This New Fellowship Is Trying To Get New York's Tech Talent To Solve Some Of The City's Most Meaningful Problems

Significance LabsQuardean Lewis-AllenThe team, hashing out details of the fellowship

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news coming out of San Francisco, you’ve heard about the clash between the wealthy tech elite and the people getting evicted from their homes because of gentrification in the city.

Although the issue in San Francisco now focus mainly on housing, there’s also an underlying sentiment that many of the startups in the area are getting millions of dollars to work on trivial projects, using technology not to change the world, but to create yet another selfie app.

Meanwhile, Hannah Wright is on a mission to encourage the tech talent on the other side of the country to do something more meaningful. Significance Labs, which Wright co-founded with Parker Mitchell and Bill Cromie in February, is giving six New York City techies the opportunity to focus on building products that help solve real problems for the people who need it the most: Those 25 million American families living on less than $US25,000 a year.

Six Significance Labs Fellows will each have three months, $US50,000, and access to top design and tech firms to design mobile products for low-income Americans that will help solve simple problems in their lives. The Lab is looking for product ideas that may only solve little problems, but will cause dramatic ripple effects in the lives of the people using them.

The Fellows won’t necessarily be coming in with their own ideas. A big part of the program is creating mutually respectful and immersive interactions between with designated low-income New York City communities and each of the Fellows, who will also have access to experts in different non-profits fields.

In talking about what a potential idea might look like, Wright casually used the example of a single mother who has no way to find last-minute childcare for her kid if, for example, the child has to stay home from school sick. Without childcare, the mother will have to miss either work or school. However, if there was an easy, safe, text-based way for her to find someone to babysit her child, she could avoid cancelling her other responsibilities, 80% of America’s poor have cell phones of some kind). That new service alone won’t boost her economic standing, but it could be a step on the path to her eventually getting a raise or finishing school.

“As opposed to tackling the entirety of her problem, we’re going to chip away at the death-by-1000-cuts little pain points,” Wright says. “That itself leads to broader outcomes; we believe that if we keep doing those little things over and over again, we all together vastly improve people’s lives, even if no one of them is the transformative solution.”

Wright told Business Insider that the idea for Significance Labs evolved because she hadn’t seen enough tech projects entering the social sector. Traditionally, efforts to merge tech with social issues involves grants or foundations giving money to non-profits to beef up their tech initiatives, even though those non-profits might not know where to begin. Wright noticed that a large portion of the New York tech scene seems passionate about upward mobility, given the number of socially-minded hackathons, so she decided to flip the model on its head. This fellowship will give techies the time and the money to immerse themselves in a world they might not usually see and focus on solving problems. After the three month program is up, Wright and the crew will help the Fellows either raise additional funding for their projects or pass them on to other appropriate companies, or even city agencies.

Besides the Fellowship, Significance Labs will also be offering a free “Day In The Life” program several times over the summer, where it will pair interested, technology-minded people with low-income community members. She hopes that the program will both inspire people and give them a wake-up call that there’s a big percentage of the market that’s not benefiting from much technological innovation.

“There are huge issues around poverty in the U.S., but poverty at home isn’t as sexy as poverty abroad,” Wright says. “So you’ve got a whole bunch of people working on really sexy, billion dollar iPhone apps, and then you’ve got a whole bunch of people working on programs for shareholder farms in Africa, and there aren’t a lot of people thinking about about things that we can do with technology that can help the ‘un-exotic underclass’ in this country.”

Significance Labs cemented funding through the social-innovation-focused Blue Ridge Foundation and will be taking applications for the Fellowship until the end of April.

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