05.28.24
Richard Buery | Audio

S11E4: Richard Buery and Robin Hood Are Building a Coalition to Tackle Poverty in NYC


Robin Hood is New York City’s largest poverty-fighting organization. But their 2024 Annual Poverty Tracker Report, released in February, revealed an unwelcome new trend: nearly 500,000 more New Yorkers lived in poverty in 2022 than in the year prior. Now, some 23% of the city is considered poor, including nearly a quarter of the city’s children.

But Robin Hood CEO Richard Buery says the organization is using these grim statistics as an urgent call to action to make New York better for all New Yorkers. In 2023 alone, Robin Hood invested $129 million in 200 carefully selected poverty-fighting organizations.

In this episode of DB|BD, Buery sits down with Ellen McGirt and Jessica Helfand to discuss the alarming uptick in New Yorkers living in poverty, the migrant crisis, the organization’s new focus on AI as a potential tool, and how great coalitions are built.

For Buery, the only way to win is if everyone gets to play.

“And what I love about this place is that we do bring people together to tackle big solutions. And I do think it's something that this institution is very good at,” Buery says. “Sometimes it’s sort of seeing what happens when you bring the people together: the person who has lived experience in poverty, the person with a lot of money and just wants to help, the government official who can make decisions that can drive a large number of dollars, the social entrepreneur who have an idea, and the school leader. When you bring all these people together, I mean, you can do amazing things. You can build effective institutions, you can transform lives. And I do think at the end of the day, that's what Robin Hood does.”

Later in the episode, we will hear from Cara Eckholm, a fellow at Cornell’s Urban Tech Hub. She’ll share her thoughts on why urban innovation must include technology and how AI fits into the urban renewal puzzle.

On this season of DB|BD, co-hosts Jessica Helfand and Ellen McGirt are observing equity by highlighting the “redesigners” — people who are addressing urgent problems by challenging big assumptions about how the world can and should work — and who it should work for.

This season of DB|BD is powered by Deloitte.

To learn more about Robin Hood, visit their website.

Robin Hood’s 2024 Poverty Tracker

Learn more about Robin Hood’s A.I. Challenge.

To explore Daniella Zalcman’s photography, visit her website and revisit this 2019 DB|BD episode.

Women Photograph Database

Follow The Design of Business | The Business of Design on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app.

Episodes are produced by Design Observer’s editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the episodes.



Transcript

Richard Buery What I love about this place is that we do bring people together to tackle big solutions, and I do think it's something that this institution is very good at. For the— what I love sometimes is just seeing happens when you bring those people together, the person with lived experience in poverty and the person with a lot of money and just wants to help, and the government official who can make decisions that can drive a large number of dollars, and the social entrepreneur who have an idea, and the school leader, when you bring all these people together, I mean, you can do amazing things. You can build effective institutions, you can transform lives. And I do think at the end of the day, that's what Robin Hood does.

Ellen McGirt Welcome to the Design of Business,

Jessica Helfand The Business of Design.

Ellen McGirt Where we introduce you to people from all over the world, from different industries and disciplines,

Jessica Helfand You are here to talk about design, business, civility, and the values that govern how we work and live together.

Ellen McGirt This season we are observing equity.

Jessica Helfand I'm Jessica Helfand.

Ellen McGirt And I'm Ellen McGirt. This episode of The Design of Business  The Business of Design is powered by Deloitte's DEI Institute. Deloitte believes that bold actions can help drive equitable outcomes, and conversations like this can fuel the change needed to continue to build a more equitable society. Visit Deloitte's DEI Institute site at Deloitte dot com slash U.S. slash DEI Institute for more of their research and perspectives on equity. Later on, we'll hear from Kwasi Mitchell, Deloitte's Chief purpose and DEI officer.

Hey, Jessica, how are you doing?

Jessica Helfand I am doing well. Ellen, how are you doing?

Ellen McGirt I am doing well too. I am doing well too. It's good to be back with you.

Jessica Helfand Good to be back with you. You know, I was thinking, you're a New Yorker,

Ellen McGirt Yeah.

Jessica Helfand And I know you don't live in New York full time anymore, but you still spend quite a bit of time there. More time than people might even know, given that you were on the road quite a bit. What comes to mind for you when you think of New York City circa 2024?

Ellen McGirt You know, it's so sweet to still call me a New Yorker, right? It's in my blood. It's in my it's in my family lines — fifth generation on my mom's side. But I think a lot these days about being a young creative, just starting out after college, you know, that sense that anything seemed possible and you are joining a conversation already happening everywhere. I grew up with hip hop. You know, I grew up with all these new voices. And even in the face of like, the main crisis, I grew up with, the AIDs epidemic, I could I always felt like I could find a community. I could find hope, the sense that you could go out and just meet somebody and have a great idea. And I am not sure that's true anymore. I'm thinking that some of the big problems that New York is facing is making that kind of plugging in harder than ever. And speaking of creative vibe, Jessica, you are in a wonderful phase of your life and you're zipping back and forth to the city, you know, to your gallery with your paintings. And I'm curious how it all feels for you. What's been top of mind for you? What are you observing?

Jessica Helfand I love the fact that there's this tiny world within the world of New York, which is the gallery world, which is new to me. So I, you know, I knew the agency world. I knew the design studio world. I knew something of the real estate-. My children were both born in New York. I haven't lived there in 25 years, but now I have the sort of beeline to the city and in particular to Chelsea. And it has a really interesting, you know, it's a very international part of the city, you hear-hear lots of different languages spoken when you're going up in the elevators to these galleries. But it strikes me as a very rarefied pocket of the city, because then, of course, you get out. And it's the same in Los Angeles, you know. You see the big, expensive pieces of real estate, and then you see the encampments on Skid Row. Well, there's the homelessness, the poverty that, you know, you read the New York Times every day. And you see, even if you're not zipping back and forth on Amtrak, as I have been, so you rightly observe, I think it's really hard to miss the fact that the city, the contours of the city are changing and the influx of new and really fragile life. These young families who are moving from shelter to shelter. That's why I think paying attention to the things that are actually less appealing. A designers have a notorious, I think, ability to only see the shiny. And I think the, the underbelly of that city is what we really, you know, if we're really are observing equity, if we really are observing urbanism and struggle and growth and the world in this moment, which is complicated in the best of times, in the worst of times, and certainly in a political year like this. It's a minefield. I think we have to pay attention to things that maybe aren't pretty, but are extremely necessary.

