Chicago Booth alum launches startup to train young poll workers

Avi Stopper, MBA’06, co-founds Poll Hero project with college, high school students

Mere weeks away from Election Day, a critical element of voting in the United States remains disrupted by the pandemic: poll workers. Most poll workers are older and more at risk of complications from COVID-19—creating the potential for a shortage of workers on Nov. 3.

That’s a problem that Chicago Booth alum Avi Stopper, MBA’06, wanted to help solve. His non-partisan startup project Poll Hero—launched with college- and high-school-aged co-founders—is mobilizing young people around the country to work as paid poll workers this fall.

“We want to help young people make a major impact on the functioning of their democracy,” Stopper said. “To help make it possible for anyone who wants to vote in person to be able to do so.”

What started in July as a germ of an idea has evolved into a team of more than 100 people coordinating a complex effort across more than 50,000 jurisdictions in the U.S. In just over three months, the project has recruited more than 30,000 young Americans to train as poll workers.

In the final weeks leading of the 2020 election season, Poll Hero staff are making sure these aspiring poll workers can properly register to work, recruiting additional candidates, and developing “day-of” election planning to make sure these mostly rookie poll workers arrive at the appointed time ready to contribute to the democratic process.

The youth-oriented focus of Poll Hero is a natural fit for Stopper, a veteran entrepreneur who co-founded youth sports recruiting platform CaptainU in 2008 with Michael Farb, MBA’09. Their startup won the 2008 Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge, and was acquired in 2016 by Stack Sports, a global sports technology company.

“My experience with CaptainU was an absolutely formative experience in the constant barrage of failed experiments,” Stopper said with a laugh. “I came to embrace an Edison quote as one of my go-to sayings about entrepreneurship, which is: ‘I haven’t failed, I’ve just learned 10,000 ways not to do it.’”

Early in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on one of Stopper’s other startup efforts. At the same time, he recognized the need to help foster widespread civic engagement—especially this year. “I think it’s an all-hands-on-deck election,” he said. “I started looking for ways to get involved.”

“I feel a sense of obligation to my children,” added Stopper, a father of two. “When they ask me 25 years from now: ‘What were you doing in 2020?’ I want to be able to say, ‘I gave it my absolute all to make a difference in your world.’”

So, he began investigating various avenues to make an impact on the coming election. One day, his wife forwarded an email about students from Princeton University, her alma mater, who needed summer opportunities after their internships were cancelled because of the pandemic. “I love working with young people to begin with,” Stopper said. “I thought it would be more fun and interesting to have young people with me on this democracy startup exploration.”

A group of those Princeton students soon joined students from Denver East High School in Colorado—where Stopper lives—to work as a cohort of researchers. After speaking with experts and academics, they recognized the dire need for poll workers, and the seeds of Poll Hero were sown.

“Poll Hero, to me, is bringing together established startup methodologies with the raw enthusiasm, passion, and incredible knowledge of the tech landscape possessed by Gen Z,” Stopper said. “Those two ingredients, plus a passion and enthusiasm for defending democracy that Gen Z possesses, I think, to a really remarkable degree. That’s kind of the magic formula here.”

Stopper is not certain what the post-election future holds for Poll Hero, or for the thousands of young volunteers who have been inspired to join his effort. For now, he is focused on Poll Hero’s mission to help anyone who wants to vote in person be able to do so. 

“I believe deeply in democracy,” Stopper said, “and I think that one of the lessons that I have come to appreciate—perhaps more than any other—is that democracy is not a spectator sport.

“There are a lot of people in the Booth universe who are extremely capable and talented. The more time people spend contributing to their democracy, to our institutions, to upholding the tenets established in the Constitution, the more we can make a difference.”

—A version of this story was first published by the Booth School of Business.