Viveka Hulyalkar and Alexandra Salvatore
What were you doing when you were 15? Viveka Hulyalkar was starting her entrepreneurial journey by creating her first non-profit. Now based in NYC, Viveka is CEO of Beam, a app that makes it easy to give back daily to causes you care about. Working alongside CTO Alexandra Salvatore, these two Birds are poised to make positive change in the evolving retail landscape.
Do you both remember your first weeks in New York?
Viveka: I moved to New York in 2015 after graduating. My first job here was working for a management consulting firm called McKinsey & Company. I’m originally from Cleveland, though; I consider myself the unofficial ambassador for “The Cleve.” [Laughs] And I went to Brown for college. While I was at college, I did some summer internships in New York, and I just remember everything about it being so exciting. I think it was that official transition into adulthood, graduating college, sharing an apartment with friends and having my first full-time job.
Was New York always the plan for after you graduated?
Viveka: I was always really inspired by New York. It sounds so cliché, but I felt so drawn to be at the center of a city that was so full of ambition. I went to so many networking events, and met everybody I could. The summer internships really allowed me to build a network, so that I felt like I had that in place when I moved here. Obviously the social aspects of New York were also appealing. [Laughs] But, in all seriousness, I wanted to surround myself with as many people I could learn from as possible, and tehre are few places with a higher density of talented and inspiring people than New York.
What does being a consultant entail?
Viveka: McKinsey works with Fortune 500 companies, governments, and social sector organizations to tackle complex strategic problems. For example, McKinsey worked with the Gates Foundation and the Government of Nigeria to develop a national strategy to eradicate polio. I thought it would be a really valuable opportunity to learn what makes organizations succeed, and how to approach business problems and solve them methodically.
Alex, what brought you to New York?
Alex: I am originally from California and I went to Boston for school, but moved promptly back to the warm weather after I graduated. [Laughs]
What did you study in school?
Alex: Computer science. When I moved back to LA, I joined the team at [dating app] Tinder as a developer. At that time, they were still based in a tiny office building and there were only around 60 people working there. It’s crazy that it’s huge now! I was doing some contracting on the side and started contracting with Viveka when she was developing Beam. So, to answer your question, what brought me to New York was Beam, since I made the leap to work on it full time. I arrived to live on Viveka’s couch for three weeks!
Viveka: The first day Alex moved to New York, she arrived off the red-eye flight and we went straight into meetings all day. Talk about overwhelming!
Alex: I only had two hours of sleep. It worked out, though. We crushed it.
Can we go back a bit to how Beam began?
Viveka: The seed of it began when I was 15 and I started an environmental nonprofit.
Wow, I was doing nothing when I was 15!
Viveka: My goal was to help local schools reduce their carbon footprint. The number one way to get anyone excited about anything in Cleveland is to partner with the Cavaliers. I called a number I found online for the NBA, and they eventually ended up sponsoring us, which led to a surge in local publicity and other corporate partnerships.Within 18 months, we were able to install a million dollars worth of solar panels in local schools.
One thing I took away from the experience was that, like most people, I had no idea that brands I supported were giving so much away to causes I cared about.. I thought that if millennial customers s knew just how committed brands they’ve heard of are to supporting local communities , these customers would opt to support them more often.
I kept thinking about the discrepancy between how much is invested in corporate philanthropy--more than $4B annually in retail--and how little consumers know about it even after I moved to New York.. While at McKinsey, I started working with retail clients that were really struggling to get millennials to come back in the door again. This reminded me of my prior experience in corporate philanthropy;. I knew that major retail brands were investing heavily in giving back, and that young people, like me, care about social issues. I did some digging and found that 91 percent of millennials would actually switch to an alternative brand if that company has a stronger commitment to giving back.
It was something I couldn’t stop thinking about. and luckily McKinsey gave me the business experience I needed to actually turn it into something.
Were your coworkers aware of what you were trying to create?
Viveka: I did have some mentors within McKinsey who were really supportive. During my time there, I was able to develop a business plan and work on recruiting a cofounder.. I also did a four store test with a basic version of the app for six weeks, which proved to be really successful.
Can you explain what Beam is to a newbie?
