Hub Stories: Brothers from Mississippi Venture into Mobile Technology for Human Rights

[Name]: Kohl S Gill and Jake Astin Smith

[Sector Tags/Areas of Expertise]: Mobile Applications, Tech for change, Labor Rights, Human Rights, International Development

[Memory Lane] 

“The conference we’re at today is called ‘Advancing the New Machine: How do we use technology for human rights?’ It covers everything from election monitoring to geo-spatial mapping. I’m so excited to be a part of this. I was in India last year starting a pilot project, watching the recordings of this conference– and it was very inspirational to me. It’s such a blessing to be a part of it this year.” –Kohl S. Gill, Hub Ventures Participant 2011

[The Story]

I had heard the phrase “Hub Ventures” so many times, I was beginning to use it in my daily vocabulary. In staff meetings, around the space, on the chalkboards, there it was. In telling friends about the Hub, it almost always came up as a selling-point. But I realized one afternoon, I really had no idea what I was talking about. Not only was I ignorant about the actual curriculum of HV, but I didn’t even know who was taking part!

Enter Kohl S Gill, and Jake Astin Smith. Two brothers from Mississippi. One a future doctor, one a former physicist. Striving to create better access to information for vulnerable workers around the world, staring in Bangalore, India, from their base in the San Francisco Bay Area. And participating in Hub Ventures, whatever that meant. Intrigued, I had to know more.

I caught up with the two during a lunch break at the “Advancing the New Machine: Using Technology to Promote Human Rights ” conference at the David Brower Center. Here are some highlights from our conversation about LaborVoices, and the brothers’ path to its creation.


Samantha: I’ve heard great things, but I know nothing. What is LaborVoices?

Kohl S Gill: LaborVoices, Inc. is a for-profit abolitionist social enterprise. We’re providing a Yelp-like mobile platform for workers around the world, especially migrant workers, to rate their employers and labor recruiters. The idea is to co-create a system that provides reputations for labor recruiters and employers. With a JD Power-like model, we sell access to this anonymized data to supply-chain managers.  We’re crowdsourcing the role of social auditor.

Samantha: So what happens on the ground, in your pilot?

Kohl:  We have an IVR (interactive voice response) system where workers can call in, ask questions, and we field those questions to more experienced users and try to get answers. Once a question is answered by another user, the original questioner gets an automated call-back on their phone that says “Hi, this is LaborVoices, here’s an answer to your question. What do you think about that?” We generate that dialogue.  Then users can surf existing questions and answers using the phones they already own.

We’re now shifting modes to bootstrap our way into a large database. Our next generation system is geared toward surveys: collecting discrete information and offering direct monetary or other compensation, i.e. “We’ll call you with a question, and if you answer, you’ll get 20 Rupees of talk-time on your phone.” We aggregate that information in a secure way, provide data and analysis to our customers—brands, factories and others—during an embargo period, and then publish that data. That way, we hold ourselves accountable, and we hold the factories and brands accountable, by making our data public.

Samantha: What’s the most surprising thing you found in your beginning research?

Kohl: The pilot population we initially chose were construction workers in Bangalore. They’re local migrants.  We did not anticipate the low level of sophistication they have with their phones. Their phones are capable of many things, but they only know about a limited number of those functions. For example, they don’t know how to save numbers in their phones.

Samantha: Sounds like my dad!

Kohl: Exactly. Same with my dad. These folks have never recorded a voicemail before. They’re a little bit shy with doing that.

So we’ve started to do two things: We’ve pivoted to aim for workers that travelled a bit farther for work. They’re a bit more adventurous, we’ve found, and a bit more eager to use a system like this. We’re also targeting factory workers, who are more savvy in the business sense, and come from a wider variety of areas.

Jake Astin Smith: I think also, leaving a voicemail or anything like that– it’s also that they don’t trust the system. They’re very afraid of someone recognizing their voice and the retribution that could come from that. It’s very risky, and that’s another component.

Samantha: What would be your response to that concern?

