When the novel coronavirus began to threaten the survival of small businesses nationwide in March, Jake Fagan had a realization: Struggling businesses needed help, and he was in a position to offer it.
Fagan, who graduated from the University of Maryland with an economics degree in 2017, along with a team of three other university alumni created TogetherCard – a gift card search engine that helps users purchase gift cards from small businesses.
“The root of it was just trying to help people,” Fagan said.
Since going live late March, the company has onboarded over 50,000 local businesses in over 5,400 cities across the United States.
For Jorge Richardson, who graduated from this university’s business school in 2018, the drive to support businesses started with a local bakery in Bethesda. The shop, which he had frequented for years, had to close its doors because of the pandemic.
And the bakery’s story is not unique. The economic effects of the pandemic are taking a toll on hundreds of businesses – and their owners – each day, Richardson said.
“They’re putting out fires,” Richardson said. “COVID kind of comes out of left field and really, really takes a toll on most of the businesses in the country.”
[Read more: T-shirts, face masks and fanny packs: How a UMD alumna’s business is fighting the pandemic]
The group decided to focus on gift cards after they noticed that while more people were buying gift cards to support businesses, there wasn’t a centralized website where they could purchase them for multiple businesses, Richardson said.
With TogetherCard, the process of picking the right gift card is easier, Richardson said. Shoppers can enter their ZIP code and the site will automatically find stores and restaurants near them.
“It’s all kind of an altruistic project and let’s just see if we can raise some money and help,” Richardson said.
In the first week of May – Teacher Appreciation Week – the alumni found a new avenue to help those struggling from the pandemic. After talking with teachers, many of whom expressed concern for students experiencing food insecurity during this time, the group decided to broaden its reach.
“We were thinking of sending a gift card to a teacher, but instead, they asked us to do this,” said Michael Wittner, one of the founders. “They usually get free food from school. But with school being closed, they have to deal with [not having food] the entire week rather than just the weekend.”
[Read more: A distillery powered by UMD alumni has pivoted to producing hand sanitizer]
To help these students, the group started a GoFundMe page for End 68 Hours of Hunger, an organization that provides weekend meals for students dealing with food insecurity. So far, the page has raised $370.
These types of “micro-fundraisers,” Fagan said, allow the group to focus their efforts on a particular cause at a time. For example, they started a fundraiser for a sandwich shop donating food to essential workers such as firefighters and police officers.
Although the group doesn’t know exactly what the future will hold for TogetherCard, it will continue to operate for as long as the service is needed, co-founder Marcellus Davenport said. They hope to expand their collaborations with small businesses and provide for those who are most affected by the pandemic.
“Right now, our real focus is just how can we keep doing innovative things to get us past this initial wave of COVID,” Fagan said. “We’re all innovative guys with entrepreneurial tendencies, and it’s a fun project to work on.”