Column: How iFoster Helped Save the Semester for College-Bound Foster Youth
Serita Cox is the co-founder and CEO of iFoster, a nonprofit that aims to ensure that every child growing up outside of their biological home has the resources and opportunities they need to become successful, independent adults.
My first indication that COVID-19 was going to dramatically impact foster youth came on March 11 and it came from Los Rios Community College District, the second largest community college district in California, with over 75,000 students. The school sent an emergency email that they would be closing their four colleges and six educational centers, and moving to online classes for the rest of the semester. And they feared that many students, particularly foster youth, did not have the technology (laptops and an Internet connection) to make this change and risked failing their semester.
They were right, based on our experience of more than 10 years trying to connect youth in care to the things they need to succeed in school and in the workplace. In 2016, iFoster participated in a University of Southern California study that found that 95% of rural foster youth, and 79% of urban foster youth, did not have access to a computer and the internet where they live. Up until now, technology access was viewed as a "nice to have," but not necessary for foster youth to function in today's society.
March 11 changed that. Los Rios' email brought into stark focus that the relatively few foster youth who made it to college were at risk of failing and dropping out because they lacked the tools they needed. With only 8% of foster youth ever achieving a college degree, losing even one due to our failure to adequately provide for them is a travesty. We had to act.
iFoster co-founder and CEO Serita Cox
In the 11 weeks of sheltering in place that soon followed, iFoster, John Burton Advocates for Youth, and the California Foster Youth Ombudsman's Office ran point on a mission to keep those youth connected, literally and figuratively. It involved almost 700 organizations and child welfare agencies, and resulted in the procurement and distribution of 6,630 smartphones and laptops.
This is the short version of how it all happened, and I hope it helps folks in other states plan for similar efforts this fall. If this can be done during stay-at-home orders in the country's most populous state, it can be done in any state, county or locality.
By the end of the day on March 11, we had the foundation of a plan figured out. We needed to start identifying college foster youth who needed the technology to survive academically, and then we needed to figure out how to pay for and actually acquire the phones and laptops, at a time when the demand for these was surging with every student in America basically learning from home.
The next day brought two big wins for this operation. First, California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office sent out directions to their 115 colleges that their foster youth would get the technology they need, and asked the administrations on those campuses to start getting rough estimates together for how many students qualified. This was the first of several key outreach efforts the got the ball rolling to actually define the universe of need.
Second, the philanthropic sector quickly got the importance of the goal here. Long-term funders of iFoster's digital divide programming – Foster Care Counts, Walter S. Johnson and Ticket to Dream – stepped up with the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office, John Burton Advocates for Youth, California Wellness Foundation, LA Tech, Foundation for Community Colleges, Tipping Point, and a generous anonymous donor. These early investments were followed by an executive order from the Governor of California and public funding from California Department of Social Services
By March 13, initial forecasts started pouring in from community colleges across the state. On March 16, the first specific requests identifying individual foster youth students and their needs came in. Before the first schools closed, laptops and smartphones for foster youth began arriving on college campuses for distribution. All of this happened prior to the statewide shelter-in-place order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 19.
But many schools had already sent students home, and foster youth around the state were left to frantically figure out how to remain in class remotely and from afar. We needed to build a massive outreach machine that could through sheer volume find most of the youth in need around the state.
A member of Mira Costa Guardian Scholars program catalogs a shipment of laptops and phones for foster youth who will need them during the pandemic shutdown. Photo: iFoster
Key foster care organizations in California have been sharing resources and partnering on programs for years across child welfare, K-12 education and college. It was this foundation that was able to immediately react and invite new partners to the table to implement a plan.
College foster youth support programs like Guardian Scholars reached out to their students to identify need. County child welfare departments, including the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, tasked their county social workers and probation officers to review their caseloads and find out which of their youth needed tech. Foster care liaisons at school districts across the state did the same, as did foster family organizations, court appointed special advocates, transitional housing providers and independent living programs.
