Former Northeastern swimmer helps athletes fund their dreams

Photo by A.J. Mast/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Emily White was a music industry major and a scholarship swimmer at Northeastern University in Boston. In 2012, she combined her two interests to start Dreamfuel, a platform that helps elite and youth athletes raise money to help get them to the next level.

Dreamfuel has since been contacted by the president of the Afghanistan National Swimming Federation to help start its first women's national team and completed a campaign to give an LGBT soccer team in Mexico the opportunity to attend the World Outgames this year. White also just released a book called "Interning 101," a guide for college students.

We talked to White, a 2005 Northeastern graduate, about the skills athletes get by using her platform, how she transitioned from athletics to a professional career and how she keeps fitness as a part of her life.

This interview has been edited for length.

espnW: What does your company do?

Emily White: Dreamfuel builds tools for athletes and teams. Our first tool is a funding platform designed specifically for the sports market.

My parents and grandfather are all swimming coaches, so I grew up very much in sports, and I was on a Division I swimming scholarship at Northeastern University. So sports was pretty much my life from age 3 until 22. And then in my professional career, I've managed artists and athletes behind some of the largest crowdfunding campaigns in history. That's been through my first company, Whitesmith Entertainment, which manages musicians and comedians.

In 2012, I started managing Olympic gold medalist Anthony Ervin. I'd always had ideas for swimmers on how to make themselves cool and how to expand their name recognition. So I started working with Anthony because his story is amazing and he is very cool.

The day I met him was right after the London Olympics, where he was a very, very big story, and he was really left to his own devices after that. He told me he wanted to compete for the U.S. on the World Cup circuit, but he didn't know how he was going to pay for it. He was just going to throw the expenses on his credit card and hope he won prize money. So with my background in entertainment, if he were a band that got a last-minute European tour or something, we would do a Kickstarter. He was leaving in two weeks, and there was no way I could guarantee a sponsorship deal coming together in that time period.

I took the project to the Kickstarter founders, and they rejected us because they don't work in sports. So we quickly did the campaign on our own and raised more than the goal. Anthony was able to compete with the freedom of mind of not having to win to pay off his credit card debt. He swam really well because of it. He came back with 16 medals, nine of them gold, and an American record.

And then at the youth levels, kids are still going door-to-door with clipboards and selling pizza and all sorts of goods, which is exactly how I fundraised as a girl for my sports teams growing up. These teams and these coaches are just starting from scratch every season; there's no data collected. So, for example, I was a state champion and All-American for my powerhouse sports high school in Wisconsin, and no one has ever reached out to me in my adult life as a successful executive asking if I would like to support the girls' swim team, or the sports programs at large, because they don't have my email address, they don't have my data.

So that's exactly what Dreamfuel's tool solves. It creates sustainable fundraisers for youth, club and school teams and then a much-needed revenue stream for athletes at the elite level.

espnW: What kinds of practical experience do athletes walk away with? Fundraising is a tough job.

EW: You can't just kind of slap up a campaign and hope that people show up. Some of it is as basic as making sure the athlete posts on their social media. That's really Step 1. If an athlete doesn't do that, not much is going to happen. We teach them when to post, what day of the week, what time of day, so it's not like 1 a.m. on a Saturday night, or some holiday.

And then we also teach them how to be creative and come up with rewards for the audience that make sense. We've seen athletes want to put up a T-shirt for $100. People don't pay $100 for a T-shirt -- they're going to pay $20 or $30. So we work with the athletes to get creative on the rewards. 

espnW: How did you find the transition from being a Division I swimmer to life as a working professional?

I'm really grateful that I had the coach that I had. His name is Roy Coates, and he's still at Northeastern.

He was so supportive of our careers and of us personally. At the same time, we were conference champions as a team all four years. It's not like our performance in the pool suffered. I was a two-time MVP freshman and sophomore year.

By the time I was a senior, there was a band called The Dresden Dolls that I had been working with like crazy, and they were doing really well. They had a big showcase in New York where the guest list was a crazy amount of industry people. And I asked my coach, because it was a few weeks before championships, and I was like, "Should I go to this, because I'm going to have to miss a practice or two?" And I don't know too many Division I coaches -- I don't know too many youth coaches who would be like, "You know what, in a few weeks, this is your career, and you should go to this."

I really had the support of my team, I had the support of my school, and I think professionally it was a pretty seamless transition. I think where it can get challenging for athletes is when you don't necessarily have that structure or you aren't burning like, 5,000 calories a day. I think there's lifestyle changes. If anything I view my transition as really positive because I did have those teamwork, work ethic and time management skills.

Adrian Buckmaster

Emily White is the founder of Dreamfuel and a former swimmer for Northeastern University.

espnW: What advice would you give to a Division I athlete who's coming to the end of their career in sports and transitioning to the workforce?

EW: On one hand, try to keep your career in mind -- I'm sure it is in mind at some point, but it is hard. When you're training 20 to 30 hours a week, that's essentially your part-time job. Athletes might surprise themselves -- the fact that they even are an athlete is on résumés. We've had investors for Dreamfuel say they typically look for companies that are run by athletes because we know their work ethic, etc.

I have an Olympic swimmer friend who, I think [being an elite athlete] was on his résumé, but it was really buried. And I was like, "Dude, open with that!" I know you feel like you're totally new to the business world, but that is a talking point that no one else has. I also reminded that athlete that, we're really good networkers. We know our teammates, we know their families, we know our coaches. We have the skills, and you just need to take it and apply it to a career.

You have a lot more skills than you may give yourself credit for. There are going to be people in the workforce that are impressed.

espnW: How do you continue to make fitness a part of your life?

EW: I don't really know how to go to the gym.

I swam about 2,000 yards a day. When I was about 13 or 14, we were doing dry-land exercises, and I saw all these out-of-shape, not super-healthy parents watching us, and I thought, "OK, if any of these adults got in and swam 1,000 yards, that would be the greatest workout ever for them, and that's barely a warm-up for us."

I try to incorporate that into my adult life ... I have no interest in competing or training or anything, but it takes me 40 minutes to do my 2,000 yards, and it's a really great workout.

It's about remembering that we have this skill and that it's such a gift. This sounds really obnoxious to say to nonathletes, but I don't have to work that hard to swim 2,000 yards. I suck at running, but a runner doesn't have to work that hard to run a few miles. That gift of the skill and the ability is so important, and it doesn't necessarily mean I have to be out there beating the other 30-somethings.

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