Kevin Cao

How you spend your time is how you spend your life.

Kevin Cao works to inspire and enable change through his academic and personal pursuits. He is currently a Global Development Studies major at the University of Virginia. A Jefferson Scholar, Echols Scholar, and Meriwether Lewis Fellow, Kevin is heavily involved on campus. He has been involved in a variety of organizations and projects that have cultivated and informed his perspective on nonprofits, education, community development, and social entrepreneurship. His awards and honors include Northern Virginia Magazine: Northern Virginian of the Year, President’s Volunteer Service Award, Bank of America Student Leader, and the Fairfax County Anthony H. Griffin Partnership Leader Award.

Kevin Cao has had the opportunity to participate in study abroad programs in Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia. His experiences overseas, as well as his longtime interest in international relations and diplomatic work, have inspired him to pursue education and international development opportunities abroad. From 2014 to 2016, Kevin worked alongside the University of Virginia chapter of Engineering Students Without Borders to conduct a pro-bono consulting project in Nicaragua. Kevin secured $20,000 in grants to evaluate and improve rural water infrastructure. President Bill Clinton honored his research at the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative University.

In addition to his academic achievements, Kevin Cao is also the Co-Founder of Growth and Inspiration through Volunteering and Education (GIVE). GIVE is the largest student-led 501(c)(3) non-profit in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. The organization began with the mission of cultivating leadership and improving the quality of life of youth in the DC community. The nonprofit continues to expand and meet the needs of 1000+ students across the four counties in Virginia. GIVE has received press coverage and recognition from the Washington Post, Northern Virginia Magazine, Virginia Business Magazine, among other news organizations. The organization has organized many initiatives — like mentorship programs and test prep book drives – aimed at extending opportunity and working towards educational equity. Kevin now serves on the Board of Directors and helps guide the organization’s strategy.

Kevin Cao enjoys hiking in U.S. National Parks and hopes to get his barber license one day.

Where did the idea for GIVE come from?

Having personally attended a low-income Title I elementary school, I know firsthand the impact that educational opportunity can have. I’m not sure where I would be — and what my life would look like — if my second grade teacher hadn’t recognized potential in me and recommended me for admission to a gifted program at a local magnet school. With that as my inspiration, I founded GIVE with two friends in high school to extend educational equity to all students. Since then, my journey with GIVE has also led me to hold diverse roles in the education field, from a student representative to my local school board to an intern at an education nonprofit in New Orleans.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

It might be cliche, but I truly believe the early bird gets the worm.
I start my day around 6am with a trip to the gym, or if I’m working that day, a bike ride to my part-time job at a bakery in town. I listen to a podcast in the morning to catch the daily news, then am off to class. After class, I attend meetings and usually get dinner or drinks with friends. No matter how busy the day is, I try to get in at least 30 minutes of pleasure reading before bed.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I think there is a lot of power in writing down your goals. I take it one step further: I print and frame my goals, then place the frame on my desk, where I will see it every time I sit down to get work done.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Social entrepreneurship really excites me. I love the marriage of business and social impact. It’s encouraging that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that leading businesses can leverage their successes to create social good.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Every morning I make my bed and tell the first person I meet that today is going to a great day. Making your bed first thing in the morning is starting your day off productively, and that momentum will carry you through the rest of your day. Second, I believe that attitude is everything; by telling people around you that today is going to be a great day, you are setting a positive tone not only for yourself, but also for those in your home or office. Positivity is contagious.

What advice would you give your younger self?

How you spend your time is how you spend your life.

Write down your priorities in order. Check your Google Calendar and track how you spend your time. Make sure the two lists match or make changes until they do.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?

Brussel sprouts are, hands down, the best vegetable.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I unplug at least once a week to go hiking. I live in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. To me, it would be a shame not to take full advantage of Shenandoah National Park, which is practically right next door.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Fail fast, fail forward. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries explains that the key to launching a startup is trial, error, and iteration. Don’t be afraid to fail, but more importantly, make sure you learn from your failures and translate them into lessons that help you succeed in the future.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

The year GIVE was founded, we planned a kick off event to launch the organization. Our team had secured a five hundred person venue and were nervous about exceeding capacity. However, when the day arrived, only fifty people attended. To say we were embarrassed is an understatement.

After that incident, our team worked extremely hard to prevent repeating our mistakes. We learned firsthand the importance of effective communication, initiating early, and follow through.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Open up a pho shop in any college town that does not yet have one.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

A vintage road bike, which I’ve now owned for two years and still use to get everywhere around town. Many times biking is faster — and not to mention healthier — than driving!

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

I live by my Google calendar. My friends poke fun at me for sending out calendar invites to just about everything — including outings to Chipotle.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Clayton Christensen is a thoughtful primer on how to live with intention.

What is your favorite quote?

Life is 10% what happens and 90% how you respond.

Key Learnings:

  • Effective communication, initiating early, and follow through are critical
  • How you spend your time is how you spend your life
  • Attitude is everything; positivity is contagious


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