Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winners have been officially announced, we are excited for you to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is an annual competition that awards cash prizes to early-stage tech entrepreneurs solving the world’s toughest problems. Now in its fifth year, the competition awarded its largest prize pool ever, $1 million USD, to 20 winning teams from around the world.
This year, Cisco offered a special HBCU Startup Prize to a team with at least one founder who is a student or graduate of one of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and who presents an innovative technology solution that addresses a social or environmental problem. This $50,000 USD prize supports our $150 million commitment to the strategic recovery, sustainability, and legacy of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Mini City, a cloud-based startup based out of Atlanta, is the first winner of the HBCU Startup Prize, for their innovative work assisting homeless and at-risk individuals by connecting them with identification. Herold Raymond, Mini City’s VP of Business Development, and graduate of HBCU North Carolina Central University, and his sister India Hayes, Mini City’s co-founder and CEO, teamed up on this philanthropical startup in 2019. Their platform enables homeless populations to access state- and government-issued identification – identification that serves as a key to job entry, housing, and more.
I sat down with India and Herold to discuss their beginnings, inspirations, and how this award will impact Mini City and homeless people across the US.
What problem is your technology solution trying to solve?
India: Our long-term vision is, of course, eradicating homelessness and isolation for disadvantaged groups, or those that are experiencing homelessness, or are at-risk for homelessness. But when we get granular, and look at the specifics of what we’re doing, Mini City is honing in on documents readiness, digital identification, and benefits access.
Many times, when we talk about strong forms of identification, you’re looking at birth certificates, social security cards, vital records—that’s what will help people to get housing, or roll into school, or take those next steps. And when you think of it even further out, we’re helping an individual gain government benefits, and access to Medicaid, and so on and so forth. We are honing in to those critical layers of identification and benefits because that’s crucial to long-term self-sustainability and being able to thrive in our nation.
Herold: India just summed it up greatly. What we like to say is that we’re helping the homeless on the road to self-sufficiency, and that begins with that identification aspect and those vital records. But it’s growing to become more than that, as we eliminate barriers to services like health care, food access, and even financial services. You know, many people who have benefits, even veterans, have trouble even accessing the money they have in bank accounts without any documentation.
Can you explain how the solution works?
Herold: So, the technology is a cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) solution. And that web application is housed on a tablet that we provide to our customer organizations. And any one of their helpers or case workers the ground can access the device, and a homeless participant can check in through that.
Mini City has access to different vital records offices in different states to produce these different documents–through a secure accountability process, we deliver them to representatives within the organization. We connect case workers with the documents that they then can connect to the end-users.
India: I think Herold summed up very well we do and how it works. But moving forward, Herold was integral in getting us on the AWS platform, making it so that we could work with the tech team. Just making it so we can be offered as a licensing key. So, cities and states easily onboard. It’s a critical step, because we do have different partners that are seeking our services and we just want to make it as easy as possible.
This summer we’re rolling out a compatible way to sign up for our services to keep track of services, a caseworker portal. We’ve always had a very internal kind of admin dashboard, but we want to open that up to caseworkers, just so that they can have more visibility and see where their citizens are at.
And then our biggest new thing is having this citizen portal, so a homeless citizen can have views into you know where they’re at in their journey, and any partner offerings—whether it’s through, you know Amerigroup, one of our Medicaid partners, or Comcast, or whomever. So that’s long-term vision. But in the gist of how things work, we’re at a really great place. But I think there’s so much more that we have in terms of our product roadmap.
Herold: Our CTO, Jason, and I set up our cloud platform on AWS. And Mini City is totally cloud-enabled. And, as you can imagine, we are extremely data intensive. So, we’re HIPAA certified, through a certification to protect data. We follow ISO standards and protocols. But for that next step that India is talking about, we’re trying to be as efficient as possible when trying to eliminate those barriers to other services, allowing us to securely communicate data with these other providers, partners, health services, researchers, and those in FinTech.
India: We can deploy in any state. I know the city of Denver was interested, and Philadelphia. And on the West Coast, they were interested. But, you know, what we found was to get vital records and birth records, which are necessary and critical, we have streamlined the process across the board. But when you get to very granular state-specific benefits—So for example, Medicaid, that’s a process that is very difficult, right? And there is a very high level across the board nationwide approach you can apply to it.
