UNC fencer Jake Bernstein succeeds on the mat and in the business world
He’s a 20-year-old junior from St. Louis in his third year fencing for North Carolina as a walk-on. But he’s also a social entrepreneur who has helped found two startup companies dedicated to community service — one of which he started when he was just 15 years old.
He’s been mentioned for his volunteering by Barack Obama in 2011. He’s a Morehead-Cain scholar. He’s the youngest person Forbes named to its 2012 “Top 30 Under 30” social entrepreneurs list.
He’s accomplished a lot for someone his age.
But who is he?
His fencing coach, Ron Miller, introduces him as one of his best walk-ons and a crucial part of the team.
“(Jake) brings a significant amount of leadership and energy,” Miller said. “Both of those are key points that every team needs.”
In high school, Bernstein was a three-sport athlete, lettering in basketball, cross country and tennis. After enrolling at UNC in 2012, Bernstein realized he would miss the atmosphere of a team.
He had gone to a fencing clinic in high school and watched the sport in the Olympics, so he decided to give it a shot at UNC. Despite having almost no fencing experience, Bernstein made the team as a walk-on in the final year UNC has held open tryouts to date.
Immediately he realized he was in over his head. Fencing is an incredibly nuanced sport, with layers of strategy involving multiple fakes before an attack. The zen-like poise needed to execute without slowing down to think is something many athletes can’t master.
“Most athletes, if they first initially fail, they leave,” Miller said. “They can’t handle the failure.”
But Bernstein could.
His fencing career hasn’t taken off like his career as an entrepreneur, but he attends practice almost every day. The camaraderie of the team has kept him coming back, providing advice and encouragement as he continues to learn.
He’s competed in one meet this year, placing 42nd of 89 in epee at the Temple Open.
“When you’re not very good at something, it’s very easy to get discouraged,” Bernstein said. “What’s been amazing, though, is how much time the older athletes have spent coaching me up.
“Having that support network to bring you back up when you fail is huge.”
Simone Bernstein might introduce him not only as her brother, but as her partner in social entrepreneurship.
Their first venture together was the stereotypical lemonade stand, which raised $125 to buy cards and care packages for deployed soldiers. The military has always had a huge influence on the family. The Bernsteins’ father was in the Navy reserves and was called into service after 9/11.
“It just hit out of nowhere: One day your dad is there and then he’s just gone,” Jake said. “It was just a strange experience as a second grader.”
The experience changed his life forever. His father was stationed at Camp Lejeune for a year, which gave Jake his first experience visiting North Carolina and played a role when the time came to select a college.
Back in St. Louis, the local community poured out their support to the family. Volunteers helped with everything from delivering prepared meals to running daily errands.
“We were overwhelmed by the support,” Simone said.
Deeply impacted by the generosity of the community, the two looked for a way to give back. The lemonade stand was a start, but the most successful part of that venture wasn’t the money raised, but the lesson learned. They weren’t powerless because of their youth.
But they seemed to be the only ones who knew that. When they looked into volunteering with local organizations, they were turned away again and again for being too young.
As a solution, VolunTEEN was born.
The siblings put together a website with a listing of opportunities that kids in their age group were eligible to volunteer for. It drew attention from across the nation as a platform for organizations to tap into the potential of youth volunteerism and for kids to share volunteer opportunities. Even the White House took notice, and the website’s popularity prompted the two to expand nationally in 2012.
“There’s so many awesome kids out there, and there should be more opportunities for them to get involved,” Jake said.
VolunTEEN also allowed young people to specialize their volunteering efforts to fit their specific interests. For instance, kids could volunteer at sports camps for other children on the autism spectrum or walk dogs at the local humane society rather than clustering at the same soup kitchen.
“Volunteering probably helps the community some, but it’s probably just as importantly helping the volunteers realize the scope of the problems in the community,” Jake said.
Thomas Doochin, friend and co-founder of online giving platform CommuniGift, introduces him as, “One hell of a guy.”
Jake didn’t leave his passion for volunteering behind in St. Louis. Less than a year after arriving on campus, he was busy with another startup. Together with Doochin and Taylor Sharp, the three UNC students conceived an idea to help give back during the holidays. By the end of 2013, CommuniGift was born.
CommuniGift works with charities like Angel Tree to provide gifts for poorer families during the holidays. The nonprofits verify families, then submit their wish list to CommuniGift. The company then turns the items on the list into actual products from online stores and lists them in a register for donors to buy and ship directly to the families.
“We wanted to take the convenience of online giving and combine it with the joy of offline giving to create a new way to give back to those in need,” Doochin said.
Doochin provided the initial idea of helping out a family without gifts, but Jake’s technical skill and experience with nonprofits have proven invaluable.
“He’s an incredible thinker, very few things ever slip his radar,” Doochin said. “Before Taylor and I knew much about the eCommerce and nonprofit world, Jake was our go-to guy for any connections in the industry or explanation of a foreign concept.”
The initial test run with the website in 2013 had only 40 families. When the website launches today, it will be serving over 10,000 families.
“You have these three groups of people who are all being helped, and that’s really what drives us to do this every day,” Jake said.
So how does Jake Bernstein introduce himself?
“I’m from St. Louis, Missouri,” he says. “I don’t want to be judged or thought of based off what someone else might perceive as impressive or not.”
He’s accomplished in two decades what many fail to do in seven. But the most impressive thing about him isn’t the things he’s done. It’s why he’s done them.
“Sometimes people look at his talent and his resume and overlook his inherent care for humanity,” Doochin said.
“He really cares about helping people less fortunate than he, and one can see that in all of his actions.”
That’s who Jake Bernstein is. He cares.
Thanks for reading.
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