Tiffani Ashley Bell

Executive Director at Detroit Water Project

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON March 28, 2016

Discussion

Tiffani Ashley Bell@tiffani · Exec. Director, The Human Utility
Hi all, I'm Tiffani. My goal is to pursue better living through software. I'm the founder and Executive Director of The Human Utility (formerly known as the Detroit Water Project), a platform connecting donors from around the world to people in Detroit and Baltimore needing assistance with water bills. Since its founding in late July 2014, the platform has collected approximately $240,000 in donations. Prior to Human Utility, I was also a 2014 Code for America Fellow working with the City of Atlanta, GA to make doing business with the city easier. I was also previously the CEO + founder of Pencil You In, enabling businesses as far away as Australia to operate more efficiently by accepting appointments online. I'm a front and back-end developer working primarily with Ruby on Rails and iOS and holds a BS in Computer Science from Howard University. Very happy to be here today, so please do ask me anything. **** EDIT: Thanks for all the questions, everybody! Answering the rest of these before I sign off. This was fun!
Troy Ruediger@troy_ruediger · Helping shape the future of sports!
Hi Tiffani, awesome work you are doing! We need more social entrepreneurs like you. I can imagine that the only thing worse than not being able to pay your water bill is there being no water to begin with. As far as sustainability is this something that your organization has considered/has plans to combat? Any initiatives on that front?
Tiffani Ashley Bell@tiffani · Exec. Director, The Human Utility
@troy_ruediger thanks for the question, Troy. Right now, our main focus is on water affordability in the United States. Understanding the patchwork of rate-setting guidelines, existing assistance programs, and whatnot makes for a ton of work and none of that is uniform. When you say "there being no water to begin with," I think of Flint and how having undrinkable water is nearly the same as not having any at all. We haven't gotten heavily involved with Flint because what they need is pipes, infrastructure. It would be an amazing thing to do, but we're not looking into infrastructure right now and have no immediate plans to do so.
Andrew Ettinger@andrewett · 👟 @wearAtoms // ex @Twitter @ProductHunt
The Detroit Water Project was around well before the national attention of the Flint Water Crisis. How has the role of DWP changed in the midst of crisis?
Tiffani Ashley Bell@tiffani · Exec. Director, The Human Utility
@andrewett thanks for the question, Andrew! I would say our role hasn't changed as a result of the Flint crisis. We still provide financial assistance to people and in tandem with our community partners, try to get people other things they need as well such as foreclosure prevention assistance. In the midst of the Flint crisis, I can say it's moved the public to look more seriously at our work and delve more deeply into things like environmental racism and the affordability of basic utilities.
Jake Crump@jakecrump · Community Team with Product Hunt
What are the first tabs you open on your computer every morning?
Tiffani Ashley Bell@tiffani · Exec. Director, The Human Utility
@jakecrump on my computer? Nooooo. I spend an hour with my iPhone every morning scrolling through Twitter, reading. That's how this whole thing got started! :)
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
What's the biggest misconception people have around diversity in tech?
Tiffani Ashley Bell@tiffani · Exec. Director, The Human Utility
@eriktorenberg hmmmm. Interesting question. I have ranted on Twitter about this, but I think the biggest misconception people have around diversity in tech is that it's a one-sided issue. What I mean is that a lot of people will only address diversity in tech from the standpoint of more diversity in *hiring* at tech companies. And when they approach it from that angle, they forget the people who don't fit the "white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life" (look this quote up!) mold who are running startups, too, and need funding. We need to see more diversity in hiring. We need to see more diversity in who gets venture capital funding. But, to go even higher up the chain, we need to see more diversity at venture capital firms. We can't stop there, though, we need to see more diversity when it comes to limited partners--the source of the money for venture capitalists. Everyone is a part of this ecosystem and every angle needs to be considered. There's a lot of work to do.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
What's the best advice you ever got from your family?
Tiffani Ashley Bell@tiffani · Exec. Director, The Human Utility
@eriktorenberg I like this question, Erik! So, I have a uncle I used to work for at my first real job about a year after I finished at Howard. He's a former drill sergeant in the Army and has always ran side businesses while he served. He's always been my entrepreneurial role model and somebody I can fall back on for business advice. This was during my last startup, but we were talking once and I started complaining about how impatient I had gotten about several different things. He waited for me to stop ranting and then looked at me and said, "It's a marathon, not a sprint." Now, of course, that might seem a bit cliche, but when you're trying to do anything you want to last and have real meaning, remember that is important. And that same strain of thought underlies some of our biggest tech companies like Amazon. Read the first statements Jeff Bezos made to investors. He was essentially warning them that he saw Amazon's rise as a marathon, not a sprint.
Ron Bronson@ronbronson · Strategist at large
First off, love the rebranded name. I think it's impactful, Tiffani. What's the long range vision for Human Utility? And how do you think tech is uniquely qualified to solve this problem rather than say, a traditional non-profit that just raises money to bring awareness to a specific problem like this one?
Tiffani Ashley Bell@tiffani · Exec. Director, The Human Utility
