I first met student entrepreneur Brooks Gabel in 2012 when he began coming to the Dingman Center to get feedback on what seemed like a brazen business idea for such a young man. Brooks was taking a big risk and I wondered how he’d accomplish such a mission and bring it to fruition. I know now–through two long years of customer discovery, pivoting, research, passion and just plain hard work. Now a senior at the University of Maryland (UMD), Brooks is the founder of justlikeyou.org, a non-profit organization providing a free and anonymous social network for people 13 years and older going through the coming out process. Through developing online and mobile technology, coordinating LBGTQ competency/suicide prevention training and connecting users from the network to their local communities, justlikeyou.org is working to eliminate the burden of coming out. I recently sat down with Brooks to talk about the history of his company and his plans for the future.
Danielle Bennings (DB): Tell me how and why you started your company?
Brooks Gabel (BG): The company started after my decision to leave UMD’s Division 1 swim team. It was my personal perception that the college community was not accepting of an openly gay athlete. That was the time when I swore to myself that I would do something to create inclusive environments in our schools, on our teams, and in our communities.
DB: How did you first get involved with the Dingman Center?
BG: I started coming to Innovation Fridays to talk to the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence. The idea started as a question of whether the personal narrative could guide a discourse around the coming out process. The feedback I got was to test it, so I started the Just Brooks blog and began writing about my personal story. Eventually I invited some of my friends to write about their stories. After a month, emails began flooding in from UMD all the way to Australia from people who could relate to my story. It was at this time that I realized my idea could have huge impact on a global scale.
DB: What happened next?
BG: In January 2012, my parents helped me fund the site and we hired a web development company based in Washington D.C. to develop the social network. In the beginning it was just me facing plenty of people that told me no. Since then we’ve developed a custom social network that connects free users with other people going through the coming out process and volunteers who have been through it before. The Just Like You team has gone from being a team of solely myself to a team of 21 people; 16 from the U.S. and five who are international. We all collaborate through Skype and conference calls to deliver on our mission.
DB: Have you made any connections on campus?
BG: We recently brought on a UMD student that you connected me with. He is another entrepreneur working in the Startup Shell who will film a campaign video that addresses our story, the problem we’re solving, the solution we’ve created, the team creating it, and where your donations will go for our Indiegogo campaign.
DB: I know you’re embarking on a crowdfunding effort. Tell me more about your Indiegogo campaign.
BG: Our Indiegogo campaign is a $50K online fundraising campaign to generate awareness about the network and to raise funds to develop technology, coordinate LBGT competence and suicide prevention trainings, and connect users from the network to their local communities. It will launch on February 1, 2013 (my birthday) and will continue until the site launch on April 13, 2014.
DB: That’s great–I’ll check it out. What do you plan to do next?
BG: Unlike my peers, I haven’t gone on a single interview. This will be my job after college. This is what I want to do. I understand that I’m not going into investment banking, but at the same time this is the resource I never had.
DB: What is your ultimate goal for what justlikeyou.org will become?
BG: We see this as being an international operation. We designed it so that the resources aren’t bound by language or location. Everyone’s story is unique so there is a seemingly infinite amount of people who can engage in the discussion and ultimately we would love for people who have come out, for people who have an LGBT sibling or friend or parent, to join the conversation. The social change will happen when we recognize that the story of the ally is just as important as the person who is going through the process.
DB: Brooks, thanks for answering my questions. I hope we’ll continuing seeing you in the spring.
BG: I will continue spending a lot of time here — the Dingman Center bullpen has become my office. I still meet with Dingman Center staff and EIR Harry Geller to field new ideas and update them on my progress.
To connect with Brooks, email him at email@example.com. Connect with justlikeyou.org on Facebook and Twitter. Follow the Dingman Center blog for updates on the justlikeyou.org Indiegogo campaign and to read about other student entrepreneurs.