Meet Four Early-Stage Startups Building Equity for their own Communities

Robin Hood
5 min readJan 28, 2022


Celebrating the Blue Ridge Labs Catalyst 2021 Cohort

Before COVID-19, more than 1.5 million people across New York City struggled to afford their basic needs, like food and medicine. This reality has only become more dire over the pandemic. While technology can’t solve most problems (and certainly creates its own), it can remove barriers, make things more efficient, and dismantle bureaucracy. However, the potential of technology is rarely directed at the daily, persistent challenges of living in poverty. What does it look like to harness technology for social good? What would happen if people who understood the challenges their communities are facing firsthand received the investment and support to turn their ideas into reality?

Robin Hood’s Blue Ridge Labs (BRL) has been asking these questions and bringing together technologists and communities to build new solutions for New Yorkers since 2014.

The Brooklyn-based social impact incubator provides space, funding, and resources to help launch and grow tech platforms that address economic inequality across the five boroughs.

As part of this effort, BRL launched its Catalyst program in 2016 to invest in remarkable New York City leaders who are addressing the drivers of inequity through technology. Catalyst provides early-stage organizations with funding, coaching, and networking opportunities to help founders turn a proven concept into a scalable technology platform that could reach and help millions.

The 2021 Catalyst cohort featured six founders who have experienced firsthand the challenges they seek to address and who are driving meaningful change in their communities through technological solutions, all while challenging the status quo of the tech startup landscape.

2021 Catalyst Cohort:

  • Communifi — providing Black and Brown communities in NYC with access to fast, affordable internet by training and employing local youth as wifi installers in partnership with NYC Mesh
  • Karen’s Club — empowering patients of color with the knowledge and trust to pursue clinical trials that can save or extend their lives
  • Touchdown NYC — connecting returning New Yorkers with mentors who know personally what it takes to rebuild a life after incarceration
  • Unlocked Labs — unlocking potential by improving access to high quality education for incarcerated individuals

These founders are deeply familiar with the problems they’re working to solve — they’ve lived through them, they’ve worked on them, and they know how best to address them, which uniquely positions them to develop solutions that best serve the needs of communities living in poverty.

Unlocked Labs was founded by two currently incarcerated individuals who taught themselves to code while behind bars without the internet. Karen’s Club was co-founded by Karen Peterson who survived Stage IV Triple Negative Breast Cancer as a result of her self advocacy to get access to treatment through a clinical trial. TouchdownNYC’s co-founder, Nkosi Cain, is a lifelong New Yorker who spent 18 years in incarceration and went on to become a criminal and social justice advocate dedicated to working for systems change after experiencing a transformative mentorship. And Communifi was founded by two Brooklyn natives, Shemene Monique Minter and Jadayah Spencer, who refuse to stand idle as the digital divide continues to create inequities in their neighborhoods.

Nkosi Cain of Touchdown NYC featured in a recent NowThis segment.

These four remarkable organizations were chosen out of 70 Catalyst applicants because we recognize the value of these founders’ lived experiences and their unique qualifications to confront challenges faced by their community.

Early-stage tech startups — the types of organizations Catalyst founders lead — require time, money, and mentorship to build their tech products (which can be apps, websites, learning platforms, hotlines, etc.) and expand their reach. However, founders typically face barriers to achieving this support through the traditional startup ecosystem. For instance, many don’t have the privilege of working full-time on their startup and face challenges in things like staffing, scaling, and raising capital. Additionally, founders from atypical backgrounds may lack access to or be overlooked by traditional funding opportunities. The Catalyst program seeks to break down these barriers to success by supporting earlier-stage programs with the potential to provide highly impactful poverty-fighting solutions.

Over the course of the last six months, the Catalyst program helped these four promising organizations to build, test, iterate, and scale their technological solution, with the end goal of transforming their communities. In parallel, we worked with them to identify the other resources they’ll need to be successful over the long-term — things like funding, recruitment, marketing, and partners — and to put the systems in place to do this well.

Their challenges? Scaling gets messy. Maybe they need help hiring a CTO, doing user testing, resolving founder disagreements, or avoiding team working-style standoffs. So mentors from the Blue Ridge Labs team and Robin Hood get in the weeds with them, taking the current version of what they’ve built and helping them see the path towards turning it into a successful product.

Now that the 2021 Catalyst program has come to a close, this cohort has joined the ranks of some other life-changing social ventures that have completed Catalyst over the past six years. These ideas have now become tangible products and organizations that are creating meaningful impact for millions of low-income New Yorkers.

To name a few:

  • GoodCall NYC provides free legal support to New Yorkers who’ve been arrested
  • JustFix co-creates tools with tenants, organizers, and legal advocates to fight housing injustice
  • Upsolve provides education and tools for financial management and is now America’s #1 free tool for filing bankruptcy
  • Heat Seek helps tenants resolve their home heating issues by providing temperature data to expose the problem and hold their landlords accountable

Robin Hood believes that most successful solutions come from those who are experiencing the issues firsthand. Over the last six months, we’ve had the opportunity to get to know these four organizations — and their leaders — from the inside out. Through Blue Ridge Labs and Catalyst, Robin Hood extends the opportunity to applicants to invest in their ideas and transform New York’s communities, but — in turn — we have benefited from the humbling experience of learning from them about how best we can build solutions for the issues facing our communities.

We are truly excited to see what they do next and we look forward to welcoming a new cohort of leaders who are reflective of the communities they serve in 2022.