Fresh Perspectives with Alex Stephany

By Shariq Kochhar - December 11, 2019

Read my interview with Fresh Perspectives with Alex Stephany - CEO and founder of Tech for Good sensation Beam. In Edition #6 of Fresh Perspectives.

An introduction to the series.

With Fresh Perspectives, I hope to bring talent from across property, housing and technology together.

This series doesn’t focus on the loudest or most senior voices in these sectors. Rather, I seek out leaders with a new perspective. Those on the front lines of big change in business.

They challenge the status quo. Transform attitudes. Process. Operations and customer service.

I hope that you get as much as I learn from it. That you - the reader - consider these fresh perspectives and how they might be applied to your own organisation.

An introduction to my guest - Alex Stephany.

Alex Stephany is passion personified. His eclectic career has included nurturing talented teams to build incredible products and grow businesses. You could ask Alex about everything from corporate law to financial analysis, even consulting and mentorship. You could ask him about the sharing economy - he’s authored a famous business book about it called ‘The Business of Sharing.’
His many talents and experiences have culminated in his most eminent role yet. Today, he is proud to be the founder and CEO of Beam (www.beam.org) - the world’s first crowdfunding platform that helps people from disadvantaged backgrounds to train up and get into rewarding work.

Funded by the Mayor of London and the UK's leading tech entrepreneurs, Beam has proven a powerful new model to help homeless people get into work.

Beam has been covered widely, including by the BBC, The Times, The FT, The Independent, London Evening Standard, Sky, Time Out and others and was named by The Guardian as one of the most important social tech innovations of 2018.

In this interview, we discuss:

  • Why we have only just scratched the surface of using technology for good - and our collective responsibility as a sector to ask:"Are we a positive force in our communities and the world at large?” 
  • How Beam is providing disadvantaged people the right tools and equipment towards a journey to independence and empowerment.
  • The importance of a personalised model: taking a smarter approach to how we match people up with work and finding them jobs they are well-suited to.
  • Why technology is a bit of Pandora's box - and how the future will fuse technology and data with human-based services that are personalised and also underpinned by technology.
  • Advice on how today's youth can join the most impactful organisations - and why it is more important to be part of the founding team, rather than be the founder.

The interview.

Shariq: Alex, firstly, thank you for taking the time to do this. Really appreciate it. I’d like to start with an oddly specific question. So I’m originally from India - a vibrant country with an emerging economy. Until I met you and came across Beam, Tech for Good wasn’t an ethos I fully grasped. Beam helped me understand it a lot better. I was able to revisit and re-evaluate certain efforts in rural India with a fresh perspective. Small companies using tools like cloud computing, natural language processing - even simple image recognition software - to help expectant mothers with pregnancy complications. Help blind people with mobility. It changed my perception. And I know I’m not alone. Can I ask you why that is?

Alex: I think we've just scratched the surface of using technology for good. We're now in this time where the technology industry is in a fight for its soul, if you will. It's because it's been far too focused on using technology to extract financial value, rather than try and create social and economic good. The result is that the technology sector as a whole is in grave risk of being discredited and losing all moral authority that it has - which is tragic and unnecessary.

And I think we have a collective responsibility as a sector, whether you are doing something that's for good, like Beam, or whether you have a much less obviously, ‘for good‘ business. It could be any commerce business. You still have an obligation to ask, “Are we, as a technology organisation, a positive force in our communities and the world at large?” 

Technology is crucial to economic empowerment in developing economies, and is something that we're also really passionate about at Beam. The ultimate goal of getting disadvantaged people into skilled work is to give them true independence. The ability to stand on their own two feet, support themselves and their families in a dignified way.

Shariq: Yes I think that’s it! Made me realise that these initiatives are about independence - about empowerment using tech, more than anything else.

Alex: I'm a firm believer that if we give people the right tools, they can do amazing things for themselves. There will be people who have all kinds of challenges in their life, and may have to climb a hill or a mountain. It's raining and it's steep, and there are rocks, and too often in the past we’ve asked people to do it in a pair of flip-flops. But actually, what we need to do is give them the right tools and the right equipment, so that they can get to the top of that mountain in these tough conditions. That's what Beam is really about -  giving people the best possible tools and support in order to help them to climb their individual mountain.