Ellen McGirt It's beautifully said, which is one of the reasons why I'm so happy that our our guest today is spending a lot more time thinking about these things, and then a really interesting and effective ways. Today's redesigner is Richard Buery, the CEO of Robin Hood. It's an organization on a mission to elevate New Yorkers out of poverty. In 2023 alone, Robin Hood invested 129,000,000 in 200 carefully selected poverty fighting organizations. And these organizations. To your point, Jessica, do just about everything from fighting food and housing insecurity to supporting quality education and providing workforce development all of the things that are necessary if human beings, wherever they're plugging into the system, can live and thrive.

Jessica Helfand I mean 200 poverty fighting organizations, it's- really the mind just reels when you think about the diversification of that outreach. I was interested, you know, that the history of this organization, Robin Hood, was founded in 1988, so it's not that old just celebrated its 35th anniversary. Richard took over as CEO in 2021, and he's only the second CEO of the foundation taking over for current Maryland governor, Wes Moore. One of the things Robin Hood has become known for in these past 35 years is its annual poverty tracker, a brilliant idea, a longitudinal study which since 2012 has checked in on the same 4000 families quarterly to determine a realistic, dynamic snapshot of poverty in New York City. We spoke to Richard a few weeks after Robin Hood released its 2024 Poverty Tracker report in February. And unfortunately, Ellen, the results indicate that New York is in fact at a crisis point.

Pedro Rivera, ABC Eyewitness News New at noon an eye opening new report about child poverty in New York City, according to a study by Columbia University and Robin Hood, 1 in 4 children in New York City lived in poverty in 2022.

Brian Lehrer, WNYC You may have seen Richard Berry's or Robin Hood's name in the news this week for the report they just released, along with the Poverty Tracker Research group at Columbia University, that found a shocking recent increase in poverty in the city. 500,000 more New Yorkers in poverty in 2022 than the year before, they say.

Jessica Formoso, Fox5 News Disturbing new report is out shedding light on homelessness among children in New York City public schools.

Fox5 News Anchor Yeah, the numbers show 1 in 9 kids were displaced last year.

Kendall Green, Fox 5 News 119,320 students in New York City, a far less visible group facing homelessness, could fill Yankee Stadium twice, according to a recently published report.

Ellen McGirt That's real data, and the standout statistic from this year's tracker is alluded to in those clips. But here it is in full: In 2022, nearly 500,000 more New Yorkers lived in poverty than the year prior. And by percentage, that's 23% of adult New Yorkers and 25% of the city's children lived in poverty in 2022.

Jessica Helfand That's a quarter of the children in New York City, right?

Ellen McGirt Yeah.

Jessica Helfand Okay, listeners, we're trying to, take a moment here and breathe together.

Ellen McGirt Yeah.

Jessica Helfand Let's all breathe together. We want to reassure you that this episode is not all doom and gloom, but that is a staggering statistic.

Ellen McGirt It is. And it's not all doom and gloom, but you can't get to the to the bloom.

Jessica Helfand No, there's no light without shadow. We know this, right? It's it's hard.

Ellen McGirt You have to look. And that's why the data collection and you thinking about what you can learn by investing in 200 organizations, like what that data map looks like. But this is the beauty. Also to your point, Jessica, of a season focused on redesigners, Richard Buery and the Robin Hood team are constantly testing creative solutions and new collaborations that will lift New Yorkers out of poverty and do it sustainably. He doesn't see those stats that we just named as a foregone conclusion, but rather an urgent call to action to make New York better for all New Yorkers and everybody who visits and everybody who loves New York.

Jessica Helfand And-and Robin Hood knows how to build a coalition. I mean, this year, for example, they're collaborating with the tech world in hosting an AI Poverty Challenge that will award $1 million to three AI solutions fighting poverty in the United States. He's going to tell us more, Richard will, about this challenge and his potential during a conversation.

Ellen McGirt I commend Richard and Robin Hood for pointing tech towards solutions for real people in real crises. This topic of tech solutions driving meaningful change for city dwellers is something Jessica and I are really interested in. So, listeners, you're getting a two for one today, as in two interviews about urban innovation. Later in the episode, we will hear from Cara Eckholm, a fellow at Cornell's Urban Tech Hub. She'll share her thoughts on why urban innovation must include technology and how AI fits into the urban renewal puzzle. But up first, here's our conversation with Richard Buery, the CEO of Robin Hood.

Jessica Helfand For those who don't know, those of our listeners who don't know, what is the Robin Hood Foundation? Could you talk to us a little bit about its mission and who it serves and how maybe how many people it reaches?

Richard Buery Robin Hood's mission is to fight poverty in New York City. And we've been doing it for 35 years, where the largest philanthropy focused on, poverty fighting in New York. And every year we invest in hundreds of organizations that are at the forefront of feeding the hungry, housing the unhoused, educating young people, taking people to jobs. What really sets our work apart is that we invest in the highest impact, most effective organizations, that we can find. And we work to make those organizations stronger and better, you know, make sure that we do any cooking that they  needed, helping to build their boards, helping them improve their practices in relation to have, evidence of impact that seem to be actually moving people permanently out of poverty. Given the outcome of the achieve, making sure that the organization can thrive. And then we work with government as well, we take the program that work best, the policies that work best, to work with government to make sure that government is doing more and more evidence based practice. More and more work is designed to actually help people, embrace, and benefit from opportunity.

