From Vision to Impact: An Interview with the Architects of LIFT

Journeying from to the first days in New Haven at National Student Partnerships in 1998 to the transformation impact LIFT 25 years later, we sat down with three of LIFT’s founders: Brian Kreiter, Billy Rahm, and Marne Obernauer, Jr, to delve into the inception of LIFT. Born from a desire to bridge the gap between students and community members in need, their journey is one of youthful ambition, empathy, and a relentless drive to make a difference. Join them to uncover the early days of LIFT and the transformative impact it has had on both its founders and the communities we serve.

Brian Kreiter- Co-Founder of LIFT: So, I think part of the history of LIFT was just about going to school in New Haven and what it was to be in New Haven at that time. New Haven is a place where students are interacting constantly with different parts and members of the community, and I think that, for someone like me who grew up in the suburbs outside of Chicago, it was a super stimulating and important experience.  

One of the things that I think a lot of students did there at the time was find small ways to help people that they’d run into. You’d find people pan-handling or people otherwise asking for some type of assistance, you’d see the same people over and over again and you’d begin to form relationships with folks, though they were pretty transactional. 

There was a particular person that Kirsten and I ended up having a deeper experience with, this guy that we have forever since called Wimpy, which was how he identified himself, and it had a huge impact on our lives. 

We ended up in the conversation with this man one evening where, he may have asked for a dollar or something and we started talking to him and we ended up, in a way that students do, trying to unpeel what was going on. Why was he in this particular situation? How did he get there? What were his barriers to getting himself out of there? And the dynamic that he described essentially was that there were resources seemingly available, and he tried some of them but what seemed to him to be required to navigate these resources, to try and actually figure out, ‘do you go here first or here first? And will somebody actually take me seriously if I go ask for help in this situation, will I be successful?’ seemed very challenging to him. We didn’t stay in touch with him, we never had any opportunity to help him, but that got both of our wheels spinning.  

LIFT co-founders Brian Krieter and Kirsten Lodal in 2004

That summer, we were down in D.C. living in big groups, lots of time to chat. Ultimately, we started writing what was basically a business plan for an organization called National Student Partnerships. And the concept was really two-fold, which was one, the program I think as it largely exists now to some degree, was the idea that you can catalog and categorize resources to then find optimal ways to navigate those resources in ways that create differential outcomes. 

And this was 1998. There wasn’t some of the familiarity of online resources and the mapping of things; the availability of those kind of networks at that kind of scale really weren’t there. And so, we sort of felt like this boots on the ground method of having people actually go try and figure out what’s available and how to access it, was useful. We also had this experience when we were talking to folks like Billy and Matt and others, that all of us were very eager to contribute, to be helpful, to try and make the world better in some way. But we wanted a way to volunteer our brains and not just our boots.  There was a lot of opportunity to build things or serve soup or a variety of things, but there wasn’t the type of problem-solving work we were being challenged to do in our day job as students. We weren’t connecting it to our values in terms of trying to help other people and we saw there might be an untapped opportunity to do that. 

And so, what we essentially started to do is rather than a kind of come-one-come-all volunteer sort of idea, we started hand-picking people for specific skills and capabilities that we thought would be required to build out something like this. Billy was one of those first calls that summer when we were trying to polish out this idea. But also, really trying to decide whether this was something a group of people would have enough ideas and momentum to pull off.  

I’m going to hand that to you Billy at that point.  

Billy Rahm- Founding Staff Member: I would say that, to put yourself back in that time-period, this was also the time where there were a lot of start-ups, you know, the early days of the internet. And I think there was a lot of energy around our team that resembled the energy around start-up teams, with a very different mission. I think that we had perhaps some of the ambition, perhaps some of the hubris, of start-up teams. Certainly, if you look back on how quickly we scaled, and in some cases maybe without as much deliberation as NSP and then LIFT brought in later years, but there is a lot to be said for the ambition of a talented young group of people. And, in our case, we were trying to do that to serve as many people in as much of an impactful way as we could, both in our own community and then helping to empower other students like us to do that in their communities. And that was the big idea that Brian and Kirsten had, and they were great leaders in motivating other people to sign on to this. And then, in the same way that people then have to go raise some funding to actually be able to put that in action and pitch an angel investor on that idea in the tech start-up world in that time, Brian,  I’ll hand it back to you, I don’t know exactly how that pitch worked to Marne.  

