Rochester Innovators Series: Tori Utley
Trying to give Tori Utley a one-word title proved to be an improbable task. This young woman, just 23 years of age, has the distinction of being one of the hardest working and most committed individuals you will ever come across. She is a counselor, advocate, writer and entrepreneur, who devotes the limited amount of down time she allots herself to dreaming up her next big idea.
But what may surprise you is that it is not past achievements — like earning an associate’s degree three weeks before her high school graduation or giving an inspiring TEDx talk in front of a room of more than a thousand — but rather her experiences with adversity that have given Tori the toolkit she needs to take on new challenges.
“Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer unless you absolutely know that ‘no’ has to be the answer,” says Tori. “I think sometimes it’s just a gut feeling. Does that ‘no’ mean truly stop pushing or just try harder — just look at it in a different way?”
Tori is now a full-time entrepreneur and social impact warrior. She is in the process of launching a mobile app called Tinua that aims to turn unused gift cards into sources of revenue for charities across the globe. Tori is also the resident advocate for Mission 21, a Rochester nonprofit that works with child victims of sex trafficking, and the founder of More Than An Addict, an organization that helps empower individuals in recovery.
We recently sat down with Tori over coffee to learn more about the many projects she’s working on, and the inspiration behind them. Minor edits were made for flow and clarity.
For a 23-year-old, you have quite a bit going on. Have you always had this drive?
Whatever I put my mind to, I try to excel and succeed at. But it was always different. It wasn’t always academic; just growing up, it was simple things like friends or music, things I put myself fully into. But I think I really connected to school, especially once I hit the college level, in a way I hadn’t before. From age 16 on, it was fun to see that you could put your mind to something, achieve something, then that thing lasted and impacted your whole life.
Tell us about More Than An Addict. I understand the mission of the organization was developed in response to your own experiences?
More Than An Addict comes from personal history. My dad’s in recovery (seven years strong), so growing up he struggled with addiction throughout my childhood. But he always felt he could figure stuff out in a way that I didn’t know how to describe until years later when I became an alcohol and drug counselor.
I saw this creativity, this tenacity, this drive that, despite the fact there was something so strong taking ahold of your life — whether you are actively addicted or growing in recovery — that these people I was meeting were able to do things and solve problems and think outside the box in a way I have never seen before.
So what we’re doing is creating a nationwide mentorship network and platform where people in recovery can come and be mentored by others in recovery and have the resources to pursue education, employment and entrepreneurship. And then 50 percent of all our proceeds go into a philanthropic foundation that supports grants, microloans and scholarships for the recovery community.
While we're on the topic of recovery — You also have another project in the works?
My dad and I are starting a sober living facility in Olmsted County for men — and in the future, women — who have been placed on waiting lists for residential treatment for halfway housing.
Recovery has been a big part of my life, and I have just met so many people who are in that unfortunate period of wanting to change, wanting to get sober, but having nowhere to go. So one day we were talking and came to the same conclusion that it’s not OK that people are falling through the cracks; that we need to create a place and a model where they don’t.
On the business side, Tinua is nearing its launch. What was the spark behind this idea?
Just having worked so much in the nonprofit sector, I see the need for funding all the time and also believe in the amazing power of philanthropy. So when I learned that over a billion dollars every year in gift cards is unspent, I thought, ‘this is not OK.’
It got me excited about this unique funding source that gives us a really easy way to give and support charities in a currency that is relatively landlocked right now. So it was just something I felt like I couldn’t steer my mind away from, seeing the impact it could have from what we usually forget about in our sock drawers.
For those who don't know, you also write a monthly column for Forbes. What has that been like?
A lot of the issues we as entrepreneurs face are largely the same. So it’s been fun, because being an entrepreneur here in Rochester has given me such inspiration for what I write about. The cool thing, too, has been the ability through the Forbes channel to meet people all over the country and all over the world who are making a difference.
IF you could, talk about your experiences starting a business in ROchester.
Rochester is an amazing place. I’ve loved starting my businesses here. In addition to world-class medical innovation, our city is home to everyday heroes who are making a difference in our community and beyond. As a social entrepreneur, I appreciate this quality about the community, as well as the encouragement and support I’ve received as a young, female entrepreneur.
KNowing you could start a business anywhere, what makes this city unique?
It’s fun because our community is up and coming, so being able to start a company here and sink in our roots here, and really make this community known for something — we’re right at the cusp of that. So it feels like an exciting time to be an entrepreneur. I hope that other people see that the time is now and even though we’re not Silicon Valley, we’ve got this amazing thing happening here.
any advice for a young ENTREPRENEUR reading this?
Go for it. Believe in the skills you have and know that there’s nothing disqualifying you from being the right person to pursue your business idea. You don’t need to be the smartest, you just need to work harder and scrappier than anyone else. But most importantly, find amazing mentors. Look for people that will give you the tough advice and invest in your journey as an entrepreneur.
Rochester Innovators is a nine-part series being published in partnership with Destination Medical Center.
Cover photo by William Forsman