ASU alumni turn passion for helping people into thriving nonprofits


Mary Beth Faller

Arizona State University graduates have started dozens of nonprofit organizations that help thousands of people in Arizona and around the world, including Native Americans, veterans, children with disabilities, foster kids, immigrants and people in developing countries.

Here, ASU Now profiles seven of those alumni, who for years poured enormous amounts of work, mostly unpaid, into their passion projects. In the future, we’ll feature more.

All of the founders interviewed here still do at least some work on the side besides running their nonprofits, and most work full-time jobs.

“Nonprofits are started by rich people or famous people because you have to have money or personal capital, and I didn’t have either of those,” said Julie Duty, who founded United Sound, which teaches middle and high school students with special needs to play an instrument through peer mentorship.

“That means you get to work for free for three years, 80 hours a week. You have to make up what you don’t have.”

Jessica Stago, a co-founder of Change Labs, an entrepreneurship incubator for Native American businesses, worked as a restaurant manager and consultant during the early years while she was launching the organization.

“We would get $20,000 here or $10,000 there and try to do something for the entrepreneurs, and then we would have nothing for a few months. That went on for a few years,” she said.

They learned from mistakes.

“Once, we brought a marketing professional out to the rez and three people showed up," Stago said. “The trainer was talking about websites that can do all this stuff and how social media was becoming a thing. And we realized, 'We don’t even have good access to the internet here.'

“That was the last time we brought anyone from off the rez to do training.”

Sometimes there’s heartbreak. Pauline Nalumansi, founder of the Pauline Foundation, which helps exploited women and children in Uganda, was ghosted by a donor.

“I shared my desire to sponsor girls in medical school and she said she would pay for 10 girls,” said Nalumansi, who recruited the young women and made sure they passed the entrance exams.

“Then she disappeared,” she said.

But after years of unpaid work and figuring it out, things get easier.

“I can see from the other side that at the five-year mark, everything changes,” Duty said.

“It’s really fun the first two-and-half years. The second two-and-half years is when you want to quit. You’ve run out of excitement and you’re still not making money.

“After five years, you start to understand what you didn’t know. You stop looking for help from the wrong places. You get some credibility and some name recognition.”

ASU educates nonprofit leaders: Nonprofit management and leadership, BS | Master of Nonprofit Leadership and ManagementCertified Nonprofit Professional credential

Meet seven alumni who stuck out those early challenges and have turned their dream of helping others into a reality:

33 Buckets

The alumni founders: Mark Huerta earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering in 2013 and 2015 respectively, and a PhD in engineering education in 2019; Swaroon Sridhar earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical/medical engineering in 2017; Paul Strong earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering in 2013 and 2014 respectively, and an MBA in 2018.

Co-founders Mark Huerta (back row, light blue shirt) and Paul Strong (next to Huerta) were in Peru last year to supply water-cleaning systems through their nonprofit, 33 Buckets.

What 33 Buckets does: The nonprofit partners with small, rural communities to engineer a customized plan for access to clean water. After water testing, each village receives a filter and disinfection system, plus training in how to install, operate and repair the system and record water quality. This year, 33 Buckets installed hand-washing stations in response to the pandemic.

The story: The nonprofit started as an EPICS project with a group of engineering students. The founder of a girls’ school in Bangladesh asked the EPICS program to create a way to provide clean water to the school. In 2012, the students traveled to Bangladesh to research the problem. The water-cleaning technology existed, but a lack of capital and problems at the local level prevented widespread implementation.

The students continued to work on the problem, and in 2014, they returned to complete the project.

“It was such an incredibly transformative experience that we wanted to continue the work,” Huerta said, and 33 Buckets was incorporated in 2015. That first project involved filtering out arsenic, which has the atomic number 33, and the model was created using buckets – thus, 33 Buckets.

“We developed a fair bit of knowledge and technical acumen in running the first project in Bangladesh, but we didn’t have other projects to apply it to. That was assigned to me,” Sridhar said.

They needed partners. Sridhar met two other nonprofit leaders at a social entrepreneurship conference who connected the team to communities in Peru and the Dominican Republic, where 33 Buckets completed its second and third projects.

As they continued to build the organization, the team joined Venture Devils at ASU, pitching 33 Buckets in entrepreneurship competitions. The group won $17,500 in the Pakis Social Entrepreneurship Challenge in 2016.

Then came a turning point. In December 2016, the ASU Foundation flew Huerta to Peru to film a 60-second commercial that featured the story of 33 Buckets. The ad showed him working with villagers and describing the mission and how his time at ASU had inspired him to help others.

“I don’t think any of us knew how big of a deal it would be until after the shooting,” Huerta said.

The commercial started running in movie theaters, and in January, it aired during the 2017 Super Bowl.

“The response was huge,” Huerta said. “We got a ton of credibility.