Ellen McGirt So we have a long list of questions to ask you about your, poverty tracker report and also about your- how you manage your metrics, which is fascinating. But I did want to spend a little time about how you got to Robin Hood. And I know that you have a sort of an extraordinary resume, but you could have made a different choice to go in a variety of directions at any point in time. And as a fifth generation New Yorker on my mother's side, I'm, I thank you for focusing on the needs of my beautiful city. You were most immediately in city government. What was that transition like?

Richard Buery Well, first of all, it's very nice of you to say and, fifth generation New York does this mean you're not here anymore?

Ellen McGirt I am back and forth. I married into Saint Louis, so it's a it's a it's a I represent out here now /laughs.

Jessica Helfand /Laughs

Richard Buery Okay. I was about to say something nasty about Saint Louis, which I'm sure it's a lovely place. But like all New Yorkers, we believe New York is the best place on the earth.

Ellen McGirt The best place.

Richard Buery So, you know, I actually didn't come to Robin Hood directly from government. I spent a few years working directly in the charter sector, leading a leading a charter management organization, charter school organization before coming to Robin Hood. But, you know, I've been involved in Robin Hood for years. But initially as a grantee. And so, you know, I'm somebody who is very lucky. I figured out pretty early how I wanted to spend my life and my time, and that was really, working with children and families in New York City to make sure that, you know, everybody in New York City had the same kind of opportunity, that my sisters and me  had the opportunity that too many young people don't. So I've been doing some version of this work since I was in college. And several years ago, starting a nonprofit in East New York, Brooklyn, where I grew up, working with families in public housing, Robin Hood was an early funder of ours, invested in us as a small startup that was trying to figure out what to do. And so I've always, really admired, Robin Hood's  ability to invest in people and new ideas that we're trying to trying to break the cycles of poverty for people. And I've always really appreciated, Robin Hood's focused on results and impact. And I think too often, and I don't mean this in a bad way, but I think too often people who are doing work, it's very it can be easy to be satisfied with trying your best and working hard and, you know, I definitely believe in trying your best and working hard. But for people who are struggling for whom the American dream has never been more than a dream, people need more than hard work and best of intention. They need interventions that work. If you're, unhoused, you need a program that's going to connect you and place you in affordable housing that is safe, that you're going to be able to stay in. If you are, if you are trying to get a job that pays a living wage, that allows you to provide for your family, you need a program that is going to train you, and  placing you into a job that you can keep and that  will allow you to grow and build a career. At 14 years old, I mean, you need more than teachers who mean well. You need a school that's effective. It's going to teach you the skills, academic, social and otherwise, to graduate from school and to get your degree and to enter, pursue higher education or join the workforce.

Jessica Helfand I think the blessing is for Robin Hood, having you on board to help, be the shepherd for this important work. I want to dig into your background a little bit. I'm always interested in stories like this about people like you who are so, committed to something that is complicated and overwhelming and important and really, really hard. And to listen to you talk about the things that you were inspired by. I wonder what was it like to be little Richard growing up where you did and you talked about going to college — at what point in college or even before college did you start to think about these things, and what did you study in college, and who shepherded you through college to get to the stepping stones that led you to where you are now?

Richard Buery I'm too busy imagining myself as Little Richard now—

Ellen McGirt I am too!

I had to say it. Sorry, I was trying to find another way —

Ellen McGirt [in the style of Little Richard] OWWW

Jessica Helfand But hey

Richard Buery I'll take it, you know,.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand /Laughs.

Richard Buery Who shepherd me through college? Well, I have to say, you know, I'm really lucky. We- my parents are Richard and Olivia Buery. They are immigrants from Panama. They came to New York in the 60s, and they came, looking for opportunity because they wanted to build a life that they knew was possible here. That wouldn't be possible there. And, and at least for my sister and I, they were able to make the American dream come true. You know, we grew up in, in East New York, Brooklyn, which is a-a high poverty community in the eastern part of Brooklyn, near the Queens border. Could be a chall- could be a challenging place to grow up sometimes— a beautiful place, you know, great neighbors who, you know were like family to me, but also a challenging place with, high crime and failing schools. I was really lucky, you know, my mom was a public school teacher for, I think, 37 years. She taught at East New York High School — East New York  Vocational and Technical High school, in our neighborhood. We, we had great education. We, went to a middle school in Bushwick, Brooklyn, another low income neighborhood called I.S. 383, it's a school for gifted and talented students, all Black and Latino public school, and my sisters and I all went there. My godfather, Roy Prescott, who also, the immigrant, taught there, I think that how we knew about the school. And was able to pass the test to get into Stuyvesant, which for people who are in New York is one of, a specialized high school in New York and exam high school and one of the top high schoosl in the country. So I was really lucky to have an educational journey, that, set me up for success, but unfortunately was not the norm educational journey for young people growing up in East New York, Brooklyn in the 70s and 80s. And so, you know, for me, I would say, how I got into this work in part, I mean part of it was just luck, you know, just, had a friend who invited me to come volunteer, at an after school program in a housing project in Roxbury and just went with a friend and some-something to do with a friend, and, fell in love with that work. Wound up, you know, volunteering there 3 or 4 days a week during my freshman year of high school and going to the housing development after school, helping kids with their homework, taking them on field trips on Saturdays. And when I got back to school after my freshman year of college, when I came back to to college, wound up, you know, talking to the kids, asking them how their summer went and only to find out that the kids hadn't done anything with their summers, and they just sort of hung out. Didn't have anything productive to do. So, decided to start a summer camp with a few friends for those kids that we started the next summer, started working with, I want to say about 30 kids that for summer, spent eight weeks reading with them, taking them on field trips, take them camping. We took them to New York for a week and crowded into my, my parent's, small house in East New York, and, just fell in love with that work, fell in love with the work with kids who also fell in love with the idea of, looking at a challenge and by the in the community who cared about these kids who are these amazing kids who would fall in love with-who I'd fall in love with, who didn't have anything to do that summer, just sort of fell in love with the idea of being able to do something about that. Like, you know, you didn't have to just say: Oh, that's too bad and go about your business. You could raise some money. You could get, you know, a Harvard med school to give us classroom space. We can get the Boston Housing Authority to give us an apartment that we can live in for the summer, so we can be close to the kids, and we could figure out how to take them camping. We could figure out how to write a curriculum. And so that problem solving,  was something that I fell in love with, and it wound up being very meaningful for me because I think that, like a lot of kids, probably who had the experiences growing up that I did, but then also had this sort of elite educational experience and opportunity. The sort of gap between what I was experiencing and what I knew most kids from East New York were experiencing, was something that caused me a lot of guilt and anxiety. Made me sad. It made me angry. And so this program, this opportunity, this community Mission Hill Housing in Roxbury really came to me at, at a really important time because it took what could have been something that would have just been a source of anger and allowed me to turn it into something productive.

