Social Impact Tech: Lacey Hunter On How TechAid’s Technology Will Make An Important Positive Impact
An Interview With Jilea Hemmings
Less is more. Occam’s Razor principle applies — the simplest solution is often the best. The simplest solution is often the least expensive, so build that one and try it first! TechAid is currently being iterated on within excel, google forms, PowerPoint, and Figma — low/no cost tools sufficient to acquire expert feedback and opinions from beta users, which is enough! No need to hire an expensive technical lead or make a material investment until we’ve proven the use case with the most straightforward and least costly tooling available.
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 Lacey Hunter
Lacey Hunter is the CEO and Co-Founder of TechAid, a web3 application that enables a data-driven approach to humanitarian aid, envisioned at the World Economic Forum in 2022.
Only requiring access to a data-enabled mobile phone, individuals in crisis situations can indicate what they need and where they are. This data is securely and anonymously aggregated using blockchain infrastructure, delivering aid providers the latest volume and location of demand for critical goods. Lacey believes access to proper nutrition is a fundamental human right for families everywhere. She is passionate about the potential of combining existing technologies to facilitate the connection of food supply with demand, and turning the tide of the escalating global hunger crisis.
TechAid has three goals: Waste Reduction: ensuring that the right goods make it to the right people at the right time results in less spoilage, mismatches and under/oversupply. Improvement in Transparency: a secure, immutable record of the number of deliveries deployed vs the number successfully received enables aid organizations to benchmark their efficiency and continuously improve processes. Improvement in Productivity: by eliminating many manual, redundant tasks, aid employees and volunteers can invest time in strategic, high-value added work.
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?
Thank you so much for having me! I’m excited to be here and chat today.
My childhood was fortunate — I grew up with two amazing parents and an older brother — one of my closest friends and cheerleaders. I lived in the same house my entire life before college in a suburb south of Seattle (Kent, Washington), where we always had a big enough yard to have at least two dogs running around.
We didn’t have much money growing up and enjoyed many road trips, camping, hiking, and other excursions that I’ve realized as an adult are some of the most enjoyable ways to spend time (that also happen to be quite economical!) Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was lucky to be surrounded by beautiful scenery and nature, in close proximity to the sea, the mountains, and the woods. Growing up, I played the violin and many sports, though some knee injuries caused a switch from basketball to tennis and golf. Competing in both team and individual sports was excellent preparation for “the real world” and taught me a lot about the importance of hard work, practice, and supporting your teammates through wins and losses.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most interesting story is the one that led me right to where I am today, building TechAid. I was in Davos with my last startup this past May, working on establishing strategic partnerships and assessing additional/new use cases for interactive mapping software. On a whim, I attended a panel covering the intersection of technology and the ongoing humanitarian crisis. I’d always wanted to do something impactful to help the less fortunate, especially those struggling with food insecurity. Still, I thought, with no background in this space — what could I possibly contribute beyond writing a check and volunteering?
As the conversation evolved, I asked the panelists about the technology currently used in the humanitarian aid space. Upon digging deeper, I learned a considerable opportunity exists. Technology taken for granted in the private sector could significantly benefit people suffering from a lack of food/medicine and those trying to get food/medicine to folks in need. Namely the ability to indicate where we are and what we need from our mobile devices! The aid sector needs this vital technological infrastructure. The panel moderator ended up becoming my business partner and advisor!
It’s crazy to think that I was doing something completely different just six months ago, and that’s all changed because of a single discussion (recorded here).
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?
I could easily fill this entire magazine with stories of the teachers, coaches, and managers that have helped me immeasurably at various points in my life. From childhood, I’ve benefited tremendously from the willingness of others to invest in me and help me find my way.
One person that comes to mind readily was my manager two separate times while working in the wholesale lending division of Wells Fargo. He readily advised on best practices for our group’s success and gave me the unvarnished feedback that I needed to hear during pivotal moments. Such as how difficult it would be to balance full-time work with a full course load during my evening MBA program at the Foster School of Business and how it’s often necessary to reset expectations and standards according to the situation. He challenged me to find what constituted “good enough” across various tasks and reminded me of the importance of ruthless prioritization.
