Undergraduate-led startup delivers platform for political change

When then-second-year Alexander Swerdlow launched his company in mid-2017, he was building a conference management platform—making it easier for people who were organizing big events around Chicago. At the same time as Swerdlow was building his platform, millions of people around the country were engaging in large-scale political action events—like the Women’s March and March for Science—and he saw an opportunity to take the tools he was developing and share them with the people working to enact meaningful political change across the country.

That process led to Gather Activism, a digital tool for political activism and engagement that both provides organizers with a platform to manage and recruit activists for their events and shows activists every opportunity to engage in the political process.

“While other industries were flocking to solve problems with technology, we didn’t see that happening with activism,” said Swerdlow, an economics major as well as cofounder and CEO of Gather Activism. “There was this big gap where activists were still standing on street corners and passing out fliers for their events, and handing out paper-based calendars of everything that was coming up, and that seemed ridiculous. If I can order a sandwich on my phone and have it here within 15 minutes, I should absolutely be able to use my phone to find real-life opportunities of how I can engage in the political process.”

The Gather team, made up of undergraduates from UChicago, Northwestern, Boston University, Vanderbilt and the University of Toronto, have been busy since launching their initial platform in September 2017.  

In March of this year, Gather partnered with March for Our Lives Chicago to provide digital tools for the organizers to easily track and communicate with activists who signed up to march or volunteer. More than 150,000 activists participated in the event to call for gun reform legislation and Gather played a pivotal role in ensuring that it ran smoothly.

“It was incredible to be part of that movement,” said Marley Rosario, Gather’s director of operations and a second-year in the College. “Being part of the organizing team for an event of that scale showed us that there was an opportunity with Gather to really make a difference in the political world just by providing very simple pieces of technology.”

Gather has been working with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to expand their startup, going through the College New Venture Challenge in 2017 and making it as a finalist in this year’s John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge. Both the College New Venture Challenge and the Social New Venture Challenge are tracks of the nationally top-ranked university accelerator, the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge. Gather will continue to build out their business through this summer’s Polsky Accelerator, a 10-week intensive summer program for startups to develop their ventures.

“We couldn’t have done even a quarter of what Gather has been able to accomplish without the Polsky Center,” said Swerdlow. “The resources that are available to students here, especially undergraduates, who want to engage in their own entrepreneurial endeavors are second to none.”

Confronting America’s biggest issues

Recently, Gather was joined by Charlie Rollason, a rising third-year political science major at UChicago that had a personal connection to the tragedy in Parkland.

“I’m from South Florida. Marjory Stoneman Douglas is my neighborhood high school. When the shooting happened, I knew I wanted to take action, but I didn’t know how,” said Rollason, who now serves as Gather’s communications director. “I was grieving and knew I wanted action to happen, but I didn’t feel like I could deal with it. When I learned about Gather and how they were involved in organizing the March for Our Lives event here in Chicago, I knew I wanted to get involved in a company like that.”

Following their role in March for Our Lives Chicago, the Gather team began making updates to the platform, with plans to unveil a completely revamped site in mid-to-late summer. But, when the team saw the outpouring of action in response to the Trump administration’s border separation policies, they knew they needed to have their new site available for activists and organizers to take action on this issue immediately.

“When news of these families being separated started spreading, we knew we needed to speed up our development timeline,” said Ryan Kuang, the company’s CTO. “We were scrolling through social media and seeing person after person asking what they could do about this—and we knew exactly what they could do about it and had built this tool to show people what they could do about it, but it was still in our heads. So, we knew we needed to work around the clock to make it available to the world.”

With the updated platform ready to go, Gather partnered with eleven major civic organizations, including groups like the ACLU and Indivisible Chicago, for the Families Belong Together Chicago event. More than 50,000 activists marched on June 30 in Chicago to protest family separation at the border, and the organizers used Gather’s new site to manage the entire event and communicate with attendees—both about the event, and ways to take action in the future.

“There’s an issue with ‘stop and start’ activism,” said Swerdlow. “Everyone will mobilize around a particular movement or event—you will have the whole country interested and organized and sharing the event on Facebook—and then the event takes place, and you lose a lot of those people. And it doesn’t have to be that way. You can continue to engage people. Maybe we aren’t going to march in the magnitude of hundreds of thousands of people in a particular city every weekend, but you can absolutely keep calling your legislators and pushing them on these issues.”