Dror Liebenthal ’15 knows firsthand how even a small academic scholarship can be life-changing for a young student. In 2011, recently moved to Winnipeg, Canada, the Israeli immigrant found himself called into the office of his high school basketball coach and mentor, Darren Johnson.
“He was a really special person in my life at that time, as an uncertain high schooler,” says Liebenthal. “He was, like, ‘Hey, fill out this form. Trust me. Do it. This is worth it.’”
The form was an application for the Garett Lee Sidor Memorial Scholarship, a $750 award set up by the friends and family of a local standout basketball player who had died tragically four years earlier. Liebenthal won the scholarship, given to a “male high school basketball player who displays sportsmanship, leadership, and outstanding ability.” And it was indeed worth it, though it wasn’t so much about the money.
“The financial support is one aspect of the scholarship, but the other aspect is having an organization or an individual that is a little further along than you reach out and say, ‘What you’re doing is awesome. Keep going. We believe in you,’” says Liebenthal. “It’s this powerful vote of confidence. I remember that being really impactful.”
Liebenthal went on to study chemical engineering at Princeton. Afterward, he found a job in operations at Toptal, a freelancing platform co-founded by Breanden Beneschott ’11. Toptal wanted to “walk the walk” when it came to supporting underrepresented groups in the technology industry, recalls Liebenthal. Its leaders decided to create a scholarship for women in tech fields.
But the scholarship project turned out to be an enormous undertaking, with one person dedicated to it close to full time and as many as four others spending up to 10 hours a week on it, said Liebenthal. They spanned Toptal’s legal, financial, and operations teams. Later, when Liebenthal went to work at venture capital firm Mechanism Ventures, he saw the same thing at one of the firm’s portfolio companies as it tried to establish scholarships for single mothers.
“The cost to the company in terms of salaries of people spending time on this was similar to or far greater than the value of the scholarship itself,” Liebenthal says. “That’s part of the reason a lot more companies don’t undertake initiatives like that.”
In 2019, Liebenthal set out to change this. Along with Mechanism’s Denis Grosz and Toptal’s Beneschott, Liebenthal founded Bold.org, a platform to connect donors and students seeking scholarships. Free to use for both donors and students, Bold is designed to eliminate the hurdles companies and individuals face when trying to start their own scholarships.
Before being awarded, all donations are held in escrow by the Bold Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, said Liebenthal. Bold then does the heavy lifting of attracting a large pool of worthy candidates for scholarships that donors themselves define. After a winner is selected, the money is sent directly to the winner’s school to avoid creating a tax burden for that student.
The platform already has hundreds of scholarships, all exclusively available on Bold.org. They come from a range of donors: individuals seeking to memorialize loved ones, and large organizations like 3D printing company Markforged, which recently awarded Distinguished Black Engineers and Distinguished Women Engineers grants totaling nearly $10,000.
Liebenthal says he hopes Bold.org can spur more of the type of direct, customized giving that has historically been the province of very large organizations and family foundations. Doing so can help grow the size of the “philanthropy pie” in the U.S., he says.
“You see the direct impact of the money you donate and, as it feels very personal to specific causes that you care about, you’re more likely to give more.”