With the process of finding recipients underway and financial commitments lined up from foundations, corporations and eventually the state, we then had to go and acquire the phones and laptops. And with demand for these products skyrocketing because of school closures, this is where California's existing infrastructure for connecting foster youth to technology paid off.
iFoster has provided over 6,000 laptops to foster youth since 2012 funded by very committed philanthropy. In the fall of 2019, just prior to the pandemic, iFoster launched a pilot program with the California Public Utilities Commission to provide all current and former foster youth between 13 and 26 with a smartphone that included unlimited voice, text and data that operates as an internet hotspot.
Having those types of arrangements was critical to mobilizing in an emergency. We did not have to cold call on manufacturers to source and ship laptops and phones – we already know and work with some. We did not have to completely invent pots of funding – we could augment ones that already existed.
It was this combination of having an existing collaboration, as well as scalable iFoster laptop and internet programs, that allowed California to respond so quickly to the connectivity needs of foster youth when the pandemic hit.
While outreach took an army of thousands, the process of getting the right technology to each youth was centralized at iFoster. We are a small virtual organization of nine employees, and we had to staff up quickly.
Year two of our "TAY AmeriCorps program" – where we train and hire current and former foster youth to be peer resource navigators to other foster youth – was scheduled to start in March. We brought on 25 foster youth in the Bay Area and Los Angeles who we felt could work effectively from their homes.
TAY AmeriCorps member Jezabel works on iFoster's intake team, establishing a list of youth who will receive laptops and phones. Photo: iFoster
We work in teams. Our bilingual intake team answers phone, text and emails requests and ensures that every application has all the information required for approval. They hand off to our VAT team (verification, activation and tracking), which ensures there is no duplication in requests and validates with each youth or their caregiver the tech they need and their shipping address.
As foster youth move frequently, ordering and shipping devices happen within one business day of validation. Our ordering team works closely with our third party logistic company, Rakuten Super Logistics, who fulfills and ships orders. Rakuten manages inventory, order priority and shipping flow.
Phones require activation on the Boost telecom network, so our VAT team work feverishly to activate phones once they ship to ensure that every phone is ready to go when a foster youth receives them. Finally, our VAT team follows up with every recipient to provide shipping and tracking information and to ensure that every youth knows who to contact if they have any issues with their tech or with any other resources they may need.
Clear roles, responsibilities and standard operating procedures are critical. However, it is the dedication of a team of transition-age foster youth and their supervisors managing them virtually that make this work.
All told, this was a collaboration of 686 partners that included the state, 50 county child welfare departments, thousands of child welfare workers, college support teams, caregivers, mentors and foster youth themselves. We have collectively proven that bridging the digital divide for foster youth is a solvable problem, and one that can be replicated, before distance learning starts again this fall.
One of the thousands of current and former foster youth who received a phone through the partnership sent a photo of her new lifeline. Photo: iFoster
For those interested in stealing our playbook, I sincerely hope you do! We are planning to produce a more formal how-to guide on the project soon. But in terms of top-line recommendations, here are the four things to focus on…
Build off philanthropy: In this crisis, the first and fastest funding came from philanthropy. However, to achieve scale, sustainable funding must come from the public sector.
Diverse network to identify demand: Understanding who needs what is not an easy task. There is no centralized data system that tracks foster youth tech needs. However, every foster youth has their own support network they rely on.
Unlimited Data is Key: The phones and laptops are only as valuable as the hotspot. Without that element, it will be hard for many of our foster youth students to connect from where they are.
Centralized Distribution: It took a lot of partners to make this all work, but the actual process of receiving products and sending them out to youth had to be a tight operation with strict procedures in place.
This collaboration continues to grow, with government funding adding to philanthropy. Not only will college foster youth have the technology they need to distance learn for as long as they need, but we are well on our way to ensuring that every high school foster youth will also have the tech they need, and there is every indication that our K-8 foster youth students will as well. As of June 12, this partnership has connected a total of 7,599 foster youth from 51 counties with tech, and we are still serving between 500 and 700 youth every week.
Fall is coming and distance learning will be a reality again. We are confident that other states, counties and localities can replicate what we've accomplished in 11 weeks of COVID.
