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Organizational Growth with Karen Chiu of Project Vision Podcast

December 13, 2017

Karen Chiu organizational growth project vision

(Photo from Project: VISION)

Karen Chiu from Project Vision, a non-profit dedicated to providing support and guidance to the youth of the community, discusses her and Project Vision's journey throughout the years with Verde Founder Jamie Johnson.  She is the Executive Director and Co-Founder, starting her career in non-profits in 2003 during med school with four other young professionals she knew. 


Organizational growth is the main topic of this episode 2 of the Chicagoland Small Business Stories Podcast, with Karen explaining how growth has changed from the start of the non-profit, her challenges with growth, and her hopes for the future.  Hear as Karen's genuine passion for helping kids prosper and grow shines through along with helpful insights about starting and running a non-profit.  Lastly, hear why Karen decided to utilize Verde for her energy efficiency needs and how it helped Project Vision.  

"Do what you love.  Find something that you want to do.  You don’t have to stay inside the box and do exactly what everyone expects of you."

- Karen Chiu 

Chicagoland Business Stories


Want to learn some energy efficiency tips to start saving money on your energy bill like Karen did?  Download our energy efficiency checklist to get started.  It's free!

Download our Energy Efficiency Checklist!


Jamie: Hi, and welcome to our second ever podcast. We are here in China Town of Chicago
with Karen Chew, the founder of Project Vision. This is a great meeting for me for two
reasons, or interview for me for two reasons. First, is I just came back from China, from
my first ever visit there last week, and it's fun to be in China Town in Chicago and feel
like I'm much more familiar now, with it than I was two weeks ago.  Also, Karen, the founder of 
Project Vision and I, go way back, for, we decided 27 years,

we met ago, so we grew up together. I remember a couple years ago, Karen had started
this organization and she notified everyone through Facebook, through a page that she
had. I've been following her ever since. We've gotten to overlap professionally the last
couple years, which has been really fun. Karen, welcome.

Karen: Thanks, Jamie, for having me.
Jamie: Yeah, really excited to have you here. Karen, if you don't mind, just tell us a little bit of
the background with Project Vision and why you started it, and what you guys do.
Karen: Sure. Project Vision really started off as a really small, grassroots, nonprofit organization
back in 2003. It was really just an idea that grew out of my apartment when I was in
med school, at the time, with four other friends.
We had all been connected to, either youth education or the neighborhood, in some
way. For myself, I grew up, part of my childhood, in China Town, and I had always loved
education and tutoring, and working with kids.
So, when I was taking time off of school, I actually was working with youth at that time,
and other organizations, and met a couple other really great volunteers, and had other
friends that were also interested, so we all felt like this neighborhood could use
something like this.
A place where kids could come and hang out and a place they could call their own, and
get support that they ... The support that they need to basically navigate through their
adolescents, which isn't an easy time for anyone.

Jamie: No, I don't think, no matter where you grow up, its not easy.
Karen: Yeah. Yeah.
Jamie: Yeah, that's great. How big is your organization now? How many employees and
volunteers, and students are involved?

Karen: Yeah, so were still pretty small, but we definitely have grown. We started in 2004, just
kind of as a drop-in program. We were maybe seeing 20 kids, or something like that,
every week.  This year, we're serving 175 kids.

Jamie: Cool.
Karen: Both middle school and high school kids. We have five full-time staff, and a slew of other
part-time staff that are ... Serve as our tutors, and admin folks that help us bring this
organization together, basically.
Jamie: Yeah, thats awesome.
Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: Thats a lot of kids-
Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: 175, thats a pretty decent impact.
Karen: Yeah, were really excited.
Jamie: Yeah. Cool. What are some of your favorite parts of running your own nonprofit, your
own organization? What are the things that you really like about it?

Karen: I think the day to day of running a non-profit, it can get really difficult and it can become
really tiring, but I think going back to our roots and working with the kids, thats really
my favorite part.

Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: From time to time, and Im always told that I should not be working with the kids
anymore, because I should be running the organization, but I love still jumping in,
tutoring, teaching where I can, heading out to a service project with them-

Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: Or whatever it can be just to get to know the kids that were serving, thats really still my
favorite part.

Jamie: Yeah. Thats a good trait of a leader of an organization, that if they love doing what the
organization does, that's great.
Karen: Yep, yeah.
Jamie: Helps keep it throughout the fabric of the organization-
Karen: Right.
Jamie: That's cool. I love the story that you went to med school and-
Karen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: Found a passion in doing this, so I think it's pretty interesting.
Karen: Yeah, it's kind of an atypical path, a lot of people have asked me about it-
Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: I mean, I think one of the things I always think about is ... Think about also passing onto
the kids, is do what you love-
Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: Find something that you want to do. You don'
t have to stay inside the box and do exactly what everyone expects of you.

Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: Try to find something that you'
re really passionate about.

