Gene Gurkoff is a man who wears many hats – CEO, entrepreneur, an accomplished marathoner, husband, dad, friend… the list goes on! In 2011 he founded Charity Miles, an app that truly makes your workouts count by donating to a charity of your choice for every mile you walk, run or bike. We caught up with Gene to learn about how Charity Miles got started, where it's going, what motivates him every day and more.
AfterShokz: What led you to start Charity Miles?
Gene: I started running marathons when I was in law school (way back in 2002) to raise money for Parkinson’s research in honour of my grandfather. I always wanted companies to sponsor me. I figured that if I could get enough people together, then companies might want to sponsor all of us. When iPhones came out, I saw that as an opportunity to get lots of people like me together on one side of the phone so that companies might want to be on the other side-- to sponsor us so that we can all make a difference for our charities.
AfterShokz: Can you talk about the social impact Charity Miles has made?
Gene: Our members have earned over $2.5 million USD for charity. And while I’m proud of that, this is only part of the impact. The most significant impact is what happens when we all walk with a cause in our hearts each day. It changes us from within-- and affects all the big and small decisions we make every day. For example, if I’m walking for Parkinson’s, I’m telling myself every day that I care about health and my family. This mindset carries over to other decisions I make, like what I eat for breakfast, becoming a vegetarian, and how I try to be more mindful at home with my wife and son. I believe that as this happens across hundreds of thousands of our members, the impact will be far more transformational than any amount of money that we raise.
AfterShokz: How has Charity Miles evolved since you launched the app?
Gene: Whoa-- that’s a big question because it’s continually evolving, and we’ve got some exciting developments coming for this year-- including integrations with wearable devices, adding more charities, and adding new, fun ways to earn money for charity.
However, I’d say the biggest thing that has evolved is my “why”-- what drives me. When I started, as I said, I was driven to make an impact for Parkinson’s in honour of my grandfather. And while that is still very much a part of me, I am now driven by the incredible members of our community. They share their stories and photos with me every day, support each other and set the tone for what Charity Miles is all about. I’m honoured to be a part of this community. And I’m fortunate to get to go to work each day to fight for such amazing people.
AfterShokz: How do you choose which charities to add to the app?
Gene: Good question. We currently have a very long waiting list of charities that would like to join us, which is a tremendous honour. We haven’t added any new charities in a long time because while our sponsors are incredibly generous, we don’t have an unlimited amount of money to give away. Therefore, if we are to add more charities to the app, it would decrease the donations we can make to the charities currently on the app.
Nonetheless, I’ve committed myself to change this and figure out how we can add more charities to the app within this framework. We’ve got some exciting things in the pipeline that will enable us to tap into more unlimited sources of money, thereby allowing us to support more charities!
So to then decide what charities we add to the app, the two biggest questions will be: (1) are they doing meaningful work; and (2) can we make a significant impact for them?
AfterShokz: What motivates you to continue running Charity Miles every day?
Gene: As I mentioned above, it’s our community. 8 people have walked or run across the U.S. with Charity Miles. One was an 11-year-old boy who walked 6,920 km from Key West, Florida to the NW tip of Washington State. And I just got an email from another person who is starting to walk across the US with the app.
We have other members who walk their dogs every day with the app, and this means just as much to me as the people walking across the country. I remember when one of our members emailed to tell me that her dog unexpectedly passed away. I cried as if I had lost my dog. For over three years I had seen this dog walking Charity Miles every morning on Twitter. I honestly felt a bond with him, and still, choke up thinking about it.
Our members share very personal stories with me, and they’re using Charity Miles to walk and run for the people they love most. I cannot adequately express how much this means to me. But this is what fires me up every day.
AfterShokz: What charity are you particularly passionate about?
Gene: I do most of my Charity Miles for the Michael J. Fox Foundation in honour of my grandfather, and all the other people in the Parkinson’s community that I've met through the years. I also like to trail run for The Nature Conservancy because I love being in nature and want to preserve that as much as possible for my son, Max.
AfterShokz: When did you first take up running and how many races have you run?
Gene: When I was in law school, I was running a few miles on the river, and met a cute girl who was training for the Chicago Marathon the next month, I lied and said I was too. I got her number, went home and signed up for the Chicago Marathon that night. She had a boyfriend, but we became friends and ran the Chicago Marathon together. I still have the picture of us finishing together.
Little did I know where that road would lead. Since then I’ve run over 50 marathons, including 6 Ironman Triathlons and a few shorter ultramarathons.
AfterShokz: What race is the most memorable?
Gene: Hard to say, I’ve had a lot of memorable races. One is when I guided Justine Galloway in the 2017 NYC Marathon. Justine has a disorder called Runner’s Dystonia that is similar to Parkinson’s in some ways. Justine’s form of Runner’s Dystonia makes it hard for her to run forward, so she taught herself to run backward. During the NYC Marathon, she ran backward, and I ran facing forward to guide her on where to go. We were face to face for 6 hours, and I got to see every emotion on her face for those 42.2 km. Excitement, determination, nervousness, pain, doubt, grit and glory. It was amazing. I also recorded a podcast with her on Staten Island right before the race which was pretty cool too.
AfterShokz: Where do you see Charity Miles in the next 5 years?
Gene: I want to help earn over $100 million for charity. I’ve never written that anywhere else before, so it’s scary to write that here. I guess it’s official now.
AfterShokz: You often feature inspiring people with amazing stories on your podcast and social channels. Which story is your favourite to tell (and tell us!)?
Gene: Again, hard to say. Justine Galloway is very special. As is Noah Barnes, the 11-year-old boy I mentioned earlier who walked from Key West, Florida to the NW tip of Washington State. Another one of our members, Barefoot Jake Brown, ran entirely barefoot across the U.S. with Charity Miles. He’s the first person to cross the U.S. entirely barefoot. I was with him when he started in Huntington Beach, and when he finished on Jacob Riis Park in Queens, NY. He slept at my apartment that night, and the next day he ran the NYC Marathon with me-- again, totally barefoot.
AfterShokz: What has it been like working with AfterShokz?
Gene: Incredible. We are very fortunate to work with several amazing mission-driven brands. AfterShokz has taken that to the next level with a very personal touch.
I remember how it started. I cold emailed Kim Fassetta, AfterShokz CMO, to see if you’d be interested in partnering with us. Within a couple of hours, she and Jayme Schwartz, AfterShokz Communications Director, had personally messengered me a pair of headphones. When I got home that night, I saw that Aftershokz had donated to my birthday fundraiser. I mean, c’mon!
That’s just the kind of company AfterShokz is. You go out of your way to show people that you care about them on a very personal level. You’re always thinking about creative, out-of-the-box ways to show our members that you care. You get involved in our Facebook Group. You’re a real part of our community. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to partner with you. (And I love your headphones!)
For more information or to download the Charity Miles app, click here.