Innovative entrepreneur Shaun King has mastered the art of using social media for social good.
This article originally appeared in Rebel Magazine.
During his freshman year of high school, Shaun King was savagely beaten by a dozen self-described “rednecks” in one of Kentucky’s first registered hate crimes. The injuries were so severe, he missed part of his sophomore and junior years of high school while undergoing three spinal surgeries.
Less than a decade later, he was involved in a head-on crash that hurled him through the windshield, ripping his “face to shreds” and requiring more than 400 stitches.
Doctors, surprised he even survived, nicknamed him the “Miracle Man.” Today, looking back on the injustices and suffering in his life, King has found peace with the role adversity played in shaping his character and desire to help hurting people.
“It could have gone either way,” says King, the founder of Courageous Church in Atlanta, Ga., and Twitchange.com, a celebrity Twitter auction that asks people to donate to charities in return for celebrities following or mentioning them in a tweet.
“It could have hardened my heart, and I could have come out of that really, really bitter. But … it softened my heart to people in pain—the people who were hurting, not just people who had been assaulted and victimized, but the people who were hurting emotionally.” Today, the techie-humanitarian-pastor, who has appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, in O, The Oprah Magazine and many other prominent publications, is one of the leading voices on how social media and technology can make the world a radically better place. His social media projects, like Ahomeinhaiti.org, have raised more than $5 million for charity and received more than 100 million Web hits.
The 32-year-old “Facebook pastor” who has used social media to launch nearly a dozen successful startups is now blazing yet another innovative path for social good with Hopemob.org, a site that offers exactly what it sounds like—“a mob of people bringing hope.” Unlike other social giving platforms that focus on hundreds of small issues or global problems like clean water or sex trafficking, HopeMob simply tells one story at a time and focuses its collective energy on that cause. Using “story points,” volunteers can boost a story up through the “cause queue” until it becomes the featured story with an international audience. That’s when the mob swarms the cause with hope, donating money or offering other solutions.
For example, HopeMob might tell the story of a family that has lost their home to a fire, a single mom who has lost her job, a first-generation college student who’s about to drop out of school because he can’t afford the tuition, a child with cancer who has a wish for more Facebook fans or a family with a disabled toddler who needs a special van for transportation.
“Instead of telling a thousand stories, or one enormous story, we are telling one, small human story at a time—one person whose need has fallen through the cracks,” says King, a father of four who is married to his high school sweetheart, Rai.
“We’ll tell their one story and propose one large solution and we’ll work on that story until we meet that goal.”
When it launches this spring, HopeMob will use more than 1,100 filmmakers, photographers and storytellers from 20 nations on six continents to find, verify and document the most pressing needs around the globe. Through an interactive Web site, people will be given practical ways—not just financial—to provide immediate hope to those featured in the stories. King will also launch iPhone and Android apps.
HopMob co-founder Dave Gibbons says King, like other “misfit leaders” on the fringes of society, has a heightened sensitivity to the pain of others and a practical application to address their suffering. These kinds of leaders and creative innovators, Gibbons says, are the ones who typically lead movements and can make a huge difference in society.
“We love Shaun because of who he is as a person, and specifically, we like how he has dealt with his pain and how he also has a heart for justice,” Gibbons says.
“He gets passionate about helping people who aren’t usually seen. In terms of his natural skill sets, I think he’s really good at trying to become a voice for his generation—for the people who have no voice.”
The amazing story of King’s success as a tech and humanitarian entrepreneur has unassuming beginnings. The son of a Caucasian mother and an African-American father, King was born on Sept. 17, 1979, in Versailles, Ky., a town of 8,500 people. His mother, who has worked at the same light bulb factory for more than 40 years, raised her boy by herself in the rural Kentucky town of “beautiful horse farms and factories,” according to King.
“I had a really great childhood,” King says. “It was rough at home sometimes. I didn’t really know that, though. We were probably lower middle-class, maybe worse sometimes. My mother did her best. The house was full of love. She was incredibly supportive.”
King’s mother taught her son to be friends with everybody. In elementary and middle schools, like most children, King was friends with children from different racial backgrounds. But when he got to high school, King says he noticed the “weird phenomenon” of students separating into their own racial and socio-economic groups, and he often found himself the victim of racial attacks. “[I became involved in several] violent fights where I had to really protect myself,” he says.
One day, a pickup full of youth tried to run him over on school property. He reported the incident to school authorities, but instead of punishing the perpetrators, officials protected the youth, King says. Then, one day while walking to band class in 1995, King was the victim of a brutal hate crime. A dozen youth assaulted him. He suffered facial fractures and required three spinal surgeries, causing him to miss a year and a half of school. He fell into deep depression and at times wanted to die. But his best friend’s dad, a pastor, came to visit him, lifting his spirits.
“I didn’t grow up with a father or a father figure, so his visits to me just had a really big impact,” King says. “I joke, but it may be true, that had my best friend’s dad been a plumber, maybe I would have become a plumber. I just found myself so impacted by this man coming to visit me that I wanted to be like him, and it just so happened that he was a pastor.”
It was during these years that King’s passion for technology bloomed. In high school, King taught his classmates how to set up email accounts. Later, King won a scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta, the alma mater of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and became an Oprah Scholar.
At Morehouse, King was welcomed with open arms, becoming student body president and winning the “Man of the Year” award from the African-American Studies Department. King began developing web projects in 1997 as a freshman. “[I’ve] believed in the power of social media since MySpace was cool,” he says. In a recent blog, King called HopeMob the 2012 embodiment of Rev. King’s “real dream.” He says, “I think what we’re doing with social media, bringing a diverse cross-section of people together, is kind of the contemporary expression of what Dr. King would do if he were alive today.”