We at iFoster are here to help. We are willing to provide technical support to any team nationwide who wants to ensure their youth go back to school with the technology they need. We will share our standard operating procedures, documents, templates and provide intros or allow others to leverage the partnerships we have already built to device wholesalers and telecom partners.
This column first appeared in the Chronicle of Social Justice.
Serita Cox is the co-founder and CEO of iFoster, a nonprofit that aims to ensure every child growing up outside of their biological home has the resources and opportunities they need to become successful, independent adults.
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Despite — or in many cases because of — the raging pandemic, 2020 was a great year for many tech startups. It turned out to be an ideal time to be in the video game business, developing a streaming ecommerce platform for Gen Z, or helping restaurants with their online ordering.
But which companies in Southern California had the best year? That is highly subjective of course. But in an attempt to highlight who's hot, we asked dozens of the region's top VCs to weigh in.
We wanted to know what companies they wish they would have invested in if they could go back and do it all over again.
Hottest<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzIyNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTQ3MjQ2OH0.JYCNMjYvosYa5SI7701CH_jMFbeFdMcRCChXt442cq0/img.png?width=980" id="4a086" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f2f18f0bc4400a388e43736c560ff87f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="PopShop Live logo" />
Boiling<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzIyOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MzI5MjYwMn0.h7Nq7GiwXTcg_7Io5WEXblFX0rWQHxn69RzluTh7n_Q/img.png?width=980" id="44eea" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d02c4cad650c987721ff91ee939a5bf7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Scopely logo" />
Simmering<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzMxNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjM4MjQ5Mn0.XSHQfru9tTpdeBqd_ecb--8DiZg_vdyOtF9ZV9zAG78/img.png?width=980" id="f1665" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc0b78dd8ae8cda9bf95979e83506fd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Warming Up<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzYwOS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1MzE4OX0.fS5XtGx4M-tqWecrth6NCHawGSg2aSkb-yR-cY3wbtU/img.png?width=980" id="c6334" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa7476f8a6216fed6b372d8a59876a6b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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Though Silicon Valley is still very much the capital of venture capital, Los Angeles is home to plenty of VCs who have made their mark – investing in successful startups early and reaping colossal returns for their limited partners.
Who stands out? We thought there may be no better judge than their peers, so we asked 28 of L.A.'s top VCs who impresses them the most.
Mark Mullen, Bonfire Ventures<p>Mark Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures. He is also founder and the largest investor in Mull Capital and Double M Partners, LP I and II. A common theme in these funds is a focus on business-to-business media and communications infrastructures.</p><p>In the past, Mullen has served as the chief operating officer at the city of Los Angeles' Economic Office and a senior advisor to former Mayor Villaraigosa, overseeing several of the city's assets including Los Angeles International Airport and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Prior to that, he was a partner at Daniels & Associates, a senior banker when the firm sold to RBC Capital Markets in 2007.</p>
Dana Settle, Greycroft<p>Dana Settle is a founding partner of Greycroft, heading the West Coast office in Los Angeles. She currently manages the firm's stakes in Anine Bing, AppAnnie, Bird, Clique, Comparably, Goop, Happiest Baby, Seed, Thrive Market, Versed and WideOrbit, and is known for backing female-founded companies.</p><p>"The real change takes place when female founders build bigger, independent companies, like Stitchfix, TheRealReal," she said this time last year in <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/greycrofts-dana-settle-on-closing-funding-gap-for-female-founders-2019-12" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Business Insider</a>. "They're creating more wealth across their cap tables and the cap tables tend to be more diverse, so that gives more people opportunity to become an angel investor." Prior to founding Greycroft, she was a venture capitalist and startup advisor in the Bay Area.</p>
