What Are ‘Political Entrepreneurs?’ This Guy Believes They’re the Heroes Who Will Disrupt Washington’s Gridlock

“Political entrepreneur” is a phrase NationSwell Council member Kahlil Byrd uses to describe nonprofit leaders and techies who are tackling America’s biggest problems “in a completely innovative, nontraditional, and entrepreneurial way.” And without a dose of partisanship.  

“Their bias is to create a tool, an idea or a process that will cut through the challenge,” Byrd wrote earlier this year in Forbes.

Byrd, a Republican, has been dedicated to cross-partisan policy reform for more than a decade. He’s worked with Massachusetts’ former governor Deval Patrick and Michelle Rhee, both Democrats. And during the 2012 presidential primary he ran Americans Elect, a startup that worked to get a bipartisan presidential ticket on all 50 state ballots. More recently, in the wake of the 2016 election, he’s noticed a new league of people across the political spectrum determined to reform American policy.

As he wrote in a December 2016 LinkedIn post, political entrepreneurs are “tackling the biggest issues that directly affect citizens’ lives [and] they refuse to accept the failure, division, and deadlock that dominates our politics.”

But as an investor with deep ties to the nonprofit and tech sectors, he knows firsthand the challenges his beloved “political entrepreneurs” face in getting the financing they need to transform their civic innovations into nonpartisan policies.  

“Even the best ideas — making it easier to vote, using data to connect citizens to Congress or deploying new talent into undervalued sectors like child welfare — have profound trouble finding the capital needed to scale,” the New York City–based Byrd says.

Taking action, Byrd co-founded the Invest America Fund, an advisory firm and seed fund that supports political entrepreneurs and matches them to what he says are “the business leaders, philanthropists and others who have already succeeded and want to spend their time and capital.”

Byrd and his co-founder, Kellen Arno, believe they are among the few investors focused on creating a financing pipeline for these types of policy innovators.

One organization they back is Foster America, a startup devoted to child welfare reform founded by Sherry Lachman, a foster child herself who later went on to serve as a policy adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. The nonprofit’s fellowship program recruits talent from the business, education, technology and health fields, and supports them in their efforts to transform child welfare policy.

Early success has led Foster America to double its impact, expanding from eight fellows in 2016 to 16 this year. By 2020, Foster America plans to have 50 fellows working with 25 child welfare agencies nationwide.

“We are trying to bring together two groups on opposite ends of the success curve: Political entrepreneurs on one end, and on the other, successful and creative funders who can provide growth financing,” says Byrd. “Entrepreneurs are still trying to prove worth — both their own and of their ideas. Funders have sustained success and know how to build value from the ground up. Both care deeply about the country.

Kahlil Byrd is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Invest America Fund, which provides seed money to entrepreneurs working on bipartisan policy reform.

The High-Tech Way Foster Youth Are Safeguarding Their Records (And Their Memories, Too)

