WWCode Career Nav #22: How to Tackle Global Poverty with a Scalable Movement
Carol Rossborough, Co-founder and CEO of ESTHER, shares her talk, “How to Tackle Global Poverty with a Scalable Tech Movement.” She takes us on the journey of ESTHER from an idea to a global organization. She shares how they help people, especially women at a local level, and provide the tools to connect people with resources.
ESTHER is a peer-to-peer giving platform allowing charitable donors to give directly to people living in poverty. We help connect people who want to help people who are in financial difficulty in a hyper local way. How people in need receive donations is unique to ESTHER. They receive them on a prepaid card. We call this their ESTHER card. We try to keep this totally brand free. It just looks like a normal bank card. People can then use that donation to go and spend it on household items or groceries. Our recipients are spending it on school uniforms, shoes, groceries, household items, buying bus tickets to go visit family or putting new light fixtures into their living room, things that they haven't had the money to do before.
We do have restrictions on our card solution for our recipients that mostly safeguards the donation for helpful household items. If you're an ESTHER recipient, if you're a woman in need, you're receiving a donation, you can't spend that money on alcohol, gambling, or sometimes even cash withdrawal and some online purchases. We switch off these high-risk products to ensure that this donation is protected for helpful items for the family. We also find women will sometimes have somebody in the family that potentially has an addiction. They may have a gambling problem or even an abusive partner. If cash is available, there's a risk that it would be taken from them. We put those checks and balances on the card, and we allow donors to give directly.
One of the biggest questions at this stage that we always get asked is, "How do you identify people in need?" We partner with people in the charity space. We rely on charity partners to register and onboard people in need in their communities. This could be a food bank, a homeless shelter, or a women's shelter. We're even chatting with local primary schools who know what families need. They know people in the community and have been doing this for 20, 30, or 50 years sometimes. When people look at ESTHER, they think, "Oh, you're disruptive, disrupting the charity space." I don't like that word in terms of our vision. I would say that we're a collaborative platform. We value collaboration. We value community. It is our core belief that money doesn't. Communities do. We work very closely with them to make sure that people on the ESTHER platform are well looked after, and that they're on a journey of growth. My background is in tech and marketing. I've always done communications, PR, and advertising within the tech community. Surviving life for me right now looks like navigating fundraising. We're looking to register investors.
If anyone does product design or if anyone is within the design community, you know so much that we always start with human-centric design. I'm going to talk about why the charity space isn't working and where the culture really stemmed from. I want to start with Maslow's Hierarchy of needs. In your mind, think about charity services and think about the sort of things that charities do. For example, you've got education programs for children, maybe after school or clubs. Then you have food bags that go out maybe once a week to families. Then you've got mental health charities doing counseling and CBT therapies, potentially cooking skills, budgeting skills, debt management skills, and these fabulous, valuable, vital self service. What we are finding, these all land in the middle of Maslow's hierarchy, they're about self-esteem, they're about safety, they're about education. What they don't do very well is the very bottom rung of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which is basic needs. This is stuff like heating, electricity, and keeping food on the table. Your monthly budget is enough to feed your children and to live a little, to throw a birthday party or take them to the cinema or maybe even a holiday once a year. We're finding at this stage, people do not have enough money. They don't have enough money to really put proper food on the table, and it's incredibly stressful.
Joanne is one of the ladies on our platform. Joanne isn't her real name. She's a single mom with three children. She lives in Belfast in a two-bedroom house with no back garden. She suffers from loneliness and social anxiety. She can only afford fresh foods at the weekends when it's reduced. The rest of the week, she feeds her family from what she has in the freezer. Joanne lives with constant stress about her finances. She tries to save, but when her washing machine breaks, she is back in crisis again. Joanne, like so many others, is caught in the poverty trap. There are charity options for Joanne to get help with her mental health, life skills or budgeting. But ultimately, and this is the core, core part of ESTHER, ultimately, for Joanne to grow and strengthen, she needs more money. ESTHER is about providing both. We believe that working with a charity that provides great self-services and underpins Joanne's financial stability will lead her to a better future.
Where did it all start? Ailís McCaul and I have known each other for two years. This all started with random concepts about how we might give people money. In the early days, I was writing papers on how we could build a platform on top of Ethereum that would allow us to bypass the charity space completely. This early concept was completely broken, and early concepts usually are broken. But that's how it started, Blockchain and thinking about how to give people money with trust and transparency. How could we have it on a ledger that could be viewed publicly so there would be no fraud? We could do this locally to start it off with, and then maybe on a global scale. I tortured my mentor on LinkedIn about this concept. When you have an idea and need help, I encourage you to torture people.
