For social-change innovator Marnie Webb, her interest in technology and activism started when she was a little girl living in a military town in Southern California. As a member of the 4-H Club, she was inspired by the sight of people working together to solve problems and very much took the organization’s motto to heart: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country and my world.”
In fact, it’s a pledge she still upholds today. (She can also recite it on command, which is equally impressive.) For nearly the last 15 years, she’s been working tirelessly to create and develop new and inventive ways to use technology to aid and advance non-profit initiatives. Webb earned accolades as the former co-CEO of TechSoup, a global organization that distributes donated technology to non-governmental groups worldwide, and now she’s shaking up Silicon Valley with her latest social benefit venture, Caravan Studios.
“For me, professionally, I was also ready to learn a new set of skills,” Webb said about the new challenges offered by Caravan Studios, whose objective is to “work together to build tools that harness and organize any and all available resources.” Though the organization has only been around since 2012, the team has already launched two groundbreaking apps: Range, an app that helps children find access to free meals in the summer, and SafeNight, an app that alerts and allows individual donors to fund hotel rooms when domestic violence shelters are full.
In an exclusive interview with Not Impossible Now for our Women Innovators Series, Webb discusses the evolving field of social entrepreneurship, and how she and her team are working with technology to make this world a better place.
NIN: How and when did you discover your passion for technology and social activism?
Marnie Webb: I think what I’ve always been fascinated about it. We have this abundance of resources, particularly here in the United States, and what we often lack is the tools to unlock them equitably and justly. That’s always been something I’ve been super engaged with.
I was probably in my late-‘20s when the Internet started becoming the Internet we think of today. Watching it grow and develop was just fascinating. I had an enormous opportunity when I started working at TechSoup to match up all these things that had long been a part of my life. I could use technology to unlock resources. Like, the idea that no kid should go home hungry. What can I do to help with that problem? Some of it is the ability to fundraise and some of it is the ability to put together a tech solution to help with a piece of that puzzle because the people working hard on [the issue], systemically, can put their attention towards the long-term view because tech helps with the short-term problem.
How do you convince organizations to adopt technology when they can’t see the immediate benefit or payoff?
Webb: Thankfully, there are fewer and fewer of the people you describe. People have smartphones in their pocket, look up restaurants on Yelp, book hotels and flights via Kayak. The fact that technology is instinctively helpful is more true. You’re not fighting the same battle you were, say, 10 years ago. It’s changed for everybody in their personal lives, and that’s helped change our professional lives and expectations, as well.
I think what’s less true in social benefit is you have these individuals who are working hard in the areas of childhood hunger or domestic violence, and then you come in with this shiny, pretty app on a phone and it sounds to them like you’re saying, “Hey, you know all this work you’ve been doing, all this attention you’ve been paying, all this sweat that you feel when your phone rings? Guess what: They’ve made an app that’s gonna fix that.”
They’ve been on the receiving end of bad technology projects, just like we all have, so they say, “Ugh, you’re going to make me do something that gets in the way of what I’m doing that works.” The thing that we try to do is put technology in its proper perspective. Over time, our team has developed a theory of technology and intervention. That theory says technology can help you with these things; it doesn’t fix anything. First, by putting technology in its place, we’re helping them understand the role that they have and not say something that’s patently wrong — like there’s an app that’s going to cure domestic violence.
Then, another thing we do is describe to them how whatever tool we’re suggesting helps them with the pressures of their day-to-day job. For example, if you work at a domestic violence service organization, the most important thing at any given moment is your ringing phone. You will stop everything else to answer that phone because it means someone is in crisis. So the tools we build will help you when you’re on the phone. It’s taken a lot of fighting on our side to get there, but that’s what we try very hard to do: To be realistic about the role technology can have to make the world better and make sure we’re helping them with their day-to-day problems, too.
You’ve really risen through the ranks during your tenure at TechSoup. Tell me about your professional progression within the company.
Webb: I’ve been with TechSoup for 14 years, which is the longest I’ve worked any place. I’m also 49, so even though I’ve been here a long time, I started here rather late in my professional career. When I started working at TechSoup, it was actually called CompuMentor and I was the 33rd employee. We were just hitting out first million-dollar budget the year after I got hired. Fast-forward 14½ years and we have a 180-person staff, a $33 million dollar budget and we’re doing work in 96 countries. I was super lucky because I started working with this organization that had a huge global reach in this field that was starting to come together. So even though I’ve been with the same organization for that long, the organization has changed dramatically. My job has changed seven times.
