Our fourth profile features Tenzin Seldon, who is a Stanford grad, Rhodes Scholar, and founder of Kinstep, a platform to help immigrants find work. Tenzin, a former immigrant from Tibet and India herself, started Kinstep as a way to give back to the community that she is from.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I was born and raised in India, but my roots trace to Tibet. I moved to the US as an adolescent. This migration gave me the opportunity to grow close to immigrant stories, and first-hand understand their broad needs. I was fortunate enough to have an education that accelerated my perspective. I went to Stanford for my undergrad, and Oxford under the Rhodes Scholarship.
After Oxford, I worked at the UN where I worked on 2 issue areas- persons with disabilities in the Asian-Pacific (APAC) region and youth engagement. With my work with youth, the greatest challenge area in APAC was resettlement of migrant and refugees, who were the most likely to be vulnerable and victimized because of their transitory state. It was this formidable experience that compelled me to explore other avenues to make a difference in their lives. Realizing that technology was the direct and powerful medium to immigrants, I decided that a social venture tech startup was one way to address these disparate challenges. Thinking back to the time in my life when I was moving across the ocean, tech services would have actually made a difference in my resettlement. So here we are now, I came back to the heart of Silicon Valley to find a creative and lasting way to help immigrants.
So, what exactly is Kinstep?
Kinstep is a tech platform that matches immigrants with employment directly in the local community. The platform is for any and all immigrants- both for newly arrived immigrant or for someone who established their life. For our pilot, which we recently concluded, we ensured that every immigrant was paired with a living wage job. This is especially critical as many immigrants have the responsibility to support themselves in addition to their family members. Additionally, trillions of dollars of US economy is fuelled to the “under-the-table” work, which is work that is not recorded or legal. This can often lead to exploitative labor practices, which can derail an individual’s life. Our goal at Kinstep is to give attention to this shadow economy and help members of the “under-the-table” economy become above-board.In addition, our platform also wants to connect and create a sense of belonging for immigrants of various backgrounds.
My co-founder, Adrienne Huesca, and I have been running our pilot, in which we match people, and everything is done above-board. The immigrants who work for Kinstep are above-board and lawful. We work to negotiate their full rights, which includes benefits, bonuses and healthcare. We also provide a great community and professional development.
What type of companies do you work with?
For our pilot, we had many small and medium-sized businesses that used our service, companies such as WeWork. We partner with companies that are inclusive, and recognize the talent and skills immigrants bring to their workforce. We hope in the near future to work with major companies that have pledge to hire immigrants.
What has been your proudest moment this past year?
There has been a single proudest moment; I would say, rather that there has been a series of moments that have been very pivotal for us. After the elections, immigration became the forefront of the President’s political agenda. People started finally addressing the question: how do we (US) as an international superpower help with displacement of millions of people around the world? The question of moral culpability and leadership was finally being discussed. And I was relieved that Americans were coming together to have these forthcoming, candid conversation. I personally spoke to people from Midwest/South, who have never interact with immigrants, or contemplated much about this issue. I’ve listened to community members in conversation within their intimate spaces- at home with kids, or in their congregation. While many people focus on the negative outcomes, there is a silver lining. The fact that immigration and displacement has come to surface is a critical issue the world must confront together.
The second proud moment was learning from some of the refugees we work with. We stay in touch with the immigrants we work for and with. Some have shared with me that having a job through Kinstep has given them stability and peace of mind. It has also offloaded some shame for the breadwinners of family. Overall, talking to the immigrants we work with makes me very proud- without us, they may still be looking for a fair wage employment opportunity.
What was a challenge when you started Kinstep?
The biggest challenge was the reacclimation to American life when I came back after 4 years. The social and political climate was so different. The national debate around the immigrant story has changed. When I was growing up in the US, my family did face some resentment, but people were willing to accept us. They know that we bring energy and needed skills to this country. However, in Trump’s America, the tone has gotten darker. One of the burdens that I bear is that not only do I have to be someone who has to speak up for immigrants but also have to show empathy for people who’ve never interacted with an immigrant or refugee before. I can’t blame or dismiss them their struggle, and I have to keep working to change their minds and heart.
Another challenge I’ve faced since I started Kinstep is the challenge of running a company. I’ve run organizations, mostly in the public and government space. However, a company’s top goal is profit. My goal is not only to generate a profit, but also empower people who use my service, and showcase that socially good startups are viable. I want to show people that you can make profit without damaging the livelihoods of people. I got through all of these challenges with support from some amazing mentors, and definitely could not have done this without them.
What’s a common misconception that you’ve realized about doing tech for social good?
One is that you can’t do social good while also running a profitable business. I think that in order to really do social good, you have to think of your users in the long term. This is the basic question about sustainability, which any business has to think about.
Another misconception would be that in order to do any social good, one needs to create tech that has to be wide reaching. This happens because we measure impact not by proximity, but number of people impacted. However, tech for social good can be for 50 different communities or just 1–2 local communities (anywhere from East Palo Alto to Bali to Rio). Regardless of what category your initiative falls under, it is still tech that serves that community. Not all tech platforms need to serve everyone, because we all have unique problems, and it is absolutely OK and actually encouraged to create something just for your community.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I can’t pick just one, so here is a collection of the best advice I’ve ever been given:
- From another founder- when you’re implementing a program, you will get overwhelmed by everything you need to do. Focus on what you need to do next. Don’t lose sight of that focus. People get overwhelmed by what you need to do 5–6 years from now, not what you need to do next.
- From another advisor of Kinstep- treat people you work with in an empowering way so that they feel safe to voice opinions. Ultimately, it’s them and you who will be able to sustain this company. This advice is taken too lightly- we don’t think about the teams, and how much responsibility is given to each of us who work together. Take as much responsibility for the people around you as those who use your product.
- Last piece of advice is from Buddhist tradition- look at problem from perspective of century or eons. When bad things happen, it’s inevitable. What’s crucial is knowing that in the long standing view of the world, it’s OK- many people have come before and after you, you just need to keep steady and centered, and fix the current problem and focus on moving on.
What keeps you up at night?
Stories of immigrants keep me up at night, includes the stories of my friends and the families we work with. These stories serve as a haunting reminder of my past, and what could have been my future. There are so many ex-Physicians and political leaders who come here and end up working as servers or drivers. These people feel a sense of guilt around this change in occupation and think whether it was worth it. I think ultimately, they do think it is worth it when they look at their kids. It is so easy to forget about these stories, especially when you become acclimated to the environment. However, constantly hearing the stories of the immigrants we work with keeps me grounded.
Another thing that keeps me up is the idea of what spiritual humility really looks like. I don’t think I really understood this concept until I met some asylum seekers from Tufts in the US. They explained to me that in every work there is dignity, and we’re willing to do any job. There are so many stories of immigrants with grad degrees who can’t get jobs, regardless of whether they have a green card. I’ve seen so many immigrants working jobs that many people in America shy away from doing, which reassures me that dignity can exist with any kind of work.
What’s your favorite midnight snack?
Probably dark chocolate, or apples with peanut butter.
What music are you currently listening to?
I listen to everything from Indian to Tibetan to pop to electronic music. I’m pretty agnostic about music- mostly just listen to whatever plays on Spotify.
How can people get involved with what you’re working on?
Folks can visit our website if they want to volunteer with us- we’re especially looking for folks with technical skills!