Using Technology and Innovation for Social Good

  • June 6, 2018
  • By: Greenpath Financial Wellness

By Bill Druliner, Director of Strategic Partnerships

How can we dream so big in some areas, yet continue to think so small in others?

I asked myself this recently while at a conference in California.  A panel of speakers shared some of the latest developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence – applications such as biometric recognition and autonomous vehicles.  During the Q&A time, I posed the question, “Do you know of any applications of data analytics that are focused on better understanding and measuring well-being?”  This group had not — and one of the panelist’s answers could be paraphrased as “Gosh, that would be hard.”  (Me, I thought programming computers to make them sentient sounded a little harder – but, what do I know?)

Another time, I attended a kickoff event for a new FinTech and Blockchain lab at a university.  The group was looking for input on the potential focus areas for the lab. There was much discussion of the development of new cryptocurrency exchanges, business applications of Blockchain, and even more robo-advising platforms. I asked, “Have you considered focusing on ways that FinTech could be used to solve the challenges of the economically fragile?”  Answer – nope.

From a business standpoint, I find this surprising.  After all, over $25 billion is spent each year on fringe banking products, and over 138 million people in America are economically insecure — or have tenuous connections with the traditional financial services sector.  There is money to be made in providing right-priced and appropriate tools to help “the rest of us” to manage our financial situations.

Meanwhile, I can understand why many FinTechs may not see this audience as attractive.  Historically-disadvantaged populations can be very difficult to reach, and – while most non-profits are well-intentioned – they may not have the ability to collaborate and iterate at the pace that the for-profit sector frequently demands.  Work focused on social good traditionally has lacked a sustainable operating model that isn’t entirely dependent on philanthropy or government spending.  It also can be notoriously difficult to scale, and there are many examples of failed attempts to solve these challenges.

In 2016, we realized that GreenPath was in a unique position to begin to address the problem of improving the financial well-being of struggling Americans using FinTech tools.  This meant testing partnerships that bridge the gap between social-impact work and technology. We have already begun doing this through collaborations with nearly a dozen FinTech companies to develop accessible, desirable ways of meeting the needs of the nearly 250,000 people served by GreenPath each year. One such project was our collaboration with EarnUp to develop a FinTech tool for automating and accelerating fixed debt repayment, featured in a recent case study published by the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI). We were proud to have received the Council on Accreditation’s Innovation Award in 2017 for this work.

Our partners at CFSI have been trailblazers in this work in a variety of ways, from convening a working group to developing promotional content. CFSI named GreenPath to its select list of “Financial Health Leaders,” a designation reserved for those organizations conducting the most advanced work on measuring financial well-being. CFSI’s leadership, with the close collaboration and support of Chase, has been truly transformative in helping to raise awareness of how #FinancialHealthMatters.

Our commitment to innovation for social good is our way of dreaming big – and we’ve recently taken three BIG steps to ensure we never think too small, including:

  1. We created innovative leadership roles within GreenPath, naming Sireesha Mandava our first Chief Technology Officer, adding Nicole Bladzik as our Director of Innovation, and adding Chinmay Aradhye as our Behavioral Scientist. Their knowledge and vision as part of our leadership team are pushing us to continue to grow our innovation and technology capabilities so we can better meet the needs of those that we serve.
  2. Our CEO, Kristen Holt, served as one of the judges for CFSI’s Financial Solutions Lab — an annual contest that encourages FinTech development to meet the needs of financially vulnerable consumers. We are excited to be celebrating the Lab’s winners at CFSI’s EMERGE conference later this week!
  3. We were selected to take part in the Social Good Accelerator, an intensive 3-month program which develops and accelerates a wide range of for-profit, non-profit, and cooperative ventures that are focused on creating social impact.  SGA will help us to better articulate and spread the message surrounding our work, thereby helping us to find more effective ways of meeting the needs of the historically underserved.

Our big hairy audacious goal — to Remix the American Dream so it works for everyone — requires us to change the way that we approach the problem of developing FinTech tools to measure and improve financial health.  We must put people’s real needs at the center of all we do.  For technologists, it’s not “what ‘can’ we build,” but “what ‘should’ we build” that is the operative question.  Since financial health is a critical component of overall well-being – impacting everything from interpersonal relationships to children’s health outcomes to civic engagement – we are falling short as a society if we aren’t using technology to create such financial stability.

Are you or your organization on a similar journey?  Would you be interested in learning about ways we could collaborate so that our dreams can become reality?  Please contact us at partnerships@greenpath.com or look for our team at CFSI’s EMERGE conference in Los Angeles June 5-8, 2018!