I’ve been in a leadership position in the organization for most of the 14 years, which also gave me the opportunity to shape things. The ability to have strong agency over what you do professionally is a pretty great thing. Probably the biggest professional benefit I’ve had is to be afforded the opportunity to pay deep attention to how technology can help make the world better from several different angles and in collaboration with committed companies, committed foundations and committed colleagues.
How you transitioned into your current position as CEO of Caravan Studios?
Webb: TechSoup is this wonderful, great platform that connects individuals with resources and has this great capacity to find and identify non-profits, but I wanted to make things. At the end of the day, I wanted something different to be there from whence before. I wanted to make stuff that could take advantage of TechSoup’s platform and enrich it; plus I wanted other partners to be able to do that.
So when [the other two CEOs and I] were all having these conversations about what was next for the organization, we created Caravan Studios and decided I would lead it. I’m pretty proud of the fact that, in two years, we have three apps in all phone marketplaces — and we did that with this really community-inclusive process that stretched us as individuals. It certainly stretched me, professionally.
Looking back at your work over the years, what are a couple projects you’re particularly proud of?
Webb: I am super proud of this app we made called Range, which shows kids where they can get food in the summertime. It’s a huge problem in the United States that schools turn the lights off, lock the doors at the end of the year and all the kids who were eating from the federally funded school lunch program don’t have that one place to go to everyday that’s going to put a meal in front of them. The food is available out in the communities, but only 1 out of 6 kids who eat in the federally funded lunch program eat out of them during the summers. And I just think it’s disgusting. It’s absolutely disgusting that kids go hungry in the country. I think it’s terrible in any country, but I think it’s particularly disgusting in this country.
As we got more into it, we realized we could make this app and get the word out and help with this issue. I’m really proud of it because it was a great example of what technology is good at, which is keeping information up to date and making it easy for people to access. We have these street outreach workers in Chicago who can carry all the places they serve lunch on their phone instead of a list of papers. First, those papers are going to get outdated pretty quickly and then they have to figure out where they are in relation to those places. Technology helps you with that problem, right? Just open a map and the blue dot is you and the red dot is where people can get lunch! [Laughs.] I think it’s a super tangible example of the idea that technology isn’t actually going to solve childhood hunger in the United States; what it is going to do is help serve individuals and tell people where they can get food. It can galvanize the community and make people aware of an issue they weren’t aware of before.
Another project I’m proud of is an app we developed called SafeNight. If someone calls a domestic violence shelter and there’s no place for them to stay, a person who works at the shelter can send out a request that makes your phone buzz and we can pay for a hotel room for the person in need. We’re offering available shelter space, the caring hearts of donors and safe hotel rooms.
What’s in store for the future of Caravan Studios?
Webb: One of the things we hope to roll out for Range next summer is safe places for kids to hang out, and one of the places we want to start with are libraries. There are 16,000 libraries in the United States. There are more libraries than there are McDonald’s. And [libraries] are safe places anyone can walk into and they offer educational and other supplemental programming that could be useful to youths in the summertime.
Looking forward, the things we’re increasingly circling around and interested in is how to improve the referral system. If it’s possible for me to walk outside and use my phone to get a car, then we should have better ways of referring people to services. We’re spending a lot of our time digging into that and figuring out how to use it — but we’re not necessarily going to replace or disrupt hotline services and their value. I was talking to a man the other day, and he said when disaster strikes, whatever direction the individual community was going into is accelerated by the disaster. So, if a community is booming and getting richer, then a disaster will actually accelerate that. But if a community is falling apart, people are losing jobs and the economic divide is getting bigger, then a disaster would also accelerate that.
What that makes us think is if you want to build really resilient communities, then you have to make sure the trendline of your community is going in the right direction. You also have to recognize if there’s any group that’s bottoming out, it’s only going to get worse for them. It’s not going to get better when something bad happens. So what can we do to put systems in place to make sure that with that trendline, we’re accelerating the delivery of services, making them more available and making it easier for the people sitting behind the desk, trying their best to provide help?
Finally, what piece of advice would you give budding female innovators that has helped serve you best in your professional/personal journey?
Webb: I think the most important thing is to think about what you’re willing to pay attention to for a long time because the jobs and the projects are just going to get better and better if you’re willing to pay deep attention on an issue and be constantly curious about what’s going to happen next. That curiosity about what happens next is something that inevitably builds your profession from being just a bunch of individual gigs. It can be a hard thing to figure out. It took me 20 years to figure it out.
Learn more about Marnie Webb at the Caravan Studios website. Not Impossible Now’s Women Innovators Series profiles the best in the business every month. We interviewed Sophie de Oliveira Barata for the first story of the series in October.
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Top photo credit: Janette Phan