Michael Cesar, 25
Title: Chief executive
Business: Online philanthropy platform
Employees: 19 full- and part-time volunteers
What led you to start this business?
Standing in a refugee camp for the first time in Lesvos, Greece, as part of a class from USC, the Duet team realized there was an incredible mismatch between what was provided and what was actually needed. In the donated shipments, there were children’s books in Arabic while most of the children spoke Farsi. There were too many children’s toys, not enough men’s underwear. And the aid distribution warehouses were full of things that were neither useful in the camp nor culturally appropriate, like crates of bath salts. The generosity and motivation were there, but it was not funneled efficiently.
How did you fund it, and how are you funding it going forward?
We were originally funded through a course at USC, and we have since had contributions from private donors. Our operating budget for the first year is about $15,000. We will begin fundraising in earnest as soon as we complete our 501(c)(3) tax status. Although we are a nonprofit, we are also revenue driven. As we hit scale, our model allows us to be self-sustaining and not rely on donations for operational support.
Are there advantages or disadvantages to starting a business in your 20s?
Well, I hope I will know a lot more when I am older. So I guess a disadvantage is that I am having to learn as I go. But I do have a fresh perspective, which has led to me seeing things slightly differently. We are also using technology in an industry in which it is underutilized, so being young is an advantage there.
How has the pandemic impacted your business and how are you responding?
It has really tested our belief that Duet is a new model for philanthropy, not just a solution for refugees in Greece. Our plans for L.A. had been underway for some time, but the urgency of Covid-19 drove us to begin providing immediate solutions for our community. In a slightly modified version of Duet, made possible by our scalable and proven technology, neighbors help neighbors by funding hot meals, sourced from the local L.A. restaurants that are struggling to survive in the pandemic. (In May) we launched our expansion and, in the first few days, had over 100 meals donated to young, housing-insecure single parents who have recently lost their jobs.
Where do you go for advice regarding your business?
From our inception in USC Engineering, to our cultivation in USC Marshall, we have had wonderful support. We are also blessed with advisers outside of the USC network. A quick call to my family never hurts either.
Where do you go for professional services (legal help, accounting, etc.)?
Legal help and accounting are both areas in which we still need more support. We would welcome partnering with companies who are looking to donate their services.
Do you feel that your business is particularly tailored to the Los Angeles market?
L.A. is the perfect concoction of international, techy, think-different and philanthropic. We also would not exist without that original opportunity to go to the refugee camps that USC afforded us, along with access to the Trojan family. L.A. has been a great location to launch, even though we are a global idea.
What do you do for fun?
I play rugby. I knit. And I sing (badly).
Keep reading the 2020 edition of the 20 in Their 20s special report.