Young & Entrepreneurial: Social-Impact Startup Soceana Founder Tess Michaels -- Your Not-So-Ordinary 21-Year Old CEO

05/24/2015 05:23 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2016

Young and Entrepreneurial is a series of articles where I've decided to interview and write about young individuals disrupting the world. By sharing the stories of these individuals, I hope to inspire youth from all over the world to follow their passions, to take the road less traveled and to disrupt the status quo. This is the 19th post in the Young and Entrepreneurial Series. To read previous features and to stay up to date with future features, like our Facebook page here.


Tess Michaels is not your ordinary 21-year-old. She is the founder and CEO of Soceana, an online one-stop shop for volunteers that does effective matching for volunteers, measures volunteer engagement and impact, and engages volunteers through a social network type of platform. Tess started Soceana, all while being a student in the University of Pennsylvania, recently graduating with a dual degree in biology and business through Penn's Life Sciences and Management Program and also receiving the Wharton Dean's Award for Innovation.

Tess's passion for social impact started back in high school, where she started the Red Cross Club in her school and volunteered in Science outreach, hospitals and the National Youth Court. This passion for volunteerism and social impact would continue you on when she got to the University of Pennsylvania where she did research for two years at Penn in social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility. Her findings would lead her to start Soceana.

The Soceana team has also created Philas, a patent-pending digital currency that serves as an air miles that allows volunteers to earn points that they can then donate to nonprofit organizations or charities they want to support.

2015-05-24-1432501187-318420-11210403_663065647160189_1244473887870506368_n.jpg Tess at the Wharton Business Plan Competition Venture Finals

Soceana came in third in the recently concluded Wharton Business Plan Competition Finals, and have advisors that include LinkedIn Cofounder Eric Ly, Former Gates Foundation CFO Richard Henriques, among others. While Tess just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania a week ago, she's excited to be spending her summer back in the campus through the Wharton Venture Initiation Program, building Soceana and taking it to the next level.

Corporate-Employee Led Volunteerism

All this started with her realization back when she was doing research that, "Corporations have a big pain point with corporate volunteer and employment engagement programs. At the same time, corporate social responsibility is really becoming a business imperative."

Tess sighted how there are an average of less than 10% in engagement levels on the online portals for volunteerism of these big Fortune 500 companies. Currently, Tess has had multiple conversations and has been working closely with organizations like Volunteer Match and corporations like Cisco and HP.

Through the online platform of Soceana called Pearls, Tess hopes to empower employees by allowing them to lead corporate volunteer initiatives and measure their impact as well. Soceana has an event-organizing platform that will make it easier for employees to organize volunteer events for organizations they care about.

Empowering Youth Volunteers

While Tess started out by targeting corporate volunteers, she realized that corporate and youth volunteers face the same challenges. Upon this realization, Tess decided to start reaching out to youth orgnizations starting with the National Association of Youth Courts (Youth Court), a nonprofit organization that has played a significant role in Tess's life.

2015-05-24-1432501456-9059749-YouthCourtConference_Tennessee_Soceana.png Tess at the Youth Court Conference at Tennessee

She shared, "I was actually a youth court volunteer for all four years of high school, first as a jury member and later as a trained attorney and I absolutely loved it. As a high school student, it's very hard to find volunteer opportunities that are both meaningful and also teach you transferable skills and that's exactly what youth court did."

A pain point that she found in organizations like the Youth Court was that while there was a lot of good being created, none of it was being recorded (or in some cases, it was only being recorded with pen and paper) so it was very hard to measure the impact that was being made in the community. She explained, "There were a lot of strategic choices that they could make in terms of improving quantity and quality of volunteers as well as analyzing metrics of the volunteering trends over time."

After a recent visit to Tennessee to present to Youth Court program directors from over 20 states, Tess was able to secure a national partnership, and Socenea will start off with a pilot in 4 states, including Tennessee, Florida, California and South Dakota.

Building Communities of Social Good

Tess hopes to build more communities that are rooted in a culture of social good. She shared, "Private public partnerships are how we can strive. We look for youth organizations that have a strong impact in what they're doing. We aim for both large and small corporations, who have large amounts of volunteers. We believe are system is the best way to empower these volunteers."

Tess is especially excited about Philas, the social currency that they have a pending patent for. Tess believes that Philas can become the game changer when it comes to creating a multiplier effect for social good. They recently partnered with a larger firm that handles the air miles programs of some of the largest airlines around the world. This larger firm will be handling the backend for Philas.

Tess shared, "We're finalizing our Philas partnership with this large firm in India. It allows us to be an agile lean startup but also having the scalability of these bigger firms."

2015-05-24-1432501574-4998486-11209513_430049533843489_7153736171134225923_n.jpg Tess pitching at the Wharton Business Plan Competition Venture Finals

The Entrepreneurship Journey

The entrepreneurship journey has been a crazy one for Tess. Back in the early stages of Soceana, Tess recalls going to Philly tech breakfast meetups hoping to get as much support and feedback as she could. Through these meetups, she would also meet and convince Tech Evangelist Pete Menninger to jump on board as the CTO of the company and help develop Soceana's platform.

Tess is also especially grateful of Penn and its Wharton School of Business for all the opportunities and support she has gotten. She shared, "Being a student, I've really found ways to integrate Soceana to my own classes and interests at Penn. I've taken classes in entrepreneurship social innovation and I've done research to understand the pain points of our customers. Being in an academic and entrepreneurial setting has been very helpful."

Tess has also enjoyed the steep learning curve of starting a startup and the opportunities it has given her. She said, "I probably put in at least 40+ hours a week. It's a full time job but it doesn't feel like one because it's something I love. I've gotten to travel quite a bit and speak in several conferences."

Moving forward, Tess has built a strong team that will help take Soceana to the next level, including current Wharton Executive MBA Student Greg Hagin who is a partner at CCS consulting firm and sits in the board of multiple nonprofit organizations, and an app developer, who is working on the mobile applications for the Soceana platform.

2015-05-24-1432501814-5915467-1957730_10152916410478547_8177386910393276872_o.jpg Tess with her senior capstone project team and Dr. Roy Vagelos

Lessons and Pieces of Advice

Tess emphasized the importance of exploring in college but at the same time finding your niche. She shared, "A lot of times in college, you go down the very tried and tested road and paths, but just don't walk through the motions of college. Don't wait for opportunities to come knocking at your door, open the door, run out, grab the opportunity and drag it in."

She added, "The entrepreneurial experience and the college journey is exactly equivalent to what you put in, you get out of it so I've really taken that to heart."

In terms of opportunities, Tess emphasized, "Really look at the breadth of opportunities then look at the depth within some niche where you can add very tangible value and really differentiate yourself through that process."

Finally, Tess stressed the importance of taking advantage of being a student and being young. She shared, "At the end of the day, I think as a student, one great thing is that there are no close doors for you in terms of the people wiling to talk and meet with you and so never look at being young as a limiting factor."

She added, "Rather it just means you might have an even greater spark and a different perspective than a lot of the already existing players in whatever space you're trying to enter so take that as a big advantage and go full force on whatever you're trying to do and surround yourself with mentors. That's a formula that guarantees you success no matter what barriers stand in your way."

You can learn more about Soceana by visiting their website here and their Facebook page here.

Check out this video of Tess pitching at the 1776 Challenge Cup

---About the Author---

David Ongchoco is a student entrepreneur and avid storyteller from the Philippines studying at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in what he likes to call, LIFE. He is currently working on expanding his nonprofit organization YouthHack. It's David's goal to make an impact in the lives of as many people possible while constantly learning new things every single day. David can be reached at