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How the 33-year-old CEO of Kickstarter went from homeless to the C-suite

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In September, Everette Taylor became CEO of creative project crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. It’s a role Taylor, a serial entrepreneur, never imagined he’d be in.

“I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, very, very far from the tech hub of Silicon Valley,” Taylor, 33, said Thursday on a panel for Fortune Connect, Fortune’s exclusive education community. “My story is pretty unorthodox, because I came from a place where most people who lived there didn’t leave a few-block radius. I lived on the south side, and a lot of people wouldn’t even go to the north side.”

Growing up, Taylor said, he wasn’t surrounded by as many entrepreneurs as “hustlers.” 

“I saw people selling fake Gucci at the barber shop, drug dealers, all different types of people just hustling, trying to make ends meet,” he recalled. “I remember the minimum wage was like $5 an hour; it was really tough.”

In his characterization, Richmond was not inspiring, nor did it provide many examples of “what it is to do good or to make it in life.” As a result, Taylor says he learned as he went. “And I was very fortunate.”

Humble beginnings

Growing up, many men in Taylor’s family were incarcerated for drug-related crimes, he said. When his mom saw him heading down a bad path in his teens, she forced him to get a job. That job ended up being a marketing position at a nonprofit called Eastern National, and Taylor credits it with “getting him off the streets.”

Clients at that job included gift shops and bookstores attached to national parks, which made for fascinating and unusual business trips for Taylor. At the national parks, he’d meet people from around the globe, which he believes opened up his mind at such a young age. He stayed in the role for a few years, until his family fell on hard times, which resulted in homelessness by his senior year of high school.

“During that time, I used to go to the local library for shelter,” he recalled. “While I was there, I discovered tech. I discovered the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, and the Jack Dorseys, and all these different people, and I was like, wow, tech is an opportunity.” 

His research reignited his passion for knowledge. He saved up money and worked odd jobs such as washing windshields to apply to Virginia Tech, where he eventually enrolled. “I knew nothing about it,” he said. “It just had tech in the name, and I got in.”

Shortly after arriving in Blacksburg, Taylor had to drop out to help his mom. Around the same time, he started his first company, an event planning firm called EZ Events, which he ended up selling a few years later to California-based consulting firm T3 Sixty. 

From there, he went to Silicon Valley to work under Sean Ellis, the executive coach who coined the term “growth hacking.” That gig led Taylor deeper and deeper into tech and executive marketing roles, especially at smaller, earlier-stage companies.

He arrived at Kickstarter in late September after three years serving as Artsy’s chief marketing officer. Right before starting, he was named to the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 for his drive and commitment to equity in the arts and marketing realms. But passion wasn’t always front and center. 

Passion is a privilege

“A lot of us don’t have the luxury of [working jobs] we’re passionate about, things that might make less money,” Taylor acknowledges. “My first CMO job was for a sticker company. Let’s be honest, I’m not passionate about stickers. I took that job because it was like ‘Whoa, you’re gonna pay me how much? And I get my first CMO role?’ I was only 25 years old. I made decisions in my life strictly based on career advancement and money, just to be completely honest.”

As he’s gotten older, however, the emotional weight of “peeling myself off the bed every day, and giving my all to something that I genuinely didn’t believe in or was passionate about” became heavier.

“You get to a point where you realize—and this is speaking from an ivory tower, because obviously at the executive level, you’re making more money—you begin to realize that money is less important than peace of mind and happiness.”

Taylor says he spent most of his career with a toxic work mentality centered on maximum grind with minimum sleep and no time for family, relationships, or healthy habits. Once he reevaluated his priorities, he knew it was time to do work he was passionate about—which ended up being with Artsy.

“When I came into that role, I was 30 years old. I beat out people damn near twice my age and way more experienced,” he recalled. But what he believes got him the job, more than anything, was his passion for art. “That can be the cheat code.”

His advice to people considering making a career shift or trying to chart a new direction is to let their passion guide them; that’s what can help them “actually level up.” He cites the philosophy of ikigai, which encourages doing something you can get paid for, that feeds your passion, and that generates good for the world. 

Artsy hit on all of those factors, Taylor said, and Kickstarter “has taken it to a whole ‘nother level.”  As he looks ahead—he’s fewer than three months into his tenure at the crowdfunding platform—Taylor is focused on making an impact and loving what he does. “That has ultimately become the most important thing in my life.”

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