Innovators are using technology to change our world — creating global connections, more effective healthcare, safer roads, and on the second floor of a Brooklyn walk-up, solutions in the fight against poverty.
That’s where Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood (BRL) is supporting the efforts of leading technologists, designers, entrepreneurs and others with the next big idea for social good.
The initiative helps identify and launch tech-enabled products or ventures through three initiatives: the Fellowship, a five-month program to prototype and test new technology for social change; Catalyst, a six-month incubator that helps boost the most promising early-stage ventures; and access to the Design Insight Group (DIG), a community of over 500 low-income New Yorkers who provide feedback on products.
In previous years, the Fellowship has received hundreds of applications for its 18 spots from individuals with experience at tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Adobe. Catalyst, which is accepting applications from both non-profit and for-profit ventures through early September, accepts teams from prior Fellowship classes and organizations that have started elsewhere.
Both Fellows and members of the Catalyst incubator work full-time in BRL’s co-working space and receive a stipend or a grant, not to mention connections to potential users, collaborators, mentors, and talent. BRL has been in play for three years, helping to develop solutions for everything from education inequality to the gig economy to a lack of heat in winter. Here are four success stories:
More than 80 million Americans are left out of traditional banking services, lacking either accounts or credit cards. Two of the original founders, Avi Karnani and Stephanie Raill, had collaborated on financial technology platforms before becoming Fellows and meeting Paul Barnes-Hoggett. The three joined forces to investigate the financial challenges of low-income New Yorkers. They were surprised to learn how many hourly workers were buying the more expensive weekly Metrocards because they didn’t have enough cash to cover the cost for a monthly.
The trio built the first text message based loan platform, which allowed commuters to borrow money for monthly Metrocards while building credit. Major employers and organizations are now recruiting Alice to help provide pre-tax commuter benefits to low-wage workers, which helps employees save more than $450 per year.
Most crucially, the Fellowship allowed the three individuals to “founder date,” or find like-minded people with whom they wanted to start a socially responsible company. BRL also gave them access to community organizations and individuals for market research, provided a translator, and offered significant organizational support.
The team has raised pre-seed and seed rounds of funding from east and west coast venture capital firms. They have also collaborated with the City of New York, City University of New York, Credit Builders Alliance, and others.
Renters in New York City — especially in low-income neighborhoods — are often forced to live in apartments in need of major repairs that go unaddressed due to neglectful landlords. While working as a tenant organizer in Crown Heights, co-founder Dan Kass wanted to harness technology to help. As Fellows, he and Georges Clement observed housing court, where 90 percent of tenants have no representation and 90 percent of landlords do, and realized the potential of an app to empower tenants to tell their story.
JustFix allows tenants to document and record maintenance issues and living conditions with the goal of either getting them resolved or building a strong case in housing court, thereby preventing tenant harassment and eviction.
The three co-founders were originally part of the 2015 Fellowship class, where they conducted in-depth user research through focus groups and interviews, and sought expert advice from housing court judges, legal experts, and tenant organizers. As an inaugural Catalyst venture, they transitioned from a project to an organization — formalizing non-profit status, creating a fundraising strategy, developing the product, and more than doubling their team.
Last year, the organization won the NYC BigApps competition held by the Mayor’s Office and the New York City Economic Development Corporation. They are currently participating in the Fast Forward Accelerator for tech non-profits in San Francisco, which is primarily funded by Google and Blackrock. JustFix received a grant from Robin Hood’s core portfolio for a partnership pilot with CASA and “soft launched” a tenant app for the public last week with distribution partners such as CAMBA, Legal Aid Society, and the Center for Court Innovation.
While a Fellow, founder Jimmy Chen investigated the experience of food stamp beneficiaries and realized people spent hours waiting in bureaucratic offices, browsing their smartphones to wile away time. He saw this as a “gap in service” — something his former colleagues in Silicon Valley would aim to eliminate via technology.
Propel is dedicated to “making the safety net more user friendly,” says Chen. Its mobile apps (FreshEBT and easyfoodstamps.com) allow people to apply for food stamp benefits and, for those who already receive them, check their balance via a streamlined interface. Previously, the 45 million Americans with an EBT card (think of it as a debit card for food benefits) would have to navigate a phone system to determine the balance — or save and tally receipts. App users can also find nearby retailers that accept EBT cards. And those retailers can promote discounts to recipients — a major market segment accounting for 11 percent — or 70 billion — of the American retail grocery industry.
After working as a product manager at Facebook, Chen knew he wanted to build technology solutions for low-income Americans but he had no idea what that would look like. As a Fellow, he was able to explore the daily realities of a life in poverty. BRL also helped him find a new CTO when his original co-founder left the company, and provided constant advice on everything from forming the company to financial considerations.
FreshEBT has more than 120,000 downloads and is in the Top 20 free finance apps on Android. They are one of 9 inaugural winners of the CFSI Financial Solutions Lab, which carries a prize of a $250K investment. The team raised $1.15 million from venture capitalists and impact investors. And they were recently featured in the New York Times.
Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC)
Founder Robert Lee knows what it is to be food insecure. Growing up, his family sometimes struggled to put food on the table. During his first year at NYU, he joined a club that brought leftover food to homeless shelters and found a passion to help fight hunger.
Every night, volunteers of RLC pick up unused food from restaurants, hotels and catering companies and deliver it to nearby shelters. The process is automated via a website (and soon a mobile app). RLC also provides participating restaurants with monthly food waste reports.
Neither Lee nor his colleagues have a technical background, so Catalyst was “game changing,” Lee says. RLC was relying on a minimally viable web program to automate the volunteer sign up. The team at Blue Ridge Lab helped improve the site’s capabilities and get them started on a crucial mobile app. On the fundraising end, they connected Lee with Robin Hood for assistance growing the advisory board and fundraising efforts.
In 2015, the group rescued more than 287,000 pounds of food with only three full-time employees, and this year they are on track to rescue more than a million pounds The board doubled and fundraising efforts tripled during Catalyst, going from $50,000 to $150,000. Donors include Google, JP Morgan Chase, KIND, and the Clif Bar Family Foundation. RLC was also recently selected as a Laureate Global Fellow.
Written by: Eugene Chow