Did you know nearly 50% of low-income Americans don’t have reliable access to the Internet? I certainly didn’t. Little did I know something as seemingly easy as “Googling” is inaccessible to so many, such as those facing housing insecurity and those who are low-income. The first time I texted “start” to (888) 414-5539, I felt awe for the product functionality but was also unfazed at the overwhelming simplicity of the interface. It was a text—something that I had received millions of times. But that’s the point. For me, it may have been an underwhelming experience, but for the thousands of people and the community organizations that we work with, it means much more. The snippets of information we provide can make the difference between not knowing whether you have COVID-19 symptoms or whether you should get tested, between getting adequate food for the week and going hungry. That impact is what transforms simple texts into a movement. CovidSMS is not just about sending out information; we are about using innovation to address systemic inequalities in information accessibility that have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
As is commonly known, money is the lifeblood of any startup and COVID-19 is no exception. To sustain our movement we are constantly pursuing new partnerships, grants, and other funding opportunities. As a finance officer, this is where the bulk of my work resides. While drafting grant applications can be monotonous, interspersed in-between are rewarding moments. One of the biggest challenges to date was the Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Emergency Response Challenge, during which we competed against 125 other teams, many of whom were well-funded, million-dollar businesses with veteran executive leaders. Preparing the submissions at each stage of the competition required great collaborative effort, with repeated rounds of editing and filming. The final–and definitely most daunting round–was the live pitch to a panel of investor judges. This entailed a live presentation, demo and follow-up Q&A session. We rehearsed countless times over the weeks, refining little bits of the presentation and demo each time based on feedback from RWJ and members of our team.
The day of the pitch was nerve-wracking. What if the tech had a glitch? What if the judges asked a question we did not have the answer to? Despite the anxieties, Serena, the CovidSMS lead, fought through it all and delivered an amazing presentation. The judges were noticeably intrigued. After all, the two other finalists were decades older than us, with greater expertise and established business plans. We were just some college students with an idea and a product to back it up. More than anything, the 5 minutes of the pitch encompassed all that our team has accomplished since our inception. We began as a prototype; today, we are expanding to all corners of the United States with thousands of subscribed users who benefit from our service daily. It made me extremely proud to be a part of this team. When they announced that we had tied in 1st place with Binformed Covidata, we were shocked. It was significant not just because of the substantial prize money, but because it validated CovidSMS as a product and service against all odds and expectations.
None of this could have been possible without all the tireless work that each of our teams puts in each week. This money will be critical to us upgrading our infrastructure so that we can provide our service to more people in more communities. Though we can definitely mark this as a great accomplishment in our history, this is just the beginning. I am very excited for CovidSMS to reach new heights, as we work diligently to close the Information gap, one text at a time.