“At times it feels like you’re trying to boil the ocean,” said Barbara Chang, the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development.

Speaking at Robin Hood’s Unplugged event on tech solutions for poverty, Chang was referring to the difficulties of tackling some of our city’s greatest challenges like homelessness, criminal justice reform, and boosting college graduation rates.

“It feels so overwhelming sometimes you don’t know where to start,” she said.

Fortunately, thanks to Blue Ridge Labs, a stand-alone division of Robin Hood that specializes in identifying and developing innovative technological solutions to combat poverty, our city’s leaders have a wellspring of innovative solutions to take on some of our most pressing challenges.

Chang moderated a panel featuring three startup ventures incubated at Blue Ridge Labs. The founders of each startup discussed their motivation, process, and the difficulties of using technology to help low-income New Yorkers.

Jimmy Chen, the founder and CEO of Propel, left Facebook to focus his attention on the 45 million low-income Americans who receive government benefits and use EBT cards to purchase groceries.

In particular, his company zeroed in on the difficulties of checking card balances and the headaches it can cause when trying to stretch every dollar.

Currently, EBT cardholders must either call into a hotline and key in their card number or save all of their receipts and manually calculate how much they’ve spent.

Robin Hood, poverty, technology


To make things easy, Chen created Propel, a free app that allows users to quickly view their EBT card balance in real-time, find stores nearby that accept EBT, view recent purchases, and receive referrals to financial services.

“When we think about how we can help our users ultimately leave the food stamp program, we think a big component of that is helping them gain household financial health by opening a bank account and saving money from each paycheck,” Chen said.

So far Propel has been downloaded 350,000 times making it one of the top 30 finance apps for Android.

Meanwhile, Margo Wright, the founder of Yenko, wanted to help low-income college students graduate.

“Half of students who enter college won’t graduate, and if you are low-income, then the probability that you’ll graduate is more like one in ten,” Wright explained.

According to Wright, the majority of college students today are actually older, have multiple jobs, struggling financially, have children, attend a community college, and are striving to become the first in their families to earn a degree. Many of these students are on financial aid, but if they lose that financial aid the likelihood that they’ll graduate becomes quite slim.

While overseeing the college access and success programs at Harlem Children’s Zone, Wright saw that one of the main reasons low-income students lost their financial aid was because they do not know there are academic requirements attached to their aid package. By the time they are notified, it is often too late and there are no resources available to help turn things around.

“Half of students who enter college won’t graduate, and if you are low-income, then the probability that you’ll graduate is more like one in ten.”

To address this knowledge gap, Wright created Yenko, a free app that creates a financial aid risk score that warns students early on if they might be at risk of losing their aid package. If they are at risk of losing their aid, Yenko will create an action plan with clear benchmarks to boost GPA and meet financial aid requirements. Throughout the process, the app will send texts and push notifications to help students stay on track.

Wright is currently working with colleges and universities as the app combines financial aid data with academic data to present a comprehensive financial aid risk score.
The third panelist, Jelani Anglin, a co-founder of Good Call, is working to reform the criminal justice system.

Currently, more than 300,00 New Yorkers are arrested each year and nearly 50,000, predominantly black and Hispanic men, are unable to afford bail and spend an average of 50 days on Rikers Island without even being charged with a crime.

Given the distressing reality, Anglin realized that when an individual is arrested who they choose to phone with their one call could make the difference between 50 days on Rikers or going home. By signing up for Good Call, a free legal services hotline, when someone has been arrested and calls the number their loved ones are automatically alerted and they are connected with a public defender who can begin building a strong case.

Good Call is currently being piloted in the Bronx and Anglin hopes to expand the program city-wide.

Counter to the existing focus of the tech-world on “sexy solutions” and “disrupting” established norms, Blue Ridge Labs takes a “human-centered design” approach, meaning apps are created after thorough research and discussion with New Yorkers grappling with poverty.

“With Blue Ridge Labs and the focus on human centered design, it’s great to know that you are creating a solution that’s directly in line with what they need.”

“I always feel weird about that sexy solutions phrase because the problems that folks are going through in these communities aren’t sexy,” Jelani added. “With Blue Ridge Labs and the focus on human centered design, it’s great to know that you are creating a solution that’s directly in line with what they need and not what’s sexy.”

“I try to stay away from the word disrupt because I think there’s a lot of work being done in the world [on these issues] and there’s a bit of arrogance that comes with the idea of toppling all that,” Wright said.

From a government perspective, Chang was excited about the potential and possibilities of these tech-based solutions.

“The exciting thing about technology applied to the problems that we look at every day in government is that you get scale and you also get quick outcomes very quickly,” she said.

“Historically, you would get solutions that reach 100 people, 50 people, or 35 people,” Chang said. “We don’t get the scale because it’s very expensive and it takes time to see if a solution will work.
We measure outcomes to death and by the time we’re ready to scale it, everybody’s died who was part of the original pilot.”

With startups like Propel, Yenko, Good Call, and other Blue Ride Lab alums, the possibilities for our city and nation are endless.

The Robin Hood Unplugged series offers a deeper glimpse into poverty in New York City and the work that Robin Hood is doing to help our neighbors in need. Speakers include top philanthropic leaders, executive directors from Robin Hood funded programs, and Robin Hood staff members. Each gathering focuses on a specific topic and fosters an atmosphere that promotes questions and thoughtful discussions. If you are interested in attending, please email robinhood@robinhood.org.

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