Social Impact Tech: Lauren Blodgett of the Brave House On How Their Technology Will Make An Important Positive Impact

Jilea Hemmings
Authority Magazine
Published in
16 min readApr 8, 2022

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The core mission of our non-profit, the Brave House, is to offer holistic support and community to young immigrant women and gender-expansive youth in NYC. The problem is that this population does not have meaningful access to critical resources, legal aid, and a community of peers. We are now utilizing technology — specifically a custom-made mobile App — to help provide that support.

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 Lauren Blodgett.

Lauren Blodgett is an immigration attorney and the founder of the Brave House, a non-profit supporting young immigrant women in New York City. Lauren was previously a Fulbright Scholar in international law, Equal Justice Works fellow, and member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Law and Policy. Lauren graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School, where she served on the board of the Harvard Immigration Project and worked in non-profits in Morocco, Thailand, Jordan, Tanzania, and Cambodia on various human rights issues.

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 for the warm welcome and the opportunity to share! My name is Lauren, and I am a non-profit founder and human rights attorney in New York. I grew up outside of Boston in a family where everyone works in some form of public service — from education, to government, to public health. My parents taught me early on that it doesn’t matter what career you pursue, as long as you’re using your time, energy, and talents to try to improve the lives of others.

I have two older brothers and my childhood was very centered around sports — from having to pass time on the playground during my brothers’ baseball games or spending my Saturdays running between all the basketball leagues I was a part of. My leadership mindset was molded during those early years where I learned the importance of teamwork and the power of collectively working towards a shared goal. I credit a lot of my tenacity to my older brothers, who I was constantly trying to keep up with and be a worthy competitor of.

When I was 17, I started working at my local City Hall where I helped organize city-wide cultural initiatives and other community-focused projects. I love people, and I’ve always felt inspired to find ways to create spaces for people to connect and for their authentic identities to be recognized and celebrated. I carried my passion for service with me through my time at Boston College, then to Austria for a Fulbright fellowship in international law, and then to South Africa through an internship at a refugee center.

After working in South Africa, I decided to attend law school because I wanted to dedicate my energy towards defending the rights of women to live a life free of violence and abuse. In law school, I had the opportunity to travel around the world working on human rights issues. I was able to do advocacy work in Morocco, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, Switzerland, Tanzania, and Jordan on different legal initiatives, working with nonprofits, the United Nations, and the State Department.

I moved to NYC after getting my law degree and I worked for a few years at a non-profit where I provided free legal representation to children and young women fleeing violence and seeking asylum. My work with those clients is what inspired me to create the Brave House. This work is challenging but is the biggest joy and honor of my life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One of the most unexpected chapters of my career was working with young children in New York who had been separated from their parents at the U.S. — Mexico border. My clients were all under the age of 10 and I was liasioning with detention centers in the southern U.S. in an attempt to locate their parents while also meeting with the children in the shelters where the government was keeping them until reunification. This was 2018, it was an unprecedented time in U.S. immigration and it was very emotional to work with these children who understandably kept asking and pleading for their parents. In many cases, we were able to arrange for the child to be temporarily placed with another family member — such as an aunt — while their parent was in a detention center and their case was being processed.

Those months stand out to me as a distinct part of my time as a lawyer, especially since my day-to-day work currently looks much different. Now I’m working with teenagers and young women, and though some of them live in shelters or are far from their families, many of them are in situations where they are much more settled and supported. I learned a lot from that experience regarding empathy, trauma, and reflecting on immigration policies in the U.S. and how I can be the best advocate as a lawyer.

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?

Someone who has helped me, especially with regards to this technology that I’m so excited to share about today, is Chumi Gonzalez. Chumi is a visionary, a first-generation immigrant from Paraguay, and the person who made the beautiful illustrations and designs for our mobile App at the Brave House. While her graphic design skills are of course a huge help, what makes Chumi so distinct is her mindset and attitude that helped give me the confidence, motivation, and momentum to take this dream of creating an App and make it into a reality.

Chumi has been a volunteer and advisor at the Brave House for years now and I remember the day we sat down together to really talk through the App idea. It was like she was able to translate everything in my head into reality. She took out hundreds of colorful neon sticky notes and started to lay them down on the floor. I would say an idea and she would put it on a sticky note on the floor and then we would rearrange and fine-tune the placement and wording of it all. She would ask really thoughtful questions and lead with curiosity. Chumi brought patience, kindness, and warmth to the entire process. It was no longer a question of “what if we created this?”, it became a matter of “how do we create this?”. After spending hours in brainstorming and creation mode, we were able to loop in another long-term volunteer, Kevin Hylant, who would provide the coding and engineering expertise to build this App into existence.

