Founders: Rose Afriyie, Genevieve Nielsen, Marina Goldshteyn
Company Description: Technology that simplifies the screening process for public assistance programs.
Company Site: http://www.mrelief.com/; Twitter
Interview Date: July 2015
Rose Afriyie is a founder, a technologist, an activist, a writer. She is part of an all-women trio of co-founders that met and joined forces at the Starter League to start mRelief, a company whose mission is to “fix the broken American welfare system that leaves vulnerable people without access to available public assistance.”
On simplifying the process:
One of the biggest barriers in the welfare application process is how much time it takes. Rose used to carry around the standard food stamps application to help drive this point home to people who had not seen it before – “It’s 18 pages long.”
mRelief currently focuses on simplifying the qualifying process. They start with a global screening form on the first page of their website that is only 5 questions long, and currently screens for 8 different programs at once. When mRelief partnered with the King Community Center to pilot their screening process, the results showed that they reduced the assisted application time from an average of 16 minutes to 4 minutes, a 75% decrease. Using this simplified screening process as an entry point, can result in huge time savings for applicants who don’t have that much time. “Almost 3/4 of American who are on a public benefits program are members of working families,” and many of the welfare offices are only open during standard working hours.
On increasing discovery and awareness:
In addition to improving the application process in itself, “mRelief is advancing and increasing transparency, visibility and awareness around the assistance criteria. We’re trying to create awareness about what solves your problem. There may be a local resource, but you just don’t know about it. You might just need food for that week or month, and the Chicago Food Depository has multiple food pantry sites all over the city. If you already know that you’re ineligible for food stamps, finding the closest food pantry might be a better use of your time.” The website offers food pantry referrals through a partnership with Purple Binder.
On extending reach and sustaining impact:
The mRelief screening can be done via the website or text message. “For many low income families there may not be a computer at home, and not everyone has the same literacy to do research on government eligibility. Thinking through how to replicate the paper and web forms via text messaging has benefitted lower income families. People using the text messaging service make an average of $150 less per hour than the people we are reaching online.”
In addition to developing the technology itself, mRelief focuses on building the right partnerships to make an impact within the welfare network. They have integrated with community centers that are run by the Department of Family and Support Services, such as the King, Garfield and North Area community centers in Chicago; and partnered with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Innovation Delivery Team to launch the pilot last year.
“It’s not enough to have a one app wonder. You have to build an institution, a network of people who are willing to look ahead at where this is going to be for folks in the future. When I think of innovation, I think of institutions that have been built that can lead to more long-term changes.”
On her journey:
“This was something that I think was lurking around in the background without me noticing it. In my own personal life, I’m the product of public assistance programs. I was raised in the Gun Hill Housing Projects in Bronx, New York on Magenta Street. I had WIC in my family. It’s something that you don’t really understand until you’re older. Having some of this assistance was critical to my family.”
Rose believes that benefiting from these types of programs helped her stay on track and opened up opportunities like college and interning at the White House where she took further interest in policy, programs, and learning how to take a macro-level concept and “bring it to back to the everyday person through technology.”
She cites three “catalytic”motivators that have accelerated her evolution and pursuit of mRelief:
1 – Open Government Hack Night at 1871: The founding trio began attending the weekly hack night while they were students at the Starter League. “Open Government Hack Night created a space where government people could connect with people like me who are interested in learning how to code, have a policy background and personal experiences that make these problems really relevant – that made me willing to put my skin in the game, and willing to go hard. The mayor’s office came and stated that this was a problem, and within a week we had built a prototype.”
2 – Black Youth Project 100: Rose is a National Membership Chair of BYP100, an “activist member-based organization of Black 18-35 year olds, dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all Black people.” During a retreat brainstorming session on pain points and problem solving, “it was unanimous around the room that the humiliation that people experience through public assistance was one of the biggest issues and challenges. It’s something that stayed with me – there is pain around having to ask for help and being unsure how to get it.”
3 – Carrying a torch – “It’s about carrying a torch. There’s an awesome and robust history of advocates who found a home in social services. I like to consider myself someone who is emerging in that space and really trying to – through the lens of tech, gender, and policy – solve these broken parts of the system.”
On other disrupters in the public service space:
“I have to say this – People say government is slow and bureaucratic, but I really love the innovation delivery teams that are thinking through how to problem solve within government. I really think that Bloomberg Philanthropies has knocked it out of the park. And 18F is hella dope, right? In terms of public benefits eligibility, the UK knocks my socks off. And Rey Faustino of One Degree is the real deal.”
When asked about what she wants to contribute to the dialogue on minorities and women in tech and entrepreneurship, she keeps it simple, “This is for you too.”