Shariq: That’s wonderful Alex! I've interacted with you a few times prior to this and each time I have loved the passion with which you talk about Beam. Have there been other avenues, endeavors that you’ve connected with as deeply prior to this?

Alex: I think this is what  I feel most passionate about. I feel incredibly lucky at Beam - it’s exactly what I’ve wanted to work towards in my life. I don't play the lottery, but if I won the lottery, I'd probably go out and have a beer with some friends and then come to work the next morning (I’d also put the money towards scaling Beam!).  I wouldn't change anything about what I'm doing with my life. I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing and I'm incredibly lucky to be able to say that.

One of Beam’s own successes is that it’s a very personalised model. It's built on the premise that if you get people into a job that is well suited to them, they will thrive. And this is a very different approach to the one that is typically taken when dealing with very poor, disadvantaged people in societies - which is just get them into any job. 

The reality is - that kind of approach is a lottery. If you get them into any job, it might work out well, but it might be a job that they're ill-suited for. Even if they can remain in that job, there's going to be a cost to them and their families in terms of their mental and financial wellbeing.

We need to be smarter about how we match people up with work. This is something that makes Beam so special - and why it's something that I would want to work on for the rest of my life.

Shariq: I've got a quote here by John Hagle, the founder of Deloitte’s ‘Centre for the Edge’. It goes - “If we do it right, we might actually be able to evolve a form of work that taps into our uniquely human capabilities and restores our humanity. The ultimate paradox is that this technology may become the powerful catalyst that we need to reclaim our humanity.” Does that resonate with you? Or does that factor into the kind of transformation Beam is bringing about economically?

Alex: I would say technology is a bit of a Pandora's box. Unless we have some nuclear Armageddon, it's quite difficult to shut the books or put the genie back in the bottle. So, actually it's likely that technology is going to be the way forward and will help us to rediscover some of the things that we probably had nailed down better than we thought before technology came along.

An example of that would be prayer. A few hundred years ago, wherever in the world you were, it’s likely that prayer was a big part of your life. And that prayer would give us beneficial things - it’s one of the reasons we did it so frequently. Fast forward to today and we are kind of in the middle of a mental health epidemic, for which there's many causes. Probably the chief of which is the internet and social media. And yet, we're finding that technology is offering a way forward - like the rampant growth of meditation apps, which, in a way, are saying, "hey, well we can actually go and do a prayer-like activity in a secular age and regain some of those things that we'd lost."

Take, for example, a business like Calm. 5 or 10  years ago, I don’t think anyone, apart from the founders, would’ve said it would become a $1 billion business. But actually, it is restoring something really important. Calm’s founders are  also two of the 700 plus people who support individuals on Beam each month. 

I believe the way we will solve problems like homelessness is  through a combination of technology - which brings with it all kinds of efficiencies and scale - but also personalised services.

For example, each person on Beam’s platform has a support specialist, and the model flexes around that person's unique needs and aspirations. So technology alone is not going to be the  answer to all of our problems. It's going to be a combination of technology and human-based, personalised services. One without the other is probably unlikely to work, at least for vulnerable people. And I think a lot of interesting innovation and services made available for vulnerable people in the next 10  or 20 years, will be services that fuse technology and data with human-based services that are personalised and also underpinned by technology.

Shariq: Excellent. Well, Alex, this is a question I wanted to ask you when I saw you last time. There's many examples of innovators around the world, below the age of 30, who are submitting projects for consideration that might help achieve the U.N.'s sustainable development goals for the next decade. As a young leader in the tech space, how do you think we can further empower them to accelerate global progress?

Alex: I think it's happening already. It's great that there are many young people who have seen the scale of problems,  including the climate crisis, and now are thinking about these things and working on them with a real urgency. I think that's a wonderful thing.

My advice to them would  be to join the most impactful organisations they can, rather than start their own. I’d argue that the most important thing is not to be the founder, it's to be the founding team, or part of the early team. These are the people that are really making history because that's where the impact is - when you can get around a strong idea and leaders and take real progress towards a bold vision. And so, I would advise anyone early in their career to join organisations that they're really passionate about, where they can learn, there is the ability to really pick up speed and have a lot of impact. By the way, Beam is growing very fast and has over four open roles!