“But internally, nothing changed within the team. None of us were getting paid at the time,” Huerta said.

In 2017, Strong became the first employee of 33 Buckets, getting paid part-time, and the next year, he became the full-time executive director while he was pursuing his MBA at ASU. He worked on scaling the mission.

“Generally in the summer between the first and second year, MBA students do an internship. A lot of people go to Fortune 500 companies or Wall Street,” Strong said. “Instead, I flew to Peru and spent time building partnerships and surveying communities.

“I credit ASU a lot with giving MBA students the flexibility to pursue what we entered the MBA program for.”

Now 33 Buckets has 12 employees, three interns and a board of directors, and has completed 10 projects, serving 7,100 people.

Over the years, the team has improved the technology.

“We started at a small school-based filtration project and now we’re working with communities as a whole and leveraging infrastructure they have in place,” Huerta said. “Those projects are more complex and potentially risky.

“We started to ramp up our research and development and looking at creating automated smart disinfection systems.”

But it’s more than technology. The group also provides education to the communities it works with – a vital component during the pandemic. Earlier this year, after the pandemic shut down international travel, 33 Buckets worked with partners in Peru to construct public hand-washing stations with running water, soap and infographics showing effective handwashing techniques in villages in Peru. Families were encouraged to attend a seminar on preventing COVID-19, and received hand sanitizer, face coverings and information in their language.

It’s been successful: None of the communities that 33 Buckets has worked in have had any COVID-19 cases.

All three co-founders have full-time jobs besides being on the board of directors of the nonprofit. Strong stepped back from the executive director position and now works as associate product manager in the Office of Digital Learning in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU. Sridhar is a data science manager at Amazon, working on artificial intelligence solutions. Huerta, chairman of 33 Buckets, also teaches in the Fulton Schools of Engineering and co-directs the EPICS program, where students are working on improving water-cleaning technology.

“They’re working on developing sensors to continuously measure chlorine levels in water and create a feedback loop to put in the right amount of chlorine,” Huerta said.

“It’s come full circle.”

Aliento AZ

The alumna founder: Reyna Montoya earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and government, with a minor in dance, in 2012.

What Aliento AZ does: The organization provides support and resources to immigrants, including young people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, who are offered help with applications and connected to scholarships. Aliento AZ also provides art workshops to promote healing from trauma.

Reyna Montoya

Reyna Montoya founded Aliento AZ as a way to support immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, like herself.

The story: Montoya came to Arizona from Mexico as a child and grew up in Gilbert as an undocumented immigrant.

“Growing up undocumented meant that I had to face a lot of barriers in terms of education,” she said. For example, she couldn’t take honors math in eighth grade because of her required four-hour English-language-learning block. When she was ready to graduate from high school, she wasn’t able to apply for financial aid or scholarships.

"I did everything my teachers told me – I had a good GPA and volunteer service. But it was still the feeling of not being good enough,” she said.

Thanks to a private scholarship, she was able to attend ASU.

“I never would have been able to do it without the fortitude and tenacity of my parents, who were my biggest cheerleaders,” she said. “They didn’t graduate from high school themselves, but they really wanted me to go to college.”

At ASU, Montoya met other undocumented students like herself. She began to get involved in the immigrant rights movement during her sophomore year, in 2010, when Arizona passed a controversial anti-immigration bill.

“It was a wake-up call that I was not the only one going through these hardships and obstacles,” she said.

She was very involved in community organizations, and after graduating in 2012, worked for national and local nonprofits.

Later that year, her father was detained while awaiting deportation proceedings, a deeply traumatic time for her.

“I felt abandoned. People would sign a petition or make a call but nobody asked me, ‘How are you doing as a daughter when you don’t know what will happen with your dad?’”

“I was 23 and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be already jaded and mad at the world.'"

She joined Teach for America and taught in a school that had mostly Latino students.

“Very suddenly, I became the ‘immigrant teacher.’ Any questions about immigration, it’s ‘Go to Miss Montoya,’" she said. She connected students to attorneys and told them about scholarships.

She enjoyed found the work, but wondered what happened to students who didn’t have access to someone with her knowledge. So, working with Teach for America, she developed programming to train educators to provide support to immigrant students.

Montoya’s father was released after nine months, but the trauma lingered. She wanted to help others heal, and to support and develop leadership skills in the next generation.

“I thought, ‘I can continue to impact one student at a time or one teacher at a time, but what happens to the rest?’" she said. “So I took a took a leap of faith and decided to found Aliento AZ.”

Aliento not only works with undocumented immigrants but also allies, offering training in how to organize and create change.

“I wanted a place where a student could feel supported and we invest in them not only as an activist but as a whole person,” she said.

Montoya is excited about Aliento’s recent get-out-the-vote initiative, which made thousands of phone calls.