Brian: I think basically what happened was just before we got to Marne, we got back to school that Fall and we recruited this set of people, a really interesting group of people not just our friends but  people that might be able to solve different problems and we divided the group into a business team and social services team. We started in New Haven, we split up the group into a certain set of people who are going to go find all the nonprofits and public services around that we’d need. We were looking in the phone book, we were knocking on doors; it wasn’t all that easy actually. And then the other team was going out and talking to businesses and basically saying ‘hey do you have job openings, will you hire?’  

We started in a basement and then we took an office and we basically put up flyers and things, I think, and we started seeing really quickly there was demand.  

It was an amazing thing because of the level of responsibility. It went from a really academic thing ‘oh can we build an index or whatever,’ to ‘okay, you’re 19 years old or 20 years old, and you have this person in front of you talking about a very complicated life situation with kids and marriage and rent and jobs,’ things that, not only did we not understand it from the perspective of somebody who’s on the poverty line or below or whatever else, none of us had had those things more broadly, you know, we didn’t have kids. And so, it was an amazing learning curve, but I think what happened was just the empathy this group of people had and the energy to try and solve these problems. I think the people we were meeting were so used to very exhausted public servants. It’s that sort of person who had been on the other side of a desk trying to get them a housing voucher or whatever. So, there was this new force of young, smart, energized people.  

My roommate at the time was Matt Obernauer and he was part of this group, watching and talking about it, and he started really talking to me about his mom, which was how the conversation started. 

This was in ‘98, and we were friends, so I knew the story generally, but he really started talking about his mom and her values and their family’s values and how they were thinking about her legacy and such, and Matt, at one point, just said something like, ‘you know, my mom would have liked this thing you guys are doing’ and then some time passed and he said, ‘I thought you should go talk to my dad, he might want to be helpful,’ or something of that nature. And, Marne, you and I had met several times at that point, I think, I mean we knew each other a little bit. 

So anyway, that day, Kirsten and I did a huge amount of work to prepare for this meeting cause we had never been to a meeting before. And I’m from Chicago, I had barely been to New York. And so, I remember this so well, Kirsten couldn’t come for some reason, but I went to the office, it was on Park Avenue, this huge conference room, huge table, and the receptionist leads me in there, and we were so set, I was so prepared. I sit down at this very large table and I’m there by myself and very nervous, and I’m waiting there for a few minutes and Marne comes in, super friendly and kind and says, ‘Matt told me a little, what are you up to,’ and I proceed to give the first presentation, which at this point I think I just talked like first word to last word, like every idea we’d ever had about this thing, without taking a breath. For like fourteen minutes. And Marne was very patient and listened.  

Let me turn things over to you at that point Marne.  

Marne Obernauer, Jr.- LIFT Board Emeritus: Well, let me back up just a second. Brian called me and asked if he could come into the office, and it really meant for him to cut some classes and take the train down to Grand Central and come up to my office. Now I knew Brian, I had met him casually, but really I knew him through Matt who always said, ‘Brian is going to do something important someday.’ Matt told me this story about Wimpy, which really impressed me, the idea that he was asking for some money and the way Matt described it, you said, ‘no I’m not going to give you any money, but I got a six pack of beer here and we can sit down and talk about your life.’ and it inspired him. So, I said, come on down and let’s see what’s on your mind.  

Brian Krieter and Marne Obernauer Jr. 2004

Just to make it brief, Brian said he went through the whole thought process and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘this is really pie in the sky here,’ I mean, a network across the country of student organizations. And these guys were 20 and 19 years old. I’m thinking this is a reach but…And this is the serendipitous part, it struck me immediately as something that Marty (Marion), my wife, would have jumped on. Cause she did something similar. She came out of Smith college and joined PanAm as a flight attendant, and after a year and a half, she recognized that these women had layovers. They’d sit in New York for five days and then take these long trips overseas. Well, while they’re sitting in that New York base, why can’t they do something constructive? So, she convinced management to let her run a volunteer program, and they gave her a little office and she organized the volunteer program to help people in the community. And it was so successful they asked her if she’d like to move to the Miami base and do the same thing. Instead, she applied to Harvard Business School, and the rest is history.  

