RICHMOND -- Hector Andrade spent many nights of his senior year working at Taco Bell till 4 a.m. before school to support himself.
Valerie Bagala is a single mother of a special-needs child, balancing college classes with a full-time job.
The two west Contra Costa County students aren't your typical academic superstars. But they are determined to pursue higher education and are seeking financial support in an unconventional way: through a new website called iPivoted.org that allows donors to browse student profiles and find someone they believe in.
As with Kiva.org or DonorsChoose.org, students using iPivoted post a short profile and specify a budget for their education expenses, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Potential contributors browse student listings, pick a student and donate.
"I'm the kind of person who takes advantage of opportunities," said Bagala, 29, a psychology student transferring from Contra Costa College to Cal State East Bay this fall. "I'm sitting there applying for hundreds of scholarships and thinking, wouldn't it be easier to post yourself and they can contact you?"
The profiles stay up for as long as six months. When students reach their financial goal, they get the funding minus a 15 percent cut to offset iPivoted's administrative costs. If pledges fall short of the goal, donors get their money back.
It is no coincidence that the site's founder, Ben Steinberg, spent several years working abroad with the microfinancing venture Finca.org, which funds low-income entrepreneurs in 21 countries. He also spent time in Mississippi, working to revitalize rural economies.
"I really saw in this Mississippi town that if you didn't have a good educational system, you really couldn't advance economically," said Steinberg, 43, who lives in unincorporated Richmond. "It's not a level playing field. If some kids can focus on school all day and some are working, how can you assess them?"
To be featured on the nonprofit site, students must have spent time in the foster care system, qualified for free or reduced-price lunches in grade school or suffer from chronic illness. First-generation college students and veterans with dependents are also eligible.
Steinberg hopes the site will allow these young people to avoid "a life of underemployment" and instead "pivot up."
He has secured the support of executives from around the country. The national board chairman of United Way of America, the president of Contra Costa College and the marketing director for Heifer International all sit on iPivoted's board of directors.
A few days after launching Tuesday, the site has already attracted a handful of donors. So far, there are 10 students listed on the site with photos and background information. With iPivoted, Sacramento doctor Chris Price, 44, saw an opportunity to make college possible for a student in need, knowing exactly how his money is spent.
"I want to give back, but to a person," he said. "With this, you can be like, 'I was part of a scholarship, and it really didn't cost me that much.' "
Price split $250 between Andrade -- a 19-year-old who moved alone to Richmond from El Salvador when he was 15 -- and a young woman hoping to study international relations at UCLA, both of whom struck him as particularly well organized.
The woman's story also reminded him of his own past disappointment when he turned down a spot at Princeton University to study international relations and chose a cheaper, public university.
Andrade and Bagala both have big plans for the funding they hope to get through iPivoted.org. The young man who lights up when talking about math and science hopes to major in mechanical engineering and one day work at Chevron. And the single mother will pursue bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology, with the hope of becoming a therapist.
"It's an awesome opportunity. It costs you nothing," Bagala said.
"If you don't put yourself out there, you're not going to get anything."