Profit for purpose: How a student-run business aims to help area nonprofits

Senior Mary Laci Motley created Eats2Seats as a way to help nonprofits raise money via concession stands. The startup is representing Carolina at the annual ACC Inventure Prize competition.

Mary Laci Motley working at a concession stand.
Mary Laci Motley launched Eats2Seats. The company solves two problems: It works with nonprofits to fundraise while also staffing event venues that need the help. (Photo courtesy Mary Laci Motley)

Mary Laci Motley was all set to spend the summer after her first year at Carolina in New York’s financial district interning at a private equity firm. But life had other plans.

Shortly before she was supposed to head north, the business major learned that she’d been accepted into the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program and would instead be heading south to New Orleans to help out with Habitat for Humanity.

That shift — from wealth management to philanthropy — was seismic. “It was that summer that changed how I view business and how I view what personal success means to me,” says Motley, now a senior at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

When she returned to Chapel Hill after the summer in New Orleans, she began a class project that involved volunteering with Peewee Homes, which builds affordable tiny homes in the area.

Motley primarily helped raise money for Peewee. As part of that mission, she learned about an opportunity for nonprofits to staff concession stands and fundraise through the app called FanFood. But the experience was messy. “We had to show up four hours early, and we ended up getting inventory fines because no one knew what was going on,” she says.

Motley saw an opportunity and developed a business called Eats2Seats, which works alongside FanFood to staff concession stands on behalf of nonprofits. “I didn’t realize it was going to turn into this business opportunity, but it came from my own experience struggling to fundraise for a smaller local nonprofit,” she says.

Eats2Seats solves two problems: It works with nonprofits to fundraise while also staffing event venues that need the help. “Too many nonprofits are losing thousands in fundraising dollars, and concessions are losing revenue from understaffed and inefficient stands,” Motley explains. “We come in and try to solve both those problems.”

Although Motley originally thought she’d work in banking after graduation, she came to realize how much she wanted her work to give back to others. Everything she’d learned in business school could be applied to what she calls “profit for purpose.”

“What I love about [Eats2Seats] and learning what I have through this experience is that profit is a really beautiful thing because it brings scale, and scale brings impact,” she says. “My end goal is to see how much we can fuel into communities and how much impact we can create as we expand and scale.”

With her business acumen and her nonprofit chops, Motley will represent Carolina at the ACC InVenture Prize this month. It’s the country’s largest college-based competition for innovation — think “Shark Tank” for entrepreneurial college students.

Although the whole experience will be different because of the pandemic, Motley is incredibly excited about sharing Eats2Seats with a bigger audience, and she credits Carolina with helping her take that stage. “Having a support system like the one I received at UNC is amazing and having them select me to represent them is something I’m really honored and humbled about,” she says. “I definitely want to say thank you to UNC and the Innovate Carolina community.”

Motley has already recorded her virtual presentation and will participate in a remote Q&A with the judges on April 7. The official winner won’t be announced until April 21, but ahead of that, there’s a People’s Choice voting round available between April 5-6, where everyone can vote for their favorite pitch.

As for what follows the ACC InVenture Prize, Motley has a lot in play. The pandemic disrupted the two industries that Eats2Seats relies on to work with nonprofits — events venues and the restaurant industry — but she’s been using the time to refine her idea. “I looked at avenues where we can really improve our services,” she says.

Before, Eats2Seats was so popular that she found herself texting people in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee, where the company operates, to find help. Now, she’s built out a system to manage volunteers. “It’s an automated system, which is going to make scalability so much more feasible,” she says.

Eats2Seats will be Motley’s focus as she wraps up her final semester at Carolina. She plans on going full-time with the company. “I might be eating ramen for the next year,” she laughs. “But it’s been a one-woman show for far too long. I’m excited to build a diverse team. Get ready for fall 2021 because there was already a need pre-COVID, but now there’s more people to help.”

April 22 update: Mary Laci Motley and Eats2Seats won the ACC InVenture Prize’s People’s Choice Award during the April 21 awards ceremony. The ceremony can be viewed on YouTube.