Beyond shaping my career with direct, job-based feedback on how to evaluate risk, underwrite a deal, write a deal memo, and more, he encouraged and supported me in multiple moves that led me to San Francisco for a six-month intensive credit training program, to New York to work in commercial real estate and finally back to Seattle where I reported to him again for two years, even though he was in our Los Angeles office. This was well before hybrid or remote work was ‘the norm,’ Those years of practice made me super effective at working with international/remote teams during my days at Amazon and adapting readily to lockdown-induced WFH.
He had high expectations, to be sure, but showed up for me personally and professionally over many years and constantly challenged me to be better — but only to a point. He is one of the first people who emphasized the importance of striking the proper balance between professionalism and a job well done vs. perfectionism and diminishing returns.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote comes from the legendary basketball coach John Wooden — for me, it never feels tired and is always a great reminder — “Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.” None of us has a crystal ball or can plan or react perfectly to all of the unknowns — but we can each choose our attitude and approach and the way we carry ourselves!
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?
Three character traits that come to mind as instrumental to my success are:
- Humility — the readiness to ask questions and say, “I don’t know. Could you explain this to me?”
- Willingness to bet on myself and my ability to learn.
- Otherish — a made-up word meaning always looking for ways to support others and help them achieve their goals.
As to humility — I deliberately sought out rotational financial analyst programs to work in immediately after university, as I didn’t want to find myself in an ‘entry level’ type role that didn’t offer much opportunity to be pushed beyond a certain level. I completed a program through Wells Fargo, where you had to move to a completely different lending vertical every six months with all new colleagues, managers, and responsibilities. It felt supremely daunting, as right around the 5th month, I would finally start to feel confident in my knowledge and skill set, and bam! It was time to “rotate” again, as we called it.
This experience lent itself very well to my time at Amazon. In this highly rotational culture, not just junior folks but everyone up to the VP level may (and does!) change roles without much notice to work elsewhere in the company. Humility was the currency I traded on through all of this to find my way — I recognized that I knew very little tactically about the ‘norms’ of each group/organization. The best thing I could do was absorb like a sponge and ask thoughtful questions of the group’s experts after I’d gone as far as my research would take me. I found time and again that folks appreciated being approached by a prepared individual who was respectful of their time and put into practice what they shared.
Being willing to ‘bet on myself’ pertains to the confidence that by taking the right approach and soliciting the advice of others, I’d be able to find my way! I’ve continually followed paths outside my comfort zone, knowing I will be the least informed person in the room.
I have found success in different disciplines because of the third trait I mention, being “otherish.” My thinking has been informed by many incredible authors and books, including Give and Take by Adam Grant and Leadership and the Art of Self Deception by the Arbinger Institute. The idea is that you’ll be able to accomplish much more by focusing on and listening to the needs of others and pitching in where you can. Generally speaking, people are reciprocal in keeping an eye out for your goals if you show up for them and take the stance of providing value first. You might not always be able to, but it’s almost become a fun game to me where I try to make as many connections and introductions to others as possible. I genuinely believe that if everyone looked out, at least a little bit, for the interests of everyone else — the amount of innovation, value creation, and social connections would increase exponentially!
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?
The work of others has so inspired me at the intersection of social impact and technology — platforms like ImpactMarket looking to provide a universal basic income to the indigent to HumanitarianTracker enabling a secure, anonymous way to report human rights violations or StateFree, a forum connecting the stateless with resources and a path forward.
TechAid, first and foremost, exists to reduce waste and improve outcomes in the solicitation and distribution of humanitarian aid. The goal is to ensure that the correct goods, such as food, baby formula, clothing, and medicine, make it to the right place and people at the right time. Waste occurs when this system breaks down, e.g., if goods go beyond expiry/spoilage dates or if clothing provided is outside of the season and weather it is needed for. The current solutions are manual. Aid organizations rely upon best-efforts estimates, visual inspection, and interviews to understand who needs what. TechAid, instead, will enable a ‘bottoms up’ demand signal through a basic profile and survey that anyone with a mobile phone can take to indicate how many they are, where they are, and what they need. This demand signal enables aid providers to proactively solicit goods in short supply/reallocate space to something else for goods that are in oversupply. More importantly, it will provide some ground truth to compare against across time. As a former ‘finance nerd’ I am adamant about measurement, benchmarking, and understanding the essential data: “what was spent? What was the result? How does this compare against forecast?”. In the current state, there’s no ground truth to even start from. The US alone deploys >$300Bn of aid annually, but specific outcome data and benchmarking against previous investments are unavailable because the tooling simply doesn’t exist.