Kohl: This is actually something we’ve heard about a lot in our conference today. People are really emphasizing the security of mobile tracking. We can use industry standards for securing our data, but at the end of the day even industry standards aren’t perfect. Practical anonymity, sure. We can’t remove all risk, obviously, but we don’t want to put our users at more risk than they are already.

Samantha: That’s something that comes along with using a for-profit model, right? You have to develop trust.

Kohl: Right. And to give you an example of how conservative the population we started with is: they tend to migrate from within the same state to Bangalore, partly because they have a particular diet with certain grains.  But the quality and price of that grain in Bangalore is unacceptable to them. So they end up bringing their food with them for the months that they stay. This is the kind of conservative mindset that these folks have. You have to choose your population carefully. If they’re that conservative about getting sick and not being able to eat the right food, they’re likely not going to be your early adopters! (Laughs)

Samantha: How did you get interested in labor issues, and where did you get the idea for LaborVoices?

Kohl: My background is actually in semiconductor physics. It was through a very circuitous route that I made my way into the State Department. There, I really got into labor issues and  came to understand how little technology is being used to harvest the observational powers of workers for their own benefit. Once I recognized that, I tried to develop a program within the U.S. State Department to support ideas like this and—in the short time I had at State—I failed.

After leaving government, I decided this was a pretty good idea for a social enterprise. That’s when I started the company, and quickly attracted a pretty dynamic team of people. Including Jake of course.

Samantha: Jake, did you always know you’d work in human rights? What did you want to be when you grew up?

Kohl: He was a terror!  I didn’t think he’d be protecting human rights, I thought he’d be violating them!
(Everybody laughs)

Jake: Actually, since I was a little kid I wanted to do medicine. Upholding the human component in everybody is right down my alley. I think the initial idea of transparency got me more interested than the human rights aspect. I wanted to learn  how the model of transparency in medicine with patients would translate to the labor market.

Kohl: And don’t forget your educational background!

Jake: Oh right, that. I got a double major in Integrative and  Molecular & Cell Biology at UC Berkeley… I’m a trained biologist. I was just accepted to med school at UC Davis. Hopefully someday we’ll expand LaborVoices into LaborVoices-Health and educate migrant workers on where hospitals are. It’s wide open.

Samantha: Kohl, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Kohl: An astronaut. Or a preacher.

Jake: Lies! Did mom brainwash you?

Kohl: No, it’s actually true! And it was my dad, actually, and even though he’s not Christian. I also thought about being a lawyer. And then my background is in semiconductor physics. We were both born and raised in Mississippi and we both went to college in here in California.

Samantha: That’s great, brothers from Mississippi– nobody would picture you guys!

Kohl: Well, we know about slavery! (Everybody laughs)

Jake: In all seriousness, though, we grew up experiencing the outskirts of segregation and the civil rights movement.

Kohl: It’s a very strong message, especially in the liberal side of Mississippi. There’s a very long and rich tradition with Civil Rights. Part of that played into what we’re doing here. I went to school at Caltech, we both went to SB, and then I went to India for a year and did anti-corruption work after graduate school, in Delhi.

The most interesting thing about that experience was that it made development work seem much more tractable. I was going there as an idealist, just to give my effort and see where it went, but then when I saw the results I thought, “Wow, this is a problem that can actually be addressed, in a reasonable way.” With that kind of energy and inspiration, especially focused around anti-corruption and transparency, I found my own philosophy for approaching social action.

Samantha: Can you speak a little bit about difference between working in the government versus in a for profit entrepreneurial business setting?

Kohl: There’s a vast difference, as you can imagine. If you think of the government as a company, it’s the largest company in the country. It’s also the one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, providing services to citizens. Working within that bureaucracy is extremely limiting, but at the same time the resources are vast.  If you’re able to tap the resources of the government, then you’re able to do amazing things.

Going from that to a company where you’re trying to tap the resources of the private sector to achieve grand goals is a bit different. The diplomacy is still there but you’re addressing people’s interests in a more overt way. In the State Department, you would never explicitly declare how you’re satisfying people’s interests (you might imply it), but in the private sector you can come right out and say “Hey, I’m going to pay you to get me users. The more users you get me, the more I’m going to pay you.”