@ronbronson thanks, Ron! Long range, we want systemic change. I essentially want to see legislation protecting low-level utility services like water for people who are enduring financial hardship. The Human Utility's role in that will continue to be one of directing donations and assistance to where it has the most impact, in addition to my thoughts below. Tech is uniquely qualified to solve this kind of problem (especially at this scale) because if you think about it, we have all the tools to do so. Massive computing power (I mean, everybody's seen these server farms, right?!) goes into personalizing our Facebook newsfeed and serving us ads, but what if we harnessed those same technologies to deliver more personalized and effective social services? Many utility companies (especially in Detroit and Baltimore where we work) offer assistance through payment plans. These are neither appropriate nor effective in addressing every case of need. But, we can use tools and software that exists now to address each case of need in a very fine-grained way. That's our path forward.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
Hi Tiffani thanks for being here. What have been some of the biggest challenges to setting up Human Utility, how have you overcome these?
Tiffani Ashley Bell@tiffani · Exec. Director, The Human Utility
@ems_hodge thanks for this question! Some of the biggest challenges have been in understanding the different situations people are in. Generally, when someone applies for assistance with us for their water bill, they've fallen into a few different reasons for why. In one instance, they may be employed and have had their hours cut. In another instance, they may be outright unemployed and have been that way for a while. (And it's a well-known thing that, unfortunately, employers discriminate and the longer you've been unemployed, the harder it is to find employment again.) Still, others might be elderly and past the stage where even talking about a job makes any sense. Same with people who are disabled. I say all that to say it's been challenging to understand exactly what people need besides money. And then, when it comes to providing people with funds for assistance, how much, how often, etc. A lot of this is still very fluid. One day I'll be reading about how HUD's Section 8 Housing Voucher program works and then, another day, trying to understand foreclosure laws and the ins-and-outs of someone losing their house to tax sale and foreclosure because of a water bill.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
Can you tell us a bit about the long term goals for Human Utility? How can the everyday person make any changes to their own routines, lives, to help others that might not have access to clean and affordable water?
Tiffani Ashley Bell@tiffani · Exec. Director, The Human Utility
@ems_hodge nice one! As for the long-term goals of The Human Utility, we have a few. The Big Hairy Audacious Goal for us to eliminate water service disconnections for low-income and elderly people (primarily here in the United States, but there has been interest in our work elsewhere). This means that nobody has to sit at home without being able to flush their own toilet, wash dishes, or bathe their kids or themselves. According to some data from the US Department of Health + Human Services, there are some 40,000,000 households in the United States who may have some difficulty paying their utility bills. That's based on them qualifying for energy assistance through a program called LIHEAP. On the surface, that's kind of ridiculous. If you think about it, we solved the problem of generating and distributing utilities like electricity, phone service, gas, and water a long time ago, but we failed to consider whether they were consistently affordable for everybody. I mean, we're even at the point where broadband is being ushered into the circle of being a public utility and looked after for affordability purposes, but we don't do this with water (unless it's tied to heating under LIHEAP). I ramble a bit (haha), but our first goal, then, is to continue matching low-income and elderly families who need help with utility bills to people who want to help. THEN, we start addressing root causes of need by using data to address why someone needed help in the first place. We become a more efficient utility social safety net. From all of that, we can use data to begin shaping legislation and shying away from one-size-fits-all solutions to need.
Harry Stebbings@harrystebbings · Podcast Host @ The Twenty Minute VC
Thanks so much for joining us today, I would love to hear what the ratio is between those giving and those in need of help and what methods you plan to use to achieve a more equal distribution?
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
Hey Tiffani! What's something you used to fundamentally believe that you've changed your mind on / now see as misguided?
Mike Coutermarsh@mscccc · Code @ GitHub
Hi Tiffani! How has the transition been from developer to founder? What's been the hardest change? Anything unexpected that you've learned, could teach us? :)
Tiffani Ashley Bell@tiffani · Exec. Director, The Human Utility
@mscccc good question, Mike! That transition from developer to founder has been difficult, yet fun. The most important part has been learning *when* to sit down and hack on something and understanding when that's not going to move the organization forward. And there have been a lot of those moments. When all of your background has been as a developer, everything will look a software problem to you. Like I found out in my last startup, that's a quick road to failure! Now, as the "business person" (haha), I spend more time emailing, scheduling stuff, handling organizational finances and whatnot. I have Marie our administrative wizard who does customer service for people applying for bill assistance and David who does a lot of hacking behind the scenes. Biggest thing I've learned is to get people into roles they're really good at and then, pass things to them. I still totally code, but it's very focused stuff, like building out our admin backend or fixing minor bugs here and there, so I don't lose my hacker chops! :D
Kara S@soulstarr1 · product manager, xtime
Is the Human Utility moving to help residents in other areas? Have you thought about how you could scale the impact of the org?
Tiffani Ashley Bell@tiffani · Exec. Director, The Human Utility
@soulstarr1 thanks for the question, Kara! Yes! Right now, we help families in Detroit and Baltimore, but we've had interest from other cities. We've gotten applications for assistance from at least 18 states, with the largest number being in Georgia, interestingly. But, see this comment for more thoughts on scaling the organization https://www.producthunt.com/live...
Jake Crump@jakecrump · Community Team with Product Hunt
What does a typical work day look like for you?