“One of my ambitions is to help our users put more food on the table,” says Jimmy Chen, the founder of Propel. His company makes a mobile app called FreshEBT that helps people among the U.S.’s 43 million recipients of the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) service to stretch their food-stamp benefits as far as possible. Last year, the company raised $4 million from the Omidyar Network, Andreessen Horowitz, and other investors.
“We serve low-income Americans who are too poor for most financial services,” says Chen. “They don’t qualify for payday loans because to get a payday loan, you have to have a payday. And 60% of our users don’t have jobs.”
FreshEBT was born during Chen’s fellowship at Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood. The Robin Hood foundation is New York’s largest poverty-fighting organization. An incubator within Robin Hood, Blue Ridge Labs, has quietly been making high-impact tech products for low-income New Yorkers since 2014. (Full disclosure: I was one of the lab’s original fellows in its original incarnation, which was called Significance Labs.)
Chen’s path through this new sector of high technology for underserved consumers hasn’t been an easy one. Over the last four years, he lost both of his original cofounders, struggled to raise funding from bemused VCs and risk-averse foundations, and pivoted from helping food stamp recipients apply for benefits to assisting them with the the management of those benefits. “It’s one of those things where it just depends how it turns out,” says Chen. “If it turns out positively, it’s persistence. If it turns out badly, it’s stubbornness.”
Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood could not exist without Silicon Valley—many of its tools and even people come from there. (Chen is a former Facebook product manager.) But FreshEBT isn’t a typical Silicon Valley product. It is, however, the type of product that many Americans need. Creating tech for a population largely invisible to the tech world is just one of the ways in which Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood is turning some of the tech world’s received wisdom upside down.