By Callie Langford
John Berkowitz believes that we all have superpowers, and among his own superpowers are the ability to identify people’s strengths and then to organize talented people into building big, successful ventures. He does this by believing in a vision for what is possible, even long before there is any credible evidence to support that vision. These might just be the superpowers CASA needs in a year with the highest volunteer recruitment goals ever!
John takes on the role of Board President after 5 years of serving on CASA’s board of directors. His interest in leadership began many years before CASA, however. In high school, he served as Class President, captained two of his sports teams and was always involved in community service.
John “always had an entrepreneurial track,” and he started his first company, Yodle, just as he finished college at George Washington University. (His co-founder at Yodle, Ben Rubenstein was CASA’s 2016 Board President.) Learning about business and entrepreneurship was a big part of John’s early life: “My father brought business home, in a positive and negative way, and it was a good experience for me.” John shares that the only way to have a healthy family life when you’re an entrepreneur is to have “everyone on the same mission together.” His wife, Alina, and two older kids, Jackson and Logan, participate actively in everything (his two-year-old, Sebastian, will join the business soon). “They understand business, the ups and downs you go through. If you don’t bring your family into it, you don’t have a good shot at a successful family. We have a blast. The boys understand hiring and firing, good and bad customers, technical problems. This was how I was raised!”
It was John’s first company, that brought him to Austin in 2011 when Yodle acquired an Austin company, ProfitFuel, whose CEO, David Rubin, was CASA’s 2017 Board President. John had been travelling and living in 26 different apartments in 7 cities during his work with Yodle. Austin quickly moved to the top of the list when he arrived for what was supposed to be a six-week stay. In the process of merging companies, he met Alina, whom he would marry a few years later, and fell for both her and the city, realizing that Austin was a better option than his previous homes to live a healthy life. After selling Yodle in 2016, John and David Rubin launched OJO Labs, a company focused on artificial intelligence and consumer decision-making.
“Throughout my whole life I have gravitated towards trying to help people who are most vulnerable, and the top of that list has always been kids.” He had coached kids sports after college, and volunteered as part of a youth nonprofit for social justice. “In Austin, I wanted to find something that was at the heart of helping children and was really efficient about it. With CASA, as I got into it more, the importance of it only became clearer.” He now does everything he can – as a family, using his individual skills, and sharing his resources – to support this crucial cause.
And this is a crucial time for CASA. Our vision of providing a CASA volunteer to every child in need is coming closer. Now that we are automatically appointed to all children ages 5 and up, our 2018 goal is to also begin serving all children ages 2 and up, a goal that hits home for John when he thinks about his 2-year-old Sebastian. When John emceed our record-breaking fundraising gala, CASAblanca, earlier this month, he told the audience:
“When I imagine my two-year-old son Sebastian and where he would be without the constant advocacy of his parents, my heart breaks. Without an ability to communicate his needs and someone to address those needs he could quickly go from a thriving young boy to a child whose life and future was completely at risk.”
John also delved into what it means to be an advocate during his speech to help the audience understand what CASA volunteers bring to kids’ lives:
“Advocate is an interesting word. If you don’t work or volunteer for CASA you likely don’t use it use it in your everyday lives. The dictionary defines it as: a person who pleads on someone else's behalf. To be honest, in the first few months of working with CASA I struggled to connect with the term advocate. I came to realize however that throughout my life, although I had far from a perfect childhood, I was surrounded by advocates. My parents advocated for me to go to school, they advocated for me by finding me the right medical care when I needed it, they encouraged me during the dark times, and inspired me to find better times. There was always someone going to bed at night thinking about what was needed to keep me healthy and moving forward in life.”
John wants an advocate for every child in need in Travis County, especially those youngest and most vulnerable children who are not yet automatically appointed to CASA. And he’s going to make sure it happens.
“I’m pretty darn passionate about this. I’m not going to stop until we’re effectively serving every child in need in Austin.”
February Board 2018