Although TechAid is still in its infancy, the overarching goal is to support a single ‘source of truth’ that aid providers can use to optimize their efforts and ultimately to track success metrics recorded with blockchain infrastructure to ensure transparency and facilitate continuous improvement.
How do you think your technology can address this?
By aggregating a reliable, secure demand signal in a standard way that any 501c3 or aid organization could view via dashboard, scorecard, or queries, TechAid would first and foremost demonstrate that technological innovation can and should be a focus area for the public sector. We have a moral imperative to look out for the less fortunate as a society. The statistics on starvation alone are alarming (one person is dying approximately every 4 seconds of hunger).
The technology itself is not new in any respect whatsoever. TechAid combines mobile-based surveys (enabled thanks to the prevalence of mobile phones and existing software, like Qualtrics) with a data map/tagging of responses into a database that can export basic reporting and visualization. Infrastructure such as IBM Watson can do this today for little to no cost. The same mobile phones used to populate a 6-question survey can also be used to scan a QR code or NFC tag present on the aid itself upon the point of pickup/delivery to close the transaction loop and prove that a transaction took place and is associated with a specific profile.
I’ve enjoyed distance running throughout my life and for anyone familiar with a packet pickup type of situation, this is essentially how the delivery aspect of the interaction would look. The more complex piece is the intersection with blockchain for recording purposes. Still, the key takeaway is that blockchain enables security and privacy while ensuring immutability. Survey takers and aid providers need not worry about information becoming corrupted, stolen, or tampered with — nor do they need to understand the minutiae of how the technology works. Many use cases already exist, such as StatWig (blockchain-enabled supply chain for vaccination distribution), that have proven the viability of such a strategy.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Becoming a mother in 2020 changed my perspective on the world completely. It was the most challenging time I’ve gone through, and I say this as someone with a supportive partner, a stable home, and sufficient income for food and necessities. I cannot imagine any parent’s pain and difficulty who cannot provide food for their children. During some of the early days, when my son came home from the hospital and lost weight, and I couldn’t produce enough food for him, we were able to supplement with formula. I can sit here in the United States and order what I need using my mobile phone and have it delivered to a place of my choosing. Why is that? As Melinda French Gates has noted, the arbitrary nature of where you are born in the world determines whether you survive until your fifth birthday.
We can and must do better! I am committed to giving this effort my best and corralling resources in a smart way to at least begin to tackle the problem of food insecurity. And do so in a way that enables others to be more impactful, more successful, and generate better outcomes in terms of lives saved and ailments avoided.
How do you think this might change the world?
The first-order effect of how TechAid might change the world is simply in reducing wasting scarce resources (namely food, medicines, and the like) by ensuring that aid organizations know with a high degree of certainty about the location and demand for them. However, this will likely be slow going for a time, and adoption will remain a central challenge. The second-order effect, however, might be even more impactful and happen more quickly than the first — and that is to reframe how we perceive a problem to be ‘worth solving.’
TechAid is nothing more than a supply chain optimization play. While it should theoretically scale globally, the intent isn’t to generate massive profits — it’s to avoid huge waste and unnecessary suffering. We don’t have longitudinal studies available to tell us what the opportunity cost of all of the amazing inventions, innovations, and ideas that are lost forever due to starvation and lack of resources. But I would argue that it’s past time to start thinking of ourselves as a global society and reframe the KPIs we’re using to determine investment worthiness. Suppose TechAid can provide an example to other aspiring entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams of building a social impact company. That would be a tremendously positive outcome and will push faster and better innovation towards the public sector vs. being mypocially focused on consumer applications in the private sector that are targeted at the ‘already wealthy.’
Yes — absolutely. The importance of privacy and security is paramount (the decentralized ID system that blockchain enables helps solve the privacy piece), as is the potential for abuse and theft (e.g., a bad actor posing as the leader of a village and misdirecting an entire delivery of aid to the wrong place). There is a lot of investigation to be done in this area, and a ‘proceed with caution’ approach is warranted at every step to ensure that sensitive data does not end up in the wrong hands and that mechanisms are in place to prevent manipulation.
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.)
Sure thing — and I’ll start by simplifying the list to “five things you need to know to successfully create technology” because, after all, the ability to have a positive social impact is likely predicated on the viability of the technology itself!
