What's Possible

These Two Millennials Are Taking on Big Urban Problems — and Winning

June 30, 2016
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These Two Millennials Are Taking on Big Urban Problems — and Winning
Scott Benner with some of his artwork. Photo by Ali Campbell
This San Francisco-based accelerator is funding the next generation of solutions to homelessness, natural resource depletion and more.

As Scott Benner sneakily took a few sheets of blank paper from the public library’s copy machine, he kept an eye out for employees who could bust him for stealing. Walking between the public library’s bookshelves, he recognized several men from the local homeless shelter in Quincy, Mass., where he was living, waiting in line for the bathroom or surfing the web. Slumping in a chair, Benner used a ballpoint pen to doodle, distracting himself from the travails of his life. In the five years prior, Benner had lost everything: his 20-year foreman job at a steel plant, his two-bedroom house. Even his wife left. Kept awake at night in the shelter by men moaning from withdrawal and hacking with sickness, Benner doubted he would ever experience the life he once imagined for himself.

For weeks, Benner kept sketching, giving away his artwork until a shelter worker suggested he sell it. Some brief online research using the library’s wifi led Benner to ArtLifting, an online marketplace like Etsy for homeless and disabled artists. A couple of months later, in May 2014, he sold his first piece. Investing his earnings in a pad of high-quality paper and a set of pens led to even more sales. “It’s selling in ways that I’ve never imagined,” he says. But beyond the cash, “it was just that sense of hope that I was going to get out of the mess that I was in. There was a light at the end of the tunnel now because ArtLifting was there.” Recently, Benner moved into permanent housing.

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Behind Benner’s success is a little-known group working to maximize ArtLifting’s reach. Tumml, a nonprofit San Francisco incubator, assists for-profit entrepreneurs scale their companies to solve urban problems. For ArtLifting and the 32 other young urban ventures it’s assisting, Tumml attempts to bridge the funding and mentorship gap business founders face by connecting them to investors, city officials, journalists and advisors from Silicon Valley giants like Airbnb and Yelp. On average, participating businesses raise $1.1 million and hire 10 new employees. Collectively, 2.2 million people have used the products and services offered by companies in Tumml’s portfolio.

Tumml co-founders Julie Lein, a one-time political consultant, and Clara Brenner, formerly in real estate development, caught the highly infectious “startup bug” while at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. (“When you are surrounded by talented technologists and entrepreneurs, it makes you want to push yourself to do more and to solve big, hairy challenges,” Brenner explains.) There, they collaborated on a white paper about the challenges entrepreneurs confront. Combining their findings with their love of cities led the business-savvy duo to launch Tumml. “We saw a lot of people talking about these issues, and we want to see more people actually going out there and tackling these challenges,” says Lein.

APPLY: Tumml is an NBCUniversal Foundation 21st Century Solutions grant winner. Apply to the 2016 program here.

During its four-month-long program, Tumml provides entrepreneurs with free office space, trainings and lectures and any other support they need to obtain seed funding. “Usually, we are the first outside person for these enterprises,” says Lein. “They are at a critical juncture, and they need help getting their business off the ground.” For ArtLifting specifically, the two women helped the nonprofit network with government personnel, investors and journalists.

 

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Applicants undergo a rigorous vetting process (Tumml’s acceptance rate rivals Harvard), and at first glance, there’s little commonality among participants. A handful create software platforms that make government work more efficiently: Sprokit helps corrections departments transition former inmates back into society by allowing agencies to share real-time data on a single platform, and Valor Water Analytics assists utilities conserve through meter technology. Several are social enterprises that benefit vulnerable populations: HandUp replaces panhandling by allowing those in need to crowdfund donations on a mobile app; WorkHands is a LinkedIn for tradesmen looking for work. And many simply ease the stress of urban life for city-dwellers: Farmery sells high-quality fresh food grown indoors, and Hitch (recently acquired by Lyft) allows passengers to carpool on ride-sharing apps. What unites the enterprises, however, is the belief that the markets can offer a solution when government or charitable services aren’t enough.

“Maybe two generations ago, if you wanted to solve a problem, you ran for office; maybe a generation ago, you ran a nonprofit or set up a group to lobby on behalf of the issues you care about,” says Brenner, Tumml’s CEO. Today, “the success of the entrepreneur presents a path forward to see a difference in their communities,” she continues. Her colleague Lein explains, “People see the power in taking the bull by the horns in a startup that directly addresses challenges. It’s a really powerful motivator to make the change that you want to see.”

After losing his job in 2009, Scott Benner personally experienced how the business, government and nonprofit sectors weren’t enough. Short-term gigs and unemployment checks couldn’t keep him afloat, and he was forced to enter the shelter system — shocked and enraged — with just a backpack of clothing.

But ArtLifting’s social enterprise seemed to provide a new, self-sustaining way to offer services to the homeless. Thanks to assistance from Tumml, ArtLifting has networked with government personnel and investors and has received media coverage. Benner’s drawings — explosive black-and-white symbols that repeat across the page — now hang in homes across the country. With his bank account replenished, he says his whole world-view has been changed by his interaction with ArtLifting. He wants to see more social enterprises like the ones Tumml fosters: “I would never think of running a business and not giving back anything now. I wasn’t callous and uncaring before, but I just didn’t entertain the idea. Today, it’s why not?” he says.

Currently, four out of five Americans live in urban areas, a figure that only continues to grow. Tumml’s co-founders recognize their importance to improving 21st century living, but Brenner stresses that no one can solve urban problems (homelessness, crime, overstressed infrastructure) on their own. “We need startups dedicated to solving the challenges that come with this massive population shift,” she says. Across the country, ambitious, young entrepreneurs are leading the charge for urban innovation, and Tumml is fueling the groundswell behind them.

Tumml is a recipient of last year’s 21st Century Solutions grant powered by the NBCUniversal Foundation, in partnership with the NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations. The grant celebrates nonprofits that are embracing innovative solutions to advance community-based programs in the areas of civic engagement, education, environment, jobs and economic empowerment, media, and technology for good. Apply here for a chance to be one of the 2016 winners!

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated where Benner’s artwork hangs, how Tumml provided assistance to ArtLifting and ArtLifting’s revenue and expenditures. NationSwell apologizes for the errors.

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