After graduating from Morehouse, King landed a job as a high school civics teacher. About a year later, he became a motivational speaker in Atlanta’s juvenile justice system.
During the Thanksgiving holiday in 2003, newly married and only days after buying his first home, King and his wife were involved in a terrible accident while visiting his family in Kentucky.
“I hit a patch of black ice, lost control of the car and crossed the median of the Interstate,” he explains. “A truck coming straight at us hit us, crushing our car in a way that my seat went through the windshield. I hit the guardrail and it threw me back into the car. If I didn’t hit the guardrail, I probably would have died.”
In a telephone call, hospital officials told his mother that they believed her son had broken nearly every bone in his face. They told her they had never seen someone go through a windshield and survive. King’s mother asked her family and friends to pray for her son. “I looked like Freddy Krueger for months,” he says. Subsequent X-rays and CAT scans revealed King had not broken any bones, however, and the doctors and medical students who visited him called him the “Miracle Man.”
“Even though I’m a Christian and a pastor, I’m very skeptical of miracles,” King says. “I had to choose whether their initial diagnosis was wrong … or that something miraculous happened. It seems preposterous to me, but I’ve chosen to believe something miraculous happened.” Following a lengthy recovery, King launched nearly a dozen different social media ventures to help hurting people in Atlanta. Nicknamed “The Facebook Pastor” for his work soliciting donors through social networking sites, King raised money to provide inner-city Atlanta children with toys and school uniforms, emergency flood relief to victims of the Atlanta floods and tens of thousands of hot free meals on Sunday mornings through the Free Breakfast Church. “At the time, nobody was really using social media to raise money for causes,” King says. “That wasn’t being done and Twitter was still kind of a community of techies.”
In 2008, King used social media to tell the story of children in Atlanta who needed school uniforms. He created a simple microsite where people could watch a basic YouTube video of him at the school with the kids.
“We had a PayPal link where people could give,” King says. “And it just caught on. Within about four weeks, pretty much just through Twitter and Facebook, we raised all the money we needed to buy these kids uniforms and toys. It was kind of right then that I realized we had captured a little bit of magic and from that point forward, it gave each campaign we did a little bit of credibility.”
After the Jan. 12, 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left 1 million homeless, King launched A Home in Haiti, raising nearly $2 million worth of emergency aid, including 10,000 tents, for people in the Caribbean nation.
As the momentum behind A Home in Haiti subsided, King came up with the idea to create TwitChange to raise money for a permanent home for disabled Haitian orphans. The Twitter-based fundraiser gives users the chance to get followed, retweeted or mentioned by hundreds of celebrities—a hot commodity among the social media set that can significantly increase their number of followers and be a boon for their careers and businesses.
“I think having a celebrity mention on Twitter is like the modern-day autograph,” King says. “But unlike if you met a celebrity at the mall and they gave you an autograph and few people would ever see it, if a celebrity mentions you on Twitter the whole world sees it.”
King worked on the project with Eva Longoria, who got many of her celebrity friends involved too. TwitChange received more than 70 million hits and received international acclaim. “It was wildly successful,” King says. “We were on The Tonight Show and The Today Show. It got a ton of media coverage and we ended up being able to help a lot of children in Haiti.”
The campaign, which cost $20,000 and raised more than $1 million, caught the attention of nonprofits around the world. Last year, King stepped down as pastor of the Courageous Church and sold TwitChange to a group of investors.
“I think it was an example to nonprofits around the world,” King says. “Hey, there are some new, fresh and innovative ways you can use social media to tell your story and to build a huge amount of awareness. I think charities really took notice after that. Now, charities are doing amazing work in social media, and I’d really like to think we were one of the early pioneers in how to use social media well.”
The idea for HopeMob was born out of the momentum behind TwitChange. He is using technology to fund the new venture, as King launched a Kickstarter campaign where he is asking others to make a pledge with the hopes of raising $125,000. More than 700 backers made pledges ranging from $1 to $10,000.
Looking back, King says technology, especially social media, has been the key to all of his humanitarian causes and campaigns. “We are really proud that we at least helped loosen the lid on the jar of how to use social media for good, and now we see all types of innovative ways it can be used,” King says. “I think we’re just scratching the surface of how social media can bring people together.”
But more than technology, the pain King has endured in his life—the barbarous assault and the accident—has played an even greater role in molding his destiny.
Shaun has launched nearly a dozen different successful startups designed to help empower and show compassion to hurting people throughout his hometown of Atlanta, Haiti and other developing nations. These startups include:
- A Home in Haiti: sent nearly $2 million in emergency aid to post earthquake Haiti.
- Twitchange: received more than 70 million hits in 8 months, received international acclaim for its creativity, and raised nearly $1 million for Haiti, families of American soldiers, and the education of girls in developing nations.
- 500 Toys: provided a brand new toy and school uniform to every child of an inner city Atlanta elementary school for the past 2 years.
- Hope ATL: provided more than $1 million in emergency flood relief support to victims of the Atlanta floods.
- Courageous Church: launched in January 2009, Courageous Church is an exciting, diverse community of faith empowering people to use their faith to change the world.
- Give Them a Good Start: provided every child at an inner city Atlanta elementary school all of their school supplies to start the year.
- Free Breakfast Church: provided tens of thousands of hot free meals every Sunday morning for more than 2 years.
Photo credit: Flickr / cogdogblog