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The Shin Fujiyama Podcast | Social Entrepreneurship | Nonprofit Organizations | International Development Aid | NGOs

Shin Fujiyama is a CNN Hero and the Executive Director of Students Helping Honduras. He lives with 30 former street children in Honduras where he runs a school and international NGO out of a tree house. In each episode Shin will be interviewing a proven social entrepreneur or NGO leader in the nonprofit or international development aid industry-- including several CNN Heroes and bestselling authors. They’re going to deconstruct their journey to explain HOW they built up their organizations. They’ll also tell us about their greatest failures, lessons, regrets, and behind-the-scenes realities. We’ll talk about their tactics, philosophies, principles, tools, and motivations to give you inspiration and actionable advice. 1) Subscribe to this podcast. 2) Turn on automatic downloads. 3) Leave me a review. 4.) Enjoy every new interview for FREE during your commute or workout.
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The Shin Fujiyama Podcast | Social Entrepreneurship | Nonprofit Organizations | International Development Aid | NGOs
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Apr 17, 2017

When Robbie was 12 and his sister Brittany was 13, they heard the story of a soldier returning from Iraq with a near $8,000 phone bill. They couldn’t believe that a man serving his country was unable to call his family for free. So they decided to do something about it. In 2004 with just $21 and some help from their parents, Cell Phones for Soldiers was born.

Today the nonprofit organization provides cost-free communication services and emergency funding to active-duty military members and veterans. They've provided more than 300 million minutes of free talk time and have recycled 15 million cell phones for the cause. Robbie, now age 25, is the recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service and was recently named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 List. 

Donate your used cell phone to Cell Phones for Soldiers here

This episode is sponsored by the Tikker, the death watch that counts down your life (and tells the time). Use the promo code SHIN at the checkout to get a 10% discount on your purchase.

Robbie Bergquist's Reading List

How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Robbie Bergquist Show Notes

Robbie Bergquist and his sister heard about a soldier who had an $8,000 phone bill he racked up while calling home while deployed.

They had two cousins in the armed services and so the issue touched their young hearts

Back in 2004-05, Cell Phones for Soldiers raised money to pay off cell phone bills for soldiers. One bill was $15,000!

Shortly after, Cell Phones for Soldiers began to raise awareness within the armed forces in Afghanistan about the different cell phone towers and the different costs associated with them

When Robbie and Brittany got distracted, their parents encouraged them to keep going

Robbie and Brittany missed a lot of school. They missed out on soccer and cheerleading practices because of all their traveling on behalf of Cell Phones for Soldiers

They were getting a lot of media coverage and attention and were going on speaking tours at age 12 and 13.

By 2006, they had collected tens of thousands of old cell phones and they didn’t know what to do with them

They wanted to send the cell phones overseas to the soldiers but after a media appearance announcing the plan, they were asked to cease and desist by the State Department because insurgents could triangulate the calls

“The Department of State told us to cease and desist our original plan. We were very discouraged.”

Instead, they decided to recycle and sell the cell phones to purchase calling cards that they could send to soldiers

Calling from landlines using calling cards is better for security purposes

Cell Phones for Soldiers has a facility in Alpharetta, Georgia where they collect and refurbish used cell phones

They determine the value of the used phones and resell them

Unusable phones will be scrapped for basic materials and recycled properly to reduce the impact on landfills

An ex-Verizon executive came on board to work for the charity.

Five volunteers work at the facility

“You’re supposed to create a business plan, a roadmap, and benchmarks. But for us, it was a lot of trial and error.”

Robbie’s uncles were in the telecommunications business and came to help, providing the idea to recycle and sell cell phones

“Our meetings took place at the kitchen table.”

“You don’t need a board room or wear suits and ties.”

“My parents were a little naive as to how much traction we were going to get. They did not know we would be in all 50 states, collecting millions of phones.”

Cell Phones for Soldiers has 4,000 dropoff locations

Supporters hold collection drives where they spread awareness

Lake Orion High School in Michigan has a dropoff location and the student body turned in used cell phones and the SGA donated $1 per cell phone collected. They raised a total of $5,000 total!

Most of Robbie Bergquist’s arguments happened with his mother over the direction of the nonprofit organization

During one interview, his sister Brittany answered a question for Robbie and the rest of the interview went poorly. Robbie got upset at his sister and they started arguing in front of other people

“We were your average college students.”

Robbie was a NCAA D1 soccer player so he hired a PR company to support Cell Phones for Soldiers

His parents were full-time teachers

“We realized we couldn’t do everything. We were burning candles at both ends.”

They researched 5-6 different PR companies to pick the best one possible. The company specialized in nonprofit public relations and handling daily donor requests

Aspire Communications from North Carolina was the boutique PR agency that helped

36creative created the website for Cell Phones for Soldiers which has a zip code locator feature for drop off locations

“I worked on Cell Phones for Soldiers in between classes, after classes, before classes. There were a lot of weekends I spent in the library working on the charity. I missed a lot of classes in college because of the work.”

After Robbie Bergquist graduated from college, he started to handle the PR and marketing initiatives himself

Robbie reaches out to military news outlets because he wants to get in front of an audience associated with the military

Cell Phones for Soldiers became a full-time endeavor for Robbie Bergquist after college because he wanted to continue the momentum and the family’s legacy

“I was not as confident as I am today.”

Robbie Bergquist still wants to get into the sports industry one day

Veterans come home with many challenges, especially with assimilating, paying bills, or getting jobs

Cell Phones for Soldiers gives emergency funding or cell phones to those veterans in need

It’s important to make the cause valuable to the supporter

Cell Phones for Soldiers has to compete with AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and other cell phone companies that buy back old cell phones. They also have to compete with online marketplaces like eBay

Robbie Bergquist went into his work with the understanding that he was going to make less financially going into the nonprofit world, compared with investment banking for example

“It was more valuable for me to support the military than have more money in my pocket.”

Sometimes Robbie forgets to tell a story because he’s told the story so many times he gets them all mixed up in his head

It’s important to stay passionate about telling the story. He stays motivated by calling the soldiers that his nonprofit organization benefits

Robbie Bergquist stayed in touch with a sailor who received a calling card from Cell Phones for Soldiers. The sailor called Robbie in the middle of the night. He told Robbie that he had heard about where the phone cards came from watching one of Robbie’s interview on TV. He had to remove himself from the room to go outside onto the deck to cry from gratitude. There were three other guys who were also crying. Robbie was a senior in high school then.

Forbes was quiet about naming Robbie in the 30 Under 30 List until the big announcement

“We don’t do this for the recognition. But when we get it, it brings so much value to our mission.”

Robbie Bergquist is starting an initiative that will give handsets and cell phones to low-income veterans. Cell phones are important for employment and medical reasons

Robbie Bergquist is passionate about self improvement. He stays in touch with the news

He tries to stay physically active at least one hour each day

Robbie says a heartfelt thanks to his family at the end of the interview

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