Last Monday, BallotReady was awarded the Social Innovator Award at the 17th annual Chicago Innovation Awards. The Chicago startup, which creates online election voter guides, was founded by two University alumni, CEO Alex Niemczewski (A.B. ’09) and COO Aviva Rosman (A.B. ’10, M.P.P. ’16).
According to their corporate website, BallotReady’s mission is “to make democracy work the way it should by informing voters on their entire ballot.” The company aggregates content from a variety of media sources to compile nonpartisan information about political candidates and referendums on voter ballots.
100 finalists were selected from a pool of more than 500 nominees. The panel of judges, which included leaders from numerous Chicago area companies and nonprofits, then selected this year’s winners
In an interview with The Maroon, Niemczewski expressed gratitude for the award.
“It’s really nice to be recognized by the Chicago community in that way, especially since we are so young as a company,” Niemczewski said. “It’s nice to see recognition of our growth.”
Niemczewski and Rosman hatched the idea at the Institute of Politics in December 2014. The IOP gave them consulting advice, an office space, and a $400 grant to begin early development on the project.
Niemczewski admitted the inspiration for the company arose from her own status as an uneducated voter.
“Before the last midterms, I knew who I wanted to vote for at the top of the ballot, but I knew my ballot was going to be really long,” Niemczewski said. “I made a site just for me to keep track of everything that would help with that. So, basically, I had this problem myself.”
However, she quickly found that she was not alone in feeling overwhelmed and unprepared to go to the polls. In April 2015, BallotReady ran a test run in Chicago’s April 2015 mayoral runoff election, operating on a budget of $180 with just three staff members.
Niemczewski recalled the self-doubt and anxiety, among other challenges, of the initial startup phase.
“Are we going to exist in a month? Like, are we going to be able to pay ourselves soon?” Niemczewski said. “Especially in the beginning, when we didn’t have funding, or we barely had any funding…failing felt very imminent.”
In May 2015, the company won the Polsky Center’s John Edwardson Social New Venture Challenge, receiving $30,000. A month later, the company received more money from the George Shultz Innovation Fund.
To date, BallotReady has raised more than $2.3 million in funding, hires 100 remote employees seasonally alongside its regular staff of 20 full-time workers, and features data on candidates and elections in all 50 states.
However, the company has no plans to stop expanding.
“We want every voter to turn out in every election and complete their entire ballot without guessing,” Niemczewski said. “We want democracy [to] work the way it should, which is that people are informed about everything.”