At Beam, we want to have a business model that is underpinned by supporting disadvantaged people into jobs, and getting paid by the government to do that. And I think in the next 10 years, we will see  many more organisations focused on environmental and social change who are becoming social enterprises - organisations that are trying to be totally sustainable by creating social impact. For example - a company that gets plastic out of the ocean and is paid for every ton of plastic it retrieves. Similarly, other organisations built on social and environmental KPIs.

Shariq: We discussed the idea of connections recently. The ability technology gives us to forge stronger community connections. At Plentific, it helps us better support housing associations in providing their tenants excellent service at lower costs. Helps us empower and grow local trades businesses alongside. I wonder if you have more thoughts on how Tech for Good can further empower these connections. What is the next big change we can realise in the environments we live in?

Alex: One of the things that we are doing at Beam is we're connecting people who want to help with people who need help.

It is a very simple idea, but it's kind of a radical one as well. It's also a very different way of approaching a solution to these problems because typically, you wouldn’t try to connect these two groups.  Using technology, we’ve found both a safe and scalable way to connect these two groups such that both sides benefit. The donors get that real human connection, and they can see the impact of their money. And more importantly, the beneficiaries get to connect with people that care about them, who  can give them support, encouragement, and help in potentially other areas of their lives.

One of the things we notice all the time at Beam is that getting support from a group of human beings is really, really powerful. Maybe you could have the support of the government your whole life. But you end up forgetting that there are real people out there who care. We're human beings and we respond well to other human beings, not to institutions. So, the more we can surround an individual who needs help with real people, the more they are going to feel socially integrated. And the more they're going to feel confident and optimistic about their future. 

That is so crucial in terms of getting people to that next stage. And we often see that when people come to us for the first time, they have very, very low self esteem and limited confidence. When a few hundred people fund their campaign and send them supportive  messages, their confidence is transformed, which makes it so much more likely that they're going to be successful in training and work.

The way the model works is that only 20% of donations are allocated to a single person on the platform. The vast majority are split between everyone, or allocated by us each month to the campaign that needs it the most. This means that everyone who's been through Beam gets funded at the same rate. That's more than 150 funded  campaigns, from around 20,000 donations. And the model is working 80% of the time for a group of people who've been out of work - often for years, sometimes for decades, or their whole life.

Shariq: That's incredible, Alex! So happy to know that. Should also say - it’s easy to become enamoured by your eloquence and by your vision! Do you have a favourite read? A definitive book an all time favourite - that you keep revisiting? 

Alex: I really enjoy reading George Orwell’s Essays. I think linguistically, he's a master of explaining things simply and powerfully, using natural language sometimes to convey complicated ideas. But also, I think he's a fantastic observer of Britishness, and how we have always been a diverse and varied people. 

Shariq: What would you say to people who are curious or perhaps weary of technological advances?

Alex: I would say to them that technology is a tool, like a knife. And like a knife, it can do terrible things, it can harm someone, but it could also save someone's life.

So, it makes no sense to be scared of a tool. It makes a lot of sense to think deeply about how we use that tool as effectively as we can. And you're absolutely right, that many of the ways we're using these tools at the moment are wrong, and self-interested, and not having the positive impacts in the world that they could be. But also, you should be full of hope, that these tools will in time, be used to have an ever greater positive impact on our lives. 

Shariq: I would love if, as we part, you could tell me about any exciting new developments at Beam? 

Alex: This Christmas, we have a new feature - which is a gift cards feature. By following the link on our website, you can get all of your family, friends and colleagues Christmas presents through Beam. It's an incredibly meaningful, memorable gift. I would love to talk specifically about how we can do that for Plentific - whether we can get a gift card for the Plentific team this Christmas and help raise awareness of Beam and its work.

Shariq: That would be incredible, yes. We should definitely explore this. Well Alex, honestly, thank you so much for the time. 

Alex: No, thank you. Absolute pleasure speaking. I look forward to reading this. 

Learn more about Beam at beam.org




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