From volunteer to CEO: A chat with One Tent Health co-founder Mackenzie Copley
By Nora Rosati
Mackenzie Copley is a co-founder of One Tent Health, an organization that provides free HIV screening for residents of DC. Launched officially in October 2017, One Tent has screened over 750 people and plans to expand into other cities.
Thanks for chatting with Second Day! Let’s get right to it: How did an Economics and Physics student at Georgetown University (‘15) find himself launching an HIV-centered nonprofit?
When I was 21, I got HIV tested, and I was really nervous while I waited for the results of the test. I thought that a lot of other people that were being tested might feel nervous about their status as well. It’s really stressful.
A week later, I started volunteering to do HIV testing outside a grocery store, doing something pretty similar to what I do today. They were screening about 50 people on a good day, but every day, at least 20 people were turned down because they were uninsured and the company couldn’t make money off them. As soon as I realized that was happening, I got angry. People without insurance were at higher risk, so I asked a private company if they could test the uninsured people, and they said “No, we can’t do it.” So I said, “Okay, I’m going to start a nonprofit.”
It started as volunteer work, and a week later I’m writing bylaws for an organization that I had no idea— no idea— would turn into my full-time job, other peoples full time jobs, and over a thousand undergraduate students’ volunteer time.
Wow, so the idea for One Tent was planted when you were a senior in college. Did you plan to take it seriously from the get-go?
I graduated with a job already lined up. I had this great job, it was paying well, and I would be doing things I could use my economics degree for, but I absolutely detested the idea of spending my time in a way that didn’t help people.
The consulting work was like 80 hour work-weeks. Once I came in at 8 am on a Thursday and left at midnight on Friday. The job wasn’t giving me the emotional pay that I needed. So at the two year mark, I quit that job and got a different consulting job.
How did you balance your passion for One Tent while working in consulting?
I would build One Tent in the middle of the night, like from 11 pm til 1 am with myself and my co-founder David Schaffer. We finally got to the point where we launched an operation. That was a crazy day because for forever people told us “nobody would ever get tested in a tent,” and so the whole time we were pushing this thing on blind faith, and on that first day somebody actually got tested.
We tested 18 people. It was just a sign that this wasn’t a waste of our time, and even more importantly it was something that could help people. That was a Saturday, and the next Monday I told my company that I wanted to go part time to grow One Tent. That was the first big risk I wanted to take. They said “Okay, sure, you can do this.” They gave me 60 days, at the end of which I need to come back full time or leave.
What ultimately led you to commit to growing One Tent?
As soon as I gained that freedom, and we started making progress towards goals that actually mattered to our soul, I could never go back. Since January 12, 2018, my first day full time, I’ve been at One Tent. Since that time we’ve grown from 75 volunteers to over a thousand from five different colleges in D.C. We’ve screened over 600 people, our positivity rate is better than the cities average, which tells us we’re doing our jobs well— and we’ve done it all on a relatively low budget. And when we finally developed data we started getting funding and grants.
It must be incredibly rewarding to measure success by the amount of people you’ve serviced. Are there any other indicators that One Tent is addressing an important need?
The nation, and really the world, is starting to take notice of us. It’s really weird. An example of that is that the Prince George’s Health Department, which is a county just out side of D.C.: They asked us to present about expanding into their county. I was asked to speak at Maryland’s statewide HIV conference a few weeks ago. Another example is the Philadelphia Health Department: They reached out and asked us how much time we need to expand into Philadelphia.
I said that the nation, and also the world are starting to take notice. On the world front, I got an email from an epidemiologist at the World Health Organization (WHO) who wanted to meet with me about our recent PrEP program that we launched. Since that time the WHO asked us to submit a case study about ourselves for potential inclusion in the worldwide HIV standards.
It’s wild to have that shift from spending the middle of the night grinding to getting the district and other jurisdictions wanting you and rolling out the red carpet for your expansion. Especially if we look at the origin of One Tent— this all came out of a one-off volunteer opportunity. Flash forward a few years and the WHO is knocking on our door asking to hear from us.
Let’s talk about some of the challenges you experience as a nonprofit founder.
We went from a shoestring operation to a more robust, comprehensive, and effective organization. We’re going to have four full time positions by the end of the year, and we’re seeing and thinking about geographic and/or service expansion.
Literally everything we do, until we do it, we’ve never done it. That’s the function of our being as an org and our staff. We don’t have experienced people in the org— we’re a young team.
What are some of the key takeaways you’ve encountered?
The number one thing I’ve learned is not so much about global health but about running an organization: Everything takes money. It’s one of those things that you don’t realize when you’re in school and your parents are paying for you and you get a job that pays well.
You have to be really resourceful. People don’t just hand out money. On the other hand, we won a grant and everything worked out. I learned a lot about resilience and confidence.
You mentioned One Tent is a young team that learns on the job. How has being a founder influenced your choices at One Tent?
I hated my job when I gradated from college, and what I really wanted to do was help people. Every single job that I found that looked meaningful required somewhere between 1-5 years of “relevant work experience.”
Where’s the job that required zero years of work experience that allows you to accumulate that experience? I didn’t see it existing. One of the reason One Tent exists was that nobody was going to let me do the things I wanted to do and knew I was capable of and new my peers were capable of.
As we hire we keep this in mind. I don’t care about experience. I studied Economics and Physics and I’ve figured everything out. There’s so much information out there and there are so many good teachers that if you want to learn something you can.
What I want to do is create job for 22-25 year olds who get high responsibility and are very imagination based. Essentially, I want to create a platform that provides jobs for people that I would’ve liked and been capable of doing when I was their age, but because of intense age discrimination that occurs in our economy, people are restricted from doing.
Speaking of hiring, One Tent is looking for a Program Lead! Let’s hear your pitch for why Second Day readers should apply to work at One Tent.
I think it’s the best job that anyone will ever have. We treat each other with respect, we trust each other, and everyone buys into and is selected upon how much they share our core principles of tenacity, honesty, and attention to detail. If you do all those things and you care, not only do you create good product, but you create something whose output you care about. You become more fulfilled.
We get to sit down and think about what are the problems and what are the solutions that make sense. If they make sense then we do it. There’s incredible creative freedom in that.
It’s great to be able to spend our days attacking and driving toward accomplishing a mission that to an extent that saves lives because that’s all that really matters.
To learn more about One Tent, check out their website and follow them on social (@onetenthealth). To hear from Mackenzie, follow him at @_BornOfFire_. Second Day will continue to post job openings on our job board as they become available! Right now they are hiring for a Program Lead. Apply now!