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College idea 'spills' into fast-paced career for Alexandria woman

When Heidi Allstop of Alexandria couldn't find the support she needed to help her through some tough times at college, she created an organization that could provide it.

In just two years, that small campus organization has grown into a national company that has helped thousands of students.

Supporting Peers in Laidback Listening (SPILL) is an e-mail-based support system that provides peer-to-peer support.

Students can "spill" confidentially about their problems and get unbiased support, feedback and resources from other students on campus who have dealt with the same problem. Both parties are anonymous.

"We aim to help individuals understand that they're not alone in their problems," Allstop explained. "They just haven't been connected yet."

SPILL partners with crisis centers. All incoming spills are screened to ensure that a potential crisis is dealt with. Each spill is then directed to five trained student volunteers who send individual messages of support. These responses are also screened.

Spillers can opt to put their problem in the Spill Stream - an area where it can be viewed by anyone who may be experiencing the same problem.


Allstop, a graduate of Jefferson High School in Alexandria, started SPILL when she was a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM).

She was struggling with depression, body image, substance abuse and school stress and needed to talk to someone. When she finally worked up the courage to call the campus counseling center, she was told there was a two-week waiting list to get in.

She took matters into her own hands and sketched out an idea for an organization that would offer students an anonymous way to talk about problems with peers who had experienced the same issues.

She registered her idea as a student organization at the college to see if there was interest. Within a short period, 120 students signed up. SPILL was born.

Allstop chose an executive board and went to work setting up a confidential website and peer counseling e-mail system.

The following spring, she was presented an award for "excellence in innovation" from UWM - an award given to a new program, event or organization that has benefitted the campus.


Following graduation from UWM in 2010, Allstop was faced with a difficult decision - take a full-time job offer, or pursue the dream of expanding SPILL to campuses across the country.

She chose to stick with SPILL, and today the organization is active on 10 campuses across the nation. More than 1,000 volunteers have helped more than 2,000 "SPILLERS." Twelve more campuses are joining the program this coming year.

"It's a student-driven organization that varies from campus to campus," Allstop explained. "Once we've helped them get up and going, we don't interfere. We want them to build their own culture."

Allstop serves as CEO of the company, which currently has six employees.


In March 2011, Allstop received an opportunity that propelled SPILL forward in a big way. Her organization was one of only 10 chosen out of 650 applicants to take part in TechStars - an elite mentorship-driven start-up accelerator funded by more than 50 venture capital firms and more than 25 angel investors.  

She set up a branch office in Boston, and underwent a three-month "incubator" period.

"It was really intense," she said. "It was like working three full-time jobs."

Allstop met with investors and founders of big tech start-ups. She shared her vision, and they shared their input.

"They ripped apart my business model and then put it back together again," she said. "It was a confusing time for me, but I really like where we ended up. We can be a lot more impactful with this business model."

Originally, Allstop sold the program to colleges. She helped them get set up and helped students administer the program.

The new model is based on data sales after the fact. Now, campuses are not charged to implement SPILL. Instead, Allstop uses data collected from the program to create reports for schools on student behavior analytics.

"This way we are able to service all the schools that want SPILL," she explained. "With more schools taking part, we are able to expand our data. We can look at where different issues spike. For example, if homesickness is worse when there are problems with a roommate, or if sexual assault issues fall in line with drinking.

"The goal is to get the data robust enough to be relevant," she added. "If that happens, a lot of great trends can come out of it."

At the end of the Tech Stars program, the participating businesses/organizations presented themselves to 400 investors. Through that opportunity, Allstop has raised $400,000, and is awaiting news on a potential grant that could raise that total to $750,000.


Allstop has all kinds of plans for expanding SPILL.

While she wants to get onto more college campuses and expand into high schools, she's also working to branch into the corporate and military sectors.

She worked with Alexandria Technical and Community College to launch a Student SPILL program this year (the first technical college to come on board), and recently began conversations with Tastefully Simple in Alexandria to discuss the possibilities of a corporate SPILL program

Her company is also studying the possibility of cross-referencing its many SPILL avenues.

"For example, if a student has a brother with cancer, they'd be able to not only SPILL to others on their campus, but could find others in the corporate world or military that have brothers with cancer for an even broader support network," she explained. "We'd like to get them all connected somehow."

Allstop currently spends her time between the Madison and Boston offices.

"Madison is where we got our start, but we have 100 schools within a five-mile radius in Boston," she explained. "I guess it's a matter of deciding if you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond.

"My ultimate goal is that it becomes a household name," Allstop said of SPILL. "That everyone knows about it and uses it and that the data collected can be used on a national level."


Alexandria Technical and Community College recently joined SPILL. It is the first technical college to join the online support program.

Tastefully Simple of Alexandria is currently in conversations with Heidi Allstop to explore how a corporate SPILL program might be implemented.

For more information on SPILL, visit the website


1. You have a problem (i.e. eating disorder, relationship problem, divorce, roommate problem, family issues, drug/alcohol issues, loneliness, etc.)

2. You "spill" about your problem anonymously online.

3. Your spill is screened and sent to a handful of trained supporters who struggled with a similar problem in the past.

4. The supporters respond within 24 hours, offering empathetic feedback, encouragement and resources.

5. You feel better and not alone.

Tara Bitzan

Tara Bitzan is editor of the Echo Press. She joined the company in 1991 as a news reporter. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Tara graduated from Brandon High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and English with a minor in Scandinavian Studies from Moorhead State University. She and her husband, Dennis, and their children live near Alexandria.

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