This story is part of the first annual Solutions Issue, sponsored by Atlanta International School. With this special report and the inaugural ATL Solutions Summit, Global Atlanta is spotlighting innovators solving global problems with market-oriented solutions emanating from Atlanta.
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On Nov. 9, Global Atlanta hosted the inaugural ATL Solutions Summit, an in-person event organized on behalf of Atlanta International School at the headquarters of CARE. The objective was to showcase local innovators solving global problems in an interactive format, allowing students, nonprofit leaders, innovators and tech ecosystem leaders to cross-pollinate, bringing ideas to the fore that are helping to change the world from Atlanta.
Below is a transcript of the conversation that has been edited for brevity and clarity. Speakers, in order of appearance:
- Trevor Williams, Managing Editor, Global Atlanta
- Marsha Maxwell, Head of Technology, Innovation & Research at AIS
- Trey Jarrard, Co-Founder and CEO, Renewvia Energy Corporation
- Sofia Polar, Senior, Atlanta International School
PANEL, moderated by Trevor Williams
- Jessica Starobinets, Program Manager for ReadyRemit, Brightwell
- Trip Barnes, Head of Partnerships, Tickets for Good
- Kathleen Williams, Head of Product, Charityvest
- Matteo Gianella, Junior, Atlanta International School
Trevor Williams, Global Atlanta:
Welcome, everyone, to the headquarters of CARE, which has been in Atlanta for 30 years now. One of the reasons we wanted to be here is to interact with people who are innovating to help improve Atlanta’s situation in the world and improve the world in general.
We’re calling this the inaugural Atlanta Solutions Summit. The idea is that, of course, nonprofits are doing great things. Of course there are ESG mandates, and big companies are doing a lot with their corporate social responsibility or conscious capitalism or whatever you want to call it.
But we just kept looking around and seeing that there were some interesting Atlanta based innovators — and we purposely call it innovators because we don’t want to limit it to technology — who are doing something that is a for-profit business that actually is changing the world in a positive way. And we wanted to contribute to that by raising their profile, showcasing what they’re doing, and hopefully creating some business opportunities for people. So that’s why we’re here. I wanted to welcome you from the perspective of Global Atlanta. And first off, I’m going to turn it over to Marsha Maxwell head of innovation for Atlanta International School.
Marsha Maxwell, Atlanta International School:
Hello, everyone, thank you so much for joining us today. I didn’t know what today was going to look like, and so I’m really happy to see so many multicultural, multifaceted faces that are trying to do something more for the world than just take from it.
As I was driving over here today, I was trying to think, What am I going to say?, and the thing that kept popping back into my mind was an experience I had when I was overseas.
I spent half of my life overseas and half of my life in America. In my last stint overseas, I was in Turkey. And I remember walking home from work. I was living in Istanbul, and it was just at the time of the Syrian crisis. There were many people just fleeing Syria, and Turkey was having refugee problems.
I was going home from work, and in Turkey, they have these little — it’s like a bagel but not — it’s called a simit. And it was kind of my guilty pleasure after a long day of work — get off the train, buy my simit and go home.
And so I bought my simit, and I was walking and a child on the street kind of started asking me for something to eat, money or they wanted to eat, so I was going to give my simit to the child, and then she said no. She goes, “I want McDonald’s.”
And so part of me was taken aback a little bit. For her to say no, my first reaction was like, Well, then you get nothing. Then I thought about it — she’s doing exactly what she should do. She’s demanding what she wants. She’s not taking what I’m giving her. She’s saying, No, that’s not good enough for me. I know what I want. And that’s what I want.
So I did end up buying her McDonald’s. And I learned a lesson that day: A lot of times we are in business, and we’re creating products and services, and we think we know the best solution for our customers. But really, they need to tell us what they want.
Even in social entrepreneurship work, we need to listen to what our people want, and not give them what we think they should have. So I’m really proud to be at Atlanta International school, where we’re teaching our students to ask from the world what they want, and also to give back to the world what the world is asking for.
So I’m really looking forward to today, we’re going to learn a lot from all of our panelists. Thank you.
Keynote: Trey Jarrard, CEO of Renewvia Energy Corporation
Thanks to Global Atlanta for bringing us here. I’m Trey Jarrard, CEO of Renewvia Energy Corporation, and if you’re wondering, how do I tie into a global event —
Our ambition is to add value and improve quality of life. We’re doing that through reducing fossil fuels, reducing emissions in this part of the world, and we’re creating transformational impact in other parts of the world, in developing nations where we are providing the first affordable and reliable power source.
What Renewvia looks like in the U.S.
Our platform is multifaceted in the U.S. and globally. To be competitive in the US landscape, we have to essentially provide design and engineering and procurement, we have to build and operate, maintain, and we have to incorporate various types of technologies because the space is evolving and we’re talking to corporations that want to convert based on their decarbonization plans or their economic plans. We have to talk about all these technologies at once or we won’t get their business.
We are building distributed power plants, renewable power plants on buildings or near them, utilizing roof space that is otherwise vacant and just absorbing UV light. Every kilowatt hour we produce is one less than that business has to buy. It’s one less that has to be transmitted through hundreds of miles of steel and conduit line that has to be maintained. And it’s one less kilowatt hour that is derived from fossil fuel.
When we install, you see big pieces of equipment, steel erection and everything else. It’s kind of a bright shiny event.
…and in Africa:
We look a lot different in other parts of the world. We’ve developed several projects, but we’re creating the most impact and we have grown the most in Africa.
Currently, we’re in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Kenya. We don’t show up with big trucks, we don’t have the benefit of installing with with the most technologically advanced equipment. So you have to be creative, you have to get things places we’ve non-conventional transport; it looks vastly different.
Families in these remote communities don’t have the benefit of the most basic necessities … and a lot of that is because there isn’t a reliable or affordable power source.
Individuals have a very difficult time making a sufficient income. A lot of the families have to spend a significant amount of their day foraging necessities, getting solid fuel, or spending hours a day going to a water source that is very far away and in some cases unsafe. People aren’t afforded the time the ability to go to school, and you simply can’t provide healthcare in most basic form without power.
Utilities are not extending power to tens of thousands of communities like this, so the demand is incredible. Just talking about Africa, there are 600 million people or more living without affordable and reliable power.
Take something we take for granted: being able to charge a smartphone, an essential piece of equipment for pretty much everybody, no matter how remote you area. Individuals in certain villages may have to go to a different village to charge their phone and pay 10 times what it would cost, maybe more than that, than what we would pay by plugging our phone in the wall and charging it. Just not having to deal with that on a daily basis is a significant improvement.
We look like an impact company in Africa. We’re a for-profit companies, but a lot of the development finance institutions are partially supporting us, partially funding us. They require measurement. They need to know that if they’re putting their dollars into a certain area, it is actually achieving key performance indicators, so that’s something that’s essential to our business.
We have developed methodologies as part of our standard operating procedure, and that’s one of the key fundamentals of what has made our business grow.
We’ve been able to show such change, such impact so quickly, that it frees up additional dollars from these institutions to be able to scale this, and also being able to prove that this is sustainable financially. This isn’t something that requires $100 million or a billion dollars but then is going to be rusting in three years.
Plans for Africa: From a commercial standpoint, we hope we can be the largest commercial, off-grid developer on the continent in the not too distant future. We’re in the front runner position. We’ve doing it about seven years, and there’s significant data about the supporting the conventionality of the financing.
Carbon credits: Everybody wants to figure out the value of carbon and monetize that. As institutions in the U.S. in the developed world to make these very aggressive pledges, in many cases you can’t put in enough solar or recycle enough energy to get to carbon neutrality. So you have to back it with carbon credits. That’s establishing a value.
If we’re able to put together derivatives and forward sell-ability and permit and identify projects so we can sell forward 10 years of carbon credits when the demand outstrips the supply, that’s going to be a very significant movement for our proposition and how to capitalize these projects.
Sofia Polar, a senior at Atlanta international School, took the stage to share about her startup, Sunqu Ruruy, which she created as part of the school’s in-house incubator, now called NEST.
Sofia Polar, Founder, Sunqu Ruruy; senior, Atlanta International School
My name is Sofia Polar. I’m a senior at Atlanta International School, and I’m here to tell you a little bit about my company, Sunqu Ruruy.
Sunqu Ruruy means with all my heart in Quechua, and the goal of this company is to provide supplemental income to women, mother artisans from a developing part of Peru … specifically in Puno, to provide them supplemental income through difficult times.
This area of Peru is suffering from the movement of cold air masses from Antarctica. We’ve recently experienced like this incredible heat in Atlanta, but it’s the opposite in Peru: The temperatures are dropping, the cattle is dying. And for many of these families, their only income comes from farmland, from cows and agriculture. So obviously, this has been detrimental for many families. Generationally, Peru has had a legacy of beautiful artisanal products, so Sunqu Ruruy provides these women with the opportunity to share their artistry with the world.
Basically, we provide raw materials for these women, as well as the designs that we believe will sell here to a sustainable market and a socially conscious market here in the U.S., and the surplus is then reinvested back into the project.
Over time, given the cyclical nature of this project, we will be able to reinvest our funds to develop different community projects. So right now in the works is Casa Caliente,which is just an initiative to try to make these houses a little bit warmer for people without the risk of intoxication from the fumes, since many of these people are burning firewood inside of their homes, which is detrimental for their health. So yeah, thank you so much for the opportunity. That’s a little bit about my company.
Trevor Williams, Global Atlanta: Why don’t y’all start us off, I guess, by just telling us a bit about each of your companies, what the social aspect is and why the product(s) that you work on are socially valid?
Jess Starobinets, Head of Product, Brightwell:
We have two core products, but the core product that we’ve had for the last 20 years is called Navigator, and it’s a payroll product that is targeted towards the cruise industry.
So the cruise ships pay their employees’ salary on a prepaid debit card that we have and that debit card is linked to a mobile app. And within that mobile app where they can manage their account, we also have partnerships with multiple different remittance service providers so that they can spend their money around the world very easily. Then, during COVID, obviously, the cruise industry shut down, and we had to pivot. And so we took that product, and we developed another one called ReadyRemit, which is a cross border payments enablement platform to help other businesses be able to enable cross border payments in their own products.
Trevor Williams, Global Atlanta: Why is it that this was such a problem in the cruise ship industry in the first place? Like how is how are you improving the lives of those individuals when you’re enabling them to send that money back home more quickly? Another way to ask it is, what other ways were people using to get their money back home before Brightwell?
It was pretty crazy, but before Brightwell, cruise ships were paying their crews in cash. They would have armored trucks come to port every week, or every two weeks, wherever that ship was in the world. They would load up millions of dollars in cash, and then the payroll department on that ship would sit there with envelopes and divvy up everyone’s salary in a white envelope. The crew would line up outside the office on payday and be handed their cash.
About 70 percent of cruise ship crew come from Indonesia, India and the Philippines, and they’re working on-ship to get their money and support their families back home, so if they’re working on ship, they get this cash, they have to store it somewhere in the cabin. Sometimes it gets stolen. And then they would not be able to get the money home to their families until the ship was docked in port and they had time off that aligned with that ship being in port, and be able to get off ship and go to the Western Union and send their money back home to their families.
If they were unable to get off the ship, they might have to trust somebody and give that envelope of cash, their salary for two weeks, to another person and trust that they would get it back home to their families.
So when Brightwell came into the picture, we were able to provide everyone a prepaid debit card, which is much more secure so they can get their money on this debit card. And then with the mobile app and the partnerships, partnerships that we have the government and service providers, they can check rates in the in the app, they can send their money home anytime they need to. If there’s a family emergency, they can wire money home immediately.
We also provide a product called a companion card is a free card that they can choose to send to their family back home. And they can do a card-to-card transfer with no fees and get that money back home anytime they need to. These people are working on ship for six to nine months on a contract away from their families. And they’re doing that to be able to provide a better life for their families back home. And so it’s really important for us to make the process of sending money back home to their families as easy and frictionless as possible.
Trevor Williams, Global Atlanta: I want to come back to the business side of Brightwell, but Trip, tell us about Tickets for Good, and what was the lightbulb moment where founder Stephen Rimmer or others realize that this concept could be turned into a business?
Trip Barnes, Head of Partnerships, Tickets for Good:
I think it all starts with events. I remember in my first time going to a baseball game with my dad, it was very pivotal … It was same thing when I went to Music Midtown 20 years ago and saw OutKast and Bob Dylan, and my music choices were ever changed for the rest of my life.
For us, it was all about saying, you know, there is a surplus of tickets for a lot of events, whether they are allocated to companies, whether they’re just simply not sold, or whether or it’s just a matter of having connectivity to people that might want to go to them that may not have the ability to do so.
So in 2019, this was launched in the U.K. to great response — a lot of people have invested in it over there. A couple of months ago, I was the first person who joined the team over here. We’ve got three different avenues where we’re trying to expand this a little bit.
1. We’re going directly to people that work for big event spaces, using our support from Invest Atlanta and Comcast SportsTech as leverage to say, you’ve got surplus tickets? How do we get these in the hands of people like healthcare workers, school teachers, people that really would like to take their family for something like $1 a day.
2. The second avenue is working with companies tha have surplus tickets. We partner with companies that are looking to do philanthropic work in the community specifically and allocate those tickets back to us and say, hey, we’ll find the people for that, so they have big smiles on their faces.
3. The final one is working with companies (using living wage calculations) to find people within payroll that might really benefit from this.
So we’re really starting to launch full scale into December, we’re starting to get a lot of allocation and tickets, which is great.
You launched during 2019, just before the pandemic, but really took off after. Was the focus on health care workers or the NHS in the UK a particular response to what was happening with the pandemic, or was that always always a strategy?
That was absolutely the strategy, we knew that people were overworked because of the pandemic, for sure, so we wanted to have an outlet for people to be able to enjoy these events, have that sense of being back into the social fabric of things post post pandemic.
Kathleen, how does Charityvest “catalyze generosity”?
Kathleen Williams, head of product, Charityvest: We are in the generosity business, so if we can help more people get more money to charity more often, I consider that a successful day.
Our tagline is the modern giving account for the purposeful donor. A giving account, or a donor-advised fund is a tax-advantaged bank account, essentially. So you have a 401K for your retirement, and then your donor-advised fund, or Charityvest, this is your tax-advantaged account so that you can give money to charity. When you put money into the account, that is tax-deductible action, you can take your writeoff for that, and then you can grow the money within your account and invest it tax-free, and then you have more money at the end of the day to give to charity. So that’s kind of the core of our business.
A donor-advised fund, a lot of people don’t even know about it, or they see it as kind of a highbrow thing that you have to have a lot of money for. How have you changed that perception of what the donor-advised fund is?
That’s kind of what got us into the business. So traditional donor-advised fund, you might think Fidelity Charitable or Vanguard. Our founder, worked as a philanthropic advisor and interacted with these systems very often, and I think just had a similar realization that people are still doing it and this really manual way and thought, we’re in 2020s here, we can do better with technology.
So we took a technology-first approach to how can we, without high administrative costs, using technology first, make donor-advised funds more accessible to you and me. Fidelity has a minimum of $100,000 to give to charity, to get your account, we have a minimum of zero.
Why would you use a donor advised fund as an individual, non-high-net-worth person?
Kathleen Williams: If you ask me why I got a Charityvest account, it’s just that it’s a simpler way to give. It’s one tax receipt for all your giving. If I gave to my school over here, my church over here, maybe I’m supporting this person, or this charity —it’s a lot of donor logins to keep track of at the end of the year for tax time.
So instead, I just log into Charityvest to get my one tax statement. So for me, I’m not a you know, big high-net-worth donor, but it makes my life a whole lot easier. And it’s a lot easier to get when you don’t have to remember a donor login, you can just find a charity and give. It’s a delightful experience.
But the actual vehicle of a donor advised fund is very powerful from a tax perspective. There are a lot of reasons why someone might open a donor advised fund. If if they have stock units that they want to donate, donating appreciated, stock is very tax beneficial, because you donate the stock, you don’t have to take capital gains on that, and the charity that receives the cash doesn’t have to have capital gains on that either. You can just give the full amount to charity.
So we’re kind of like a magic bucket: You send us stock, we do all the liquidation so that you have cash to give to charities and the charities receive the cash.
Jessica, tell us how Brightwell was able to pivot when its main market evaporated.
During the pandemic, we went hard in R&D mode. And we took a really close look at our strengths. We realized we have the deep technical expertise of how to connect to these remittance partners.
Connecting to a remittance partner, like a Western Union or MoneyGram, is a very long, complicated process. It can take anywhere from nine to 12 months to finish that integration. And you need to have an expert tech team to be able to do that. So we realize that’s one piece.
But the second piece of that is the compliance piece. Moving money around the world is extremely complicated. There are so many different regulations that vary by country, and those regulations can change at any given time, so you need a really expert compliance team as well that can handle that.
Those are also two of the biggest challenges or blockers to other companies being able to enable cross border payments, so what we did is we paired those two up, it’s a new product is called a ReadyRemit. We’ve simplified the integration process, and we have a compliance-as-a-service model built on top of that, where we manage all the compliance for those companies.
So instead of having to devote nine to 12 months of technical resources and hire an entire in-house compliance team support team operations teams to do that. Companies can now integrate with ready remittance technology and launch a cross border payment solution within their own. It’s a white-labeled product, so they can put it right into their own platform within 30 to 90 days.
How big is the remittance market and why is it an important one for you?
Like Marsha said, it’s very important for us to meet with the nonprofits and organizations and understand what their needs are, specifically, so that we can make tweaks to our product to better support them. But in terms of the remittance market, it’s massive. There are billions and billions of dollars being sent all around the world, and there are also a lot of neo-banks and, interestingly enough, smaller banks that are targeted to very specific communities that are being spun up, so we’re going to be able to better support them.