So, it was serendipitous. I had put together a little fund, a memorial fund, some folks had helped me, and I was looking for the right thing to do and it just crossed my mind, ‘this may not work out, maybe the money won’t lead to anything, but she would have wanted me to do this’. So, I said to Brian, have you got a budget for this? And Brian said, yeah, and he pulls out a piece of paper and hands it to me, and I’m looking at it, and, I remember this very vividly, I said, ‘Brain looks to me like based on what you want to do, you’re going to need about 5 times more than you’re saying here. But I’m willing to give it to you.’  

I won’t go into details on how we structured the contribution, but there were some other serendipitous things that happened in the interim that allowed us to get this thing started. It was not only to do what Marty would have wanted, but it was a bet on not just the intelligence of the two people who were going to lead this thing, but on the energy and the commitment that they seemed to have. I’ve been in the business of betting on people all my life and that was a big a part of it. You know what, I was right.  

Brian: That day was sort of the inflection point. Marne seeded the thing to work, but he did it at a level that created real expectation. We were going to have our shot to actually try and do this.  

I remember when we came back to campus and we had the ability to do the basic things we needed like print flyers and things. It was a small operation, but that was just so motivating, not just for us but for the whole team. There was this intergenerational bet that had been made that maybe we had something to contribute. The student thing was a really big piece of this because that’s what we were at the time.  

And it was pretty much after that, to Billy’s point, that we basically said, ‘look, let’s try to scale it.’ So, by December of that year Kirsten was basically operating the New Haven office. I don’t even know how, she was probably working there 15 hours a day; I don’t know how she was doing that and class. But she was there and everyone was doing it. The group had gotten bigger and we were cycling in and out of doing office hours and meeting clients.  

In December I was able to take a semester off from school and I got into this Toyota Corolla and just started driving the country to college campuses and finding ways to assemble groups of people and pitch this thing, seeing if I could get people to start chapters.  

To Billy’s point, this was a plan with a lot of enthusiasm and not a lot of operational strategy. But it worked. We targeted schools that were in places where we thought there would be a relevant population. 

That was over the next six months, and by that next summer we had actually moved the operation down to D.C.  We got some office space in Georgetown, and the reason we were in D.C. at this point was because we knew there were so many students that came there as interns during the summer and we could use Capitol Hill, we could use all these interns, to spread the word beyond our networks. And it was great! It was bipartisan and all different types of folks.  

At the end of the summer, we went to Kirsten’s family’s farmhouse, all these people who had met over the course of the summer who were now all armed up to go back to their campuses and try and start this in the Fall. It wasn’t like the operating guides of this thing were nailed out, it was basically mass experimentation going on across the country.  

This was when Clinton was rolling out the welfare to work initiative and so we ended up taking this giant road trip. 

Marne: What I remember is that he had this speech that he wanted to talk about welfare to work, but he asked National Student Partnerships to send students to the speech. He asked National Student Partnerships to lend credibility to what he was talking about. That was a big step forward.   

Billy: The idea that a body in motion tends to stay in motion was kind of what we were doing. Just get it going, get the flywheel moving. I’m not sure we appreciated that you’d to have to make adjustments, but I think that had we been as discerning as our older selves might have been, we might not have gotten the same kind of momentum, enthusiasm, and the sense of movement that, in part, attracted attention from President Clinton and other people, and got a lot of other students in other chapters excited about being a part of the movement—some of whom ended up staying involved for many years, including moving  to D.C. and being part of the national office, some of whom, it was just a nice experience in their college career and that chapter didn’t continue.

Billy Rahm and Kirsten Lodal at first NSP office in 1998

But I think it was important even if that chapter didn’t continue, or that person didn’t continue. In many cases, it was probably important in that person’s life to think about this service experience that they had. And it was important for all the other people to feel like they were part of something that was bigger than their day-to-day selves and it allowed us to attract a lot of talent and attention to get it going. And so, I think it’s hard to look back on that experience, despite the fact that not everything worked, and think that we should’ve done it in a different way because I think if you didn’t move forward at that level of energy, you wouldn’t have really gotten the body in motion as much and it would have been hard to keep it in motion. 

Marne: Let me add an anecdote to what Billy just said.  