Florida’s child welfare system shuttled Jay Schad to a new home every of couple months — roughly 25 placements in all. (He lost the exact count.) The most disruptive move sent him to a group home in Tallahassee, two hours east of Panama City, his hometown, and plopped him into a new high school. Already a month behind his classmates, the freshman attempted to make friends by trying out for the football team. But with many of his records back in Panama City, including his latest physical exam, the coaches couldn’t let him take the field. Eventually, Schad got the go-ahead from a local doctor and started playing. But the setback made him feel, as he says, “let down by the system.” Hadn’t the 14-year-old been through enough with his mother’s meth addiction, his father’s violence and dozens of destabilizing moves to have to worry about his personal papers?
Record-keeping, a seemingly bureaucratic task, poses a huge challenge for the nation’s 428,000 foster youth. Already struggling to keep up with their peers, these adolescents might not realize the need to preserve their important documents until it’s too late. Even if a diligent social worker does compile a binder, it might be lost in a hectic move, and in some states, there are extra hurdles for a teen who’s aged out of the system. This means most applications — whether for financial aid, a new job or housing — can be stymied simply because documents are missing.
Cloud-based technology, however, might have an answer for these teens. My JumpVault, a virtual storage locker, allows a foster kid to upload and protect their essential files, like a birth certificate, medical history and school transcripts. Developed by Five Points Technology Group (FPTG), a business headquartered in the Tampa suburb of Bradenton, Fla., and funded by the state, My JumpVault currently has about 7,000 users. The digital records it holds, maintained securely behind several layers of authentication, won’t disappear like hard copies might.
Former foster youth played a large role in building My JumpVault. In 2009, two 19-year-old former foster kids led a statewide campaign to streamline access to Florida’s child welfare records. (Previously, emancipated youth needed a judge’s order to see their case file.) After successfully pushing a bill through the legislature, they started to question what access truly meant. Even though they’d won the legal right to look at their papers, did adolescents truly have access if the process of obtaining a copy was so difficult? That’s when the young men — Thomas Fair, now a member of the design team, and Mike Williams, an assistant product manager — signed on with FPTG to advise the team behind My JumpVault and help code the nascent app.
Accessible by desktop or smartphone, an email address is all a teen needs to sign up for the service. Once they’ve locked the account with a password, they might log in to scan an important document they’ve just received or to locate an image, like Schad did eight months ago when applying for a waiter job at a restaurant. He’d misplaced his social security card, and his new manager told him he couldn’t clock in until he found it. Schad pulled up his electronic copy, and luckily, the boss accepted it.
To further ease the process, a couple of agencies recently partnered with FPTG to store files directly on My JumpVault’s servers. For example, Sunshine Health, the state’s Medicaid provider, lists a kid’s prior hospital visits and prescription medications. Soon, My JumpVault could integrate with the court system to track hearing dates and with local schools to keep report cards. “Tactically, it frees caseworkers up from having to provide documents over and over again in hard copy, and it puts youth in a better position for independence,” notes Chris Pantaleon, the company’s business development director.
In addition to vital records, one of My JumpVault’s unique features provides storage space for memories. Because foster children might have only one or two pictures of their birth parents, storing photos is the best way to preserve a sense of self. Without these keepsakes, “You don’t understand who you are,” says Williams, who knows the feeling firsthand. “It’s like having no identity.” That’s why they encourage users to add pictures, certificates and awards. Even if a foster kid is relocated to another home, one whose walls might be covered with family portraits, he can take comfort in his own background and family roots, too.
Another powerful feature, which Fair pushed to include within the app, is a series of guides to help foster youth navigate difficult situations. These worksheets might list the names of all service providers in a metro area, provide instructions on applying for food stamps or explain the types of questions employers ask in an interview.
Schad knows there are plenty of issues still plaguing the foster care system. But at least with My JumpVault’s storage in the cloud, those kids don’t have to worry about whether paperwork might hold them back.


This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

Bringing Foster Care Into the 21st Century

Since 1869, The New York Foundling has helped foster children and at-risk families. Established by the Sisters of Charity, the organization has expanded its programs and services to respond to the city’s greatest needs. It now serves more than 27,000 children, families and other individuals each year with educational and vocational programs as well as mental health and family support services.
But The New York Foundling’s newest initiatives tackle the digital divide. The Digital Inclusion Program, launched in 2015, provides basic tech education, free laptops and five years of internet service to foster kids between the ages of 12 and 19.  The Foundling’s Tech Workforce Development Program, for ages 18 and up, selects promising youth from among 15 area foster-care agencies and enrolls them in tech-training programs at Per Scholas, Year Up or General Assembly.
“These youth are very capable,” says Olivia Jones, the tech program coordinator for The New York Foundling. “They just need a chance to prove it.”
Check out the above video to learn about one foster youth’s journey toward a fulfilling career in software development.

Overcoming a Difficult Childhood, This Former Marine Is on a Mission to Help Others

After growing up near Chicago and bouncing around five different group homes and 13 foster families, Tina Thomas found the stability and sense of belonging that she lacked by enlisting in the Marines when she was 18 years old.
“Growing up in the foster care system left me feeling empty and incomplete,” she tells Rich Polt of Talking Good.
Thomas was inspired to serve after working as a peer mentor at a summer camp for children who’d been victims of abuse. Thomas, too, suffered physical and sexual abuse during her years in the foster care system, but she never lets it define her. “If I’m a victim of sexual trauma and foster care, the statistics say I’m supposed to be a certain way. But I’m me…I’m not a number,” she says.
Thomas mentored kids at the summer camp every year until its funding was eliminated, an experience that made her realize, “I wanted to make an impact on people’s lives.”
For four years, Thomas served in the Marines before struggling to find a civilian job. Finally, she landed in Washington, D.C., where she works for the Federal Aviation Administration as an administrative assistant.
The 34-year-old Thomas has never stopped serving others and is now a member of The Mission Continues’ DC 1st Service Platoon, a nonprofit that organizes veterans to solve problems and help others in their community. “All of this service work provides me with structure and growth. It keeps me motivated and gets me out there so that I can continue to make a difference,” she says.
Even though she had little support growing up, Thomas continues to be a shining example of the impact one individual can make through a commitment to service. She tells Polk she hopes her legacy will be “that even at my lowest points in life, I’ve still reached out to help others to lift them higher.”
MORE: Salute the Nonprofit that Helps Vets Continue to Serve When They Return Home