Ellen McGirt Ah Richard you have me so in my feels right now, I, I know that you led the Children's Aid Society for a while, and my father, worked there for- when I was growing up.

Richard Buery Oh, wow. Where?

Ellen McGirt It was on the East Side. We grew up on 107th Street, but he worked on the East side and also Uptown. So this would have been the 60s and 70s. I just found a news clipping of him. He created a jobs program for Black-Black youth, Black male youth in the 50s and 60s, and. But he ran the summer program in Wallkill.

Richard Buery Oh, wow.

Ellen McGirt And I spent every summer as a kid in the 60s till I was ten, with-with the kids that you loved and that you were angry for. And he was angry for. And my mom ran the theater program there, which is actually how they met. So, I was a result of a long summer first date. It was- and maybe the only good thing that happened in their messy marriage was me. /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand /Laughs. I'll second that.

Ellen McGirt Goodness. But I, I think about those summers a lot, and I think about those kids a lot. And I think about, you know, how lucky I got and how, how just even, like, interviews like this are moments like this where I get to speak to the potential of love and anger. But I was really alarmed that your annual poverty tracker report, which measures the need in the city and citywide poverty— I'm talking about New York City— had the largest single year increase in the poverty rate since the study began in 20- 2012. Could you tell us a little bit about what was going on there and what we should take away from that?

Richard Buery Absolutely. So, as you said, we one of the things that we do at Robin Hood, again, trying to really understand the nature of poverty and how it's lived in New York, that we, have a group of New Yorkers that we follow over time, that every few months we interview a group of New Yorkers and ask them about their experiences, like: What are they going through? What challenges are they facing? And that is the basis of the poverty tracker. So, as you said, our most recent data shows that, and this is-the it's just released recently, but it's out of the data lag, so we're looking at data from 2022. And that from 2021 to 2022, the amount of people living in poverty in New York City increased, from 1.5 million New Yorkers to 2 million New Yorkers. And 1 in 4 children in New York City live in poverty. 25%. So it's 2 million New Yorkers. And and even that understates, the number of New Yorkers who are experiencing challenges and experiencing hardship, because one of the things we do in our survey, we don't only ask what your income is, we ask, or do you worry about buying food like: Did you- were you able to get enough money to buy food, by the end of last month? Did you have to-did you not go to the doctor when you were sick because you weren't- you didn't know if you could pay? So we're we're looking at measures of hardship. Were you able to pay your utilities? Did you run out of money this month? And what that shows is that, if you live within 200% of the poverty line and if you live at double the poverty line and that, for a family of four in New York is $88,000 roughly, we use something called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which I can explain. So you know that not a, you know, a modest income, but not, $88,000 a year. You are twice as likely to experience material hardship than for families who live above the poverty line. And that's 56% of New Yorkers. So what that means is that most of our neighbors are struggling. Most of our neighbors, are struggling with how they're going to pay their rent or, go to the doctor or put food on the table or pay their phone bill or pay their light bill, even if they're not technically living in poverty. So it's, it's a grim reminder of the nature of the challenge and the last thing I'll say —  happy to talk more about it — that-the, one of the main thing would have driven the increase in the poverty rate driven the increase of material hardship is public policy. It's literally because — this rise in poverty follows historic reduction in poverty and those historic reductions in poverty were because, during the pandemic, policymakers in DC and Albany, did the right thing. They expanded the child tax credit. They expanded unemployment insurance. They had an eviction moratorium here in New York. All these things wound up reducing the poverty rate. So we had real time examples of how smart government policies can help keep people out of poverty, and especially keep children out of poverty. We know how vulnerable children are and what, the adverse life experiences that are connected to poverty can do to young people — brain development in a way that lasts throughout their lifetime. But we knew better and we did better. And yet, as the pandemic has receded from memory, all those investments were temporary. And now as they have started to, return to pre-pandemic levels, what we see is poverty ballooning. And especially in a place like New York, where the cost of living is so high, where affordability is such a crisis driven by things like childcare and housing, which are just beyond the pocketbook reach of too many New Yorkers, we see this crisis where most New Yorkers are experiencing material hardship.

Jessica Helfand I'm always impressed by anyone who can solve a problem of such urgency with the kind of, multi-disciplinary thinking that you must have to use to get through, these tracker reports and the understanding of the impact and what to do next. I mean, this is really an example of changing the wheels on the bus while the bus is moving. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit— you mentioned the pandemic, Richard, I wonder if you could talk about how the migrant situation-migrant crisis and certainly immigration, how quickly and complicated it is to track that, how that impacts your work?

