Tiffani Bell, Founder Of The Detroit Water Project, Provides Financial Support To Families In Need

June 1, 2015  |  

Name: Tiffani Bell

Favorite read: The Bible.

Recent read: I’m always reading multiple books at one time, so right now, I’m reading:

Favorite websites:

Favorite apps: Sleep Cycle on iOS. It’s helped me get my sleep issues in order.

Most inspired by: Substance and utility.

One quote that inspires you: Meus opus magnus — Latin for, “My work is great.” It’s a great guide.

Twitter handle: @tiffani | @DETwaterproject

Tiffani Bell has been a techie for as long as she can remember. While some children were working on sentence structure, Bell was working on creating lines of code. That passion for technology led the front- and back-end developer to go on to graduating with a degree in computer science, founding her first startup, Pencil You In, which enabled hairstylists to accept appointments online more efficiently. She also became a fellow for Code for America, a nonprofit invested in making sure government is working for the people through tech. Most recently, Bell co-founded the Detroit Water Project, alongside Kristy Tillman, a platform that allows individuals to donate money to pay off outstanding water bills for the city’s residents.

MadameNoire caught up with the Y Combinator alum to discuss the Detroit Water Project, tips to running a social good venture and what’s next.

MadameNoire: How did you get your start in the technology space?
Tiffani Bell: [I] wrote my first line of code at age six, took a programming class in 10th grade, graduated from Howard University in 2008 with a Bachelor of Science in Systems & Computer Science, interned at HP (twice) and IBM during college and founded startup Pencil You In in 2009.

MN: What inspired you to found the Detroit Water Project, a platform that allows individuals to donate money to pay off outstanding water bills for the city’s residents?
TB: I read a story last year in The Atlantic that talked about how over 100,000 people in Detroit were going to be affected by water shut-offs. As I read more, I realized most of the issue stemmed from people just flat out not being able to afford their bills in the first place. I did what I usually did when I find something to be outrageous–I tweeted about it.

From there, Kristy Tillman in Boston got involved and we ended up putting together the Detroit Water Project website in about four hours the same night I read the article.

And yes, there were other crowdfunding campaigns and organizations addressing the problem, but our solution was different in that we wanted to help people immediately and give directly to families that needed assistance. So, the website ended up facilitating matches between families that needed assistance and donors who would pledge anywhere from $5 to $5,000 from all over the world to help.

We would essentially send them an account number and in tandem with how much they pledged; give them instructions on how to use the utility company website to directly make a water bill payment on someone’s behalf. We’ve had over 9,000 people from around the world sign up to give toward bills in Detroit and now Baltimore.

MN: That’s a large feat. To date, donors have given over $180,000 for water bills for over 900 families in Detroit and over $30,000 for families in Baltimore. Congrats! When you first had the idea, what steps did you take to get it off the ground?
TB: I’m a programmer, so that made things a lot easier. We just wrote up some copy describing what we were doing, used Bootstrap, a user interface framework open sourced from designers and developers at Twitter, to throw up a reasonably presentable website on Heroku (a free web host), and piped all of the donation and assistance application information to Google Sheets.

We used a team of volunteers to do the manual matching and customer service.

MN: What are your three tips to running a successful social good platform?
TB: [1] Pick a salient problem that everyday people can impact with a small contribution that, in aggregate, amounts to massive impact. It ropes in everybody and tons of people can share in your success.

[2] Partner with great people and on-the-ground organizations that can be your eyes and ears.

[3] Be dedicated to learning everything you can about what you’re doing and the people you’re helping. But that’s good advice for anything!

MN: You were in the last cycle of Y Combinator, the most prestigious accelerator/incubator program in the country. How did your participation in YC help the Detroit Water Project?
TB: Participating in Y Combinator was helpful for clarifying priorities and growing the donor base. They’re heavily focused on growth and when you’re trying to make an impact, especially as a nonprofit, that’s valuable to learn.

MN: For startup founders looking to enter into an accelerator or incubator program, what should they consider?
TB: A few things:

[1] Consider the accomplishments of the people running the program. The primary thing that you want is expertise, which will give you a better view of what to do with the funds they give. Y Combinator has partners and various other people in their network who’ve all been operators and founders at their own startups once upon a time–and been wildly successful in a lot of cases–and this makes all the difference. You don’t want someone playing house and cutting his or her teeth on your startup.

[2] Consider what kind of support and resources you’ll have access to after you finish the accelerator or incubator.

[3] Consider the internal resources and support you’ll receive during the accelerator or incubator. This harkens back to the first point around the accomplishments of the people running the program, but how is the program structured? What kinds of mentorship will be there be? From whom?

MN: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received or given?
TB: The best business (and life) advice I’ve ever received is that, ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint.’

MN: What’s next for the Detroit Water Project?
TB: Growth. Hiring. Right now, I’m spending more and more time getting the infrastructure in place to turn the Detroit Water Project into a sustainable organization with sustainable impact. That means hiring, fundraising, defining impact, etc.

Detroit Water Project is ultimately focused on two things going forward: expanding the platform to other cities with the aim of ensuring everyone has access to running water in their homes and getting legislation in place ensuring universal residential access to running water. Everything else is subordinate to those goals.

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