- Less is more. Occam’s Razor principle applies — the simplest solution is often the best. The simplest solution is often the least expensive, so build that one and try it first! TechAid is currently being iterated on within excel, google forms, PowerPoint, and Figma — low/no cost tools sufficient to acquire expert feedback and opinions from beta users, which is enough! No need to hire an expensive technical lead or make a material investment until we’ve proven the use case with the most straightforward and least costly tooling available.
- Look — then build! It’s very easy to fall into the trap of assumption. Assumptions such as “everyone will like this because I like it,” “this is easy to understand because I understand it,” or “no one has ever done anything like this before” are as pernicious as they are common (after all, each of us thinks we are pretty special! And we are — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop to look around at what already exists). At every key stage and perhaps before, it’s critical to look around for other examples that might already exist of what you’re thinking is “new” and realize that at least pieces of it might have already been built that you can draw inspiration from. You might also find that a solution exists already and completely change your design thinking on your product as a result (BEFORE making an expensive investment of time and money!)
- Ask for feedback, iterate, launch. Repeat. You are one human, and you are not your customer. There are infinite ways of seeking feedback from groups, strangers, and friends. — This is a low-cost and effective way to ensure you’re looking around corners and understanding potential issues/pitfalls before they arise (instead of reacting to them in real-time; not fun). Relentlessly seek feedback from experts, potential or beta users, or customers (if your product is already live), categorize that feedback, prioritize changes and make them. Decide in advance on a deployment cadence, so you don’t let yourself off the hook from making necessary changes! And to put a cherry on top, circle back with those users that gave you feedback and show the changes you made/bugs you fixed thanks to them taking the time. They will be much more likely to provide feedback again and will feel involved and informed, thus more likely to evangelize your product to others, which is invaluable.
- De-jargonize. You will never be able to learn from or benefit from a connection that doesn’t understand your solution. They won’t buy from you, tell their friends or parents about it, and never tell you this because they don’t want to appear uninformed or not ‘in the know.’ Solicit feedback for the product and the description of the product itself. A great piece of feedback I received on TechAid was to simply describe it as a mobile-based survey (not “a web3 enabled solution facilitating the match of supply and demand) or however it had initially been described! Remove all buzzwords, jargon, and adjectives and show your product description to someone over 50 and under the age of 5 to see if there’s a common understanding. If not, take it more straightforwardly and consider using an analogy to explain it!
- Spend time in the field. The best way to understand customer pain points is to walk in their shoes — not by sitting behind a computer screen. Early on at Amazon, I participated in a C2FC where corporate employees could work in a fulfillment center for a week. I learned more during that time about why odd variances were coming through in the financials for my team than I did by analyzing the numbers themselves. This enabled me to ask the right questions and provide examples to get to the root cause of issues and propose solutions. For example, what happens to goods sent in by 3rd party sellers using Amazon’s fulfillment technology for delivery that aren’t correctly packaged when a warehouse employee unloads them? Those packages don’t magically disappear into the ether — they take employees off task to re-label or re-package for delivery. Knowing this, it was much easier to interpret what might be happening with certain line items as a greater volume of sales mix came from 3P sellers vs. inventory that Amazon had purchased and packaged in-house. This observation fed into an entire initiative aimed at improving this aspect, e.g., training materials for 3P sellers on how to properly package their inventory before sending in and instituting penalties and non-guarantee of fulfillment for packages sent not meeting the stated requirements.
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?
I would challenge them with a question — why NOT you? Each of us has a unique value to contribute to the world, and a unique perspective. So take that and, by all means, make your mark with it. There’s nothing more fulfilling than knowing that the work that you did benefitted others!
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 would be thrilled and grateful to have breakfast with Samantha Power and learn from her directly. I have so much respect for her professional accomplishments that have been balanced with motherhood. I would like to get her perspective and advice on how to best serve both individuals in need and the agencies providing the support — whether that’s via TechAid, or something else altogether. What am I missing? What might be a better, more helpful way to go about this? How can we encourage and facilitate technological innovation in the aid sector? What are USAID’s top goals that TechAid might help solve for or at least start towards?
If she does see this — thank you Samantha for your tireless work leading USAID, as a UN Ambassador, for your work on womens and LGBTQ+ rights, as a journalist putting your life on the line reporting from war-torn areas, for your scholarship and public service…you are an amazing voice and example for women everywhere!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best place to follow TechAid at the moment is on LinkedIn (the website is under construction) https://www.linkedin.com/company/a-data-driven-approach-to-humanitarian-aid
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.