ALEX STEPHANY: “THE PANDEMIC HAS CHALLENGED US TO BE CREATIVE AT A TIME WHEN MANY THINGS ARE UNCERTAIN.”
April 23, 2021/Economic Empowerment
We speak to Alex Stephany, Conduit Member and Founder & CEO of Beam, about the importance of tech for good, using the crowdfunding model for social impact and the human success stories that keep him motivated.
Why do we still need to be having conversations about the concept of tech for good?
We’ve only just scratched the surface of using technology for good. The tech industry has been far too focused on using technology to extract financial value, rather than trying to create social and economic good. We need to keep tech for good on the government’s agenda, at the same time as encouraging big tech companies to play a bigger role. More than that, every company has an obligation to ask, “Are we, as a technology organisation, a positive force in our communities and the world at large?” Until the time comes where every company is considering this question seriously, the dialogue around tech for good must continue.
What came first: your interest in technology or your passion for social impact?
I’d say my passion for social impact came first. Before I started working in tech, I was working for a legal charity, which provided free legal advice to those in need. Through that role, I witnessed the appalling poverty that exists in London, and wanted to do something about it. I then took a break from this to work in tech in a number of different tech startups, most recently as CEO of parking app JustPark. It was then that I realised I could use tech to solve some of the problems I’d previously seen in my law days.
What made you decide on the crowdfunding model for Beam?
I already had some experience of crowdfunding. While I was CEO, JustPark had launched an equity crowdfunding campaign to raise £1 million on CrowdCube. It ended up being the largest ever crowdfunding campaign for a tech startup at the time, reaching £3.5m. It got me thinking about how this model could be used to achieve social good, too.
Shortly after that, I got to know a homeless man at my local Tube station. I’d buy him cups of coffee and pairs of thermal socks when it was getting cold. But despite the well-meaning gestures from myself and no doubt others, his situation never improved.
So I began to ask myself what it would take to make a lasting difference to this man’s life. He had never had a job, and was illiterate. For me, the answer lay in empowering him with the skills and training needed to sustainably support himself. Of course, that would cost far more than coffees or socks – but what if everyone chipped in?
That’s when I came to the realisation that crowdfunding in this context could really work. And at the same time, we’d be making meaningful investments in the lives of homeless people. Over the following nine months, I developed the model working with homeless people and charities. Beam launched in November 2017.
How important is brand collaboration to Beam?
Beam counts some of the UK’s leading companies and brands as CSR partners – from Monzo to PROPER. These collaborations are a great way of growing Beam’s visibility among a wider audience, while giving brand employees an opportunity to get behind a cause they feel passionate about.
Here are some of the ways that brands can get involved:
Gift cards: Our e-gift cards [https://beam.org/gifts/new] can be delivered at scale to customers or employees. Beam gift cards fund a homeless person through training and into work, and the recipient can choose which individual they want to fund on our platform. We’ve found that this can be an incredibly meaningful way to say thank you for purchasing or giving feedback. For example, Mustard sends a £5 Beam gift card when someone purchases one of their lockers.
Matchfunding: We provide branded banners on both the home-page and check-out for brands wishing to provide matchfunding. Matchfunding is a great way to boost brand visibility on Beam’s website, and involves matching any donations made during a specific time-frame (you can also cap the amount if preferred). [https://beam.org/]
Fundraisers: Fundraise for Beam, like PROPER does [https://beam.org/fundraisers/proper-x-beam-2019]. Throughout 2019, PROPER hosted a number of different events and initiatives to raise money for Beam – raising a total of £25k. All of this money goes towards funding our award-winning work. You can even choose to support people progressing into the same sector as your company.
How is the current coronavirus pandemic affecting Beam’s community and the organisation’s focus?
Sadly, Coronavirus has made homeless people even more vulnerable, with many of them struggling to access the basics. Now, in addition to funding job training for homeless people, we’re giving members of the public the opportunity to fund emergency care packages [https://beam.org/coronavirus] for them. We hope this will go some way towards helping some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
On top of this, with the job market changing rapidly and the closure of training centres, we’ve had to adapt our approach to supporting disadvantaged people into work. Currently, we’re focused on supporting people into roles that have seen unprecedented demand, such as healthcare workers, carers, supermarket assistants and warehouse operatives. We’ve already supported a number of people into roles during this difficult time; for example, Dineer [https://beam.org/campaigns/dineer-delivery-driver-training] who is now working as a warehouse operative at Amazon, and Giulia [https://beam.org/campaigns/giulia-beautician-training] who is now working as a supermarket assistant. You have to celebrate those silver linings on a daily basis.
The Coronavirus pandemic has challenged us to be agile and creative at a time when many things are uncertain. However, by living out our core values [https://beam.org/careers], I’m confident that we’ll come out of this situation even stronger than before.
What is your proudest moment from Beam’s journey so far?
There are many highlights when it comes to working at Beam. For most of us, this is hands-down the most exciting and fulfilling work any of us have ever done.
It’s incredible seeing the homeless people we support progress into work. What’s more, 80% of the time they’re successfully starting work in their chosen career. These happy endings are happening more often than we ever expected, and more frequently with every passing month.
But the absolute highlight for me is when we see people who are empowered through the Beam model to give back. We’re big believers at Beam in the value of skilled work – and the average salary of people who’ve used Beam is £28k. It’s amazing to see those individuals choosing to fund new people coming through the Beam model.
Beam is currently operating in London, but we have big ambitions to scale our business. We’ve created a highly replicable model and we’re interested in hearing from businesses who’d like us to launch in their city. Of course, a big part of this will be raising the funding required for expansion, so that will be another big focus for us in the coming year. If you’re reading this and would like to start a conversation, please do reach out!
What advice would you give to tech companies wanting to shift their focus to have a more positive impact?
For tech companies wanting to have a greater social impact, there are a number of factors at play.
Firstly, collaboration is crucial. At Beam, we’re collaborating with a number of different stakeholders, from government and charities to concerned citizens and corporates. We understand that social impact is best achieved when everyone is working to their strengths. Tech companies need to know where both their strengths and weaknesses lie, and collaborate with others who can plug some of those gaps.
Secondly, meet with and listen to the people you’re trying to positively impact. Don’t come to them with a ready-baked ‘tech solution’ before you’ve done your homework. In fact, prepare to be challenged if what you suggest doesn’t align with their current, urgent needs.
Thirdly, make sure you’ve got a system in place to measure your social impact. Your company can’t celebrate progress without knowing its financial numbers, so make sure you have a couple of basic key performance indicators related to social impact that you can actively measure and work on. For more advice on the topic, I actually wrote a piece for City AM on the four golden rules of corporate social responsibility [https://www.cityam.com/rules-for-corporate-social-responsibility/] , which apply to any company hoping to have a more positive impact.
To find more about Beam and how you can support their work, visit their website. [https://beam.org/]
In a city where extreme poverty and wealth exist side-by-side, Bedrooms of London looked to make visible the often shocking and unseen realities of home life for the 700,000 children living below the poverty line within our capital. Challenging the prejudices and stereotypes associated with child poverty, Bedrooms of London highlights this situation for some of London’s most vulnerable children.
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