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FreshEBT is an app which helps one million of the 44 million Americans who receive food stamps, to put more food on the table via special offers from retailers, budgeting features and recipes. 85% of FreshEBT’s users are young mothers. We talked to founder Jimmy Chen about using technology to fight poverty.
“I grew up in a loving and supportive household that also several years had trouble putting food on the table and I think that's not so different than how most families go through financial fluctuations over the course of their lifespans,” says Propel founder Jimmy Chen.
Four years ago Chen left his job as a product manager at Facebook to become a Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood fellow and start his company Propel. The Robin Hood Foundation is New York’s largest poverty fighting foundation and Blue Ridge Labs was a new incubator making tech for low-income Americans.
Now Propel is blazing a trail for anti-poverty tech companies but it hasn’t been an easy ride. Along the way Chen lost both of his co-founders, struggled to find a business model in line with his social mission and failed to raise funding. “Especially in the early days of fundraising, where I walk into a room and I'm pitching that we're building a food stamps software company, the conversation's over before it even starts,” he says.
In 2017 Propel finally landed an investment of $4 million from top Silicon Valley investment firm Andreeson Horowitz and impact investment fund the Omidyar network (and a second round of $12.8 million in 2018). Chen now wants to extend Propel’s work beyond the foodstamp program and even influence public policy.
“We see our ambition as much broader than just one program. It's really about helping families in the United States to get back on their feet,” he says.
Guest: Jimmy Chen, founder of Propel and former Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood fellow
Host: Ciara Byrne, tech journalist and former Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood fellow