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“I’ve got where I’ve got overwhelmingly because I was lucky in the lottery of life. Beam is building a movement that’s empowering thousands of people who are much less lucky to fulfill their potential.”
In 2011, Alex Stephany was brought in by the founder of ParkatmyHouse, a popular parking app, as COO to raise a large funding round and take the business to the next stage.
The twist? Alex was a former lawyer and self-confessed “tech nerd”, but had never run a tech startup before. Less surprisingly, he had no experience of parking. It was a risk on both sides. “The amount to learn and do was effectively limitless. Anthony Eskinazi, the founder, took a bet on me for which I’ll always be grateful. It was one of the most empowering opportunities in my life and changed the course of my career”.
Alex took the challenge in his stride and was promoted to CEO a year later. Two years later, Alex and Anthony relaunched the business as JustPark and raised the largest ever crowdfunding round for a tech startup of 5m Euros. It was also the first crowdfunding round alongside a globally leading tech investor – the round also involved Series A funding from Index Ventures.
Crowdfunding And Community
Alex also became fascinated by the collaborative economy of community platforms and crowdfunding. So much so, he even wrote a book about it.
And by the time the crowdfunding round had closed, he’d had an idea. One that wouldn’t go away.
“What if we could use crowdfunding to solve social problems?” Alex didn’t know what to do with that thought, and besides, he was running a fast-growing business. But he remained troubled by the widening inequality he saw around him in London.
“Walking past homeless people – perhaps the most visible example of social deprivation – and doing absolutely nothing. I think that’s morally corrosive on both an individual and societal basis. If we can ignore that, what can’t we ignore?”
Meanwhile, homelessness was on the rise. From 2011 to 2018, homelessness had skyrocketed over 60%, with those sleeping on the streets only a small proportion of the overall homeless population including those in homeless hostels and “sofa surfing”.
“I’d sometimes stop and speak to homeless people. But I’m quite a shy person truth be told and always found it nerve-wracking. I began to wonder if tech could do more to help homeless people. And also do more to make it easy to help homeless people.”
The itch to work on social problems grew. “It was four years since I’d joined JustPark. While my passion for the business was still strong, it felt like society was tearing itself apart and I felt a desire to start working on a social problem that spoke to me powerfully from the heart.”
But still, he wasn’t sure what he should be doing. “For months, I met as many entrepreneurs and investors as I could. But the most impactful conversation was with a homeless man at my local Tube station. I’d buy him coffees and when it got colder, pairs of thermal socks. At one point, he disappeared for weeks. Then resurfaced, looking much older. He told me he’d had a heart attack and had just been discharged from the hospital.”
Alex realized that the man was in an even worse position when they met. So he began to ask himself what he could do to make a lasting difference to the man’s life.
“For me, that meant the skills and training for him to sustainably support himself. But that would cost more than coffees and socks. Then again, what if everyone chipped in?”
It seemed obvious: why not crowdfund employment training for homeless people. Alex was conscious he was a newcomer to the homelessness sector. So he spent over nine months meeting charities to get their input into the proposed model. He also met as many homeless people as possible, showing them different versions of the prototype. “I kept saying, ‘Look, if this is a bad idea, just tell me. Fortunately, people were supportive.”
Beam Us Up, Stephany
A year ago, Stephany launched Beam, the world’s first crowdfunding platform for homeless people.
The website lets anyone “meet” homeless people who have been referred by Beam’s charity partners and make a long-term investment in their futures by funding their training. The site also funds other financial barriers the homeless people might face, like tools or childcare, with all costs are transparently laid out in each campaign’s “Budget”.
Beam then holds the funds on behalf of each homeless “member”, purchasing training and other items direct. Crucially, Beam also gives each member a caseworker to support them on their “Journey” through training and into work, again transparently shown on each campaign. Once people donate to a campaign, they become a “supporter” and get updates from the person they’ve helped by email.
In essence, Beam is making it easy for anyone who cares about this issue to make an impact. By making it easy, Beam is building a people-powered community already numbering in the thousands that are helping solve homelessness, one person at a time.
“More than 200 people fund each member’s campaign. Many of them write messages of their with their donation that hugely boost the confidence of the member. Imagine what that feels like if you’ve been homeless, marginalized and out of work for years or decades.”
A Gift At A Giving Time Of Year
Beam is helping people like Tony – who trained as an electrician and is now in work for the first time in over 20 years. Nick, who is now trained and working as a barber. Davina, currently training to become an accountant who has finished top of many of her modules. Or Ryan, now trained and working as a lorry driver after he became homeless after serving in the armed forces.
With Christmas upon us, Beam’s launched another excellent idea – the ability to gift donations of employment training for the homeless people they support, instead of another material present we don’t need.
My mum and I have struggled to buy one another gifts for years – this has actually solved a problem for both of us, so we’ve been delighted to support the cause.
The recipients get to allocate the gift donation on the Beam platform. Then the updates from the homeless people they’ve supported are the real gift and so much more memorable than the nonsense we’ve given each other in the past.
And also, it must be said, a lot more convenient to buy. Gift cards can be emailed to the recipient straight away, or else come as PDFs to print and give. Businesses are getting involved too – buying Beam gifts donations for employees and clients.
In an increasingly isolated and volatile society, where depression is an epidemic and loneliness creeps through the cracks of our Instagram feeds, it’s a great reminder that every person has a voice, and that voice can tell a powerful story.
What of the man who Alex met at his Tube station? “The sad truth,” says Alex, “is I don’t know what became of him. I haven’t seen him since we launched Beam. But I do know there are over 320,000 homeless people in the UK. And I do know it doesn’t have to be this way.”
I couldn’t agree more – nor think of a more meaningful way to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.
If you want to gift someone a Beam donation, please do so here.
December 23, 2018 at 04:39AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs