This week, in preparation for Thanksgiving, we're spending time reflecting on a few of the things we're most grateful for at Heat Seek.
Today we're especially grateful for Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood, a tech incubator + fellowship program aimed at helping entrepreneurs build technology to fight poverty in New York City. Its also the labs arm of the Robin Hood Foundation, an incredible anti-poverty foundation in NYC. We first got involved with Blue Ridge when we participated in their inaugural Catalyst incubator in 2015.
When we found out we'd been accepted, it had been almost a year since we won the 2014 BigApps competition. We'd spent the year continuing to work on Heat Seek in an all-volunteer capacity, while also working toward incorporating as a nonprofit and applying for our federal 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. We'd done so much as volunteers that year. Traveling to far flung neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn at night and on the weekends, calling lawyers, organizers, and tenants in between grad school classes and on lunch breaks at work. We even met as a team every Sunday for an entire year to build out the hardware, plan installs, and troubleshoot bugs in the app. By the end of it we were exhausted, but we'd proved (to ourselves at least) that our sensors worked in the field, that our data was accurate, and that there was a demonstrated need for our work.
Now we had to prove it to the rest of the world - or at least New York City.
Besides the funding that came with Catalyst, which let my co-founder William and I work on Heat Seek full-time (a HUGE milestone), the team at Blue Ridge Labs helped us develop our initial plan for achieving impact. We'd learned very early on the merely having a sensor wasn't enough to get someone's heat restored, and that the bread and butter of our work had to be helping people use their data to compel change. Now we had to figure out how to do that, which meant learning a lot about NYC's arcane rent laws, the byzantine housing court process, and the network of housing lawyers and organizers who help New Yorkers navigate the bureaucracy in order to save their homes. The team at Blue Ridge Labs helped us shift our thinking from building a product to running a program, and they're responsible for a large part of the impact we've achieved.
And of course they helped us with all the things a good incubator should help its portfolio companies with -- access to tech support, trainings on business development, intros to funders, a brain trust of the smartest people you could ever hope to work with...
But these aren't the only reasons we're grateful for Blue Ridge Labs.
What's so special about Blue Ridge is how they've cultivated a community of folks who are all passionate about improving the lives of low-income New Yorkers, and believe that technology has a role to play in accelerating change. They are the only co-working space for tech startups in NYC (that I know of) where everyone is focused on impact, not profit. At Heat Seek, we're inspired every day by the passion and commitment of the teams that come through Blue Ridge.
It can sometimes be hard to explain to people why we're a nonprofit, why we go through all the trouble of applying for grants and working with community organizations when we have a product we could just sell. Some days we wonder if it wouldn't be easier to just sell the sensors and let the free market take care of the rest. But we know that inadequate heat disproportionately impacts low-income New Yorkers, and if we sold the sensors, they'd be unlikely to benefit. When our resolve gets shaky, we draw on the support of the Blue Ridge community and remember that we're not the only ones who believe technology should be a force for good in the world. We remember that at the end of the day, it's our mission that matters.
When we graduated from our most recent incubator and didn't have a place to work, Blue Ridge Labs welcomed us back with open arms and open desks.
And, when someone who we thought had our best interest in mind and whose opinion mattered very much to us, told us she believed we were failing in our mission because the city hadn't purchased our technology yet and we should just shut Heat Seek down, they were the first to tell us not to listen, that systemic change takes time, especially in a real estate environment as highly political as New York City's, and that even though we weren't "ready to scale," our work certainly mattered to the 40 families we helped get heat last winter.
It's hard to explain exactly why the team at Blue Ridge means so much to us, but I'll leave you with this. At our office Thanksgiving on Monday, we went around the table listing the things we were most thankful for. Halfway through we had to institute a new rule: it had to be something other than Blue Ridge.