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Davidson College Alumnus Runs Nonprofit Tech Helping Families Apply for SNAP Benefits

By Danielle Strickland

Genevieve Nielsen graduated from Sullivan Foundation partner school Davidson College just five years ago and already has made a difference in the lives of more than 425,000 families—and counting.

Nielsen co-founded mRelief, a non-profit tech company that helps families find out if they qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps. Families can answer 10 quick questions online instead of spending hours on the phone or in a waiting room.

“Our goal was to put something into the world that would be useful, and that turned out to be a tech nonprofit,” said Nielsen. “We want to make it so anybody can access a social safety net, and that’s where we’re headed.”

To date, mRelief has unlocked more than $91 million in SNAP benefits. There are currently nine million people in the United States who are eligible for but not receiving the benefit, simply because they don’t know they can.

“About three million of the nine million live in California, so we’ve been doing a lot of work out there,” explained Nielsen. “We focus on where we can make the most impact and where there are the most people to serve.”

 

mRelief began while Nielsen attended a coding bootcamp the summer after graduating from Davidson, and she was inspired by a presentation about the inefficiencies related to social services in Chicago. Chicago is also Nielsen’s home, where she and her family moved after leaving New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. She learned that, every year, 10,000 people apply for assistance in paying their rent but only 400-600 qualify, resulting in a huge waste of time for applicants and staff.

Nielsen’s work focuses on SNAP benefits, but she sees real potential for expanding to other programs.

“We had some luck,” Nielsen said. “By the end of that first summer, the city wanted case workers to use our program. That gave us the wind at our backs to keep going.”

It costs approximately $13 to enroll a family and, on average, the family receives $1,000 in benefits within the first six months.

Creating something new has always been of interest to Nielsen, but it was at Davidson where she learned about her strengths and the areas where she needed more work.

“There is only so much you can learn by reading or getting advice; there’s nothing like trying something and feeling it for yourself,” she said. “During college, a friend and I tried to make a website that would benefit student organizations on campus. The main problem was that neither of us knew how to code. That really set me on the path I’m on now. Even though our project didn’t work out, there’s a lot to be said for giving it a shot, especially in college when you have the security to do it.”

Nielsen’s involvement with the Chidsey Leadership Program, as well as relationships with a few key professors, helped give her the confidence that she could learn new things and take on new challenges.

“I was always introverted, so I never saw myself as a leader,” she said. “The Chidsey program helped me see that anybody can be a leader. It’s not just one type of personality. It’s really about mobilizing people to effect positive change – and any personality can do that.”

This article was edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Davidson College website.

Social Entrepreneur Lists 5 Competitive Advantages of a Mission-Driven Business

Entrepreneurs who believe business success and social impact are mutually exclusive have a lot to learn about business success, according to a recent article on Forbes.com by Sean Grundy, CEO of Bevi, a social enterprise focused on eliminating single-use plastic bottles.

While no one denies that “having to succeed on two fronts makes the job of a social entrepreneur even harder” than that of a regular entrepreneur, Grundy said a thriving mission-driven business has the potential to help change the entire world for the better.

“When business interests and social or environmental interests clash, business interests usually win,” Grundy writes. “Yet when businesses truly support a cause, they can drive large-scale change quickly. And there’s no time to better embed a mission into a company than at the very start, making the mission an inseparable part of that company’s business model rather than an afterthought.”

The Bevi water dispenser

Related: Why social entrepreneurship is a smarter way of doing business

In fact, Grundy believes social enterprises have some important advantages over traditional for-profit companies, including:

  1. A better crop of job candidates. “When you can offer employees the professional development of a high-growth business with the impact of a nonprofit, you’ll be amazed by the quality of candidates who apply to your startup,” Grundy says.
  2. Brand authenticity. While many profit-driven companies hire consultants to help them invent a “mission” other than making as much money as possible, social entrepreneurs know and believe in their mission from the start. And that sort of genuineness is favored by many consumers in today’s market. “Industry incumbents may copy your product or your sales process, but they’ll never be able to capture the authenticity of your brand in customers’ eyes,” Grundy notes.
  3. Thinking bigger. Building a better world isn’t a small-scale operation. “You need to go after multibillion-dollar markets and reshape the way you do business,” Grundy writes. “In short, to really achieve your vision, you need to become a unicorn.”
  4. A stronger work ethic. “When you know your product will improve the world, you feel a moral obligation to succeed, even when the odds are stacked against you,” Grundy points out. “When you’re a mission-driven company in a sea of profit-driven competitors, you have to just keep swimming. Great investors recognize that mission-driven entrepreneurs are less likely to give up, and some even build this into their investment theses.”
  5. Far-ranging impact. Your social venture’s success will inspire other mission-driven entrepreneurs and “show them a path to success,” Grundy concludes. “If you fail, you may still lay the groundwork for a competitor to achieve your vision (which would be disappointing, but better than nothing). If you succeed, you’ll give investors more confidence that startups can, in fact, do well and do good at the same time.”

Forbes describes Grundy’s company, Bevi, as “one of the fastest-growing beverage companies in the world.” Conceived by Eliza Becton after she learned about the Pacific Garbage Patch, Bevi offers smart, eco-friendly water coolers for offices. Bevi machines allow users to mix up purified still and sparkling beverages—including both plain and flavored varieties—to create their own signature drinks with the push of a button on a touchscreen. “Our main motivation was cutting out the waste associated with plastic bottles, both from the actual manufacturing of bottles and the fact that most of them end up in landfills as well as just the trucking of full beverage bottles,” Grundy told Boston Magazine in 2015.

Bevi’s website claims the company’s beverage dispensers have “saved the waste generated by over 65 million plastic bottles.”