Driven to serve
With an enthusiastic spirit, Tyson Glover ’17 uses his entrepreneurial shrewdness to help those who help others.
By Alexa Milan Boschini ’10
For Tyson Glover, there is no “can’t.” He never learned how to swim, but that didn’t stop him from joining the club swim team in his first year at Elon.
He hovered tentatively by the pool, surrounded by expert swimmers. When it was his turn for a time trial, he dove headfirst—and belly-flopped spectacularly. He floundered to the deep end, his muscles cramped and he slowly sank. A lifeguard dove in and pulled him to the surface. Without changing out of his swim trunks, Glover ran through the frigid February air back to the refuge of his dorm room. But to the team’s surprise, he returned to practice the next day. Armed with floaties, Glover began to swim, and even earned a tongue-in-cheek award for “best anchor on the team.”
This can-do attitude has guided much of Glover’s journey at Elon. He is not afraid to “fail forward.” In his experience, it’s better to try, fail, learn and adapt than to avoid pursuing new opportunities, even those that present the greatest obstacles. He speculates that he’s set a record for the most failed auditions for Elon’s Finest, the university’s hip-hop dance team. And when an epiphany hit him, almost literally, after he narrowly avoided a student driver’s car while sprinting to class last fall, he reshaped years of work toward his nonprofit startup, We Can, so a good idea could become a great one. “I know pretty well from being in entrepreneurship and being involved with We Can, you experience failure every single day,” says Glover, a senior strategic communications major with minors in entrepreneurship and leadership studies. “We don’t talk about it. It’s always seen as negative, but the only true failure is when you don’t learn from it.”
Glover grew up in Kensington, Maryland, in a house with a big dining room table made for working through big ideas. His parents, Bill and Cinda, started their own graphic design firm when he was a child, and they always encouraged him and his older brother to brainstorm. “Growing up in a household of entrepreneurs, my dad always pushed me into creative thinking,” Glover says. “I grew up in a really cool situation of sometimes being woken up at 2 a.m. when they were looking at two different logos and asked which one I liked more, and I would have to tell them why. I thought that was a normal childhood. I’ve learned since that it’s bizarre in the best way possible.”
Glover first realized the power of combining creative thinking and philanthropy in high school when his senior class raised $80,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “Even in second and third grade, he always seemed to stick up for people who couldn’t stick up for themselves,” his father, Bill, says. His passion for humanitarianism followed him to Elon, where he kicked off his college career with the Gap Experience program. Glover spent his first semester embedded in service and leadership, from the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming to hands-on service in South Dakota, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., to six weeks of study in Costa Rica.
It was an experience in Washington, D.C., that sparked Glover’s idea for We Can. He was volunteering at Miriam’s Kitchen, an organization dedicated to ending homelessness, when a homeless man requested a small winter jacket. Glover’s heart sank when he realized the organization, which relies on donations, was out of coats. When Glover broke the news, he learned the jacket was meant for the man’s 9-year-old son. After he watched them leave that late October afternoon, Glover couldn’t get the boy out of his head. He volunteered at another poverty-focused organization the next day and asked if they had winter jackets. They had a closet full of them. “All of these people are working for the same cause, and they’d never heard of each other,” Glover says. “There was no communication. This was happening in St. Louis, Kentucky and D.C. I was just at a loss for words.”
Glover wondered how nonprofits in the same region could communicate better. What if they could share resources, charity to charity?
When he arrived on campus in the spring, Glover immersed himself in all things Elon. He was accepted into the Leadership Fellows program, and later joined the Fire of the Carolinas drumline, Live Oak Communications, Phoenix Phanatics, Elon Volunteers! and the Office of Admissions as a tour guide. But the desire to help nonprofits lingered in his mind. He decided to pursue the idea for his Leadership Fellows project, which would ultimately morph into We Can—Charity Assistance Network. We Can’s mission was to maximize communication among nonprofits and volunteers via an online platform. If one group needed jackets, for example, We Can would help them find another organization with a surplus.
By sophomore year, Glover had assembled a team of students and found faculty mentors. They won grants, developed a website and conducted interviews with Alamance County nonprofits. “We met every Monday,” Glover says. “It wasn’t for class credit or anything. It was just people believing in this idea. The passion you put into it is more than a grade or a check box on your transcript.”
But as the project evolved, Glover’s mentors questioned the logistics of how this broad concept would operate. His run-in with a student driver on the way to class triggered some creative problem solving. “People who are learning how to drive are always on the road, and a lot of times don’t have a specific destination,” Glover says. Driving instructors, he theorized, could direct students to a location where they would pick up donated goods and drive them to a nonprofit that needed them, such as delivering excess food from a grocery store to a food bank.
Glover initially continued work on We Can while developing his new startup, Food Drivers, as his entrepreneurship capstone project. But assistant professor Sean McMahon, the Doherty Emerging Professor of Entrepreneurship in the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business, convinced him to merge the two ideas. “I try to get students to realize they are the best idea,” McMahon says. “They don’t have to stay married to one thing when it could lead to a better thing. When he realized that, it was a real evolution.”
After years of hard work, it was difficult to pivot away from We Can. But Glover agreed the new direction was a more effective way to solve his original problem of connecting nonprofits to the goods and services they need, while removing the roadblocks the We Can team faced with its online platform. “My knee-jerk reaction was I had worked on this project for two years—I wasn’t going to just end it,” Glover says. “But I came to the conclusion that was actually the best route. That was the most feasible thing to do if I wanted to get something done, if I really wanted to help people.”
Food Drivers’ momentum accelerated quickly. The organization won best in category and second place overall at Elon’s Innovation Challenge pitch competition. A Williams High School driving instructor agreed to a test drive. A website is in the works. And Glover hopes to pitch the concept to the North Carolina Driving School and ultimately replicate Food Drivers across the state. The Food Drivers team also completed a test drive with the Salvation Army during winter break, retrieving holiday stockings from drop-off points at local restaurants. Elon junior and the Salvation Army’s Leader in Collaborative Service Student Coordinator Annie Segal says the two organizations are discussing ways to partner further. “One of our biggest issues is we don’t have enough volunteers to pick up all of the donated food, bring it back to the Salvation Army and unload it,” she says. “The idea of having a consistent group of students to help us with these pickups was appealing to us. It’s a huge need in the food pantry world to have those extra hands.”
Glover’s post-graduation options are as varied as his Elon experiences. He is considering pursuing his MBA at Elon, or perhaps applying for a job at a nonprofit or design thinking firm. He’s confident the rest of the Food Drivers team can grow the organization in the coming years. Beyond that, Glover hopes to keep the initiative alive in Alamance County through Elon Volunteers! And if he does leave the area, he hopes to expand Food Drivers wherever he goes. “If you’re going to work on something, just go all in,” Glover says. “You’ll be really proud of what you create. Even if it fails, you’ll be really proud that you gave it your all.
“If I had to take something from Elon and bring it into my next chapter in life, I want to take that can-do mentality. I don’t think the world needs another person talking about how many problems we have. I think the world needs people who are going to go out there and do something about it.”
To learn more about Food Drivers, visit www.fooddrivers.org.