One of the things I struggle with and try to do is bring as much transparency to the institutions I interact with or that I create. This is challenging when you’re working in the government. It can be done, but it’s challenging. It’s a bit easier when you’re in business. But then there are a whole bunch of other issues surrounding transparency — e.g. how you craft a message that’s true to who you are and reflects the multiple points of view from within your organization. It’s challenging. I didn’t expect that. I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. I came to it somewhat grudgingly. But now having this huge support network of entrepreneurs, I can’t imagine myself anywhere else. I’m excited to be a part of this community.

Samantha: What do you see long-term? Where else will you implement this model?

Jake: We’re pivoting right now. We’ll probably move forward with big brands, and use them to gain access to their factories. As migrant workers trickle back to their communities of origin, word will spread and more people can start using our platform.

Kohl: We’re starting in India, of course, but we won’t stop there.  We’re working with brands and their global supply-chain footprint. Which brings us to Vietnam. We’re very interested in Vietnam. There are many similarities in key countries we want to expand to. We’re very interested in developing a product that can withstand the scrutiny of a very… interesting government.

Jake: So we’ll probably stay away from China
(everyone laughs)

Kohl: For the time being. In the U.S., we’re looking right here in the Bay Area to work with vulnerable workers, perhaps in the wine industry. If we can develop a system that works with migrant workers in Spanish, then there are also natural markets for us south of the border.

Samantha: Do you aim to work with friendly brands, or was your initial intent to combat those businesses that are not transparent with their labor practices?

Kohl: We initially wanted to get our pilots done and customize our products through friendly brands. But down the road, we expect our coverage to go much more geographically and spread beyond factories. Rather than covering factory by factory, we want to cover regions. We expect that data to be more useful to our brands than just monitoring their own factories. We want factories to compete and raise their own standards.  We expect to cover enough of the world’s supply chain to eventually put pressure on the less … conscientious … brands.  We want to make it clear to everyone, from workers to point-of-sale customers, exactly what is involved in producing the stuff we buy every day.

Of course, if we can prove that any factory is using forced labor or child labor, then that factory would be barred from U.S. and possibly other markets, almost immediately.

We also want to ask workers to observe the quality of products, the environmental footprint of factories, even tracing minerals and fighting counterfeit goods! We want to get as much observation from our users as possible, and compensate them accordingly. We really want to make sure they’re getting a good value from our system.

Jake: We’re trying to empower the population.

Samantha: What was your path into the Hub?

Kohl: One of my team members had found out about Hub Ventures, and Jake and I went to the kickoff at Hub SoMa for the opening of the application process. There, we met Nick from Job Rooster and a few other folks. It seemed like a great program. We applied, and somehow we got in! One of the requirements of the program is that you become a Hub Member for the period of the program. We’re getting a lot from the mailing list and hopefully we’ll be pushing out some new job descriptions for LaborVoices. We’re eager to tap the network and gather passionate individuals that can help us in this mission.

Samantha: What’s been the highlight of Hub Ventures?

Kohl: The highlight actually came at the very beginning, just connecting with other members and recognizing the struggles we’re all going through. Because we see our problems so close-up, they can seem huge to us. But we started to realize that a) those problems have been solved by other groups, and b) they have issues that we’ve already solved—so we can help out right away! That exchange of information has really been the most useful thing to date. Eventually, we’ll meet with investors and getting the investment is the #1 immediate goal of each individual company, but in the meantime that exchange of ideas is really terrific. And meeting lovely people like yourself.

Jake: And the free wine! That helps too.


More Info on Hub Ventures

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Thanks for reading!

Samantha, Your Hub Stories Correspondent



Filed under Hub Stories

3 responses to “Hub Stories: Brothers from Mississippi Venture into Mobile Technology for Human Rights

  1. Pingback: Hub Berkeley Weekly Roll Up: Forecast… | Hub Bay Area

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