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With Startup, Alumna Focuses on Community-Driven Products

Jen Consalvo and business partner Frank Gruber at TECH Cocktail DC in August.

Jen Consalvo is thankful for many things, from the mundane – finally getting a chance to go grocery shopping – to the grandiose: the entire year of 2009, which brought her healing, growth, comfort and adventure.

If that sounds personal, that's the point: the former AOL executive's latest project is Thankfulfor.com, an online gratitude journal that she dreamed up last spring while launching her new startup company with business partner Frank Gruber.

Consalvo, KSB/MBA/'01 and SOC/BA/'94, has worked with a number of startups and seen many lose their vision and mission. That's why, when she left AOL in 2008 after almost 13 years with the company, she had a clear goal in mind: "I wanted to build community-driven products that remind people of the joys in life," she explained.

That led to name of their new company, Shiny Heart Ventures: they wanted 'heart' to be front and center.

Consalvo learned the importance of compassion firsthand from her dad, a Maine lobsterman who always put his employees first and fostered a positive work culture. "That's what it takes to motivate people," she said.

The inspiration for Thankfulfor.com struck in the midst of another project; "I thought, I have to do this," Consalvo said. She designed the portal herself at first, and then hired a friend to polish it. She and Gruber organized a soft launch at a Tech Cocktail networking event in DC last summer, with a full launch on September 11, 2009.

There has been even more interest than they hoped for; people are blogging about their gratitude, and "every day I’m delighted by the new people coming in," Consalvo said. "It's perfect timing: people are tired of having so many things to be sad about. We need positive action."

For now, Consalvo and Gruber are polishing their product, adding more interactive opportunities by tapping into existing social networks, optimizing search, and testing out revenue ideas. They have a plan to make the project self-sustaining, she emphasized.

As a product team leader for AOL, Consalvo built relationships with small technology companies – many of them startups - that AOL was interested in partnering with.

When she started at AOL in 1996, the company had just gone public; as its success peaked, she watched peers "retire." After things at AOL began to erode, Consalvo was voluntarily laid off in 2008 – but by then, she’d already decided on her next move.

In addition to Shiny Heart’s projects, Consalvo's also working on a photography book and she contributes to several blogs, including one for women in technology. "Photography and writing are still my greatest passions," she said. Thanks to her combined communications and business education, she feels comfortable jumping into any position – research, writing, programming code, bookkeeping.

And Consalvo's happy working independently, wherever her day takes her - often at coffee shops, hotels, or even the Library of Congress – anywhere that offers WiFi.

"I like that there’s a growing tech community in DC," she said. "There are so many ways to be an entrepreneur now. Especially for women."