But there are benefits that are very tailored to the population of Georgia versus in California. Because states really pride themselves on offering benefits that are specifically a response to what’s going on in their state, what trends they see. So, our new challenge to address is making sure it’s a bespoke experience based on region.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
India: From shared experience of volunteering at women’s shelters. We were helping women who were experiencing homelessness with job readiness, and interview questions, and different packets. And Herold would come down and help volunteer. We would do all this stuff, but it was just from a desire to want to help large communities of color. Because I think, 80 percent to 90 percent of the women that we were working with in the shelters were women of color.
So, we’re like, “alright, this is heavily affecting our community, how can we step in here?” Herold was still a student at the time. And I think, maybe I had just graduated not too long before. And I think we just were inspired by that feeling you get when you—whether you’re graduating or taking on a new career—that preparedness. We really take it for granted, because that’s something that largely comes from support, our community and family. And, many times, the homeless are some of the most isolated individuals. For whatever reason, you know, maybe they outlive their family, they were the baby in the family, but that was decades ago. Or maybe there are different strains, like they weren’t accepted by their family, or they have PTSD. There are so many barriers. But [we’re inspired by] feeling supported and wanting that for our peers. And all the different people we met [who] were important to us.
How will winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you advance your business?
Herold: I think what has helped us the most is validating and helping design these new connections to services. So, we have that good fundamental skill with the identification aspect and the point of that technology.
When we’re talking about connecting to other barriers, I mean this new experience with new states, for Medicaid, and even getting EBT benefits, and different things, like vouchers for health foods. We have done tons of research and a lot of groundwork with connecting to these agencies as well. We have started forming these processes. But as you imagine, you must tackle it from different sides; from the pain points that we are solving, the business side for the organizations and enterprises, and the government side, for handling federal and state entities, state legislators, and then those aspects of developing the technology.
India: During—well, even before the pandemic, but especially now, there’s just so much demand. And we want to make sure that we’re able to meet that. So just as Herold said, there’s a lot of bespoke benefits that states pride themselves on—underutilized benefits at an enterprise level from different homeless care providers. And, again, when we say: “homeless care providers,” people always think of shelters. But there’s Comcast military, there’s Medicaid suppliers, there are different educational groups, your library. There are so many groups that offer so many resources.
And to really bring that all together, to have that holistic compassionate tech hub takes a lot. And our goal is, through this funding, and even through our careers, is to truly bring our job to a higher level, and to offer a full scale of benefits, which is a lot of moving parts. We’ve simplified it. But in terms of our long-term goal; for example, our head of strategy is always envisioning a Mini City banking component, or wallet components. So, these are all things that take a lot of like debit and capacity efforts.
People are always surprised that we have such a small team. It’s only four of us, so it’s not a huge team. But we need more support on the dev side to bring everything together. So, that’s largely what this fund will go on to support.
Has the global pandemic impacted your work?
India: I would say yes, absolutely. [laughs] So we knew the need was always there. But, before the pandemic, I think we had one partner, one youth group, that we had launched both. That was supported by the Center for Civic Innovation. So, we did a pilot with them. That was our very first customer—or our only paid customer, really, at the time.
And then the pandemic hit, and it went from just this one site to dozens of sites, to a ton of sites. I do think that this pandemic helped accelerate Mini City’s growth, just because of the need. And our nation couldn’t really ignore it because it makes everything worse if you don’t address the most critical pain points.
Herold: Yes, I think you can see that in municipal structures—in the municipal government, different struggles. When they’re trying themselves to help the homeless population just to give them benefits or affordable or proper housing. Except you needed the documentation. You need to know who they are, where they’re from, or even to connect them to other family members. But [after COVID], they saw that they couldn’t even do that with the organizations or the capabilities they had in place. They couldn’t handle that demand. So, [the pandemic] made it evident that it was a time for Mini City to show our skills and excel, meeting our goal to connect all the different organizations and help our city.
Why did you decide to start your own social enterprise versus going to work for a company?
