10 Ideas, $1 Million Aim to Help Millions in Poverty
The Equity Factor

10 Ideas, $1 Million Aim to Help Millions in Poverty

"If your hair is on fire, nothing else matters to you in that moment except getting that fire out."

Coalition for Queens (pictured above, one of its hackathons) received $100,000 to scale up its efforts to solve the tech sector’s diversity problem. (Credit: Coalition for Queens)

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Jukay Hsu and Coalition for Queens are part of the new wave of incubators searching for antidotes to tech’s diversity problem. He started his organization to loop voices from the New York City borough’s immigrant communities in with a massively wealthy industry that’s run predominantly by white men.

And he’s making big gains: Sponsorships from the likes of Google, LinkedIn and Capital One have helped him give the necessary backing to entrepreneurs like Moawia Eldeeb, whose family were farmers in Egypt, and who arrived in New York with hardly enough money to support him as he went through grade school.

Or Madelyn Tavarez, whose mom raised her and her two sisters alone, and who worked as a waitress while commuting 3.5 hours to her college classes every week.

Eldeeb went on to raise $1.85 million in venture capital for his app idea, SmartSpot, and Tavarez is now a full-time developer for Pinterest. This week, the Rockefeller Foundation announced Coalition for Queens is one of 10 young organizations that will get $100,000 each to expand on their ideas for addressing problems faced by poor or marginalized people.

“There are so many more talented people out there and we can expose them to more skills,” says Hsu, a Queens native. Coalition for Queens is currently assisting 100 students — half are women, 70 percent are either black or Latino — as they bring their tech ideas or engineering interests to scale. Using that funding to develop more students like Tavarez and Eldeeb, he says, would be “transformative not only here in New York but also across America.”

The Rockefeller money is from a new initiative, Future Cities Accelerator, which the foundation developed with Unreasonable Institute, an international accelerator for socially or environmentally aware entrepreneurs that has helped get projects off the ground in more than 50 countries.

Teju Ravilochan, founder of the Unreasonable Institute, says Coalition for Queens and the nine other projects were selected from a crop of 314 applicants. The grading criteria: a demonstrated impact on disadvantaged populations, the potential for each idea to help millions of people, a solid team behind the wheel that can make decisions quickly and efficiently, and a fit for the program’s environmental and social interests.

Diversity was also key. “One of the complaints you hear in the investment space is that it’s very hard to find people of color or women who are working in business or working social impact,” says Josh Murphy, an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation.

Haven Connect, from the Bay Area in California, and its self-described “TurboTax for affordable housing,” is another grantee this first round. The program condenses the entire affordable housing application process into a 15-minute affair to cut down on bureaucracy that can thwart homeless or housing-challenged populations.

Then there’s Thread, an organization out of Baltimore that links up ninth-grade students who come from families struggling with poverty or housing issues with a team of five volunteer mentors. Those five mentors work closely with that student, and are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. So far the organization has paired mentors with 250 students who were performing at the bottom 25 percent of their high school class. Ninety-two percent of those students went on to graduate high school, and another 90 percent went on to enroll in college.

Future Cities Accelerator’s next step is to try to bring all these ideas up to a national level. To get there, the 10 winners will go through a nine-month accelerator program. Six of the 10 have women as co-founders, and three have co-founders from minority backgrounds, according to Murphy. But if there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s that they all have a clear vision on how to solve what Ravilochan calls “hair-on-fire problems.”

“If your hair is on fire, nothing else matters to you in that moment except getting that fire out,” he says. Identifying and solving that problem at the local level requires not just a slick financial plan and entrepreneurial gusto — it requires a heartful attachment to the community.

“Among the most successful programs, we’ve found that they’re really getting enmeshed with the community unit or population that they want to serve, and really understand the sweeping, urgent pain point that that population also wants to address,” says Ravilochan.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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Tags: poverty

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