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Making an App to Make a Difference

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Making an App to Make a Difference

"Second of two articles

There really isn’t an app for everything. At least not for everyone.

Avi Karnani first noticed that tech gap when he was just out of business school, working on mergers and acquisitions for Citigroup Global Markets. “At my corporation there was all this great financial tech available to help them manage their risk and achieve anything they wanted,” he said. “But my friends had high-interest credit cards, and high-fee checking accounts and their student loans were incomprehensible. They were calling me up for help, and they didn’t have access to anything like that.”

If you run a business, or you’re a consumer of means, there’s a technology solution for every problem you could imagine, and many you probably can’t. But if you’re in financial trouble, or have problems typical of low-income people, sorry. It’s an analog world for you.

Still, there are some successes. Last week, I wrote about Propel’s Fresh EBT app, which helps people manage their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Mr. Karnani is the chief executive and co-founder of Alice, a company that automates pretax benefits to enable companies to offer them and let more employees use them. Those benefits can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to a worker’s paycheck. But while white-collar employees can usually get them, most hourly workers can’t.

Good Call links people arrested in New York City to a lawyer — within seconds. helps New York City tenants respond to eviction notices, compel landlords to make repairs, and represent themselves in housing court.

Those four companies got their start at a tech incubator called Blue Ridge Labs, which is part of Robin Hood, a New York City antipoverty organization. It’s the most productive (and possibly the only) early stage incubator for tech companies trying to solve a social problem.

Profit-focused tech companies have lots of tech start-up havens where they can get capital, mentorship, colleagues and a chance to show their products; Y Combinator is the best-known.

For beginning start-ups seeking social impact, the most prominent organization has been Blue Ridge. Companies in a slightly more advanced stage can apply to Fast Forward in the Bay Area of California, and JPMorgan Chase’s Financial Solutions Lab has fellowships for work on financial apps. Some companies win fellowships at more than one lab..."

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