Erik Rannala, Mucker Capital<p>Erik Rannala is a founding partner at Mucker Capital, which he created with William Hsu in 2011. Before founding Mucker, Rannala was vice president of global product strategy and development at TripAdvisor and a group manager at eBay, overseeing its premium features business.</p><p>"As an investor, I root for startups. It pains me to see great teams and ideas collapse under the pressure that sometimes follows fundraising. If you've raised money and you're not sure what comes next, that's fine – I don't always know either," Rannala wrote in <a href="https://www.mucker.com/more-funding-wont-magically-fix-your-startup/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a blog post for Mucker</a>. </p><p>Mucker has a portfolio of 61 companies, including Los Angeles-based Honey and Santa Monica-based HMBradley.</p>
William Hsu, Mucker Capital<p>William Hsu is a founding partner at the Santa Monica-based fund Mucker Capital. He started his career as a founder, creating BuildPoint, a provider of workflow management solutions for the commercial construction industry not long after graduating from Stanford. </p> <p><a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/3048173/the-unexpected-and-hard-earned-lessons-from-a-dot-com-flame-out" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with Fast Company</a>, he shared what he learned in the years following, as he led product teams at eBay, Green Dot and Spot Runner, eventually becoming the SVP and Chief Product Officer of At&T Interactive: "Building a company is about hiring correctly, adhering to a timeline, and rigorously valuing opportunity. It's turning something from inspiration and creative movement into process and rigor."</p> <p>These are the values he looks for in founders in addition to creativity. "I like to see the possibility of each and every idea, and being imaginative makes me a passionate investor."</p>
Jim Andelman, Bonfire Ventures<p>Jim Andelman is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, a fund that focuses on seed rounds for business software founders. Andelman has been in venture capital for 20 years, previously founding Rincon Venture Partners and leading software investing at Broadview Capital Partners.<br><br>He's no stranger to enterprise software — he also was a member of the Technology Investment Banking Group at Alex. Brown & Sons and worked at Symmetrix, a consulting firm focusing on technology application for businesses.</p> <p><a href="https://dot.la/la-venture-podcast-jim-andelman-of-bonfire-ventures-2648143780.html" target="_self">In a podcast with LA Venture's Minnie Ingersoll</a> earlier this year, he spoke on the hesitations people have about choosing to start a company.</p>"It's two very different things: Should I coach someone to be a VC or should I coach someone to enter the startup ecosystem? On the latter question, my answer is 'hell yeah!'"
Josh Diamond, Walkabout Ventures<p>Josh Diamond founded Walkabout Ventures, a seed fund that primarily focuses on financial service startups. The firm raised a $10 million fund in 2019 and is preparing for its second fund. Among its 19 portfolio companies is HMBradley, which Diamond helped seed and recently <a href="https://dot.la/hm-bradley-2649022900.html" target="_self">raised $18 in a Series A</a> round.</p><p>"The whole reason I started this is that I saw there was a gap in the funding for early stage, financial service startups," he said. As consumers demand more digital access and transparency, he said the market for financial services is transforming — and Los Angeles is quickly becoming a hub for fintech companies. Before founding Walkabout, he was a principal for Clocktower Technology Ventures, another Los Angeles-based fund with a similar focus.</p>
Kara Nortman, Upfront Ventures<p>Kara Nortman was recently promoted to managing partner at Upfront Ventures, making her one of the few women – along with Settle – to ascend to the highest ranks of a major VC firm.</p><p>Though<a href="https://upfront.com/thoughts/announcing-upfronts-new-co-managing-partner" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> Upfront had attempted to recruit her</a> before she joined in 2014, she had declined in order to start her own company, Moonfrye, a children's ecommerce company that rebranded to P.S. XO and merged with Seedling. Upfront invested in the combination, and shortly after, Nortman joined the Upfront team.</p><p>Before founding Moonfrye, she was the SVP and General Manager of Urbanspoon and Citysearch at IAC after co-heading IAC's M&A group.</p><p><a href="https://dot.la/moving-from-the-passenger-seat-to-the-drivers-seat-upfronts-kara-nortman-named-managing-partner-2648493740.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, she spoke on how a focus for her as a VC is to continue to open doors for founders and funders of diverse backgrounds.<br></p><p>"Once you're a woman or a person of color in a VC firm, it is making sure other talented people like you get hired, but also hiring people who are not totally like you. You have to make room for different kinds of people. And how do you empower those people?"<br></p>