Richard Buery Yeah. So since, I guess May of 2022, we've had, I believe, the most recent number of 181,000 migrants come to New York. Central America, South America, Asia, Africa. Our shelter population has ballooned, I think, from 45,000 — I think at the start of the Adams administration, I believe the number is about 120,000 now. So, so really, massive strains on the social safety net. So it's clearly a crisis. But, you know, there's a way in which, you know, we can look at a challenge like that, that an opportunity. I don't I don't mean to be flippant about the human suffering, but, you know, but what we can try to do in New York is to try to build an infrastructure, to meet the needs of the people of New Yorkers, whether there have been New Yorkers for ten years or whether they've been New Yorkers for ten minutes. And so I think we have an opportunity and a responsibility, to be what the Statue of Liberty says we are. And I don't, you know, again, I- would be easy to be pollyannaish about this. It's a really complicated, financially complicated, it's complicated from a service delivery perspective, but we have no choice but to stand up and be the people that we are. And so what I am, encouraged about is, that New Yorkers are doing that. You know, foundations and business and government leaders, even though there's tons of things that we all disagree on, but we really do see a lot of energy coming together to try to figure out how to solve these problems. And, it's very easy to get overwhelmed by the negative talk, but, I just-I just think in all these things it's-it's never productive and never helpful to be overwhelmed. You know, the what we can do with the try to do better. Try our best to push ourselves, to be humane, to be smart, to be, intentional. I think that what we're doing here in New York.

Ellen McGirt I appreciate that. As you were talking, it sort of occurred to me, this is an election year. It's going to be a very crazy year. We are coming to this election conversation and the voting- and voting at a time when voting rights are under attack. And we've politicized, in a really ugly way, poverty and race and inclusion. And it's really tough. And it occurs to me, as you were talking, that the poverty tracker report in the hands of voters, in the hands of advocates, whether in New York or anywhere in the country, could really use this as, as a platform, as a jumping off point to have richer conversations. The same is true of the metrics that you collect on what programs are effective and why, and —how should our listeners start thinking about the information you're collecting and the investments that you're making as a blueprint? Or as a research and development tool? Or as an advocacy tool?

Richard Buery Yeah. Well, look, I do think it's absolutely important to start with data. And we know that data isn't enough. But you do have to start with data and information. Part of the work, I think, is figuring out how do you communicate data in a way that people can understand, that people can process, that speaks to people's value, that speaks to the humanity, which I think is at the- lives in, you know, 99.9% of us, who who really do just want to do the right thing by them, by by other people. But also than using that data as the anchor of public policy advocacy. Right, so once you have a data, then you have to get people to respond with it. To respond to the data you have to engage elected officials, community organizations, to advocate for policies that is reinforced by that data. I think that's a lot of what we do. So, you know, we, we fund best in class program that I said, but we also fund advocates, other than trying to take with information and say to the government: We know that A works. We know that B doesn't work. So why are we spending so much money on B when we should be spending money on A. And so I think part of our job is to empower the advocates to take that data, and to go to, decision makers to make sure that more and more we invest in programs that work, and to highlight organizations and institutions that are really doing a fantastic job. And the one thing about New York City, I'm sure other cities can say the same, you know, we are just filled with organizations that are truly doing amazing work. I think about it- I think about our City University of New York here, quarter million students, in all of its programs across all of its campuses. This is a university where I think five of the top ten colleges around the country that are shown to be opportunity engines, these are schools that move people from poverty to the middle class — I think five of the ten are CUNY campuses. Right, you know, there are, institutions that are really doing the work. And part of our job is to make sure they have the resources and the support to keep doing it. And also to invest in, you talk about data, but we also invest in things that don't necessarily have data yet because it's an interesting idea and a great leader, and it's certainly built on, it's built on the model that that would seem to make sense based on what we know, but it's also about investing in those newly, if not new ideas of new institutions as well. And so we we try to do all of those things.

Ellen McGirt I'm here with Kwasi Mitchell, Deloitte's chief purpose and DEI officer and good friend and sponsor of today's episode. Good to see you, Kwasi. Thank you for joining us.

Kwasi Mitchell It's good to be here, Ellen.

Ellen McGirt There's lots of conversations about the business community's ability to redesign the world at large. What are you seeing there?

Kwasi Mitchell I am incredibly excited here because a shift that's occurred is the drive for collective action. Several years ago, you would see these bold pronouncements of what one individual organization was trying to do to change the world. Now you have so many activities that are taking place that are pulling together leaders in coalitions to address things such as providing family sustaining careers for those who perhaps do not have four year college degrees. So for me, the notion of banding together with 20, 30, 40 other organizations to really try to drive change, is incredibly hopeful and inspiring.

Ellen McGirt I love that.

Kwasi Mitchell The way that you see it translated into the organization in, in my mind, is in a few different capacities. When you appropriately are thinking about DEI you end up with an expanded qualified candidate pool. And so for me, an example of that, Ellen, as you know, I'm a huge proponent of skills based hiring. And when you collectively think about the sheer number of Americans that do not have four year degrees, particularly when you think of our Black, Hispanic and Latinx communities, we're effectively eliminating so many qualified candidates that could join our organizations and do great things because of a legacy notion of how we historically hire. When I think about driving equity and what it looks like on a tangible and tactical basis, it's dismantling conceptions and notions and practices that we put in years that have historically eliminated and narrowed our candidate pool overall.

Ellen McGirt It's an exciting future to imagine. I always feel better when I talk to you. Thank you for your time, Kwasi.

Kwasi Mitchell Thank you Ellen for creating this space and doing such great work.

Jessica Helfand So when you talk about data, I'd like to ask you to talk to us a little bit, if you would, about what the Robin Hood AI challenge is, because it seems like getting ahead of the data is part of the challenge of working with it, interpreting it, and making it work for all of us.