The App, and the subsequent positive impact that we hope it will have, would not have been possible without Chumi.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes is from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There: “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” This quote embodies the dreamer and creator in me. So many beautiful moments and accomplishments in my life have been the result of my willingness to believe in the impossible — from running my first marathon, to bungee jumping in a canyon, to starting a non-profit. My head is filled with ideas for the future and I’ve created so many vision boards that now it’s hard to keep count. My hope is to keep this childlike imagination with me always and to continue to attempt to do things that at first seem impossible.

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?

I think three of my most impactful traits are curiosity, optimism, and bravery. Curiosity is what led me to creating my non-profit. I listened to stories from my clients and was curious about the patterns and connections between what I was hearing from all of them — that they were seeking more community and more holistic support. It is what helped me connect the dots and be open to a new way of doing things. Optimism is how I continue to move forward despite obstacles and set-backs. For example, anytime a case is denied or a client faces a hurdle in applying for a type of protection or benefit, I’m able to file that appeal or keep trying because I have a deep inner belief that things can and will work out. Finally, bravery is key to how I lead the organization and live my life. I welcome fear and discomfort as friends, understanding that they are there to teach me and to learn from. For example, with our non-profit we host a lot of community events and a recent event was indoor rock-climbing. At the rock-climbing gym there is a tight-rope over 40 feet in the air, and nobody in our group wanted to go first. I was also scared but the desire to model bravery motivated me. Sweaty palms and beating heart, I volunteered to go first and I walked across the tight-rope step by step.

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 core mission of our non-profit, the Brave House, is to offer holistic support and community to young immigrant women and gender-expansive youth in NYC. The problem is that this population does not have meaningful access to critical resources, legal aid, and a community of peers. We are now utilizing technology — specifically a custom-made mobile App — to help provide that support.

In the early stages of our non-profit, prior to launching our App, our members would connect 1-on-1 with our staff to receive services and resources, which meant that the scope of our support was necessarily limited by our team’s capacity. For instance, a member would reach out to get help fighting her legal case, preparing for her driver’s license test, or applying for federal food benefits. A challenge emerged when we saw an increasing demand for this type of help and yet we remained a small start-up with a tiny team. We were constantly asking ourselves: how do we support even more young immigrant women while we remain a small non-profit? How can we scale and deepen our impact in a way that is both efficient while also staying trauma-informed and deeply connected to our community?

Because of these questions of scalability and impact, I had already been dreaming of creating an App for our members, and the pandemic launched this plan into action. We were suddenly faced with the urgent challenge of reaching our members while in lock-down. We needed to ensure that our members were accessing critical resources, such as food assistance, while also feeling part of a community during a period of social isolation. We wanted to create a hub where our members could immediately access vetted, immigrant-friendly resources explained in an easy-to-understand way and a channel to communicate and sign up to the remote events that we were offering every week. Beyond responding directly to the challenges of the pandemic, we knew that creating this hub would allow us to address our original questions of scaling impact and growing membership by placing the resources and peer connection at our members’ fingertips.

How do you think your technology can address this?

Our mobile App is revolutionizing the way we engage our community. It empowers them to gain access to events, resources, each other, and their legal cases — all in one place.

Members easily sign up for our events like career nights and nutrition workshops and receive reminders and push notifications, improving access to our diverse range of programming. Our members can also search, by category, for hundreds of our vetted, trusted resources in topics from scholarships, to therapy options, to housing support, and more. This ‘Resources’ feature increases our members’ agency over their own well-being as they explore and access resources on their own, rather than needing to go through a non-profit as an intermediary.

To foster belonging, our App has a messaging feature so members can stay in touch and build relationships with one another, as well as check in with our staff. Members create their own profiles sharing their interests, their country of origin, and the languages that they speak to build rapport with their peers. Our App also features a private ‘My Case’ section as part of our Legal Literacy initiative which helps members stay informed about their legal status (and what it means) as well as upcoming court dates. All these features can be accessed safely and exclusively by our members and staff.

Ultimately, we created an innovative product that serves our members not just as people with immigration cases but as complex, beautiful, and distinctive individuals who deserve to access support in all sorts of different aspects of their lives in the way that they choose.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

As a woman, a deep passion of mine is fighting for the fundamental human rights of women to live free, safe, happy, vibrant lives. I found working with female asylum-seekers in particular very compelling, especially given that immigrants do not have the right to free attorneys in their deportation proceedings. I started off my legal career defending girls and young women in immigration court and helped them get humanitarian protections like asylum or special visas for survivors of trafficking.

I had dozens of clients and I started to see a pattern. They would come to my office to prepare for their legal case, but before we would even sit down, they had the same questions for me: how do I get health insurance, how can I find an English tutor, how can I apply for a job, how do I make friends, and the list went on. So, I started the Brave House with the goal of creating a place where young immigrant women could feel like they belong and also get the crucial services they need and deserve. It’s a one-stop shop, it’s a sisterhood, and it’s a hub for their legal-social-educational needs.

