Social Impact Tech: Dr Daryl Collins of Decodis On How Their Technology Will Make An Important Positive Impact
…This technology helps us not only “hear” the respondent, but also we can listen to more people at once, which makes research happen faster and cheaper.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Daryl Collins.
Dr. Daryl Collins is the founder and CEO of social research firm Decodis, author of the acclaimed Portfolios of the Poor and a social research pioneer working at the intersection of finance and human vulnerability. In the past two decades, Dr. Collins has built a broad portfolio of work with foundations, bilateral donors, governments, NGOs and private service providers. Her work is grounded in a deep understanding of the lives of low-income and vulnerable communities across the globe, leveraging the experience of executing Financial Diaries studies in over 10 countries, including China.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in an environment that perfectly depicts someone who had “won the ovarian lottery”, as Warren Buffet calls it. I was born white in a well-off town with excellent public schools in the Northeast of the U.S. My parents could afford to send me to excellent universities, including the London School of Economics where I earned both bachelors and masters degrees. I became interested in “development economics” while at LSE but it took me a long time to actually become involved in global poverty alleviation. I started my career at a Wall Street investment firm in New York as an emerging market economist and then moved to Cape Town, South Africa to work as a portfolio manager.
With my upbringing and early career, I understood the power of wealth — and the impact of simply being born into a more privileged environment in the U.S. It took my moving to Cape Town and seeing the lives of low-income people close-up in the backyard shacks of the townships to understand how systematic, generational poverty can bring people into a destitute state. I became an “interpreter,” using my skills as a financial economist to express the finances of low-income people into the balance sheets and income statements that donors and governments could understand. My hope was, and still is, that representing low-income people and how active they are in their financial lives would incentivize bankers and lenders to believe that they can be good customers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
During my career in social research, I became known for my book, Portfolios of the Poor, which featured in-depth interviews with vulnerable people around the world. We tracked families’ most minute financial transactions over the course of two weeks in order to better understand the surprisingly sophisticated financial lives that most were living. This painstaking way of doing research has its benefits — and it’s the way that many researchers continue to understand the finances of low-income people today.
But over the past few years, I’ve been seeing the potential of technology like Interactive Voice Recording, automated speech-to-text and Natural Language Processing to open new doors for social researchers — and I believe the results are the most interesting thing I’ve seen in my career. We are able to collect audio data, in people’s native language and dialect, and in their own words, at scale. Moreover, because of technology, we’re able to analyze it more subjectively and thoroughly and, again, at scale.
This is an incredible advancement for social research, and I founded Decodis last year in order to put it into practice.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My dear friend and mentor, Kate McKee, passed away several weeks ago and the loss of her has left a big space in my life. Kate not only provided me with career advice but also was someone with whom I could discuss some of my biggest existential questions, the most recent of which was “How do I know that I’m making a difference?” Hers was the calm voice of reason and reassurance. You usually don’t know at the moment, she said, but little by little, over time, you see that different actions you’ve taken in the course of your work add up.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have an Edwin Land (the co-founder of the Poloroid corporation) quote as the background on my desktop: “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and almost impossible.” I put it there as I was starting Decodis.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Perseverance and a willingness to take risks: When I originally moved away from the investment industry to do research on low-income people, I co-created a method called the Financial Diaries. I really didn’t know a lot about what I was doing, but I had a vision and worked myself and everyone around me to make it happen.
Hard work: My initial job on Wall Street proved how long and hard I could work — the hours could be brutal. But, now I know that I can work incredibly hard and it’s helpful to have that muscle to flex when I need to.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive social impact on our society. To begin, what problems are you aiming to solve?
Having been involved with philanthropic institutions for more than 20 years, I have found that it is almost impossible to bring the voices, opinions and perspectives of vulnerable people into the creation of programs and products in a meaningful, impactful way.
How do you think your technology can address this?
Oddly, the answer to the challenge I describe above is to, in brief, “listen harder.” You would think the way to listen harder is to be physically closer to the vulnerable person and talking with them directly. But we’re finding that technology helps to take the researcher, who is often more highly educated than the respondent, out of the equation. There are power dynamics in a conversation and the interviewer almost always controls the conversation, which means that a live conversation is often not listening at all. Luckily, technology helps us do this “listening” in ways where the vulnerable person can speak as long as she or he wants, in their own language or dialect, and to answer the question in the way that they want to answer it. The technology that helps is the fact that most vulnerable adults now have their own cell phone, so this allows us to use Interactive Voice Recording (IVR) where the questions are asked by a voice actor who uses friendly colloquial language in their own dialect. Then, thanks to automatic speech to text, we can transcribe and translate those voice recordings. And then, thanks to Natural Language Processing we can analyze the text AND we can use the technical tools from sociolinguistics to analyze what the respondent says. All together, this technology helps us not only “hear” the respondent, but also we can listen to more people at once, which makes research happen faster and cheaper.
How do you think this might change the world?
There are a range of philanthropic institutions, governments and multilateral institutions that are focused on global poverty alleviation and increasing resilience among the world’s most vulnerable. There are companies, both large and small, that are trying to serve the same populations. There is a wealth of policies in different countries that directly impact those populations. If we can create an environment that includes all of the people making decisions that impact vulnerable people — for better or worse — we think we can help them make better decisions.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
When COVID started, I realized that I could no longer do what I do; i.e., go and have face-to-face conversations with vulnerable people around the world. Also, although I do most of my work in emerging markets, I was quite concerned about what was happening in the U.S., in my own country. So I called some friends at the financial nonprofit Commonwealth and asked if we could do some research together about seeing how low-income Americans were coping in the first few months of the pandemic. They said yes, but also said that they wanted a new methodology of doing interviews that would be more agile and less expensive than what they usually do. So this is when we came up with the core elements of the tech-led social research method that would become the foundation of Decodis. I owe a great deal to Timothy Flacke and Melissa Gopnik at Commonwealth, as well as that initial team I worked with — Heather Kunin, Jeremy Smith and Antonia Agbeh, as well as Prava Reddy, who was involved in the NLP work and is still my partner in crime on technical advancements at Decodis.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
Know your audience: I don’t work directly with vulnerable people; I’m supporting those who do. I honestly think I have the easier job, so I owe it to my clients to do everything I can to make them understand the people they serve. And so it’s up to me to share those voices in a way that they can easily understand. I have to be careful not to get caught up in how “interesting” the insights are.
Work with like-minded people: Doing social impact work is really more than a job and it’s important to work with a group of people who are just as passionate about it as you. In the Decodis team, this means that we are all inherently empathic and supportive of each other. I’m lucky to have a wonderful group of people to work with and to always look forward to working with them every day.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Don’t get involved in the social impact world just because it’s interesting or because you think it makes you look good. You have to constantly ask yourself if you’re really having an impact or just think you are. You need to have a good amount of fortitude for that as it’s pretty disheartening quite a bit of the time.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I’m going to have to say Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal. I’ve just finished a two year research project on the financial wellness journeys of a sample of PayPal’s employees. How he creates company culture is quite amazing and I would love to know his secret!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
About the Interviewer: Jilea Hemmings is a staunch believer in the power of entrepreneurship. A successful career revamping Fortune 500 companies was not enough for her entrepreneurial spirit, so Jilea began focusing her passion in startups. She has successfully built 6 startups to date. Her passion for entrepreneurship continues to ﬂourish with the development of Stretchy Hair Care, focusing on relieving the pain associated with detangling and styling natural black hair. For far too long, people with tender heads have suffered in pain. Until now.