Where are they now? In conversation with Propel founder Jimmy Chen

Brooklyn-based social startup Propel won first place, and $5,000, at the December 2016 Pitch for Good pitch contest, for their work building software for low-income Americans who are often overlooked by traditional tech innovation. Since winning, Propel was selected to receive a $100,000 grant from the Future Cities Accelerator, a new program that’s a joint initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Unreasonable Institute.

We chatted with Propel founder Jimmy Chen, who is working out of Cobble Hill’s Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood , about the company’s mission, making it in Brooklyn and what’s next for the tech startup.

Congrats on winning the Make it in Brooklyn pitch contest! Tell us a bit about how you came to start Propel.

Thank you! I was a Product Manager at Facebook in 2014 but left to find something more focused on social impact. I wanted to apply my knowledge and skills from Silicon Valley to solve social issues.

The Blue Ridge Labs program allows us to continue on our mission to create technology that helps a large group of Americans in very real ways, beyond apps that help people order lunch faster or swipe right to find a date.

There’s an emerging trend for social good in the tech industry at the moment. How does Propel’s FreshEBT fit into this movement toward a more conscious startup scene?

Low-income Americans have traditionally been underserved by tech startups, and we have the technical ability to build great software to serve their needs. Americans at every income level have access to smart phones — including 70% of the 45 million food stamp beneficiaries.

FreshEBT is a third-party app that helps food stamp and benefit holders skip the phone calls and lengthy office waits and not worry about saving receipts to keep track of their EBT balances. The app allows users to see their next deposit date and amount, transaction history, and find stores that accept EBT. This helps eliminate barriers faced by low-income families including long lines, complicated paperwork, and even - in beta right now -  the recertification process.  

How did the inspiration for your FreshEBT app come about?

Food stamps are currently used by 45 million Americans, so both the government and the benefit holders can use the app for a more seamless experience.

When our team saw over two hundred people at the Bergen Street (Human Resource Administration) office waiting to talk to a caseworker regarding their food stamps, we also happened to notice that the people waiting in line were on their phones to pass the time. The connection was clear.

Why Brooklyn?

I lived in Silicon Valley for 8 years, and I originally thought I’d move Propel back there. But the more time we spent in Brooklyn, the more we realized it’s the perfect place to run Propel. Silicon Valley is bit of an echo chamber where everyone thinks the same, which sometimes is useful to start a company, but for us it would’ve been distracting. Being in Brooklyn, with all the diversity of New York City, helps us see there are a lot of different people out there with needs other than our own.

Can you talk about why you wanted to pitch at Make It in Brooklyn?

We were founded and are still based in Brooklyn, and having the chance to network with other startups and meet Downtown Brooklyn companies was a really great opportunity.

What are your plans for the $5,000 prize awarded to Propel from the Make it in Brooklyn pitch contest?

We're planning to spend the prize money to boost our product marketing efforts. With $5000, we estimate that we can introduce 10,000 SNAP recipients across the country to FreshEBT.

What’s next for Propel?

Many people with EBT benefits call the number on the back of their card so much that they’ve told us they’ve memorized the number by heart. We are working toward evolving FreshEBT into a program similar to an online bank that would help our users save money and keep track of their finances. With that comes further financial services, like check cashing and other common practices within the community.

After the Make It in Brooklyn pitch contest, we received a $100,000 grant from the Future Cities Accelerator, which will help us to push our work forward at increased speed.

Good luck to Jimmy and the team at Propel! 

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