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9-Year-Old's $20,000 Kickstarter Campaign Draws Scam Accusations

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A 9-year-old's Kickstarter campaign started a controversy after information surfaced about the girl's mother and her background as an entrepreneur.
A 9-year-old's Kickstarter campaign started a controversy after information surfaced about the girl's mother and her background as an entrepreneur.

Susan Wilson describes launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $829 with her 9-year-old daughter Mackenzie as akin to a weekend crafts project.

The girl's teenage brothers were making fun of Mackenzie's goal of creating her own video game at a STEM camp and doubting her abilities, Wilson says. Mom and daughter sought to teach them a lesson by raising money for the camp on the popular crowdfunding site.

But a few days, more than $20,000 raised on the site, accusations of a scam and several death threats later, things have turned out quite differently.

"Did I expect this? No. This was an $800 campaign that started to resonate," Wilson told The Huffington Post. "There was no grand plan. There was no grand scheme."

With its timely message about empowering young girls to participate in the long male-dominated STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, Mackenzie's video quickly gained momentum with Kickstarter backers: the $20,000 was raised within four days.

The media liked the feel-good story too, with Mashable, CNET and multiple other news outlets featuring the girl's campaign.

But things went awry for Wilson when a member of Reddit learned that not only had she gone to Harvard Business School, she had also previously been named one of Fortune magazine's most powerful women entrepreneurs.

As the Daily Dot reported, the user Bro-jangles posted a damning infographic on Wilson, noting that she'd co-founded a company that was acquired by Kinko's for $100 million. The graphic also accused Wilson of being a cybersquatter and listed the ways in which she had allegedly violated Kickstarter's terms.

Wilson's promotional tactics of tweeting at celebrities like Lady Gaga and Ellen Degeneres about the project didn't go over well either -- Kickstarter bars spamming people through Twitter -- and some users started to feel they'd been had.

The situation has since raised complicated questions about the nature of crowdfunding and just who it is meant to benefit. Mackenzie's campaign page itself has been flooded with negative comments and heated back-and-forth's about the merits of her project, or lack there of.

For some, the problem lies in that the project appears to violate Kickstarter's own guidelines, which specify that campaigns cannot be for charity, or ventures of the "fund my life" nature, such as vacations or tuition.

"[I]t's all of our jobs to be on the lookout for shady Kickstarters and personally I don't want to see it devolve into a make a wish foundation for already privileged kids to learn how to sidestep rules of a website to profit," wrote user Corey Brin in the comments section on Mackenzie's page.

The Huffington Post reached out to Kickstarter to find out whether the project was in violation of the site's terms of use. Justin Kazmark in the communications department responded with the following email:

"Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative projects. The goal of this project is to create a video game, which backers are offered for a $10 pledge. On Kickstarter backers ultimately decide the validity and worthiness of a project by whether they decide to fund it."

But others clearly disagree, with some commenters on the campaign page arguing that funding a camp is the same as funding schooling. Others are simply outraged at who Wilson is, and that she never needed the money.

"It just has to be said over and over so any new backer that reads about the project knows that they are not helping the needy or some ones [sic] dream take flight they are helping a person that could purchase a small video games company and let her duaghter [sic] run the thing into the ground or to sucess a few times over," wrote one commenter named Russell.

Another user of the site countered by arguing that people of privilege raise money on Kickstarter all the time.

Wilson agrees with that sentiment. She noted that crowdfunding doesn't by definition exclude the wealthy and pointed to the success of the campaign to fund a Veronica Mars movie by the creator of the series.

"I don't think it's a need-based system," Wilson told Huff Post.

While she acknowledges that, yes, she can afford to send her child to camp without the aid of Kickstarter, she also says that the point of the project was never to raise $20,000. It was to work through a situation at home with the hope that it could serve as an inspiration to her daughter.

"I want to make it clear, I'm not a millionaire," Wilson told Huff Post. "I'm an entrepreneur and like most entrepreneurs, I put my own money into my ventures. I'm not rolling in dough ... Can I afford to send my daughter to an $800 camp? Yes, but this was started because my daughter was fighting with her brothers."

As to whether any aspect of the project was a scam, Wilson argued it was clear from the materials on the page that the money raised would fund Mackenzie going to a STEM camp to learn to make and eventually produce the game.

"They say I'm scamming and manipulating. This is a campaign for $800. The crowd spoke up and I got attacked because $20,000 got raised. That wasn’t me, I didn’t do that. The crowd did," Wilson said.

Upon the project gaining so much success, Wilson emailed Kickstarter stating that she did not want to break any of the site's rules, and she mentioned the negative feedback.

Kickstarter responded and said that Mackenzie continues to have their full support. (Wilson provided a copy of those messages to The Huffington Post).

Now, Wilson says she's trying to figure out what should become of all that money. She is considering taking a vote on where backers would like to see the rest of the funds go. She's also communicating with women who work in tech to figure out where the money could be of the most use to young girls who are passionate about video games.

Either way, she's adamant that it won't be lining her own pockets.

"I don’t want to keep any of the money," Wilson said. "When I say I've gotten death threats, it's crazy. I just don’t understand. Honestly, all the money is going away."

Earlier on HuffPost:

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