Richard Buery Yeah. You know, obviously I don't need to tell you, I'm now going to start-start using ChatGPT to write first drafts of speeches like, it does a really good job, by the way. Everything I'm reading off ChatGPT right now as we speak.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand /Laughs

Ellen McGirt Listeners, he was not.

Richard Buery I think, you know, just to state the obvious — technology, massive shifts in technology, cannot be stopped, cannot be slowed down. The world moves forward. And I think what we've seen in history, that those massive shifts in technology, always lead to change, but too often lead to change that disadvantages  those who are already excluded from opportunity, who are least able to take advantage of the opportunity that technological change creates, but also have the least protections to protect themselves from the disruption that technological change, can drive. And I just feel like so often, you know, in conversations about AI like people, and I'm not a technologist, but in conversations about artificial intelligence and machine learning people either, it's like we're going to create this perfect, this perfect utopia where no one has to work, and, and the robots will do our bidding or, it's, the Terminators coming, it's Skynet's going to burn the sky, and we're all going to die. And it's sort of these, like, this idealism and the dystopianism neither of which really resonates for me or, I guess I would say, you know, whichever way the world shifts, it will shift that way because we do something about it. And so for us, we're just thinking about how can we have a conversation about AI that is not utopian or dystopian, but this sort of asks: How can these tools, like any other tools, like laptops or the internet or whatever the technical, how can we use these tools and, and make sure that the smartest people in the world are thinking about how these tools, can support equal opportunity, can support those living in poverty. So, you know, we just to create the, our AI opportunity challenge, the national competition, we're gonna give up, give away about up to $4 million. So there'll be up to nine finalists who've could earn $100,000 each, and three finalists who can earn $1 million. It can be consortiums of nonprofits and for profit and companies. We don't really care as long as it-and it can be national or international in scope, we just want to make sure there are the application that make sense for New York. And also just having these three competitions, right, so one, for innovations in AI that affect, education, one for innovation in AI that support the workforce and workforce development, and one for innovations in AI that can support financial inclusion. So, you know, imagine the program's AI tool that is helping tutor students or, helping teach writing or teach editing skills or helping a, a writing teacher provide more direct, individualized feedback to the students in your class. Or, picture a financial inclusion tool that helps you navigate public benefits or, helps you, if you're a low income person, navigate public benefits or that helps you identify medical billing errors so that you have you can advocate with your medical provider, for your bills. Or AI tools that are training workers, to improve their skills-skills and advance their learning. So it's really an opportunity to sort of unleash all the great ideas happening out in the world and to make sure that that conversation becomes a part of a national conversation around what AI and other technological change means, for the people that we tend not to think about when we think about technological change.

Ellen McGirt And what have you learned about getting diverse stakeholders together-together, to talk about possibility in the future? And it- you juststrike me as a person who's learned over time to be uniquely good at this. You've come from a variety of environments where things get pretty contentious in political environments, and you have, now you have at your fingertips colleagues who are literal, hedge fund managers, colleagues who are literally individual solo practitioners working on the front lines of poverty alleviation, very vulnerable people, very powerful people and everybody in between. And yet you all seem to get along beautifully and throw a great party every year. What is what is the secret of stakeholder success that you have learned?

Richard Buery It's a great question. Is I'm saying, is a great question. Sorry that, I dont' know if  you can hear that beeping that is my son— just so you know wht my life is   really like —this is my son texting to me over and over again, there's no cereal. There's no cereal.

Jessica Helfand /Laughs. Turning to important points.

Richard Buery Because—

Jessica Helfand I love it.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs

Richard Buery —I'm not at work and he's not 17 and can't go buy cereal. But anyway, we'll put that to the side. You know, I, I, I think, and, maybe a little naive, I don't think that naive, I think at the end of the day people are people, and you want to do the right thing. And we're lucky, you know, we were funded, founded 35 years ago by a group of hedge fund managers. And, after the, the recession of 88, who decided that they loved the city and they were doing well in their lives. And to be a part of making the city a better place. And we sort of rode that idea and that vision, over the last 35 years to be this organization, which now invests, over $100 million every year, in effective poverty finding solutions in New York. And what I love about this place is that we do bring people together to tackle big solutions. And I do think it's something that this institution is very good at. And, and its what I love sometimes is seeing what happens when you bring people together, the people who the person who have lived experience in poverty and the person who with a lot of money, and just wants to help, and the government official who can make decisions that can drive a large number of dollars, and the social entrepreneur who has an idea, and the school leader. When you bring all these people together, I mean, you can do amazing things. You can build effective institutions, you can transform lives. And I do think at the end of the day, that's what Robin Hood does. And we're uniquely good at it. And it's why I think it's so important that we continue to grow and thrive as an organization, because I do think, I think New York City would be a less, a lesser place. Still better than Saint Louis. A lesser place.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand /Laughs.

Ellen McGirt No argument for me. No one is inviting me to the cook out any way here, so I might as well just tell the truth.

Richard Buery /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand /Laughs

Ellen McGirt And your predecessor is now, Wes Moore is now the governor of Maryland. So it is a launching pad.

Richard Buery Is that what happened to him? I was wondering what happened.

Jessica Helfand /Laughs.

Richard Buery I'm so honored and blessed to follow in Wes's footsteps. He's, obviously an amazing leader. Also, like, one of the most genuine and loving people you ever want to meet. So happy for the people of Maryland. I have a feeling that's not that- that's not, that won't be his last stop  on his journey of service, I don't think.

Jessica Helfand But we could use him. And we could use you. And we could use more people like both of you.

Ellen McGirt Take your vitamins yes, please. We have to let you go.

Jessica Helfand We have to let you go. Is there-is there anything that we didn't cover, that you'd like to, us to ask you?

