Milton Hershey made an indelible mark in the life of Jason Wolfe.
Not only did Wolfe graduate from the high school that bears the chocolate industrialist’s name, but he considers Hershey to be the man who inspired him to be a businessman and philanthropist.
Wolfe, President & CEO, Pittsburgh-based GiftCards.com, was named a winner in the Entrepreneur category at the Governor’s ImPAct Awards program earlier this year. Team Pennsylvania Foundation is a founding partner and co-sponsor of the ImPAct awards.
Hershey’s influence is so great that Wolfe, who attended the school from the age of 10 until he graduated at 18, built and branded his current company based on Hershey’s legacy.
“Milton Hershey was my mentor and he gave back to the community the gift of his fortune to create an orphanage,” Wolfe explained. “I am building a gift-based company that makes people happy. People are happy when they eat chocolate, people are happy when they give gifts. I feel like I have this connection to Hershey.”
A 1987 graduate of Milton Hershey School, Wolfe graduated in 1992 from Bloomsburg University with a degree in Marketing. Two years later, however, a horrific accident and a painful road to recovery left him jobless and homeless.
“For some people, there are circumstances that put them into a position that forces them to do something,” Wolfe said. “I did not set out to be an entrepreneur but I had no choice. So I taught myself how to write software while I was recovering from spinal surgery.”
Earning only $4,000, Wolfe borrowed some office space from a buddy where he worked 18 hours a day writing computer software.
“It was really tough for a while – I didn’t have health insurance and I ended up living out of my car down the street from where I worked,” Wolfe said. “Being from Milton Hershey, growing up that way, it wasn’t like I had a huge family who would say, ‘hey, come on home’.”
The software Wolfe wrote led to the creation in 1996 of his first business and first-ever coupon web site called Coupons Direct, which later became mycoupons.com.
“I knew it was going to be big because Web traffic was growing and the internet was becoming popular,” Wolfe said. “It was really being at the right place, the right time and taking lemons from an unfortunate circumstance and making it into lemonade. I didn’t grow up at Milton Hershey saying I want to be an entrepreneur, but I certainly learned about being an entrepreneur from studying Hershey’s life and the seed was planted there.”
Wolfe sold – but later repurchased and still owns – the coupon site and eventually launched his second business, Direct Response Technologies, which he ran from 2001 through 2006.
Wolfe said he took two years off to spend time with his one-year-old son before he got back into the entrepreneurial game in 2008 when he opened GiftCards.com.
With six patents, another 27 pending and employing 100 people, the company’s website says it was started “simply as a Visa gift cards online store, evolving into the highest ranking online gift cards store on the Internet, and boasting the largest selection of personalized Visa gift cards, custom MasterCard gift cards, discount gift cards, e-gift cards, local gift cards, rewards cards, and group gifts available.”
GiftCards.com sells between 1 and 2 million cards annually, Wolfe added.
Although he owns two companies, Wolfe has never forgotten the tough times and, just like his mentor, is committed to giving back to his fellow man.
Wolfe volunteers and supports his church and the Light of Life mission, a Pittsburgh-based homeless shelter and recovery program, has traveled three times to Haiti to perform mission work, and GiftCards.com employees receive a matching $500 donation to the charity of their choice.
“I volunteer there (Light of Life) and have been fortunate to be able to share my message with the homeless men,” Wolfe said. “You see some of the guys come in and think, ‘that was me’ – especially when I see the younger kids. It is really tough for these guys; there are very few places for them to go.”
As far as his entrepreneurial future is concerned, Wolfe is content on growing GiftCards.com.
“I want to be focused, focused on a company that is known,” Wolfe said. “At this point, I’d like to see something become significant and I think GiftCards.com can be significant. We’ll see, time will tell.”