Chris Hughes, all of 26, has been looking for his Act III.
Act I was co-founding Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg, his roommate at Harvard. Act II was taking a leave from the social networking behemoth and joining Barack Obama's presidential campaign, where the fresh-faced Southerner from Hickory, N.C. became part of an A-list new media team. There, he served as the architect of My.BarackObama.com -- or MyBO, the most successful network of volunteers and grassroots army that American presidential campaigning had ever seen.
And Act III? "I knew I wanted to do something at the nexus of what I call global development and technology," Hughes told HuffPost Tech in a phone interview yesterday. "By global development, I'm talking about a broad umbrella -- health care, agriculture, education. I just knew I wanted to do something in that space, and I spent the last year traveling" (in countries such has Kenya and Senegal, which he fell in love with) "and talking to people" (like Jeff Sachs, the prominent economist at Columbia University who's been named one of the "100 Most Influential People In The World" by Time magazine -- twice). Hughes added:" I spent the past year researching, studying, learning everything I could in the space."
Today, he announced the "soft launch" of Jumo -- which, in the African language of Yoruba, translates to "together in concert." Think of the site as philanthropy, volunteerism and social networking all rolled into one. It's a platform that will connect people and organizations around the world, and Hughes is arguably the most well-known tech entrepreneur to enter the still evolving global space. Currently just a few pages, the site will launch fully in the fall, sometime between September and October.
In an e-mail blast early this morning, Hughes wrote:
I just wanted to let you know about my new startup called Jumo. We're announcing today that we're building an online platform to connect individuals and organizations working to change the world.
We believe we can leverage the participatory web to foster long-term engagement with the issues and organizations that are relevant to each individual. Jumo has the potential to unlock a great deal of time, skills, and financial resources previously unavailable to organizations around the world.
When you get a second, take a look.
We'll be launching the site with full capabilities this fall, but I wanted to let you know that we're officially getting underway. If you know anyone who may be interested in working with us, please send them our jobs page to get in contact with us.
Talk to you soon,
Note how the e-mail was signed -- simply, "Chris." Perfectly informal, perfectly Hughes. His former colleagues from the Obama campaign aren't at all surprised by his big move. "After the campaign, all of us wanted to know how we can keep this movement going," Kate Albright-Hanna, who headed the campaign's video team, said in a phone interview. "It makes sense that Chris would figure it out and create something concrete. And new."
As it stands, the non-profit, non-partisan organization has a staff of three -- and that includes Hughes, who says he's looking to hire more people in Jumo's office space in New York's trendy SoHo neighborhood. Hughes has raised $500,000 from foundations and individuals -- with more to come. For months, he kept the creation for Jumo under wraps, telling just a few friends about it, including Zuckerberg. Though he will remain involved with Facebook "at the general level," he said, his primary focus is on the start-up.
And if there's one underlying principle behind the whole new venture, he continued, it's this: one-on-one personal connection on an interest-level basis. Your interest, your time, your money, match with what's needed anywhere in the world. On Jumo, you can find a small African group paying women to distribute condoms in their neighborhoods. Or a group organizing recreational activities in the slums of Mumbai. Or a group like Vittana (voted as a HuffPost Game Changer last year), a micro-financing service for students who can't afford to go college in countries such as Nicaragua and Vietnam.
"Too often, when people think about helping the world, they think of a photo of a hungry, malnourished African kid, send $10 and call it a day," Hughes told me. "That's the old model. There are lot of people across America and in other countries who want to help, and I would argue that the Internet has not caught up with them. So the goal for us is to build a central place where individuals can come in and discover and organization or an issue that's personally relevant to them. And then connect."
In a way, Jumo is akin to Facebook, in that the social networking site does not create content but instead enables users to share their content and then organizes it.
But Jumo, Hughes said, is not like Facebook Causes -- the Facebook application founded in 2007 that allows users to create grassroots groups in support of issues. For Hughes, users must first discover a cause, then develop a relationship with the organization before giving money and/or time. "I think Facebook Causes has blazed the trail, but Causes, in my view, comes at very end of the donor experience."
The idea for Jumo was crystallized in his mind while sitting on the roof of a hostel in Saint-Louis, Senegal last April, right before sunset, watching the various people doing so many things. Getting water. Carrying wood. Tending to the kids. It wasn't exactly a "Eureka moment," he recalled, but it was the moment he understood the scope of what needed to be done. No single group, no single person, no single non-profit is going to do everything. Hughes said: "I've been fortunate, being able to sit on that roof, and we have to make sure that that we can enable people to be on that roof, to be able to find that individual in the midst of that big crowd of people who they connect and support."
He expects that at least "a few hundred organizations" will be listed and organized on Jumo come fall.
"There are some social ventures right now, like Engineers Without Borders and Scientists Without Borders, both modeled after Doctors Without Borders," Sachs, who's traveling in Japan, said in a phone interview. "But given Chris's huge talent in this social networking area, his venture, I think, will be unique. Jumo could be truly linking volunteers and donors with organizations, or it could be that feelers are going to come out of the villages themselves and seek help and partnerships. Technology, as we know, has made the world smaller, and I think we're going to find that lots of new connections will be made."
Added Morley Winograd, a former senior policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore and co-author of the groundbreaking and prescient book "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics": "In a way, this new social networking site is a natural extension of what Hughes did during the campaign: connect people by their interests and make them care about issues, all supported by technology. And I think this also speaks to the fact that Hughes is a member of the Millennial generation that cares a lot about volunteerism. Many members of this generation choose activities with a social purpose in mind."