These Seniors Needed Affordable Housing, and These Kids Needed Love. Together, They’re Beautifully Solving Both Problems

In Portland, Ore., there’s an idea so innovative that it has managed to bring together two sets of people with different problems — and solve them for both.
Welcome to the Bridge Meadows housing development, which helps elders and kids by providing a supportive environment for families that adopt foster kids alongside 27 units of affordable housing for seniors who agree to pitch in for 10 hours a week to help out with the kids. It’s a solution to a problem you don’t hear about often on the news: According to the PBS News Hour, 15 percent of seniors in America live below the poverty line, which often makes them struggle to find affordable housing. Meanwhile, families who adopt foster children face their own difficulties, as they are pressed for time, money and support.
Jackie Lynn, 60, is in the process of adopting her niece’s children because both of their drug-addicted parents are in jail. She works full time and felt she wasn’t able to give the kids the attention they needed until they moved to Bridge Meadows. Her family is partnered with neighbors Jim and Joy Corcoran, the “elders” who volunteer to spend time with the kids. “They are the reason that we thrive,” Lynn told Cat Wise of the PBS NewsHour. “Jim takes the boys every Sunday morning for about three hours. And they come home excited, with all these wonderful stories. You see children running up to them and giving them hugs. It’s just incredible to watch it.”
Meanwhile, the Corcorans experienced financial trouble after Jim lost his construction job, but now they live comfortably at Bridge Meadows with a $500 monthly rent payment. Joy Corcoran told Wise, “It was really difficult to find any decent housing that we could afford in any regard. And so when we had the opportunity to move here, it was just a godsend. It was like a huge relief.”
Bridge Meadows is funded by rents and donations from corporations and the community, and it provides a myriad of ways for kids and elders to interact every week. Elders lead story times, teach music lessons, tutor kids in school subjects, give them lifts to school and more. Derenda Schubert, the executive director of Bridge Meadows, said that there have been a few families who moved in and found the togetherness a bit too much, but for most of them it’s a perfect fit, and several seniors reported that their health improved through so much interaction. “Connections across the generations is critical, absolutely critical for aging well,” Jim Corcoran told Wise.
Plenty of people agree with Jim — which is why another intergenerational housing development like Bridge Meadows is currently under construction in Portland. But there’s good news for those who don’t live in Oregon, too: The staff of Bridge Meadows is consulting with people across the country who want to start their own such housing projects.
MORE: These Startups Offer Sleek Technological Innovations for the Elderly

This Inspirational Newscaster Wouldn’t Give Up on Finding This Foster Boy a Home

For 25 years, retiring newscaster Gloria Campos has profiled foster children who were waiting to be adopted in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on the “Wednesday’s Child” television segment at WFAA-TV. Campos estimates that, over the years, she has featured more than 350 children, 75 percent of whom were adopted thanks to her reporting. But of all those children, there was one young boy whose story she would not soon forget — that of Ke’onte Cook.
In 2007, Campos featured spunky, well-spoken, 8-year-old Ke’onte on her program. He was adopted shortly after the segment, but unfortunately it didn’t work out and he went back into the foster care system, where he bounced from home to home. After learning about his unfortunate situation, Campos featured Ke’onte again in August 2009. This time, Carol and Scott Cook were watching, and they knew that Ke’onte was meant to be their son.
MORE: Foster Kids Need One Thing to Succeed in School. A Former Teacher’s Goal Is to Give It to Every Single One
“I’d like to say thank you for putting him on the second time,” Carol Cook told WFAA in a tribute video made for Campos in advance of her retirement last week. “Because not only did you bring us the child that God wanted us to have — and we wouldn’t have seen him otherwise — but you’ve also helped him touch millions through him being able to talk about his story.”
Since being adopted by the Cooks, Ke’onte’s life has turned around. Two years ago, he spoke before Congress about his four years in the foster care system, telling them that he was over-medicated with mind-altering drugs. Now, the 14-year-old is off medication completely. He’s an avid runner and hiker, and hopes to study broadcasting, like his hero, Gloria Campos.
ALSO: Meet the “Million-Dollar Scholar” Who Wants to Help Other Disadvantaged Kids Pay for College
Last week, Ke’onte surprised Campos with an emotional on-air reunion, walking on the set and giving her a big hug as a thank you for helping him find his loving parents. The resulting video, which you can watch below, is an absolute tearjerker. (Better grab the tissues now!) “I want to say to her thank you so much, because you’ve made my life worthwhile and you’ve helped me become the person that I am right now,” Ke’onte said in the video tribute. “I probably would have been worse off had you not helped me out.” Kudos to you, Gloria Campos!
DON’T MISS: When These Kids Couldn’t Afford a Hot Lunch, This Hero Stepped Up