Success through service
By Anna Gaynor
Michael Stark fully admits to having his “Jerry Maguire moment.” After earning both his JD from the School of Law and MBA from the Quinlan School of Business in just three years, Stark lasted about four months at an IT consulting firm. But then on a nondescript Wednesday, he decided to quit.
“I’ve never looked back,” the now 28-year-old says. “If you had asked me two years ago what I’d be doing, I don’t even know how I could’ve pictured this.”
Stark found his path in early 2014. Brandt Kucharski, the corporate controller at GrubHub, asked Stark to be the first full-time executive director for Holiday Heroes, a nonprofit that works with hospitals to throw parties and events for its youngest patients. Kucharski approached Stark after learning about his position on the board of directors at Aspire of Illinois, an organization that assists those with developmental disabilities. To Stark, it all seemed serendipitous.
“It was just one of those life tapping you on the shoulder things,” he says. “When I was looking at Holiday Heroes, I was doing my diligence, and I saw in their filings they had actually gotten 501(c)(3) status on my birthday. There was something just in my gut that was saying go do this.”
Bringing joy to hospitalized kids
Since 2009, Holiday Heroes has brought festive parties and crafts to kids with critical and chronic health issues. These themed celebrations, which include Christmas, Halloween, Fourth of July, and—Stark’s personal favorite—superheroes, bring joy and excitement to the often dreary day-to-day activities in a hospital.
“That first year at Holiday Heroes I was the only staff person, so I was doing everything from admin to fundraising to planning these hospital parties to coordinating with the board of directors,” Stark says. “It was just one of those things that was really challenging, but it was incredibly rewarding, too.”
In 2015 alone, Holiday Heroes helped more than 1,000 kids in the Chicago area, but Stark doesn’t want to stop there. He also sits on the Campaign for Quinlan Leadership Committee and is one of the founders of the Chicago Leadership Alliance, which promotes social change and supports local entrepreneurs, businesses, and nonprofits.
“In 10 years, I aspire to be one of Chicago’s leading social entrepreneurs,” Stark says. “My ultimate goal is to prove that one can do well by doing good—to inspire others, bring people together, and instill this ethos into the fabric of our city and its communities.”