Herold: Part of it comes from our parents. Our parents are always talking about the highlight for entrepreneurship and big things. But they also said, “you have to learn, you have to build these skills.” And I’ve always wanted to be around smart people to learn and build my skills. And that’s part of what’s cool of working at Cisco, NetApp, and other organizations. But also, Cisco had that emphasis on social community impact–partly why I love the company. But that was the biggest thing for entrepreneurship is really what it made us feel about ourselves.
I’m the younger brother. My sister [India] had already started Mini City in some capacity. She hadn’t really added any digital capabilities yet. But I admit, I like to follow my sister. I knew she was working on something great and an excellent project that had a lot of growth. It had a lot—not just growth, but the potential to grow exponentially.
India: Aw, that was sweet of you to say. I’m glad I had a positive influence on you. And I do think it’s something that’s greatly—like, we probably underestimate the value of working together. It just makes things a lot easier. It’s different, but we’re able to work it out with family. You already know your work patterns, work styles, and other hidden forms of communication, so you don’t have that hurdle. And, this is my passion. I know for sure that this is something that my brother loves and that he’s always interested in.
I knew I want to use my design thinking—my human-centered design approach in whatever I did. And for a while, it was always to the benefit of a different group or corporation. So, whether they are working in public health, or, you know the news and journalism, and I was always highlighting or pointing out that I really wanted to do this in every job I had. So later, when I left, they’d be like, “we’re so sorry to see you go, it was no surprise at all.” And so, a lot of times startups especially founders of color, we don’t have the resources, all the time to just leave our job. Many times, we don’t have those finite connections to make certain things possible, so we must work. So, right before the pandemic, I was like, “you know what, I’m just going to go all in.” And then a few weeks later, the pandemic happened. I was like, “Oh my God.” But I told myself if I could make it work in the toughest time, I could probably go full time. It was really challenging. But we’re still here and still making it happen. So yeah, I think anyone could do it.
Herold: I was interning at Cisco. And we had got to like my final offer for full time. But I was thinking, “all right, my sister’s going full time, just go all in.” At that point, I was going to go to Africa for a month and then come back and join [Mini City]. But we didn’t have any idea about the pandemic. So, it was a great startup time for my sister and I to have tunnel vision. That’s the best thing. I feel like entrepreneurs have the same kind of story, that big leap of faith. Because we figured out that we can’t balance those two different sides, working full-time or giving your all to the business. So, it was just a big blessing that we were able to do it. And it all starts with that leap.
What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs?
Herold: The biggest thing for sure post-pandemic (or before) is empathy. And we learned that, just for social partnership, and even in any business, if you really want to understand the customer, you’re going to have to understand their pain points and have some insight on that to produce a comprehensive solution. Honestly, that’s the biggest thing. To put yourself as much as you can in the other person’s shoes—the people you’re trying to help. But also, be yourself and have communication, to talk to all these people to get as much feedback information as possible. Honestly, it makes a real difference.
India: Another thing is to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Which, I know is a weird phrase. But many times, you won’t have all the data points, you do have to take a risk, you do have to move forward. And not every hardship is like, “oh it’s I who has failed,” or “this is horrible.” It’s a lesson learned right. It’s a way for you to grow and test yourself in these ways.
But… I would say, yes, especially during this time is empathy. It’s easy, especially when you’re working like cool tech and design to be like, they just don’t get it, our product is so good.” This is so amazing, maybe they just don’t realize it. But if you really sit down one-on-one and make those human connections, and just listen, and find out what truly is their hardship and pain point. That takes time. It’s a skill.
We’re human beings. There are so many things. Finite, small things that go into the human experience. And if you’re meeting someone at one of the worst times of their life, during homelessness, or if you’re meeting someone that helps those individuals that are going through a tough time, it’s human nature to want to make you comfortable. “Oh, it’s not that bad.” “Oh, actually, you know, we manage.” You must find a way to listen and be present, but also be a comfort to someone. Because we work in social impact in tech, but tech sometimes can be quite distancing. So, you must find a way, as a tech founder, to be a relief to someone. And that takes a lot of human touches.
Stay tuned for more articles in our Global Problem Solver Challenge blog series, featuring interviews with every Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winning team!