This is one example of “globalization ain’t dead.”
Kathleen, Charityvest has a million or so nonprofits within the U.S. on the platform that you can donate through your donor-advised fund into. But you just launched this new partnership with Trustbridge to extend that internationally. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Trustbridge has been an informal partner for a while. They have a network of nonprofits across the world, and so they will basically allow our donors through our partnership to donate to any charity globally.
By definition, it’s really hard to move money across borders, and it requires a lot of attention and knowledge. And so our donors are able to give through Charityvest and they will locate and disperse the funds to the international charity. It really expands the geographical borders and how you can give to charity around the world.
How do you kind of institutionalize innovation within your companies? Sounds like a lot of you have responded to necessity, but how do you kind of keep that spirit going even as you’re not facing these kinds of back-against-the-wall moments.
Starobinets: For us, it’s a pretty easy answer. We actually just hired a Chief Innovation Officer and we have an innovation product lead. And they’re really at the forefront of ensuring that our company can continue to innovate. We have a team dedicated to looking forward to what the next opportunities might be.
Barnes: We’re kind of at a crossroads in technology, where we realize it’s not just for profit, profit, profit. People can actually create something that’s for good, and I think people are kind of moving to that more altruistic understanding of what technology can do globally. And I think that’s just one part we can play.
How does having this altruistic bent help you from the perceptive of keeping people engaged and getting new people on board?
Starobinets: It’s absolutely critical, especially in the Gen Z coming into the marketplace, to have a business model and mission and values that really align with doing a broader good in the world.
We have five core values, and they’re not just words on a banner — we do have banners with these words, but it’s really ingrained in the culture of our company. No. 1 is being user-first in everything that we do.
Barnes: I think there’s just a global mind-shift around what people want out of their workplace. And that’s so critical.
What would be your big ask for the nonprofits either in this room or elsewhere that are going to read my article or see the video? It seems like each of you have some connection or desire to better connect with the nonprofit sector.
We’re in the business of generosity, so I don’t want to make a big ask of nonprofits, but I want to offer us as a resource to help get access to donors who want to give money to charity.
We have this thing that’s new called Community Funds, which is basically a way to pool charitable capital socially, so instead of just having a donor advised fund for you, we have a community fund where you can anyone can create a branded webpage and share with their supporters, their network, and their supporters donate money, we send a tax receipt to them (they don’t have to have a Charityvest account), and then they can then take that funding and grant money to your nonprofit or charity. So, it’s fundraising without having to have a 501c3. So just want to make know that opportunity that that you guys have through our platform.
Matteo Gianella, Junior, AIS
I’m a junior at Atlanta International School. I participated in the Incelerator program with Sofia; we were part of the same cohort. Iwas representing my dad’s company, it was an idea that he had with his colleagues. It’s called SWITlink — Smart Water Inbfrastructure Technologies.
We went through the whole process, which was learning how to pitch ideas. We visited CuriosityLab at Peachtree Corners and we learned a lot about a lot about how to really start a startup. It was a really great experience.
During our demo day, we pitched our ideas, and I won $3,000 for the company, which links a bunch of data that comes from water sensors. If you’ve ever seen a spreadsheet with a thousand numbers and another spreadsheet with a thousand numbers, it’s really hard to navigate. So this product puts it all in one place so you can look at it, and it helps water managers make the most informed decisions they can possibly make.
McKinsey corporation states that the U.S. loses about 14 to 18 percent of treated water due to water leaks. And that is going to be increasing over the years due to aging infrastructure. And in developing countries, that is even worse: about 40 to 50 percent, which really trickles down on the citizens who have to pay for the water. If you waste more water, you pay more for the water.
We’re doing a project in Trinidad and Tobago, which wastes around 60 percent of its treated water due to leaks, which is a really big problem.
A lot of this just has to do with how much you know about your system. If if you just know that there’s a leak, but you don’t know where it is, you can’t really fix that problem. So putting all that information in one place can really help water managers make the most educated decisions possible. We have projects as well as in Gwinnett County, and we’re looking to expand more into a city of Atlanta, and other places that really actually need this.
Currently, with the money that we won for the with the In-celerator grant. I’m also taking a paid program, taught by MIT and Stanford students, in AI and machine learning so that not only can you have all your data in one place, but you can have AI-assisted Analytics. I personally believe that AI and machine learning is the future, and the earlier that we put that into our infrastructures, the earlier that we can be reaching the next level of pretty much everything.