Between a bus and a broken window: One woman's fight to unite tech and social justice

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on January 1, 2014

From The News Desk

Founder and YC alum Peter Shih wrote an ill-advised blog post in August of this year, called "10 Things I Hate About You: San Francisco Edition." In it he made various classist and sexist remarks about San Francisco and inspired the ire of the Internet for "[c]onfirming nearly every negative stereotype about the tech community." (Shih has since offered a heartfelt apology for -- in his own words -- his idiotic comments).

Four months later, anti-eviction activists blockaded one of the shuttle buses that ferries tech workers to the Peninsula. Members of the group Heart of the City halted the Google bus in San Francisco for half an hour, marking the first time this tactic was used as a form of protest for rising rents and socioeconomic inequality.

Later that same week, another entrepreneur who clearly did not learn from Shih's lesson, published his own jerk post, a Facebook rant about the "degenerates" of San Francisco. One prize sentence from Greg Gopman, founder of AngelHacks: "You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us." Lovely. Cue backlash from horrified netizens.

To round out all the drama, two weeks later activists in Oakland shattered a Google bus window with employees still inside, the first time such protests have gotten violent.

It's safe to say that tension between the haves and have nots is at an all-time high in San Francisco. The Bay Area has become polarized with entire swaths of society pigeonholed into stereotypes. Any similarities between the "regular folks" and the "techies" is overlooked. The enmity between the groups is too robust to allow for nuance.

One woman, 32-year-old Rose Broome, stands in a strange role, awkwardly straddling these two worlds at the time of such tensions and trying to defend them both.

Broome is the co-founder of HandUp, a startup that is raising its seed round to help homeless people get the supplies they need. After passing a homeless woman sleeping in the street one night, Broome found herself wondering how she could help. She recruited her friend and fellow co-founder Zac Witte, and came up with HandUp.

HandUp works with local non-profits -- at the moment just Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco, but with plans to expand. Charities come up with the list of at-risk individuals, and put their pictures and personal stories on the HandUp site for people to see. Users can then donate to individuals through the app, and the charities take the money and distribute it. They buy the individual the supplies they request, like sandwiches, batteries, clothing, bus tickets, etc. The goal is to enable people to help specific others in need, while ensuring said donations don't go towards potential drug or alcohol abuse.

Broome stands at a point where tech startups and social justice organizations meet. That puts her, coming from a tech background having formerly worked as a data engineer at Inigral, Inc. and SuperBetter Labs, in an uncomfortable position.

Broome has found it to be difficult to be an unofficial ambassador for both parties. She winds up defending the tech community to those outside it after blog posts like Greg Gopman's. She explains that such examples don't represent the entire tech community to skeptical listeners. Simultaneously, Broome tries to rally members of the tech community to get on board with local volunteering organizations to help serve the communities in which they're building their lives.

"I want the broader community to see that tech is doing good," Broome says. "There is so much potential for more problems we can solve. More innovation is needed, and that's what tech people do best."

With HandUp, Witte and Broome are essentially aiming to do for charity what Uber did for transportation: streamline the process. "We're a tech company," Broome says. "We're not starting a storefront where we interface with the community."

The site connects willing donors (supply) to charities in need (demand) through a simple application, making it a platform, not a service. "[The charities] were looking for a solution like this," Broome says. "We've had homeless organizations across the country and across the world [contact us] saying, 'When can we get this?'"

Users can opt-in to a support fee when they donate through HandUp, which is the company's monetization strategy. It's a for-profit venture backed by Jason Calacanis.

There's a valid critique to be levied here: it's hypocritical for HandUp to be making money as a for-profit company off homeless needs. How wholesome of a purpose could it have with a bottom revenue line and investors? "We're a legal benefit corporation," Broome defends herself. "We have a social mission baked into the founding documents."

Hypocritical or not, HandUp can be commended for tackling whole swaths of society -- namely low income services -- that have gone mostly unnoticed by the tech sector. There's a reason when tech entrepreneurs talk about designing a company around their "passion" few of them ever cite big social justice issues like "eradicating poverty" or "helping single mothers get on their feet." Instead they normally cite things like "making online payments easier" or "creating a new way to share with friends."

Tech companies, frequently funded by venture capitalists, are looking for big returns that are more likely to be found in consumer software and enterprise products that bring in big revenue. When founders are trying to figure out what problem they want to tackle, the non-profit social justice world is the last sector many would consider.

If there are tech entrepreneurs out there who are bored of tackling so-called "first world problems," they might want to follow Broome's example. She's showing a simple way that a tech application can help eliminate barriers to getting people help.

"It's not like this is rocket science, it's not like we have some extremely difficult technology to invent," Broome says. She believes that since the non-profit world has been largely neglected by startups, there's a lot of low hanging fruit. There's room to create easy tech-based resources that could help social justice organizations.

As an example, she cited the fact that when she started researching poverty resources in SF, there wasn't even a single online database of all the homeless shelters and services. She's says that has since changed, with Zendesk making as part of a community service agreement with St. Anthony's Tenderloin Technology Lab. We've reached out to the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness to fact-check whether that's true and will update when we hear back.

"I'm like, 'Whoa, whoa,'" Broome remembers. "It's like there's a house burning down, and I decide to bring my little bucket to go help, and I show up and there's no fire fighters."

That type of sentiment is the sort that pisses off those in other sectors besides tech -- education, social justice, healthcare. The criticism frequently levied is that techies think they can come in and fix everything so easily, without expertise in the sectors they're tackling. There's certainly some truth to that, and when entrepreneurs try to reinvent entire industries on the drop of a dime, it occasionally backfires (see: MOOCs in education).

That said, if there's one thing Silicon Valley people know well it's technology. It's not a magic bullet by any means, but digital applications, programs, algorithms, and data analysis can help streamline processes in these sectors where technical talent does not typically flock to work.

The trick, perhaps, is for startups to work closely with experts in the fields they're trying to help, from the beginning of building a minimum viable product to officially launching it to the public.

Broome has hope for her attempts. She says, "We need tech people who are experts in building technology to venture out into other domains like this."