Early on, we had a fundraiser in New York in the apartment of friends of Brian’s parents and this woman comes up to me and she says, ‘I just want to tell you that what you’re doing has changed my son’s life.’ I mean, she had tears in her eyes. ‘He was kinda this who am I? Where am I going? Do I have a purpose? And he was one of the volunteers.’ She said it activated him; it gave him meaning. Basically, she just said, ‘you changed my son’s life.’ 

Billy: Can I come back to one thing Marne said earlier? That he likes to make bets on people? I think in life you make bets on people, and he made a bet on Brian and Kirsten that paid dividends to both sides. Obviously, Marne is still passionate about this more than 25 years later, obviously it worked out really well for Brian and Kirsten and all of us who were involved. I think a lot of the early days at NSP, in the service sense, were the same thing. We were making bets on people in our communities who rarely had someone make a bet on them. And it mattered to the person making the bet, in some cases that was me walking with someone to try and help them get a job, and it obviously mattered to the person who was trying to get a job, that someone was making a bet on them. There was a lot of that. We, at the service level, we’ve talked a lot about the national organization, but in the actual delivery of the service we were smart, energetic, but not really experienced people and what we could do is lend our empathy and our energy and some insights, and to be honest, some privilege that allowed us to walk into some rooms that other people might not be able to walk into and advocate for them. It’s been a life-changing experience, probably more for the people who were making the bets. I’m sure there are clients that I worked with in 1999 who do not remember me and it did not make as long-term of an impact on their lives as I would have liked, and I’m still here 25 years later talking about it. So, it clearly made an impact on my life.  

And I think that was the interesting thing about both Marne’s bet on Brian and Kirsten and the day-to-day bets that we were all making on individuals that really worked for both sides.  

I certainly remember some people that we did get jobs for and that made an impact on their lives. It may not have cured all of their ills, but it was better and better was good.  

Marne: That’s a great point, because it affected my life significantly. We put together a board, I was on that board, when Brian retired as chairman, I took his place for a few years, I had that experience to the point where I can say today it is one of the proudest moments, proudest things that I’ve been involved with in my whole life.  

Brian: I do think that there were so many things we ran into at the time that we wouldn’t understand for years. We understood in different ways. Like the point that Billy made about privilege is such an interesting concept of what we were trading there in some ways, but I don’t think we totally got that, partly because of our youth but partly the way the world was not talking about that. But what I think we did talk about and what we knew was that this power that students had, all of us were at this point of tremendous optimism, and you believe that the world is set up for your opportunity. You’re being told, we were being told—not everybody was, but we were very lucky that we were and the people we were recruiting were being told, ‘go out, make a difference. You’re going to make a difference. And not only can you make a difference in your own life, you can make a difference in the world.’ 

I think part of what we were doing was, we didn’t know this at the time, but we were basically trying to transmit some of that to folks who were having a very different experience, the folks who were not being told that they deserved opportunity or that the world was set up for them. And mostly finding that the world wasn’t set up for them.  

I’m glad that Billy brought that up. It belongs to things from that period that really just had an impact on all of us. It was humbling. It was hard.  

I totally agree that we all got so much out of it. It didn’t feel quite like service. It felt like something else.  

I think the other thing that was interesting too was that while Kirsten and I wrote this business plan and sort of catalyzed it at the beginning, it so quickly became a thing that was everyone’s experience. You know? Marne is the founder of this thing, Billy’s a founder of this thing, there are people who got involved in other states and other cities that didn’t know who we were, didn’t care, it was their own thing. And I think that was vital in the way it operated, I think still to this day.  

The history doesn’t really matter. Now it’s just a new set of people having their own impact and experiences. Hopefully that’s the thing that will allow it to perpetuate.  

Billy: I mean, I think we did have some awareness that there were people who were under-resourced, and resources were not the problem at Yale and at a lot of other college campuses, and for a lot of people on those campuses. How do we help other people get resources that they need? And I think the evolution was, as the organization has grown, thinking critically about how to connect people better to resources. But that core idea of how to connect people to resources who are under-resourced but are just as deserving of their resources, their humanity, as all of us are, who have more than enough resources. That was sort of core to Brian and Kirsten’s idea and to a lot of the work that was being done. It strikes me that LIFT is just much better at doing that today than it was then, but the motivating force behind why you do the work and who you’re doing it for and how you can bring resources to bear, that seems to have been pretty constant.