When Alex Stephany was introduced to Maimonides’ eight degrees of charity at Hebrew School as a child, little did he know it would form the foundation of what is fast becoming one of the UK’s most exciting social start-ups.
His award-winning and world-first crowdfunding start-up, Beam, supports homeless people into stable, paid work. It partners with homelessness charities and London boroughs, which recommend people to the platform. Their individual profiles are listed on the Beam website where people can read their stories and donate to fund the training and qualifications they need to turn their lives around.
Launched in 2017, and initially funded by the Mayor of London, Beam is already making a big impact. It recently won Best ‘Tech for Good’ start-up in Europe at The Europas 2019, plus last year’s (2018) London Homelessness Awards and an award for Best use of Technology in homelessness. Stephany, 37, won Best Social Enterprise Entrepreneur in the UK in June.
“I always remembered learning about Maimonides’ eight degrees of charity at cheder,” recalls Stephany. “According to Maimonides, the highest form of charity is helping people to become self-supporting. This is the foundation behind Beam – giving people the skills to earn a good living for them and their families and lift themselves out of poverty.”
The dream, says Stephany, is to end homelessness. He was inspired while on his commute to work. “I used to walk past the same homeless man at Archway station [in London] and would buy him coffees and thermal socks. We got to know each other. But weeks went by and the man didn’t appear. I got worried and when he resurfaced he looked truly terrible. He told me he had a heart attack.”
Stephany began to think about what could have made a meaningful difference to his life. “Didn’t he actually need the skills, confidence and support to get into work and provide for himself? Sure, that would cost more than a coffee. But then I thought: ‘What if everyone chipped in?’”
Quite. At the time of writing, exactly £560,834 has flowed through the platform, including from 757 people who donate monthly. When people donate, they share the journeys of the people through training and into work through email updates. Moreover, 80 percent of people on the programme have successfully entered skilled work. By ensuring 80 percent of donations are split equally between all campaigns, Beam has also funded every campaign they have launched.
Stephany is a lawyer-turned-serial entrepreneur and author (The Business of Sharing, published by Macmillan) – a book which led him to advise the Mayor of Seoul on how to use sharing models to solve social problems. In March, he gave a prestigious TED talk in Brighton.
But then he certainly knows about technology start-ups. As the former CEO of start-up JustPark, he grew revenue more than 10-fold in three years, raised funding from Index Ventures, and closed a £3.75m crowdfunding campaign – then the largest equity crowdfunding for a start-up in history. “But I wanted to do something with more social impact,” says Stephany. “I get a kick out of being useful. And for me the best way to be useful is to apply technology and data to big problems that have largely been ignored by tech entrepreneurs and investors.”
Beam now has more than 30 registered charities including Shelter, St Mungo’s and The Big Issue, referring people to the platform.
They are given a case-worker, who supports each homeless person to build a career plan best suited to their strengths. They also help them to manage the risks in their life from mental health, to alcohol and drugs – 12 weeks’ abstinence is required before anyone joins Beam.
Once a person on the platform is in stable, paid work, he or she is invited to “pay it forward” through donations and mentoring new members. “Today’s members [the homeless people using Beam] are tomorrow’s supporters,” he says.
Stephany went to Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, then the University of Oxford where he got a first in English, followed by a training contract at Clifford Chance. He spent a lot of time learning about homelessness before launching Beam. “I met as many homeless people as I could and people working for homeless charities and asked for their advice.” He reels off some startling facts: “There are 320,000 homeless people in UK, 290,000 are in hostels or other forms of temporary accommodation and 130,000 of them are children. The biggest group in emergency accommodation is single mums and kids. We want these homeless single mums to know that if they want to pursue a professional ambition, the opportunity is there.”
But the biggest challenge, says Stephany, is funding for the organisation itself. “We’re optimistic that funding Beam is very high-impact philanthropy with huge legacy.”
When asked, he says that he is yet to receive financial support from the Jewish community.
“I’m sure it’s a matter of time. We have such a strong tradition of tzedakah and community work. Also, homelessness is something that Jews understand, having been homeless ourselves for most of our history.”