Brett Brewer, Crosscut Ventures<p>Brett Brewer is a co-founder and managing director of Crosscut Ventures. He has a long history in entrepreneurship, starting a "pencil selling business in 4th grade." In 1998, he co-founded Intermix Media. Under their umbrella were online businesses like Myspace.com and Skilljam.com. After selling Intermix in 2005, he became president of Adknowledge.com.</p><p>Brewer founded Santa Monica-based Crosscut in 2008 alongside Rick Smith and Brian Garrett. His advice to founders <a href="https://crosscut.vc/team/" target="_blank">on Crosscut's website</a> reflects his experience: "Founders have to be prepared to pivot, restart, expect the unexpected, and make tough choices quickly... all in the same week! It's not for the faint of heart, but after doing this for 20 years, you can spot the fire (and desire) from a mile away (or not)."</p>
Eva Ho, Fika Ventures<p>Eva Ho is a founding partner of Fika Ventures, a boutique seed fund, which focuses on data and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies. Prior to founding Fika, she was a founding partner at San Francisco-based Susa Ventures, another seed-stage fund with a similar focus. She is also a serial entrepreneur, most recently co-founding an L.A. location data provider, Factual. She also co-founded Navigating Cancer, a health startup, and is a founding member of All Raise, a nonprofit that supports and provides resources to female founders and funders.</p><p><a href="https://medium.com/@John_Livesay/when-google-bought-my-startup-81f1ee21488c" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with John Livesay</a> shortly before founding Fika, Ho spoke to how her experience at Factual helped focus what she looks for in founders. "I always look for the why. A lot of people have the skills and the confidence and the experience, but they can't convince me that they're truly passionate about this. That's the hard part — you can't fake passion."</p>
Brian Lee, BAM Ventures<p>Brian Lee is a co-founder and managing director of BAM Ventures, an early-stage consumer-focused fund. <a href="https://dot.la/brian-lee-los-angeles-venture-capital-2645125301.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, Lee shared that he ended up being the first investor in Honey, which was bought by PayPal for $4 billion, through investing in founders and understanding their "vibe."</p> <p>"There's certain criteria that we look for in founders, a proprietary kind of checklist that we go through to determine whether or not these are the founders that we want to back…. [Honey's founders] knew exactly what they were building, and how they were going to get there."</p> <p>His eye for the right vibe in a founder is one gleaned from experience. Lee is a serial entrepreneur, founding LegalZoom.com, ShoeDazzle.com and The Honest Company.</p>
Alex Rubalcava, Stage Venture Partners<p>Alex Rubalcava is a founding partner of Stage Venture Partners, a seed venture capital firm that invests in emerging software technology for B2B markets. Prior to joining, he was an analyst at Santa Monica-based Anthem Venture Partners, an investor in early stage technology companies. It was his first job after graduating from Harvard, and during his time at Anthem the fund was part of Series A in companies like MySpace, TrueCar and Android.</p><p>He has served as a board member in several Los Angeles nonprofits and organizations like KIPP LA Schools and South Central Scholars.</p> <p>"Warren Buffett says that he's a better businessman because he's an investor, and he's a better investor because he's a businessman. I feel the same way about VC and value investing. Being good at value investing can make you good at venture capital, and vice versa," Rubalcava said in <a href="https://moiglobal.com/alex-rubalcava-interview/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Shai Dardashti of MOI Global</a>.</p>
Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures<p>Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures, is arguably L.A.'s most visible VC, frequently posting on Twitter and on his <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blog</a>, not only about investing but also more personal topics like weight loss. In more normal years, he presides over LA's biggest gathering of tech titans, the Upfront Summit. Before Upfront, he was the founder and chief executive officer of two software companies, BuildOnline and Koral, which was acquired by Salesforce. Upfront backed both of his companies, and eventually he joined their team in 2007.</p><p>In a piece for his blog, "Both Sides of the Table," <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/finding-an-investor-who-is-in-love-with-you-d0badf1a3998" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Suster wrote about the importance of passion</a> — not just for entrepreneurs and their businesses, but for the VCs that fund them as well.<br></p><p>"On reflection of the role that I want to play as a VC it is clearly in the camp of passion. I really want to start my journeys only with people with whom I want to work closely with for the next 5–7 years or more. I only want to work on projects in which I believe can produce truly amazing change in an industry or in the world."</p>
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