Richard Buery No, I just, I would just say, you know, wherever you are, wherever you're doing, just whoever listening, if you're listening, just, you know, find a way to get engaged. Find an organization you care about. Write a check. Go volunteer. Run for office. Do something. It is one of the great things about this world — everybody can do something. I forget- I'm going to garble the quote, Martin Luther King quote, like, everybody can be great, that everybody can serve. I really do believe that.

Ellen McGirt Oh, Jessica, I do love having these conversations and I do love having them with you. I'll tell you, you had mentioned doom and gloom at the at the outset, and I do think that we're ending in a wonderful place, in part because the idea of convening, of bringing people together, people who are different from each other, but also people who are directly impacted by the problems you're trying to solve, which is a new thing in the power, in the sort of the power shift to problem solving, is so powerful.

Jessica Helfand We were talking about cities earlier, and I mean, I think typically and historically, cities like companies are pyramids of power where there's one person at the top and two people beneath him. This is not what's going on. You, Ellen, have called our attention to these kinds of stakeholder capitalism more diversified H.R. you know, in touch with a sort of a different constituent group of people participating and serving those who need to be served. And I think Richard's belief that data isn't enough, that data needs to be applied to help humans, even if they're humans whose life experience could not be more different than your own benefits from having these really diverse, constituent represented strongholds that are not pyramids.

Ellen McGirt Yeah, and I think that's really important, especially when you think about the tech world. We talked a little bit about AI. Not nearly enough. But you know, what do investors invest in ideas that will scale. Who is going to compete for a customer with no money? Not a lot of people. So there's this green field that becomes a brown field where innovation and ideas never reach. And that's the thing I think it's very important that an organization like Robin Hood and Richard Buery, in particular, is very good at bringing people with innovation ideas, but real investment cash, real heft together to think about where new tech and new innovation can help people who really need them.

Jessica Helfand I mean, I'm not in a position to talk about large language models and how these algorithms really drive outcomes. That's for somebody far more computationally savvy than me. But what I can tell you, as somebody who works in my in my art practice, my painting practice every day with AI, is that AI is a chance operation. So by inviting people to look at artificial intelligence, there's a huge well of mystery. We don't know what people are going to come up with. They're going to like, throw things out and see what sticks to the wall. And that is really of course, that's what innovation is, right? That's what the novelty of a new idea is. It doesn't come from one person, as you say, with stakeholder collaboration. It's meant to be a participatory conversation about many different solutions. But the AI piece really is a bit of a black hole.

Ellen McGirt There's no option but to be brave, there's just no option. People who are already being left behind will be left behind faster, more efficiently.

I love this idea of finding a new type of grandma to think about and enact change within our cities because as we said at the top of the episode, cities are tricky and it's going to take a lot of creative thinking to make them more livable for everyone. Our next guest is doing just that, creating a new vocabulary for urban design and renewal.

Jessica Helfand We're talking about Cara Eckholm, a fellow at the Jacobs Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech, where she researches how cities pilot evolve and accelerate the adoption of new technology. And in this role, she spent quite a lot of time thinking about the use of technology in New York, specifically. In 2022 she was on the New York governor's and mayor's, "New" New York — "New" that's New in quotes — New York expert panel tasked with reviving the region's economy coming out of Covid-19. This led to the creation of Pilot New York City, a roadmap to make New York City the global hub of urban innovation.

Ellen McGirt And relevant to our conversation in this episode, she defines urban innovation as the adoption of technology aligned with public interest in cities. To her, you need the technology. It's an explicit and necessary part of the process.

Jessica Helfand What we were really interested in learning from Cara were specific use cases of technology in urban renewal. Here she is talking about one approach to untangling and improving New York's biking infrastructure.

Cara Eckholm One of the projects we're currently funding, paired the Department of Transportation with, NYU, who have developed a camera plus, computer vision system effectively to help with inspection of in this case, it's looking at bike lanes in particular. Originally their technology was developed in the context of understanding movement patterns as well as state of good repair, with respect to vehicle lanes. But as the city builds out its bike lane network, they're trying to understand how some of the identification systems and categorization systems that were developed in the context of vehicles could apply to improve biker safety and improve the, state of good repair with respect to the bike lane network.

Ellen McGirt And when we asked her about the use of AI in urban innovation, she first wanted to expand the common definition of AI beyond the sentient chat bots making waves in the media.

Cara Eckholm Yeah, it's an interesting question on like, where is the line between machine learning and AI? I think when people use the phrase AI nowadays are often talking about generative AI, but the project that I just described, I would categorize as AI, essentially what NYU is doing is they're sending bikes down the street with cameras on them that are then picking up pavement conditions and categorizing whether the pavement is in a state of good repair or not. And they, are developing an algorithm in order to be able to identify different forms of pavement distress without human input. So in my mind, that is artificial intelligence. But it's not necessarily generative artificial intelligence in the ChatGPT type sense.

Jessica Helfand Considering our conversation with Richard, we were also interested in Cara's take on AI's potential to help lift people out of poverty. Here's what she said.

Cara Eckholm I know one area where there's been a lot of interest in activity is in workforce retraining. And so I could assume sort of two different fronts. One is there's very few people who are AI experts today, right? Just in the way there is not that many people who are climate experts ten years ago. And so those jobs are kind of like up for grabs if you can learn up about the field fast enough. So it strikes me that that's an area where a lot of potential for kind of like bootcamp type things that could, you know, provide access to opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be there. And then I know there's some startups as well that are specifically focused on helping people identify what skills they have and then trying to, like, match that using AI with open jobs.

Ellen McGirt So it seems like from what both Richard and Cara have said in this episode, the potential for AI and related technology to help city folks living in poverty is vast and constantly in development. And as much as we love New York, we know it's not the only city. It is just a very visible city. Cara has lived in cities all over the world, including the Bay, Beijing, and Copenhagen. So we wanted to get her perspective on both what makes New York unique and what it can learn from the rest of the world.

