THE BLOG

Jimmy Chen: Why I Want to Build High-Tech Products for Low-Income Americans

06/24/2014 04:47 pm 16:47:33 | Updated Aug 24, 2014

Silicon Valley, HBO's scathing satire of the tech business, is full of characters who are convinced that their "Uber for cats" is going to change the world. The show shines a light on a very real Silicon Valley phenomenon. In a world with no shortage of big problems, software companies tend to build apps which make life more convenient for the already comfortable. It doesn't have to be that way.

I've always been drawn to making an impact. In grade school, I dreamed of being a policymaker or lawyer, because I thought those people improved people's' lives directly by making new laws. When I got to college, I realized that you could also change the world by building something new. With the right skills, an idea could be transformed into a usable software product over the course of a weekend. I was immediately hooked.

Fast forward to today. Six very different technologists -- Stephanie, Avi, Ciara, Shazad, Margo, and I -- have been selected by Significance Labs to spend three months building new technology for low-income Americans. We're excited to apply our diverse backgrounds towards solving some tough problems.

I come from San Francisco, where I spent four years as a product manager at LinkedIn and Facebook. Both are mission-driven companies which spent a lot of time thinking about how to use their software to create social good. The problem is that the social good created by most new technology is unevenly distributed. A disproportionate number of new tech products aim to solve the problems of young urban technologists, simply because those are generally the people who define and build those products.

It's difficult to empathize with a set of daily challenges that are radically different from our own, so we default to building apps that incrementally improve the lives of those most similar to us. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but we have not built enough software for the low-income Americans who need it most.

This summer, I'm hoping to make a dent in that problem. I believe that empathy is the best starting point. I can't walk in someone else's shoes, but I've tried to inch closer by spending hours talking to a variety of people from all walks of life. It's been a whirlwind. The low-income Americans who spoke to us have consistently displayed amazing amounts of resilience, humor, and pride while letting us see a slice of their lives.

In the coming weeks, the other Significance Labs fellows and I will dive more deeply into specific problem areas so we can begin to craft solutions. Our team has a broad set of interests and specializations ranging from financial inclusion to college completion, and we're anxious to learn more. Although we know it will be challenging to build meaningful new technology products from scratch in a mere three months, we're all determined to make at least a small difference in the lives low-income Americans. We'll share our story -- successes, failures and insights -- with you here. We're excited to have you along on our journey. Because we don't need better selfies. We need technology that actually makes the world a better place.