and get everything right, which I think played out in every aspect of life, school, trying to do the best in every class and get good grades, and similarly in going to my extracurriculars. At age 11, I was in “The Nutcracker” with the Joffrey Ballet at the Kennedy Center in DC, and it was such a treat. I loved doing that. After that, I came to realize that I didn’t have perfect turnout, which was quite important for being a ballerina.
At that point I started thinking through what I might do if I couldn’t do that. Dancing had been a really valuable part of my life. I learned a lot of good skills, like how to work as a group, and work towards a goal, and build confidence.
I liked a lot of things. I did like science. I sometimes thought about being an astronomer. I liked theater. I liked volunteering. It was definitely a time of exploring, and I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.
What I honed in on was, if I can say to myself, “I’d rather be dancing,” then it’s probably not the right thing to do. Ultimately, I focused that into thinking through what I wanted to do in terms of four main buckets. Those boiled down to: do I like it? Is it something I enjoy? Am I good at it? Am I learning while I do it? And is it changing the world for the better? If I wasn’t making the world a better place while I was here, then I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. Those four things became how I looked at opportunities.
How did you come up with those questions, particularly the idea of wanting to do something that made the world a better place?
I felt really lucky to have had a lot of opportunities to learn different things. I had had the chance to explore dance, science, and theater, and a lot of different areas. In high school, I had the chance to learn a bit about working in the politics realm, in museums, and in schools. I had this pretty unusual chance to actually make the world a better place, and that I could start helping out early. Making the world better seemed like one of the top things I could do.
My Mom said, “Go out there and show them that you can do it. You might not know how to do everything yet, but you have the capacity to learn, and be confident in that.”
How did you feel about school?
I liked school a lot. There is so much to learn out there that I was curious about. One of the things my mom had said to me when I was applying for the dancing role at the Kennedy Center was, “Go out there and show them that you can do it. You might not know how to do everything yet, but you have the capacity to learn, and be confident in that.” I tried to apply that in what I was doing in different classes, because I knew I didn’t know everything. I definitely still don’t know everything, but if you go into the world with that curiosity, you can learn a ton.
Can you talk a little bit about the organization you started in college, Kids Acting Out?
I realized that some schools in the Charlottesville area didn’t have a theater department all the time. I thought, “Hey, maybe there’s a space here where I could bring the value of art, like creativity and dedication to a goal and working with a team and confidence, to kids who don’t have that chance.”
With a co-founder, I started an organization called Kids Acting Out. We worked primarily with elementary school kids on life skills through drama. We would orient around creating a production that was written in part by the students. We would go weekly to the elementary school, and over the course of a semester create a show together, everything from putting the costumes together, creating the sets with the kids, rehearsing, memorizing lines, and ultimately performing it for their friends and family members. You could see the kids come together and work as a team more effectively after creating a show together with us.
I loved inspiring people to do something that changed the world. I knew I wanted to do more of that.
How did you decide you wanted to go to graduate school at NYU after college?
I really enjoyed running Kids Acting Out. I loved working with the UVA volunteers, and I loved inspiring people to do something that changed the world. I knew I wanted to do more of that.
I felt there were key skills that I needed to develop in order to do that effectively with an organization. NYU was a perfect place to develop those skills. You learn the foundation of management and strategy and building organizations, all within the lens of how to do that with the most impact in the world, because the whole school is oriented around impact. That was very neat, to be around people who had similar goals in life and cared about similar things.
What did you do after graduate school?
When I was leaving NYU, I was having a tough time deciding what to do, because part of me really wanted to take Kids Acting Out to a national scale. Ultimately, though, when I got the offer to join Bridgespan, I decided that that was the most impactful way I could probably spend my time. The Bridgespan Group is a non-profit sister organization to Bain Consulting. The lessons that Bain has learned translate very effectively to strategically running non-profits. It was a fantastic way to launch my career.
My projects included things like working with the Gates Foundation on a project to improve low-income minority graduation rates across the United States over the next 25 years. What is the key lever to moving forward successfully? How do we actually operationalize that within their work? What priorities do they set?
It was very, very interesting, and gave me a nice cross-section of looking at an organization, and how to think, how to break down a big question, and build that up into a clear path forward that’s not just making sense from an impact standpoint, but actually is operational. It was really a very good baseline for my whole organizational-thinking career.
You then worked for the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation. What was your role there?
Draper Richards was founded to apply a venture capital model of investment to non-profit entrepreneurs who want to change the world, supplying a for-profit model of investing to non-profits. We would give 100,000 dollars each year for three years to non-profit founders.
My role there was twofold. I was looking for these people and organizations to support financially and helping to scale the foundation itself. During the time I was there, we did fundraising to launch a second fund, and we opened an east coast office. It was a neat combination of being out in the world and meeting all of these social entrepreneurs, and also working inside the organization to build it and grow it.
You’ve been at Indiegogo for several years. What drew you to it?
At Draper Richards Kaplan, it was really neat to see our own scale as a foundation, and also work with rapidly-scaling social entrepreneurs. FoodCorps, one of the organizations that I got to see from the earliest days in the portfolio was co-founded by a fantastic entrepreneur, Curt Ellis, who wanted to change school systems for kids across the country. We were able to fund him, and he’s now in something like 500 schools.
FoodCorps has grown a ton, and [it’s] really neat to see their thinking and be part of that, and actually made me so excited that I wanted to join a rapidly-scaling organization myself. So part of my inspiration for joining Indiegogo was likely working so closely with these rapidly-scaling social entrepreneurs who I met at Draper.
I wish I had learned that iterative learning approach earlier. I probably would have taken more risk and pushed my thinking in different ways even earlier.
What is it like being in San Francisco during this boom in entrepreneurship and tech development?
