We sat down for a chat with Beam founder and CEO Alex Stephany, to hear about using business to fix the future, the homelessness misconceptions he’d like to debunk, and the encounter that led to the creation of Beam.
Tell us about Beam. What do you guys do?
In a nutshell, Beam crowdfunds job training for homeless people so that they can get back on their feet and earn a living.
We’re partnered with registered charities and local authorities, who refer homeless people to us. They are then assigned a caseworker at Beam, who helps launch their crowdfunding campaign on our website. Once their campaign is live, members of the public donate and leave messages of support. We will then support each individual through training and into stable, paid work, keeping supporters updated along the way.
So far, we’ve crowdfunded job training for more than 180 homeless people in London, with 100% of campaigns fully funding within an average of 29 days.
We’re seeing a rise in the number of ‘tech for good’ startups trying to help a range of social and environmental problems – what made you guys decide to focus on homelessness?
Three years ago, I got to know a homeless man at my local Tube station. I’d buy him cups of coffee and pairs of thermal socks when it was getting cold. At one point, he disappeared for weeks on end. When he reappeared, he looked years older: he told me he’d had a heart attack and had just come out of hospital. Despite the well-meaning gestures from myself and no doubt others, he was in a worse position than ever.
So I began to ask myself what it would take to make a lasting difference to this man’s life. He had never had a job, and was illiterate. For me, the answer lay in empowering him with the skills and training needed to sustainably support himself. Of course, that would cost far more than coffees or socks – but what if everyone chipped in?
The idea of crowdfunding employment training for homeless people was born. Over the following nine months, I developed the model working with homeless people and charities. Beam launched in November 2017.
How did Beam go from idea to reality? What were the first steps towards getting it off the ground?
My professional background was tech not homelessness and I wanted to make sure I really understood the issues and the people experiencing them. So over more than 6 months, I met as many homeless people as I could and people working in charities from front-line caseworkers to CEOs. I built and tested this idea along with them until in November 2017 we were ready to launch! When we were covered by media all over the world, we knew we were onto something.
What are some misconceptions around homelessness that you’d like to debunk?
A lot of people relate homelessness to rough sleeping, but this is just one form of homelessness – albeit the most visible. In reality, rough sleeping accounts for only 2% of the homelessness figures. Lack of a permanent abode, living with friends or other temporary accommodation including shelters and B&Bs is actually the most common form of homelessness. This lack of stability makes it hard for people to focus on things like skills training or finding work.
Secondly, there are a number of misconceptions surrounding why people become homeless. Homelessness can happen for a multitude of complex reasons, and it’s important to understand the diversity among this group of people. Everyone on our platform has their own story and if you read just a few of them on the website you will realise that homelessness can happen to anyone.
At Beam, we’re trying to rectify this by creating an online support network for the people we’re helping. For example, when people donate, they often leave words of encouragement, which can be a massive confidence booster for individuals who may have struggled with self-worth. This is often just as important – if not more so – than the financial support they receive.
A lot of people have been helped through Beam but is there a story in particular of someone you’ve helped that stands out to you?
I’ll never forget Tony – the first person we helped, who wanted to train as an electrician. After his parents died, Tony found himself drinking and doing substances to cope. He forgot who he was and spent years in and out of prison.
When I met with him, he was sober and staying in a homeless hostel. I explained Beam to him and told him that we could help him raise the funds to become an electrician. He didn’t say anything throughout the whole meeting. Finally, he said “Can I ask one question?” I told him to go ahead. He said: “I don’t understand, why is anyone going to help me?” And I responded, “I can’t promise that they will, but I think people out there care about you, and I think Londoners have an untapped desire to help other Londoners move forward with their lives.”
Thankfully, I was right. We funded Tony’s campaign, he got his qualification, and today he is in work for the first time in about 20 years. His life has been transformed.
Tony now working as an electrician.
What’s the Beam business model? How do you balance profit with purpose?
Beam is a social enterprise, registered as Beam Up Ltd. We believe that setting up as a social enterprise is the best model to ensure our ongoing financial sustainability and to have the biggest possible social impact. However, 100% of donations are remitted directly to a registered UK charity, The Beam Foundation. This charity exists to help homeless people and other disadvantaged groups.
When people donate, 100% of their donation directly funds “campaign costs”. We believe this makes Beam one of the most efficient ways to support people experiencing homelessness in the world. Supporters also have the option to add “tips” when they donate, which go towards Beam’s running costs. However, 90% of our running costs are met by foundations and philanthropists.
We believe that homeless people are best served by a diversity of organisations and models, which is why we work with over 30 charities and local and central government. This is about choice for all people, including people who have not had much choice.
What are some challenges facing social enterprises that other businesses may not have to deal with?
The biggest challenge for Beam – and many other social impact businesses – is solving a problem that is far harder than the problems that many VC-backed businesses are solving, and doing so with much less money. That said, we have an amazing group of tech entrepreneurs, HNWs and foundations funding us, who have been loyal since day one. If people reading this are interested in helping to solve this issue, we’d be grateful if you could get in touch.
We saw that you spoke recently at an event about using business to fix the future. Why do you think that responsibility should lie with business?
We’ve seen in the last few decades that enterprise is the right model to innovate new technology-powered products and services – whether that’s the Apple or Samsung device we’re reading this on or the Netflix or Spotify content we might enjoy this evening. At Beam, we’re passionate about delivering innovation of that same quality to people who’ve experienced homelessness. The only difference is that we would never ask them to pay for it.
Are there any other social enterprises doing great work that we should all know about?
There are a growing number of mission-led businesses who are doing some truly meaningful work across a number of sectors. A few that spring to mind are:
- OLIO – leading the food waste revolution
- Bulb – my eco friendly electricity provider, using 100% renewable energy
- Oatly – my favourite drink and they’re also committed to sustainability on a big scale
What’s the long-term vision of Beam?
Beam is currently operating in London, but we have big ambitions to scale our business to more cities in the UK and further afield, including to the US. We’ve created a highly replicable model and we’ve already been contacted by a number of countries who are keen to adopt Beam. In the next five years, we also hope to be able to expand our services beyond just supporting homeless people. For example, supporting disadvantaged communities more widely, whether that’s single mums, ex-offenders, or people with disabilities and medical conditions. If you’re interested in joining us on our journey, please visit beam.org to find out how you can support us.
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