Joan Steltmann’s mission is clear: Help children who are coping with chronic illness. (Credit: Bounce Children's Foundation)
Joan Steltmann’s mission is clear: Help children who are coping with chronic illness. (Credit: Bounce Children’s Foundation)

Editor’s Note: This is one of seven women entrepreneurs named to our Fearless #Over50 list

Joan Steltmann’s mission is clear: Help children who are coping with chronic illness.

She accomplishes this as the founder of Bounce Children’s Foundation, a Deerfield, Illinois-based nonprofit launched in 2015 that coordinates events, gift baskets and more for kids living with long-term illnesses, and their relatives. To date, she has hosted and sent goodies to hundreds of grateful families.

But she didn’t always have that clarity of purpose in her life. Before entering the nonprofit world, she spent nearly 20 years working her way up the ranks at tech giant IBM as a marketing executive. It was steady, well-paying work, “but it wasn’t inspiring,” she says. So instead, she chose to do the thing that did light a fire inside of her — helping kids.

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After working at an established nonprofit for several years as a chapter director, she launched Bounce. Her marketing and management experience emboldened her to take the leap, since she acknowledges that “my younger self had no idea I could do this.” Now, she realizes that “the power to truly make a difference is within. The power to step out and lead is within.”

Deciding to Make the Leap

In her younger years, Steltmann’s vision for her life was relatively simple: a career spent climbing the ladder at a large company, a gold watch after years of service, and a comfortable retirement. “I’m the last person I thought would be an entrepreneur,” she says.

She earned her bachelor’s of business administration degree in finance and international management from the University of Michigan, then started at IBM. Eventually, she became one of several market development executives, and got her MBA in marketing from Northwestern University along the way. Everything was going according to her life plan.

Then, in 2001, Steltmann faced a life-changing decision: stay with IBM and move to New York City, as they requested, or begin a new chapter in her life. “Before I jumped into the next high-tech corporate marketing job, I thought about what else I might do,” she says. And her mind turned to the volunteer work she had done in her free time at places like the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

“I always had a passion for helping kids. It comes from this place of realizing that they’re kind of helpless, and they can’t always fend for themselves — particularly kids with health issues.” She saw an opportunity to turn that passion into work, and got a job managing her local chapter of the Starlight Children’s Foundation, which entertains children during their hospital stays.

There, Steltmann says, she turned an outfit in decline into a growing operation that, at its height, worked with over 600 families in four states — that is, until Starlight shifted gears and shut down all of its satellite locations.  “That’s the worst job on the planet — having to close down a nonprofit,” she says, recalling families “literally sobbing in my arms” because Starlight was the only support they had.

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Steltmann considered volunteering her time to ease their transition, but she had practical concerns of her own — she was a single mother with a mortgage and a 401K to fund. Instead, she decided to fill the gap by starting up Bounce.

Finding Funding

During the sleepless nights that followed, she worked on her business plan and researched how to find and win over angel investors. The homework paid off: She secured a $250,000 grant from the philanthropic arm of a large global law firm. (That same firm would underwrite Bounce’s costs for its first two years.) Combined with her savings, she had enough funding to launch.

What she launched and built is an organization that gives children grappling with chronic illness — and their parents, siblings and other caregivers — opportunities to have fun, feel included, and connect with people who understand them, she says. Illness, Steltmann explains, can often dominate every aspect of life, negatively impacting the mental and emotional health of everyone involved. “A whole family is wiped out, with no ongoing support [once they leave the hospital] — that’s the gap we fill.”

Today, her biggest challenge is making sure she can afford to accommodate the growing number of families who turn to Bounce for support, at no cost to themselves. For example, Bounce recently hosted a zoo trip for 200 families, but almost 500 asked to go. Demand is also increasing for Bounce’s gift baskets, which are assembled and shipped to 350 families during the holidays and major events like the Super Bowl for kids who can’t go out in extreme weather.

In 2018, “we grew 50 percent in the last 6 months,” Steltmann says. “Our budget doesn’t grow that fast.” To increase Bounce’s visibility — and improve the likelihood of receiving donations — she has worked with large nonprofits, contacted major pediatric hospitals and asked marketing agencies to volunteer services for free. And there is hope on the horizon — she recently received a challenge grant from a donor who will match donations dollar-for-dollar up to $150,000.

The work is hard, but “I often joke that I traded stock options for sticky hugs,” she says. Every time a client expresses gratitude, she’s reminded that she made the right decision in starting up. “When you see kids light up because someone recognizes them, supports them, accepts them — you can’t put a price on that.”

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