I feel like people out here are so positive in their approach. They always believe there’s a better way, and that they can help change the world.
It’s very exciting to be around people who feel that way. Out here, it’s a badge of honor if you’ve done a start-up and it failed, because “wow, you must have learned a ton, and good for you for not pursuing something that’s failing.” Rather, there is honor in accepting that failure and moving on to try something new, whether that’s a program within an organization or it’s a whole new company or organization. I think that iterative learning approach is valuable, and that’s one thing I wish I had learned earlier. I think I would’ve forgiven myself for not being perfect all the time. I probably would have taken more risk and pushed my thinking in different ways even earlier.
You’re the senior director of social innovation at Indiegogo. What do you do in your role?
I have a bit of a combination role again. I’m doing work inside the company to share the value of Indiegogo and crowdfunding within the social impact space. People tend to know about the funding side, but crowdfunding is also valuable for many other reasons, particularly learning from your community and your potential market, and actually changing your model based on the things you learn, like what messages work for your community, and even what levels of donation or price points the community is willing to engage with, also for awareness-building. Some campaigns that I work with are really just looking to get the word out about what they’re doing and the problem they’re addressing.
I’m also sharing best practices. I have learned a ton of best practices for crowd-funding, everything from how you frame your campaign in terms of dollars, in scope, to the content you put together for it, like your video, text, and donation levels, to how you promote it and market it. What do you do ahead of your launch, the day of your launch, and then throughout the duration of your campaign to have a successful initiative? I do that teaching on a large scale by speaking at conferences or writing articles. Also I’ll work one-on-one with those campaign-owners that are looking to have large campaigns that have large impact and have perhaps a lot of complex pieces, to really help them be successful.
I also do work inside Indiegogo. For example, in the past I have led our #GivingTuesday initiatives, the day of giving back to kick off the holiday season each year, at Indiegogo to make sure that we are supporting as many non-profits and social entrepreneurs and individuals who want to be part of that as possible. Last year we had more than 400 campaigns participate and raise more than $4.6 million as part of the initiative. I’m always trying to think, “based on what I know and where I can help, what’s the most important I can be doing right now?”
Sometimes that’s #GivingTuesday, and sometimes that’s launching Generosity, our sister site that we launched a couple years ago for personal fundraising with no platform fees, in a very simple and easy-to-use site.
Can you tell us a little bit about developing and launching Generosity?
It was a big endeavor, but it was totally worth it. I worked with a technical co-lead, and together, we did the whole process of bringing this new product to market. We started with thinking through, “what are the core needs of the community?” In the two years leading up to when we were launching it, we were seeing triple-digit growth on Indiegogo in the personal fundraising space, raising funds for yourself or someone you love, for a medical expense or education tuition, things like that. We had to figure out what people liked about our product and what we could do better.
I did a lot of work around how to message the product. It was important to make it free, I felt, because that was something we heard a lot from the community. We were able to do that by inventing a pretty innovative model of pricing. Instead of having a required platform fee on the site, when people donate to a fundraiser on Generosity, they’re encouraged to leave a gift for the site. They’re never required to do so. People have been generous, so we’re able to continue that model.
We worked to make sure that we had campaigns on the site when we went live, and also press to get the word out about the site, all within a very short period of time. The cool thing about it was that it really pushed me to a new level, because for the first time, I was managing not just folks who did very similar roles to me, but people who are experts in marketing, design, engineering, PR, this whole range of cross-functional people. I had the chance to work with and inspire them, and learn a lot from them as we went forward.
It was really cool. It was a little bit like a mini-start-up in a start-up. We had our own core group, and that was really fun.
What fills your time outside of work?
My job is so fun. A lot of the things that I just like doing anyway happen to align with it, like social entrepreneurship and learning about new businesses coming to market. We’re at a special time in the world. Indiegogo is at a place where our financial success is the same as our impact success, in which we’ve enabled people to pursue change in the world through democratized access to funding. That’s really opening the door for people to do a lot more than they’ve ever done.
I also do like to cook. I’m calling 2016 the year of plenty, because I’m trying to make as many recipes from Ottolenghi’s vegetarian cookbook Plenty in a year. That’s been a really fun endeavor.
Be okay failing and testing your learning. Try different things, and know that you’re not going to get them all correct a hundred percent of the time. Pursue your dreams, and dream big.
What advice would you give someone like you?
Be okay failing and testing your learning. Try different things, and know that you’re not going to get them all correct a hundred percent of the time. When I was at Bridgespan, a manager said to me, “Bre, a hundred percent of what you’re saying is right. But that actually isn’t great, because it means you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. I want to hear at least 20 percent of what you say be totally off base, because that will show me that you’re really pushing and thinking and trying new areas.” That has been very helpful feedback for me to think about throughout my career.
Pursue your dreams, and dream big. The entrepreneurs that I get to see on Indiegogo include people of all ages, like a recent college grad who started Miss Possible, the company that makes dolls to inspire girls to go into STEM industries, and she had a big idea, and wanted to take it to the next level. Another gal who’s in college, named Jessie, had a big vision in 2014 to write a book called “Madam President,” where she wanted to show a female president. I think these big ideas are so exciting, and girls have them in the future, pursuing them and being fearless, and that is so powerful.
Do you feel like your life now meets the four criteria that you came up with so long ago?
Yeah, definitely. When it stops meeting it in different career choices, that’s when I start to look for the next place or the next way to apply it. Luckily with Indiegogo, I’ve had a chance to do a whole range of different work, so I’ve been able to pursue it in different ways within the company. Now I’m on the brink of having a baby. It has already been exciting to learn something totally different, and I know there is much I don’t yet know about being a mom. We’ll see all the things I learn next!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out books Breanna loves and find out more about her!