Cara Eckholm Yeah, I mean, one unique advantage New York has with respect to technology and the built environment is the purchasing power of its government is just totally unparalleled. So New York City's procurement budget last year was $43 billion. The economy of the New York area, GDP, is the size of France. And that means that it can do things like, the New York City Housing Authority, which houses 1 in 16 New Yorkers the public housing authority in New York, when they decided that they wanted heat pumps to retrofit their apartments, and there wasn't a satisfactory solution on the market, they created an RFP asking for a heat pumps that would work in the context of NYCHA apartments. That means it had to be low cost, had to be installed in less than one day, it had to work in cold weather climates, and they committed to ordering, I think it was 40,000 units in advance from whoever could make a heat pump that met their specifications and actually prompted two companies to basically develop products that were, I don't want to say bespoke to the New York market, but bespoke to the challenges that NYCHA had identified. I think what's really powerful about that, though, is by designing for some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, you actually develop a better product, right, one that is cheaper and could potentially work other places. And so that's something that, New York is somewhat special in relative to other U.S. cities. I do think there's other parts of the world, though, that are very good at utilizing that power to, sort of direct built projects at scale. I do think, really figuring out how to utilize bulk purchasing and in some cases, probably cooperative purchasing across cities will be key to unlocking kind of the next generation of built products and climate technology in particular. I guess to get to the second part of your question, with regards to what similar, I think New York has a tendency to kind of think of itself as a special snowflake by virtue of its size. But actually a lot of the problems that New York have has have been solved elsewhere. And I believe that, like, we can do them here too. New York has a car problem. There's too many cars, and a congestion problem. We finally have congestion pricing coming in. London was, you know, the first major global city to move on that. And we are getting there a number of years later. And so I think with respect to mobility patterns in particular, that's an area where cities have tried different approaches. And I think Europe and in certain parts of South America and in Asia, cities tend to be actually far ahead of the US, and we can learn a lot from their experiences.

Jessica Helfand Ellen. You know what that music means.

Ellen McGirt I do!

Jessica Helfand It's!

Ellen McGirt Big swing, small wins time. I love this.

Jessica Helfand We're going to have to have. We're going to have to add lyrics to it now.

Ellen McGirt I know.

Jessica Helfand Well so what's our big swing for this week?

Ellen McGirt You know, I was thinking about that going with the New York theme, which is the New York Knicks. Just to keep all our New Yorkers happy on the podcast and our producer. But I thought we'd do something different this week and combine big swings and small wins into just one with a very special person to acknowledge. And Jessica, I'm going to throw to you for that.

Jessica Helfand Oh, I'm so excited to talk about this. This week's big swing and small win goes to photojournalist Danielle Zalcman. Who, I mean, talk about the gift that keeps on giving. I'm just going to preface this by saying that after Katrina in 2007, I'm on a plane flying back to New York. And there she was, sitting next to me with a laptop open with a moleskin open, with the world's most beautiful handwriting I seem to remember — completely serious, paying attention to photographs. And I turned her and I said: I have to ask you who you are and what you're doing. And she had just graduated from college, and she had flown down with a bunch of architecture students at Columbia to photograph in the aftermath of Katrina. And she was a stringer as a photojournalist all through college. She hit the ground running the minute she was done. She's the founder of an unbelievable consortium of women photojournalists all over the world. She teaches at Tulane. She's spoken at our conferences, but we are flagging her this week because she has done an even more tremendous thing, which is that she has won a National Magazine award for her photographs in a project she did for National Geographic called Forcibly Removed. Now, let me just say a few words about this project. Danielle's arresting double exposure portraits portray the trauma experienced by indigenous survivors, who were forcibly removed from their families as children and placed in boarding schools. She's the founder of Women Photograph, a hiring database of women and n-non-binary photographers from all over the world. This community she's built includes more than 1600 independent photographers based in 110 countries. In 2019, Daniella joined The Design of Business | The Business of Design to talk with you and me a about her work.

Ellen McGirt It was a wonderful conversation. Here's a little bit of sound from that.

Daniella Zalcman Photojournalists are responsible for how the world sees itself. You know, we we introduce people to places and people and issues they would never otherwise experience. And we teach them how to look at those people and places. And if the lens that is applied is always white and male, that becomes so dangerous. And that's historically what photography has been. Photography has almost always, since its inception, been very white and very male. And so embedded in the practice is this deep colonial understanding of who we are. And so in 2016, I sort of specifically had a couple of conversations with photo editors at major publications. And in a perhaps bolder than I should have been for the sake of my career move, I said to one of them: Well, you know why-why don't you hire more women? I've noticed at your publication you almost only hire men. And this one female photo editor said to me, well, I would hire more women if I knew where to find them. And so I went, okay. And I went home and I started furiously making a Google form, and I sent it to my ten closest female photographer friends and told them to send it to their closest female photographer friends. And within a few months had a list of 500 independent women and non-binary photographers, and in February of 2017 launched Women Photograph.

Ellen McGirt The Design of Business | The Business of Design is a podcast from Design Observer.

Jessica Helfand Our show is written and produced by Alexis Haut. The music is by Warner Meadows. Justin D Wright of Seaplane Armada mixed and mastered this episode. Thanks to Adina Karp and Focus Forward Podcast Studio in Providence for production support.

Ellen McGirt So I'm just stirring out a random and heartfelt shout out to Sarah Gebhart and Sheena Medina, two of our amazing team members behind the scenes who are helping us transform our website, which is just wonderful, but it is just a joy when the team gets together. We just are getting stuff done. And for more longform content about the people redesigning our world, please head to Design Observer dot com and consider subscribing to our newsletters, Equity Observer and The Observatory.

Ellen McGirt The Design of Business | The Business of Design is produced by Design Observers editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcasts, speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the podcast.


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