The Event: Crosscut's first ever Community Idea Lab, a community conversation and idea contest, designed to answer one question: How can we use our tech boom as an asset to improve inequality and engagement in King County?
The Scene: Backstage at Town Hall, in the finalists' dressing room, energy was mixed. Two contestants chatted amiably, while a third pored over her laptop. Two others roamed up and down the hall, seemingly detached.
Down the hall in the judges' dressing room, Seattle Metro Chamber president and CEO, Maud Daudon, and Robert Feldstein, the director of Seattle's Office of Policy and Innovation, explained the mechanics of the $15 minimum wage to Michael Arrington, the TechCrunch founder and CrunchFund general partner -- and a relatively recent Washington transplant. Geekwire founder John Cook, himself a transplant from Ohio, looked on.
The Format: Five pitches with five minutes each to win the audience vote and a panel of judges to give feedback and critique each idea.
Audience Pick: A Central District Hackathon to Boost Small Local Businesses
It’s not every day that Arrington offers, on-camera, to fund your brainchild. But for Central District resident and Commmunity Idea Lab winner David Harris, (@ddharris) that day was yesterday.
Harris has experienced the potential of technology to empower communities first-hand. In his work at the Technology Access Foundation, he connects low-income high school students in the Federal Way school district with real professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
He’s also a homeowner in the Central District and a member of the 23rd Avenue Action Committee, where he has watched first-hand as his neighbors in the historically African-American neighborhood try to keep up with the city’s entrepreneurial boom.
People of color, he noted, make up 33 percent of Seattle residents, but comprise only 18 percent of small business owners.
Harris’ idea: A hackathon to teach tech and entrepreneurial skills to his friends and neighbors and to rally support for a bigger plan of his – the creation of another South Lake Union-like Innovation District in the CD.
That's when things got interesting: When Daudon praised Harris’ idea, saying she could certainly gather business support, Arrington put her on the spot. So, can you commit $50,000 to support this right now? he asked.
How about $25,000?
Again, Daudon deferred.
That's when Arrington stepped up, offering to fund Harris' hackathon in exchange for the opportunity to invest in the companies it created. Though he didn't specify the dollar amount of his commitment, the $25,000 figure lingered in the room.
Dinner Parties for Seattle: Sol Villarreal (@solv17)
Villarreal, an organizer for former Mayor Mike McGinn, pitched a series of invite only dinner parties to bring tech leaders together with members of the social services community to open dialogue between the two communities. Judges questioned whether the idea could scale and whether tech leaders would actually attend and Daudon suggested creating a specific conversation topic for each event.
Hyperlocal Investments in Affordable Housing: Tory Laughlin Taylor (@_bellwether)
Laughlin Taylor, the deputy director of non-profit housing developer Bellwether Housing, pitched an investment fund that locals could pay into to finance additional affordable housing in King County. The fund would show returns of two percent for investors and would pool money toward one specific housing project at a time. Judges wondered about NIMBYs not wanting additional affordable housing in their communities.
The New "Missed Connection": King County Community Personals: Amy Laurent (@epilady)
Laurent, an epidemiologist for Seattle & King County Public Health, pitched a sister census tract program to help meet the needs of individuals. The concept, which plays off of the sister cities program, would pair high and low-income census tracts in an online marketplace where individuals could post needs and wants. In that way, someone in an unstable financial situation, who might become homeless if faced with an overwhelming bill of some kind, could receive financial support. The marketplace could also be used for a range of other offers and needs requests. Judges didn't feel that census tracts were the best way of constructing such a marketplace and raised the question of how to authenticate real needs vs. those using the system. An audience member suggested working with social workers and social services organizations as a way of verifying needs.
Reducing Friction in the Volunteer Market: Tucker Shouse (@tuckershouse)
Shouse, a management consultant with Alvarez and Marsal, pitched an online portal that tech employees and non-profits could use to find one another for specific volunteer projects. Non-profits could post their specific tech needs and volunteers at tech companies could find volunteer opportunities. Shouse acknowledged that other like-minded tools exist, but said they are currently disparate and there is no central portal that groups different types of volunteer opportunities, such as hackathons and specific projects. The key, Shouse stressed, is maintaining low barriers to entry for both volunteers and non-profits. Judges generally liked his idea.