Together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Workers Lab has an exciting announcement. We have three winners whose ideas have won an investment from The Innovation Fund.
From March to April 2020, we issued an open call for applications to The Innovation Fund. This spring cycle was co-sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with a goal in mind. That goal: To invest in ideas that help workers build stability in their lives and create space for them to lead and drive change.
"Our hope in this application cycle was to better understand what innovations are out there reimagining the kinds of support workers lean on to make it all work," explains Tiffany Ferguson, program director at The Workers Lab. "That could mean services, tools, or programs - any range of ideas that, with an investment from The Innovation Fund, could make it easier for workers to access and use their full potential."
We called for Innovators with deep knowledge and proximity to the workers they serve, with new ideas to support workers when they needed it most. We found them:
The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program
Providing a pathway from California’s Fire Camps to dignified middle-class work in fire and forestry careers post-release.
Working with employers to ensure workplace policies support survivors seeking refuge from violence at home and their pursuit of being free.
Creating a tool that will make sure no worker ever turns down a raise for fear of losing their high-value public benefits.
Using their investment of $150,000 from this cycle of The Innovation Fund, each winning idea is poised to shed light on new tools and approaches to supporting workers who have long been left to fend for themselves and navigate confusing systems and processes. We are thrilled to partner with these Innovators who are helping to create the conditions workers need to thrive at work and beyond.
Please join us in congratulating our latest three winners of The Innovation Fund. Read more about them below.
The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program
In California, where The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP) is based, between 30 and 40 percent of the state's firefighters are part of a crew operated by the state's Department of Corrections.
But like a fireline can cut off fuel from a fire, a prison record can cut off a person's access to well-paying jobs, limiting their prospects for success in life after incarceration. Brandon Smith, FFRP's co-founder and executive director, saw an opportunity to create a pathway from incarceration to full-time employment as California firefighters.
Since 2018, FFRP has been helping incarcerated people turn their Correctional Conservation Camp work experience into post-release job offers. With investment from The Innovation Fund, FFRP will develop the next generation of Wildland Firefighters and Fuels Reduction workers.
"FFRP is extremely appreciative of being chosen in this cycle of The Innovation Fund! We are excited to partner with The Workers Lab," says Brandon. "This investment will allow us to scale our program model, providing the training and support needed to develop the workforce while reducing the effects of wildfires in California."
One in three women and one in two trans folks in the U.S. will experience severe intimate partner violence in their lifetime.
The number one reason survivors stay in - and return to - abusive situations is because they cannot afford safety. One of the biggest contributors to this financial insecurity is that 60 percent of survivors lose their job as a result of the abuse they have experienced.
Most survivors have to make the impossible choice between taking the time to get safe or keeping their job.
Sonya Passi, founder and CEO of FreeFrom, says, "Survivors of intimate partner violence need access to regular and stable employment so they can afford to leave, rebuild, and heal."
FreeFrom, a national organization based in Los Angeles, exists to create access to that kind of work for survivors. Using their investment from The Innovation Fund, FreeFrom will pilot a survivor-designed paid leave program - with employers - tailored to survivors' needs for flexibility, privacy, and confidentiality.
"We are excited to start a national conversation about survivors of intimate partner violence as a subset of workers that need tailored support," says Sonya about being selected to receive an investment from The Innovation Fund. "COVID-19 has drawn global attention to intimate partner violence. We have a window here to create some real systems change. Most funders want to invest in a solution once it’s already been proven, but The Workers Lab invests in innovation, not only providing funding but also sharing expertise, mentoring leaders, and amplifying their work. We feel confident that together we can transform workplaces into supportive environments for survivors."
One of the stubborn contributors to financial instability for low-wage workers is what is known as the benefits cliff. For many workers, accepting a pay raise, working longer hours, or adding another job can result in a loss of public benefits that sets them back financially. Advancing their career or growing their take-home pay can cost them so much that they're financially better off staying with the status quo.
In the absence of state or federal political will to solve this problem, Leap Fund has been innovating solutions.
What if, Leap Fund's founder, Karen Schoellkopf, asked, workers could predict when a benefits cliff would occur for them? And what if, she asked, there was a financial product for deferring workers' pay raises until they 'clear' the cliff?
With their investment from The Innovation Fund, Leap Fund will find out the answers to these questions, as they pilot these two digital programs with workers in New York City. Our shared hope and vision is that the problem-solving tools will create a path towards self-sufficiency and financial independence for workers held back by the cliff.
“Leap Fund is thrilled to accept this investment from The Innovation Fund and to begin working with The Workers Lab. We are eager to tap into the power of the talented cohort they've assembled, the worker-centered solution expertise and network of experts in their sphere, and to continue iterative learn-and-test cycles in our innovation process,” says Karen. “We will use the investment to focus on our employer-based financial solution, geared at helping folks get up and over the benefits cliff, and to embed our solution with organizations that need it most to meet this COVID-19 moment, where so many are reentering the workforce more financially unstable, and more reliant on public benefits than ever before.”
About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people - especially those with the fewest resources - have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, Washington, the foundation is led by CEO Mark Suzman and Co-chair William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.
About The Innovation Fund
Since its inception, The Workers Lab has sought to impact worker power with its signature investment program, The Innovation Fund. Since its founding, The Workers Lab has distributed over $3.5 million in grants to 46 innovators. Each cycle, we invite entrepreneurs, non-profits, and public and private sector leaders to submit innovative ideas to improve worker power. Winners receive $150,000 to test their solution and 12 months to evaluate its long term sustainability and potential for scale.
Do You Have an Innovation Ready for Investment?
Our next call for applications to The Innovation Fund will be in July 2020. Subscribe below to receive details.