Viveka: The app makes it easy and free for people to make a difference on an everyday basis. When you visit one of our partner brands—Think Coffee, Inday, Dos Toros, Dig Inn, and more—you automatically get a push notification.. When you open the Beam app, you’re led to a list of 4 support nonprofits. You pick one that you care about, and the brand donates money on your behalf each time you visit. It’s completely free for the user, and a seamless way to make every day more meaningful. We’ve seen that this really resonates with users, who visit our partner brands 15% more often per week in order to grow their impact.
Our goal is twofold. One is to give people a more accessible way to stay engaged and make a difference for things that are important to them. The second goal is to help brands build deeper loyalty with young customers, and drive new customers to visit by more effectively communicating our partner brands’ values.
New York is our launch city, and we’ll be expanding across the US this year. We’ve also received a lot of inbound demand to expand into additional verticals and channels of retail, including ecommerce--we’re excited to take on those new opportunities soon.
Was it difficult to convince such great name partners to initially sign on?
Viveka: It wasn't as hard as it might seem because we were addressing such a pressing need--a lot of brands are struggling to get millennial customers to be loyal, and we offered them a way to leverage a resource they already had (corporate philanthropy) in order to do so. We also provided the product for free in the beginning in order to prove it added value before charging our partner brands
Is Beam registered as a nonprofit, or is it a for-profit company that collaborates with nonprofits?
Viveka: We are a mission-driven, for-profit company--we charge brands for the increases in loyalty we drive among their customers, and for the number of new customers we drive to try them for the first time.
Was the decision to work on Beam full time nerve-wracking?
Viveka: I definitely had moments of anxiety, but Beam was something I knew I had to do because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was talking about it to everyone I knew and met, and I was also getting really good feedback, both from experts in the field and from our market test. I wasn’t jumping in blindly; I had done my research. It was also right before the election and I had noticed the climate had definitely shifted. Millennials, as a generation, are digitally native and innately more socially conscious than any generation before. On top of that, the social climate around the election really deepened the urgency for a tool like Beam, since there was this new level of baseline anxiety about social issues. It felt like the ability to address things or make small changes on an everyday basis became more important.
I needed a good minimal viable product that we could test. Through friends of friends, I was put in touch with Alex.
Alex: I was still working at Tinder in LA. But when my friend told me what Beam was, I was really excited and I started contracting with Viveka.
Viveka: We were like in a long-distance relationship for a few months. [Laughs] But from the start we worked really well together, we had similar ideas about long-term goals and what we could achieve. It made me more excited about it!
Alex, how did you feel about moving to New York for Beam?
Alex: I don't know that it was easy. It's a big move. I asked a lot of people for advice. Since I was already working in tech with a smallish company, I was able to talk to a lot of people who had also worked in the startup space. It was really important that I get their opinions, as so many fail. Everyone I spoke to thought it was a good idea to make the move.
What has been the most challenging thing about starting your own business?
Viveka: I think for both of us, working on a small business can be isolating. You have to be proactive about seeking out advice and mentorship. You have to seek out networks and people who care about what you’re doing.
What's the best piece of advice you could give?
Alex: Write down your schedule and your to-do list. It sounds so simple, but it is so helpful. Moving here and working on a completely different schedule has been a big adjustment. After leaving Tinder, I had this idea that I would move here, wake up myself at a certain time, get all my work done, have social engagements…. But what does that really mean? How do you fit it all in? Planning my life this way has been immensely helpful. I have a couple of different responsibilities with Beam, so I plan out times of day where I’m at my peak to deal with certain tasks. Coding I do earlier in the day, but scouring images for our Instagram is something I will schedule for later in the day, or at night when I’m on the couch at home.
Viveka: I’d say it’s been important for me to identify ways to respond to the emotional rollercoaster that building a company can be. It's like your baby. In the beginning, when we were testing, and things weren’t working 100 percent, it was very hard to learn not to let that completely ruin my day.
I realized that one thing that helps me is keeping running lists of actionable goals, and also including contingency plans if an obstacle gets in the way of a short-term goal..I also realized I should also start documenting things that I'm really positive about. I started making lists of things that went really well each week.
What does New York mean to you both?
Vivekta: The city is a center of talent. I feel so lucky that I can go to a networking event and meet people who are leaders of their field. There are also a diversity of goals here. It's not a homogeneous city, where everyone works in tech. The unifying feature is that people have clearly defined aspirations in all fields.
Alex: New York to me will forever be tied to Beam. It's the place I came to pursue my dreams and to work for what I want.
Learn more about Beam here.