Get in their faces and ask for help, ask for resources. He got fed up with me in the most loving way and said, "You need a business partner. Let me introduce you to one of my employees." He introduced me to the fabulous Ailís McCaul; it was like two worlds collided. I'm a thinker, talker, and strategist. I jump before I think I'm much more of a risk-taker. Ailís is the opposite. She is organized, diligent, a planner, and an organizer. We have the most wonderful co-founding relationship, built on friendship, honesty, and a joint desire to see the future change.
In our first year, we wanted to validate some of our theories. We didn't know a lot of stuff. It does not know the answers, and your job is to figure them out. It's to have coffee with people, to educate yourself, it's to do little experiments to prove your theory wrong or right. That's ultimately what our first year was about, relationships with people in the charity space, with people who gave. We had to do a lot of digging around in terms of legal work to determine if what we were doing was even legal. We were still working full-time jobs at that stage. We met once a week on a Monday night to do three hours of work. The rest of the week, we would ring people, have coffee with people, and we would write out what we wanted to find out that week. We wanted charity partners to do the validation work for us better than we did. We thought we might bypass them. After research, we realized they were of incredible value in terms of the relationship and soft services offered to the community. There are some platforms out there that give, just make money. We believe in collaboration.
We needed partners. Would anybody trust on the donation side? Would anyone actually give us money? We weren't a registered charity, we were two women with an idea. Would anyone actually trust us? The third thing we really wrestled out in our first year is are we a charity. Are we a tech platform? Are we a for profit enterprise? Are we a nonprofit? What is it we actually want to achieve? At what scale do we want to achieve? At what pace do we want to achieve it? Is this something that's going to stay local or do we want this to be a global movement? While we wrestled out all of those options, ultimately, we landed on a tech for good platform that is for profit. Within the UK, we do have a charity wing to claim gift aid. The UK governments are a little bit fabulous like that. They give us 25% on top of every pound. And we do make use of that in the UK. We have two companies registered in the UK, a FinTech company and a charity wing. They both work in conjunction with each other. Our US model is a pure for profit FinTech company and we're a tech for good. That's our business model. That took us a long time to figure out.
The fourth thing was, is this even legal? We had to really plum the depths of getting legal people on board, making sure we were registered well. Did we need a money transfer license? Were we able to work the money through our partner charities? Would it impact anybody's benefits, their food stamps? Within Belfast, we knew that childhood poverty was rising. I thought, "How is it possible that we have so many resources, we are so educated, we're so well connected." We have Zoom and cable in every country in the world. We have more zero coded platforms and opportunities and yet we are still seeing children in our communities, on our doorstep not eating. How is this happening? That was really what drove me to applying my tech skills, my strategy, and all of my experience. I knew that people were struggling to put food on the table. The problem of cities and poverty is going to get worse. In Belfast and probably all over the world, domestic violence was on the increase. Domestic violence in Northern Ireland increased by 20%, which is horrendous and I'm sure it's happening all over the world.
I knew that women were being devalued. The platform does cater for homelessness, and destitute asylum seekers. It does cater for low income families and various other programs. But in the beginning, ultimately my passion was women. Women, and particularly those women who chose to work in the home raising children. There's a fabulous researcher, Mariana Mazzucato, who says there are people within our society who add enormous value, like women raising the future of our nation. There are also people in our society who have a huge price tag, like consultants who charge massive amounts of money, or bankers. You have these people in our society who have a huge price tag on their work, but maybe aren't adding enough value. Then you have people adding enormous value, like our NHS, hospitals, care workers, doctors, nurses and women raising children who are massively devalued in our society. That isn't the future that I wanted to bring my daughter up into, it's not the future I want to see. I want to see women who have enough money, not just to put food on the table. Enough to really look after themselves, their mental health, to have opportunities to re-skill, to go back to work. We wanted these women to be enormously valued in our society, that's what we did know. We knew we had conviction and passion. We knew we had work to do and we knew we had questions we wanted answered.
How could we test quickly with no money and no code? We built a website on Wix with a signup forum. Anyone can build a website on Wix. We made a video on LinkedIn and we convinced a charity that this was a good idea. We launched a pilot, we basically took a vision of running a small pilot, with a charity. We needed to get donors on board. I made a video. I said, "Look, we're going to give people money. We're going to give to five women. They're raising children, they're trying to buy nappies, bottles and put food on the table for 37 pounds a week. These are women who were asylum seekers in Belfast. We're going to help them with their grocery budget. We're going to give them some store vouchers.” I put that on LinkedIn and we had 100 people from the business community sign up in three weeks. We had a huge response on LinkedIn.
