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Meet Chinthaka Weerappuli of The Underdog Foundation in Five Points

Today we’d like to introduce you to Chinthaka Weerappuli.

So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
On June 2nd as a part of #BlackoutTuesday, a few friends and myself were deciding which black-owned business we wanted to support for dinner. We landed on one of the most successful black-owned restaurants in Denver, just a block from my apartment, and we were pleased to see it absolutely crowded with people outside. Based on conversations we overheard, many were trying it for the first time. As I made my way to the front, I was told that I would be the last one served despite their Google/Yelp/and Facebook (they didn’t have a website) hours all indicating they were open for another two hours. “Oh honey, that’s been wrong for years and we have no idea how to change it,” the owner told me.

I was with my friend who runs a small digital marketing firm that specializes in web design, eCommerce, and social media. I mentioned to him how surprised I was that arguably the most successful black-owned restaurant in Denver perhaps did not have access to the resources to create and manage their own digital storefront. I decided right there I wanted to start a project to help a few locally owned small businesses get in touch with professional resources (such as web designers, photographers, social media consultants, etc.) while taking care of the financial burden.

On June 8th, I grabbed my laptop, my notepad, and drove up to Golden, Colorado. I found an outdoor spot at a brewery downtown to clear my head and map out a project plan. As I started to structure a one-time initiative, I couldn’t help but think this could be so much bigger than that. After about an hour of tearing up drafts, I decided to pivot from launching a one-time project to a full-blown non-profit. Pouring through documents of incorporation in Colorado, filing the appropriate employee tax documents, and filling out a lengthy application for a 501(c)(3). It was also during this work session that Alicia Keys came on my playlist with her single “Underdog” that later helped to inspire our Foundation’s name.

What started off as a way for me to help a couple of businesses over the next year or two, accelerated into something much more. The Underdog Foundation has a 50+ person volunteer list, ten operational leads (including an in-house web designer and photographer), and three clients we’ve already fully stood up with around eight more in the works for the next month. In addition, we recently revitalized Hirshorn Park with 30 of our team members and have initiatives planned with the city of Denver to work on additional park projects and organize community events designed to bring people together from all walks of life. We were proud to do all this in 8 weeks as a privately funded Foundation without accepting a cent in donations while our 501(c)(3) was still pending. Last month, we were notified that we were approved as a 501(c)(3) Non-Profit organization and have already secured our first corporate donation from Coyote Logistics. We truly believe the sky is the limit for this organization and are so proud of our volunteers and our community partners in making our vision a reality.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Of course not 🙂

When I first mapped out the organization’s mission, I immediately knew the only way it was going to succeed was with a tier one team of talent. This would be tough enough to do in a regular climate, but throw a pandemic in the mix and a lot more people have to focus on their professional career instead of being able to volunteer their time to a non-profit. For every three people I found interested in being intimately involved with the organization, only one of them would be able to follow through and dedicate the necessary time to truly move us forward. The Foundation’s big break came after getting our VP Derrick on board. Couple his work ethic with our Technical Director Darian’s skill set and we were finally cooking!

Once we finally did assemble a full team, I had to let them know that they would all be making the same salary as the CEO and President…which happened to be nothing. While I expected many of them to immediately move on, not one member of our operations team has left. In fact, we’ve grown rapidly to 10 full-time operational leads, again, without any of us accepting a cent in salary.

After assembling our team, the next step was to get our first community partner. You would think that telling a business owner we can provide them with a full digital storefront with professional photography, online ordering, social media integration, etc. would be an immediate win…turns out you need to build some trust for people to believe your offer isn’t too good to be true.

We were blessed with a partnership made in heaven with Ali and Hayati Mediterranean. Our VP happened to be walking near 30th and Downing when Ali was handing out fliers for free deserts to help celebrate the gradual re-opening of his business. Once we were able to launch a website for Hayati word spread quickly. “Wow, they really are doing all of this for free!”

Please tell us about The Underdog Foundation.
We firmly believe that our community thrives only when each member within it has every opportunity to succeed. We have three main focusses. Business development, community events designed to increase integration, and career guidance.

Business Development – We like to think of ourselves as the “bar rescue” of non-profits focused exclusively on locally owned small businesses. We approach businesses who have built their brand from the ground up but could use our help in broadcasting their message out to the community. We stand them up with a stunning digital storefront fully equipped with professional photography, online ordering, social media integration and much more. We also speak to them about any unique challenges they may be facing and help to fix them, for instance recommending a fresh coat of paint, new signage, a new orientation in the dining area, etc. Lastly, we use our network to help support our community partners after we launch their website. We hope this will bring a new customer base to the business, and one that is full of repeat visits.

Community Events – We are also all about community improvement. We helped a fellow 501(c)(3) non-profit, The Gathering Place, raise almost $700 in clothes, toiletries, and food because we truly believe in their mission. We also recently revitalized Hirshorn Park in LoHi with a thorough cleaning, landscaping, and fresh paint job for their play structures. In general, we know that by helping others in the community, and throwing fun (socially distanced) events, people can get together who may not have had the chance to meet organically. All it takes is one life-changing connection to make our entire Foundation worth it!

Career Guidance – Our final pillar of service focuses on career guidance. We have a network of 50+ volunteers in a variety of industries. We are more than happy to setup prospective high school aged students with a 30-minute career consultation via Video Chat to get a better sense of their area of interest. We also hope to expand this pillar by creating a mentoring program between long-established businesses and those who are just starting out looking for guidance.

What were you like growing up?
I’m the youngest of two boys, and man did my older brother remind me of that frequently growing up. He’s four years older, and we loved to play hockey in our Detroit area basement. Needless to say, I didn’t get the better end of too many match-ups until I grew up. It helped me to understand the value of defeat. Not everyone is going to come out on top with the final score but that does not mean you didn’t have moments of greatness along the way. Due to this, rather than outcomes, I have always focused on improvement. Better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today.

I am also extremely close with my parents. They were both born and raised in Sri Lanka and made the grueling decision to leave their entire family to raise their own abroad. I can’t imagine some of the struggles they must have faced when they were my age, but it has always given me a deep appreciation of sacrifice. Sacrifice for (what you hope) is a greater return. Sacrifice for those you love. Altruism in its truest sense. That’s why it is so important for me to give back to those who may not have someone to lift them up the way my parents were always able to lift me up.

My connection to my parent’s birthplace also led me to understanding the importance of philanthropy. Following the massive tsunami that rocked Sri Lanka in 2004, my temple youth group organized a community fundraiser to send financial funds back to the island. That feeling of sending help to complete strangers is one I’ll never forget. It instilled in me that we are all just human beings who want to feel safe, heard, and loved. If you lose the feeling of even one of those things, it becomes so important for others to help you gain it back.

Lastly, I touched on this earlier, but I have always been extremely interested in sports. I consider myself a bit of an extrovert, and what better way to interact with others than on a TEAM trying to accomplish a common goal? I played organized soccer as a child until I switched to basketball and track in my teenage years. Many of the lessons I find most valuable in my life I learned through the struggle and reward of team sports.

I’m currently working full time at Epic Systems in Healthcare Software Consulting and absolutely love helping make a difference in patient care. I am also an Executive MBA candidate at The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

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