Jamie: Curious when you were undergrad, what was your major?
Karen: It was biochemistry.
Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: I was definitely on the med school path-
Jamie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Karen: And that was really my mindset, just staying on that path and this is what is expected of
Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: It wasn't until I got to med school and figured actually, "What am I doing?" That I
decided to take time off and re-evaluate.

Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: Yeah.

Jamie: Sounds familiar for myself, too.
Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: I was biology undergrad-
Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: I don't think I liked a single thing about biology, so-
Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: One of the questions I like to ask people is what is the most challenging time you recall-
Karen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: In your ... From 2003 until today.
Karen: Yeah. Thats a tough question, because I feel like, as a small non-profit, were always
struggling with something. I think, at every stage, I would've called it The most
challenging time.

Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: Probably getting it started, obviously, would have been one of the more challenging
times, because we needed to build up that momentum to actually commit to doing it-

Jamie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Karen: But I would actually say a close second would be right now, because were kind of on
the cusp of doing something more. Serving more kids. Being able to be that more ...
Growing from that grassroots type of organization to a more sophisticated, sustainable
operation that can continue making an impact.

Jamie: What ... So, you said you could see growth. What would be the ideal, in a couple years,

how many kids could you serve?

Karen: Well, thats a good question, too. We're always trying to figure out what is the need. Its
really hard to tell.
Jamie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Karen: We just know that every year, that we've added seats to the program. Theres always
still more kids that want to join the program.

Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: We already have, for example, a waiting list this year, and we moved to a bigger space
just last year.
Jamie: Yep.
Karen: If I had to put a number to it, in a couple of years, we'
d love to be serving at least 250 or 300 kids even, but of course I know there's a lot of work that would have to go into that.

Jamie: Yeah. I mean, that's doubling and-
Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: I've definitely, in our business, we'
ve experienced-

Karen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: Doubling of growth for a couple years in a row, and it makes every process break-
Karen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: It's really challenging.
Karen: The scaling, scaling anything, as were finding, is really tough.
Jamie: I'm sure you think about, do you get another space, or do you just more maximize-
Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: This space, and you've got a limited time, because kids are in school-
Karen: Yes.
Jamie: Majority of-
Karen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: Well, that's cool.
Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: I can see it on your face, and I empathize, because I've been there-
Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: It's tough, but its important work, so I'm glad you're doing it.
Karen: Yeah, I'm really happy to be able to do it.

Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: I don't think many people find something that they're really passionate about. I feel
lucky that I have.

Jamie: Yeah, it's a rare thing to find someone who loves what they do-
Karen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: So ... In fact, the last guy that I interviewed is a guy named Buddy Green-
Karen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: And I'
ve known him for a long time. It was one of our first customers, and he said he worked for something like 50 years, or 40 years in his business, and he never felt like he worked a day, because he loved what he did-

Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: And I feel like that's so rare, to hear someone-
Karen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: It was rare, it took me a long ... 15 years to find it, so-
Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: It's hard. Finally, just to warp up, one of the last questions, and this is just for my own

personal passion, what I love to hear people talk about is-

Karen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: We did work together twice. We did-
Karen: Right.
Jamie: Work together at your old space and we did work at the space, and our business focuses
on energy efficiency, so I'd love to know what motivated you, in all the things you have
to do in running your non-profit-
Karen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: What motivated you to spend at least some time and energy on upgrading and

improving the energy efficiency of your business?

Karen: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, so as a small non-profit, I think all ... A lot of the time,
were caught up in keeping our head above water, just trying to survive, but one of the
things that I, along with our board, one of the things that we wanted to try to do better
was get into the mindset of, How do we have a bigger vision? How do we look forward
into the future and do things that make an impact, or have a sustainable impact.

Jamie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Karen: Becoming more energy efficient was one of those things that fits in to that. Saving
money on energy bills is going to be a sustainable thing that we can continue to do and
all of those funds that we do save can be then placed back into where we need to,
which is the kids.

Jamie: Yep.
Karen: And the organization.
Jamie: That's a great way to put it.
Karen: Yep.
Jamie: I love working with non-profits-
Karen: Yep.
Jamie: Because it's ... Yeah, they can put more money into their mission than into their ... The
utility bills, which is great. I've always ... Not said it quite as eloquently as you have, so I
appreciate hearing that. It aligns more with your strategic vision, I guess.

Karen: Yes, definitely.
Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: Yeah.
Jamie: Well, Karen, I know this was a brief catch-up, but it was fun talking to you, and I
appreciate the work you're doing here, and I will definitely have links to your website
and we'll send this out and hopefully people can hear more about how Project Vision
Karen: Okay.
Jamie: Yeah.
Karen: Okay. Thanks so much for having me again.
Jamie: Okay, thanks, Karen.
Karen: Yep. Thanks.


Posted by Melissa Englund

Melissa works on making sure people are not only happy but informed on all things Verde. She loves witty humor, drinking way too much coffee, and saving as many plants from Lowe's "rescue rack" as possible (succulents never die, right?).


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