We knew that people were interested in giving differently, in a more connected way. We had convinced a charity that, "Look, all we want to do is try this out. Will you help us?" They said, "You're completely crazy, but yes." Then we just decided that we were going to launch this pilot. It went incredibly well, so we launched a pilot over Christmas. We gave five women with children 50 pounds a week. A hundred people signed up, ready to give. We had Mailchimp, a client, a mobile phone, a Wix website, and LinkedIn videos. Ailís and I laugh about this now, but we call this chapter the longest Christmas break ever. We were utterly exhausted. We hadn't done anything like this before and just threw everything into it.
We needed to get the charity to register the people in need. They needed to write some bios for the ladies in need, and anonymise their names. We needed to know what Joanne's story was, or Tullora's story. Who is Vivian? Why is she in need in Belfast? We wrote a little about the ladies and manually matched the donors with the five recipients. Then we needed to ask them, "What did you spend the money on?" We text all 100 of the donors on a weekly basis. It was exhausting. What we were doing manually was what this simulation technology would achieve when we built it. It was a lot of work, but we got incredible responses. Some of the stories that these women were telling us were just amazing. One of the ladies said, "I haven't been able to put curtains in my living room, so I've been living in my house now for six months and I haven't had any curtains. I've had no light fittings in the bathrooms. I haven't had enough money after I pay my grocery bill to put these things in place." One of the other ladies was living in social housing, she had an eight-year-old and a six-year-old, and the social housing had provided her with a single bed, and a baby's cot. She was sleeping in the single bed with her eight-year-old. The six-year-old was sleeping on a cot. After she had two weeks worth of money, she had 100 pounds and she bought a bed. She bought some bed linen and she was able then to put her six year old in the other bed.
We were getting these stories and then we were texting these stories to the donors. We realized that the more connected our donors felt to these women in our community, the more they wanted to help. A lot of our donors were from the business community that worked in the tech space. They were founders, entrepreneurs, maybe they were marketers, mothers with children and they had very busy lives. We knew that connection was incredibly important. We did our recipient research after the pilot. So we asked the ladies in need, "How did this make you feel?" And they said some things that were really interesting. These were ladies from war torn areas like Syria and Yemen, Lebanon and places that had been through incredible trauma. They had been in the charity space maybe for about three or four months and they had never taken up trauma counseling. They told us, "When I knew that my kids were going to be fed and I had the house kind of half organized, as a mother, I was able to take a break. Okay, I'm goingto do some self care work." It wasn't that the money paid for the counseling. The charity was organizing the counseling. Their mind was freed up from the stress of flight or fight syndrome. Their kids were going to be fed. The other thing that they told us when we were doing our interviews after the pilot was they said, "Look, this feels different than charity. It feels like friends are supporting me. It feels like I have a group of cheerleaders who are for me and want to see me succeed. I feel incredibly loved and valued."
That was deeply exciting from our perspective. After all of that, what did we do? We built a live platform. We took all of our research and we built a donor app. You get allocated a profile when you decide that you want to support somebody in need within your own area. We have a charity worker app and this is for the person who works in one of our partner charities. The charity worker can log in and they can leave updates about how the recipient is. Those updates are passed on to the ESTHER admin. We proof check it a bit, and then that gets sent out to our donors and various other portals. That was all built from our pilot research and our interview questions afterwards. It was at this stage we could call ourselves a peer-to-peer platform or a social impact movement.
We heard this again and again from our recipients, "I feel like I belong in this city because people are supporting me." Guys on the streets, when we were doing a homeless program, they said, "For the first time, I feel a part of society again." They were able to sit in coffee shops. They could buy themselves new clothes that they liked, not from a charity shop. We took our research findings, we built, we applied for grant funding, we built the platform and spectacularly walked out of our jobs. We have been a fully built tech platform for six months. We have 16 charity partners. We have over 300 donors giving through the platform, supporting women and children, destitute asylum seekers, and a homeless program in Belfast. We are engaging businesses to give off their top line. Based on about five more business donors, we now run dashboards once a quarter and they find out who they're giving to and what impact it's having. Excitingly for us, we're launching our first pilot in Colorado. We're really excited to jump into the States. I think it's a different culture. We're running a program to get 250 people off the streets of Denver. We have a combination of rehab and lump sum donations getting people into local housing. There are two pilots running in Colorado. Deeply exciting stuff.