In March, NHSX launched TechForce19 in partnership with PUBLIC, AHSN and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government. A month later, 18 companies were announced as winners of the TechForce19 program and began testing their digital solutions across the UK. In this interview we spoke to Alex Stephany, CEO of TechForce19 winner Beam, to hear more about the company’s TechForce19 journey deploying their technology to crowdfund employment training and support for homeless people.
What does Beam do and why did you embark on this venture?
Beam is a tech startup working to solve the homelessness crisis. How does it work? The public crowdfunds employment training for individual homeless people. Then we support each person into stable, paid work, ranging from plumbing to accounting and everything in between. So this is about empowering people to support themselves and leave behind homelessness for good. But it’s also about providing employers with a new and diverse talent pool.
It all started about three years ago, when I got to know a homeless man at my local Tube station in London. I’d buy him cups of coffee and pairs of thermal socks when it was getting cold. At one point, he disappeared for weeks on end. When he reappeared, he looked years older: he told me he’d had a heart attack and had just come out of hospital. Despite the well-meaning gestures from myself and no doubt others, he was in a worse position than ever.
So I began to ask myself a question: what would it take to make a lasting difference to this man’s life? He had never had a job, and clearly lacked the confidence and support to make it on his own. For me, the answer lay in empowering him with the skills, confidence and support to get back into work and provide for himself. Of course, that would cost far more than coffees or socks – but what if everyone chipped in?
The idea of crowdfunding employment training for homeless people was born. Over the following nine months, I developed the model working with homeless people and charities, and officially launched Beam in September 2017.
How does your solution help the vulnerable and isolated?
When a homeless person launches their campaign through Beam, they can expect around 100-200 members of the public to support their campaign. Many choose to leave messages of encouragement when they donate, which can be a massive confidence booster for our beneficiaries. This is particularly important for those who have been placed in emergency accommodation away from their support network and may be feeling isolated.
For example, Mia is using Beam to train as a digital marketer. She became homeless after leaving an abusive family dynamic. Describing her experience, she said: “Homelessness is a really isolating experience, especially when you’ve been made to feel like you’re to blame after leaving a bad situation. I felt that everyone was judging me and felt even more vulnerable as a woman.” Mia went on to raise £5,695 from 372 Beam supporters. Talking about the support she received, she said: “I find all [the] kind words and support extremely uplifting and encouraging.”
On top of this, coronavirus has made our homeless population even more vulnerable. Many of the people we’re supporting live in unsuitable or cramped accommodation, sometimes sharing bathrooms and kitchens with other families. This makes the risk of contracting coronavirus even higher, particularly for those with underlying health conditions.
As a result, many of the people we support choose not to leave their emergency accommodation and therefore become even more isolated. To tackle this, Beam has provided hundreds of laptops and kids’ tablets to homeless families so that they can continue to work, study and stay connected with friends and family. In addition to this, we’re also providing them with emergency care packages that include everything from household cleaning products and PPE to food vouchers and children’s clothing.
How has your company adapted to tackle Covid-19 related challenges?
Right now, Beam is supporting homeless people into jobs that have seen a surge in demand during the crisis, provided it’s safe for them to start work. Many of these are key worker roles including warehouse operatives, NHS workers, carers, supermarket assistants and cleaners.
To raise awareness of this initiative, we’re asking the UK to #FundAFuture for a homeless person. The idea is that a number of sectors face labour shortages, but at the same time there are thousands of homeless people who want to start work. We’ve placed posters outside hospitals, care homes, supermarkets, offices and building sites around London – highlighting the sectors in most need of workers and the opportunity for homeless people to plug the gap.
We have also launched an Emergency Coronavirus Fund to provide short-term relief to homeless families during the pandemic. Through donations from the public, we’re able to deliver emergency care packages to those in need. For example, we’ve been able to fund a laptop and electronic tablets for homeless single mum Sonia, so that her kids can do their school work from home.
Can you tell us more about how you’ve deployed your technology as part of the TechForce19 challenge?
Winning the TechForce19 challenge has helped us to build the tech to scale our Emergency Coronavirus Fund. We now have a dedicated team working on this project who take referrals from charities and local authorities, launch the emergency crowdfunding campaigns on our website and coordinate the delivery of care packages. To-date, we’ve sent over 350 care packages and raised more than £50,000 in donations from members of the public.
One of the people we’ve supported is single mum Beverley, who has three sons. With free school meals no longer an option, she was struggling to keep up with feeding them all. We sent them some food vouchers so they could do a big supermarket shop to keep them going for a few weeks. We also used the funding to send them art supplies and laptops so her sons could do their school work.
Have you learned any valuable lessons during this period of change and uncertainty?
Since the very beginning, our core values have formed an important part of our culture, hiring process and decision-marketing. The pandemic has given us time to reflect on these values as we navigate this period of uncertainty. During periods of flux, a company’s values are what defines it, so we’ve spent time as a team challenging and refining who we want to be as a company.
It goes without saying that this has been an incredibly busy time for all of us. Knowing when to take a break is incredibly important – and I don’t just mean annual leave! We’ve introduced “decompression weeks”, where we slow down the pace and give people a bit of a breather. We measure our success by the number of lives we improve – one of our core values is “We make an impact” – but we also recognise that we can only achieve these amazing outcomes if the team has time to decompress.
Finally, we’ve always had a culture of supporting one another and lockdown has shown us just how important this is. We’re connecting more with one another through coffee catch-ups, wellbeing triads and yoga mornings, while also introducing additional wellbeing budgets and always-on wellbeing surveys to make sure we’re supporting everyone’s needs remotely.
Advice for GovTech founders?
This is an incredibly exciting time to be providing government with innovative solutions to complex social problems. But don’t forget the importance of collaboration! 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. GovTech founders need to know where both their strengths and weaknesses lie, and collaborate with others who can plug some of those gaps.