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One On 1 Profile: DoSomething.org COO Aria Finger Backs Up Her Idealism With The Real Thing

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Many New Yorkers profiled in "One On 1" have a long career on which to reflect, but others are just getting started but have already begun to do something special. The latter certainly fits Aria Finger, the 29-year-old chief operating officer of DoSomething.org. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

Aria Finger is old. Not by most standards, but compared to her colleagues at DoSomething.org.

"25 and under, that's 'young people.' You hit age 26, you're old. And yet everywhere else you go, I was at a corporate lawyers' retreat this weekend, I was the youngest person in the room," says Finger. "I am always thought of as a young person except when I go to work. When I go to work, I'm an old person."

Finger's official title is chief operating officer for Do Something.org, but her unofficial title could be "force of nature."

Do Something is a non-profit designed to inspire teens to effect social change. Do Something touts 700,000 active members, and more than 2.5 million young people have participated in campaigns with companies like Aeropostale and Staples.

But recruiting teens requires creativity.

"I'm not saying it's going to be lollipops and rainbows for the rest of your life, but we want to get people involved, that first involvement. I don't care why you start. I don't care if it's you want a college scholarship, it looks good on your resume, because that boy you like asked you to, I don't care. Once you get hooked, you'll do it for life," says Finger. "And you'll find the cause you're passionate about and then you'll do the hard work you need to do and get deep into the issue and go beyond the surface. But if it has to be fun to get a 13-year-old involved, fine by me."

The annual Do Something awards on VH1 is part of that fun, and there is clearly a fun vibe in the do something office. But the seriousness of purpose is unmistakable, and that starts with the COO.

"I don't want to know we're helping a lot of people do good stuff. I want to know that we're helping 2.6 million young people take action and we're collecting a million pairs of jeans and 350,000 books. I want to know the numbers behind it. That's the way my mind works," Finger says.

Her work at Do Something has given Finger a broader profile. As a prime example, she was invited to participate on a panel at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

But Finger says she still has to deal with preconceived notions when she's navigating older, predominantly male environments.

"People assume that I don't have any quantitative skills, and that I'm this fluffy not-for-profit person," says Finger. "I have to say, 'I was an econ major, or I taught math, or I was in this executive business program at Stanford,' and I have to say that and people [say], 'Oh really? I didn't peg you as an econ gal, that's really interesting.' Every time."

Crain's New York thought enough of her accomplishments to include her in the "2012 Forty Under Forty" list, even putting her on the cover.

"Photog made me do it," says Finger. "He said, 'Let's get some shots of you sticking your tongue out.'"

Her tongue ring was prominent on the Crain's cover, and sometimes takes focus in meetings.

"Most times people will look at me and the whole meeting, doing double-takes, looking at me the whole time. You can tell they are getting up the energy to say, 'Do you have a tongue ring?'" she says.

Finger grew up in Westchester County, and has chosen to pursue her passion in the city. But when it came time for college, she wanted a campus experience elsewhere.

"The idea of going to college in New York City is just stupid to me. I don't understand why anyone would go to college in New York City," she says.

Finger is nothing if not direct, perhaps because she was one of four kids, fighting to get a word in around the dinner table. Getting involved in social activism was a parental requirement.

"It was these values we have, diversity, equality, we care about all of these things. And you can do whatever you want, except be a lawyer," says Finger.

In 11th grade, she gave what she called "a rousing oration" about the growing gap between rich and poor. Not everyone was amused.

"Afterwards someone wrote 'Communist' on my locker and I broke down in tears. Which is hilarious, because I would wear that now as a badge of honor. That's not something to cry about, that's great," she says.

Finger was six-feet tall by ninth grade. She says much of the confidence she displays today stems from playing sports like basketball as a kid.

"First girl to play on the all-star team and I thought, 'Yeah, I can do this, I can be one of the guys, can play with them.' It was incredible, gave me a lot of confidence, and it was scary as hell, but it was great," says Finger.

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, Finger considered going down the path of her parents and a career in teaching.

Finger did spend one summer teaching with her father in a program he created for underserved African-American and Latino eighth graders interested in going to college.

In 2006, she joined Do Something, an organization that marries her idealism with her love of economic theory.

"I'm not selling widgets to the audience. I'm selling inspiration and social change and these wonderful ideals," says Finger.

She says the non-profit and business worlds are not so different.

"I've gotten to work with lots of bankers, lawyers, for-profit industries, literally billionaires. They've been wonderful people," she says. "That's made me believe everyone is a good person, they're just doing it in their own way."

Do Something was founded by the actor Andrew Shue in 1993, in an period that spawned many non-profits, like AmeriCorps, City Year and Teach for America.

Do Something says its budget has increased from $3.5 million to 8.5 million in the past year and there are plans to run 26 campaigns in 2012. They are clearly no longer the new non-profit kids on the block.

"We always think of ourselves as the scrappy startup, no one is paying attention to us. And now we get emails from other young social entrepreneurs, saying, 'We're watching you guys, I'm seeing what you do, trying to emulate you, trying to build it up,'" says Finger. "And we're like, 'Oh shoot, we better be on top of our game. People are watching us.'"

Despite being on the older side at Do Something, Finger is still a young woman following her passion. But she is pondering how she will manage running a non-profit and being a mother.

"If I'm so busy right now trying to figure things out, how the hell am I going to work it out if I have two or three kids? It petrifies me all the time, how is it possible?" she says.

For now, though, Finger counts her blessings.

"I'm the luckiest person in the world. Life is great. So many people complain about what they have and they don't understand how lucky they are to be doing what they're doing," Finger says. "Two parents are alive, I have siblings. I feel very lucky every moment."

On July 10, Do Something kicked off in New York a national campaign entitled "The Hunt: Eleven Days of Doing." The organization describes it as a "do-good scavenger hunt for teens using text messaging."

NY1 Update, 8/20/12: Since the story first aired, Do Something says it has added 300,000 new members, and now totals more than one million members. The annual Do Something Awards are also being shown for the first time on August 21 on VH1. Celebrities like Will Ferrell and Olivia Munn will present grant money to teenagers involved in social change.

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