There's a sense in Washington that if you want to change the world, you have to do so through politics. Of course, that's not really true. As an entrepreneur, you affect the world around you on a daily basis. That goes doubly for founders of companies with a focus on social change.
Just ask the duo behind Haymakers for Hope: Julie Anne Kelly, a former Golden Gloves champion boxer and cancer survivor, and Andrew Myerson, a pugilist himself who worked for Goldman Sachs. Their organization, whose name, Haymakers, was inspired by an old-school term for a knock-out punch, recruits ordinary people who want to learn boxing. Individuals train for three to four months, collect donations, and then step in the ring in front of an audience. Proceeds benefit cancer-related charities.
Last year Haymakers raised $190,000 for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. On Thursday alone, it hopes to raise $300,000 in a 14-fight event in New York City. I talked with Myerson about the challenges he faced in starting the organization, and his lessons for changing the world, one punch at a time.
How did you come up with the idea for Haymakers?
I met Julie at a boxing gym in New York in early 2008. We became friends, and we would support each other's fights. The training timeline for boxing is very similar to the training timeline for running a marathon. Since everyone who runs a marathon seems to raise money while they train, we thought why can't you do it for boxing?
When did you reach the point where this became a full-time job?
We were about a month away from the first event, and I took a Monday off to work on a few loose ends. I started to think to myself that I could really get used to spending my days like this. That afternoon, I received a call from someone within Goldman with whom I had interviewed [for a promotion] a couple months before. I thought about it for a few seconds and turned him down over the phone.
Boxing is probably less popular now than it was years ago. How does that affect you?
One unique thing about our event is that the people participating are not your typical boxers, and thus the crowd is not your typical boxing crowd. I can't tell you how many people I've talked to at one of our events who tell me that this is the first time they've ever even considered going to see a live fight.
What has been the most surprising thing you've learned as a result of this whole experience?
We vastly underestimated how much people want to see their friends get punched in the face! All joking aside, we're shocked by the reception our participants get from donors. Also, it's remarkable to see the progress that people make from Day 1 in the gym to fight night. The fights end up being really competitive.
What's your best advice for entrepreneurs whose businesses are event-based?
I really think the key is that you have to be unique. There is an over-saturation of typical nonprofit events or galas, and people really want something different. I want people to leave each event thinking: "Wow, that really blew our socks off. I wonder what these guys are going to do next?"
What's the biggest challenge you've had, and how did you overcome it?
Our events have always been sanctioned by USA Boxing. On October 24, USA Boxing was suspended because of some horrible remarks that its president made about female fighters and child abuse. I spent the next day calling the local heads of USA Boxing, the national Executive Director of USA Boxing, the State Athletic Commission, and professional promoters in an effort to try and see how we could work something out. Luckily, USA Boxing apologized. The fights were back on!
How do you define success?
We started this with the idea that we could raise some money and awareness, and never thought we would be as successful has we've been thus far. I didn't fully realize the impact we would have on such a wide range of people from the fighters, to the ring girls (who are cancer patients and survivors), to people who just follow us on Facebook. I think one of the goals is to start a movement sort of like Livestrong.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.