Our App is what is now empowering me to take our mission to the next level. It feels like a natural progression of addressing the original question and puzzle of how to create spaces and opportunities for young immigrant women to thrive, lead, and belong.

How do you think this might change the world?

This App increases access to both immediate support and long-term opportunities (educational, career, and leadership) for our community, which in turn helps disrupt inter-generational cycles of poverty and violence against women. By giving our members the tools to thrive, we are supporting the growth, education, and well-being of young women who become leaders and advocates for themselves and their communities. This will ultimately result in more immigrant women voices in the arts, social, and political spheres, empowering them to contribute their unique gifts and perspectives to the world.

I believe our App also has the power to transform the way that non-profits support their communities. My hope was that one day we could share our App technology with other organizations who want to create a private community and resource hub for the population they work with. Our volunteer coder & engineer, Kevin, has already started to take steps towards this vision by creating an organization called Gather. Through that work, he will take this original concept and use it to spread this impact even further. I hope this can inspire self-advocacy for people seeking services and help remove organizations as a barrier between services/information and those who need them.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

As with any online social space, it’s difficult to create the same kind of connection as we do in real life. Building an App like ours does not serve as a substitute for the sort of community and sisterhood that we can foster in person. I wouldn’t want people to think that community organizations can completely substitute in-person work with online resources, but I do think that it’s a great way — especially today — to reach people and add new avenues to our impact.

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.)

1. Learn from your community. At the Brave House, we work from a collaborative, community-based approach to making an impact. We believe that effective programming is the result of listening to the population we serve. For example, our Youth Leadership Board members were the beta-testers for our App and many of its features — such as the timing of push notifications for event reminders — are a direct result of their feedback. It’s important that tech innovators elicit and listen to feedback instead of driving forward with their vision, no matter how compelling it may seem.

2. Let go of old structures and systems. A lot of our App’s features, like the private My Case legal profile for members, is very different from the existing paradigm of legal assistance provision for immigrants. It can be scary and uncomfortable to break free from paradigms that have been existing so long, particular sectors (like the non-profit sphere) that do not traditionally utilize technology in this way. You might face a lot of questions like what if this doesn’t work, what if there are glitches, what happens if this is a failure? Instead I like to ask, but what happens if it’s a success?

3. Co-create as a team. As an attorney, there is no way I could have created this App on my own. What makes it so powerful is that our App team consists of people from all different professional and personal backgrounds. We all have different comfort levels and familiarity with tech, which has been indispensable for ideation, for evaluating user experience, and for knowing what is accessible for our community. It’s been crucial to not only have all these people in one room but also to learn how to effectively work together — and for us the key has been clear communication and a constant re-visiting of our goals.

4. Leverage existing tech to be inspired and not reinvent the wheel. Our coder has been so resourceful in finding and collaborating with pre-existing tech products and open-source code in order to build the App. For example, instead of writing the code from scratch for our Community Chat functionality, he was able to utilize a system that already existed and embed it within our custom App. Surveying the landscape before jumping into your own creation is a huge strength, so that you can make sure you aren’t duplicating existing efforts and also to ensure that your product is the highest quality possible. Just because we were building our own metaphorical house from scratch does not mean that we need to personally whittle each chair in the house from scratch as well.

5. Constantly adapt and shift. The App was born out of a need to shift in how we deliver services. Each version has been a constant reiteration of the version before. This comes from a deep desire to be agile and flexible. As the saying goes, “strong convictions, loosely held.” For example, when I realized that most members constantly asked me when their next court date or attorney meeting was, I decided to embed into the App a private ‘My Case’ feature where members can easily view all of their important upcoming legal appointments.

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?

Your ideas matter, and sharing your ideas is why we are all here. You are here to give more to the world than you take from it. To know that nobody is above or below you. Each of us has something unique and amazing to add and you have the power to help to make the world a better place — whether it’s by sharing your story, your skills, or your dreams. It’s a gift and a decision to contribute in this way, and I hope you recognize the worthiness of what you can add and that you decide to take the leap!

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. :-)

Jacqueline Novogratz. I find her story and her mindset so inspiring. Her creative entrepreneurial spirit, her resiliency, and her warm compassion for others are all qualities that I strive for. She is brave and commits to big dreams. She has helped so many people, especially women, all over the world through her approaches to ending global poverty. And despite all her success, she is extremely humble, down to earth, and a life-long learner. She is a role model of mine and I would love to meet her to thank her for her contributions and to learn from her.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow The Brave House on social media (Instagram: @thebravehouse) and check out our website: thebravehouse.org!

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.

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Jilea Hemmings
Authority Magazine

Founder Nourish + Bloom Market | Stretchy Hair Care I Author I Speaker I Eshe Consulting I Advocate For Diversity In Beauty