“Last election, only 42% of people ages 18 to 35 ended up voting,” said Montoya, who is CEO of Aliento and also works as a consultant. “It’s been empowering to see so many young people in this — many of whom are citizens but are too young to vote, and many DACA or undocumented people who don’t have the right to vote at this moment.”

Aliento’s arts and healing workshops are especially close to Montoya’s heart. After graduating, she danced professionally while continuing her advocacy work.

“Dance was my escape and the only place that allowed me to process and heal and start making sense of what it meant to miss my dad,” she said.

Aliento, which translates to “breath,” now has seven employees, eight contractors and paid fellowships for eight students.

“If you give ‘aliento’ to someone, it’s encouragement,” Montoya said.

Change Labs

The founding alumna: Jessica Stago earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 2001.

What Change Labs does: This nonprofit supports and advocates for entrepreneurs and small business owners on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Change Labs provides funding, coaching, technical support, help with branding and co-working spaces. A new project, Rez Rising, is a digital directory of more than 600 Native-owned businesses.

Jessica Stago, a co-founder of Change Labs, works with businesspeople on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, who often don't think of themselves as entrepreneurs.

The story: After graduating from ASU, Stago worked in the area of small business development, including with the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development Mesa.

Then she moved back to her hometown of Winslow and decided to start a medical-supply business with her mother, focusing on the Navajo Nation, while also working in small business development for Northland Pioneer College. In that job, she connected entrepreneurs to training, technical assistance and coaching.

“That’s when I found all these entrepreneurs that nobody knew about, and when I started to figure out that our community doesn’t have the same level of support for business development as communities off the reservation,” Stago said.

She joined forces with Natasha Hale, who had started a Native incubator network. They would offer training and support for entrepreneurs, but nobody would show up because they didn’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs.

“There is not a word in our language for ‘entrepreneurship’ or even ‘business,’” Stago said. “That gives you an idea of the perception.

“When you drive through this community, you see people selling burritos or fixing cars or, what we’re most known for, people selling arts and crafts,” she said.

“You can drive down a dirt road and see a sign for anything from window tinting to tire repair to haircuts or child care. Everyone in our community has somebody they take their vehicle to to be fixed because there are no auto shops on the reservation.

“And if I say to them, ‘Do you have a business?’ they say, ‘No I just make things and people decided to pay me.’”

So they set out to change the perception, one social media post at a time.

“I started taking photos of people in their businesses. And we used the hashtag #IAmTheNavajoEconomy,” she said.

“People would repost that and they loved that their relatives were being recognized as pillars of the economy.”

Those entrepreneurs are facing a tangle of challenges.

“A business owner might have a great idea and a market to tap into, but when they get out of our program, they can’t get a loan on the reservation or a physical location,” she said.

“We need banks and investment institutions to say, ‘OK, we realize that there is this historical trauma in these communities and they’ve been wholly left out of the banking industry for generations now. To fix that, we’ll change the way we do business there and provide investment capital in ways that will work there.’”

Stago and Hale later partnered with Heather Fleming, founder of a design firm. The three co-founders based Change Labs in Tuba City, where the organization is facing one of the same obstacles as the businesses they help: access to land. Reservation land is held in trust and governed by complex laws. The nonprofit has raised enough money to build a 4,000-square-foot headquarters that would also provide space for food vendors but has been hampered by bureaucracy.

“It’s been three years of trying to get land to build a building,” she said. “We’re waiting on a right of way for a piece of land or on some kind of permit. We tried changing our plans two or three times.”

Change Labs also is working to change tribal policy to be more responsive to small businesses.

“When you have a big project like a casino, you can get those leases and all that permitting done in a couple of months, where it could take a year if you’re a small business,” she said.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit is in its fourth incubator cohort.

“All the funders want to know how many jobs we create. Well, we are working with people who can only work out of their homes. They’re not only supporting themselves, they’re supporting their entire families. There’s not an opportunity for them to hire because they can’t expand,” said Stago, who is director of business incubation for the nonprofit and also works as director of Native American economic initiatives for the Grand Canyon Trust, as well as heading her own consulting company.

“Eight years later, when people ask the jobs question, I’m proud to say that we have 27 graduates of our business incubator. They might be single-owner entrepreneurs, but that’s 27 jobs on the Navajo Nation.”

Helen’s Hope Chest

The founding alumni: Debbie Jacobus earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1994 and Regena Field earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1978.

What Helen’s Hope Chest does: The organization helps foster children, young people who are aging out of the foster system and children who are placed with other family members. Often, foster children are removed from their homes with only the clothes on their backs. Helen’s Hope Chest provides clothing, toys, back-to-school supplies and birthday and holiday gifts. A partnership with ASU’s Bridging Success program offers support to young people who are transitioning to college and $500 to buy supplies.

Helen's Hope Chest

Helen's Hope Chest was based on the story of Helen Simmons, mother of Debbie Jacobus, left, and Gena