Clients First: Why a social worker joined Propel

By Mary Kate Schroeter, Propel Operations and Community Manager

Before going to grad school, I had worked at a few different tech startups. While they offered great opportunities for me professionally, none of the companies I worked for aligned with my personal values. As a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) student, I was steeped in the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics which promotes social and economic justice. I see wealth inequality in the United States as one of our most pervasive social issues to address. I’ve seen it firsthand in the direct service I’ve done with clients, and I can see how it’s perpetuated in the businesses I’ve worked for.

When I started looking for my first job after earning my Master of Social Work (MSW), I found myself weighing the merits of entering the public or the private sector. I wanted to work for an organization with a social mission, but I left school with immense student loan debt. My situation as a recent MSW graduate is not unique. According to Social Work Today, most starting social workers are working to repay more than $60,000 in debt on the average starting salary of $41,000. I was eager to find an opportunity that allowed me to have an impact and also enabled me to repay my loans.

Now, I am the Operations Manager at Propel. While my job title doesn’t have the term “social worker” in it, one of my professors put it best: “No matter what you do, you’re a social worker first.” Propel didn’t mention an MSW in its job posting. Instead, its mission is to make America’s safety net more user-friendly. When I first read that, it reminded me of the NASW’s mission of enhancing the capacity of people to address their own needs.

I left tech to go back to school because I felt like I wasn’t able to have a positive impact on people’s lives in my roles. I thought the only way to do this would be to get my MSW and work in government or a nonprofit. So much of social work is contingent on funding, and priorities shift under every Administration. When an organization can control its revenue there is more flexibility in its ability to innovate, but it’s also driven by profits. It’s certainly easier to make an impact outside the confinements of grant-funding, but that doesn’t always yield social good. Propel applies technology for a social good, serving a population that has traditionally been ignored by the tech world.

Fresh EBT helps SNAP recipients manage and budget their benefits. It also saves people lots of time, replacing long phone calls to customer service lines. We’re empowering SNAP recipients to get more out of their benefits each month by using the same principles as other financial planning apps available to the general population. These kinds of apps, enabling us to manage our finances on a phone, have immense social consequences. It’s how millennials, like myself, have become financially literate. Propel is about more than just allowing SNAP recipients an easier way to check their balance. Our goal is to continue to offer products that promote financial inclusion and opportunity for people who have historically been disenfranchised.

Propel’s approach to generating revenue has been shaped by our commitment to the user. This embodies the social work value of the dignity and worth of a person, that we are able elevate service to others above our own self-interest. We only partner with a company when we feel it would benefit the user. Examples of programs we advertise include Lifeline (an Assurance Wireless program for low-income households), EARN — which helps working families achieve prosperity through savings — and Comcast’s Internet Essentialspackage, which offers discounted home broadband internet access to low-income families. Our users’ trust is our most valued asset. We can only preserve that trust if we hold a high standard of only working with partners that help our users improve their physical and financial health.

To me, the most exciting feature in Fresh EBT is the map page, called “Near Me”. This map fetches data from USDA databases and other public sources to show stores that accept EBT and government SNAP offices. It also shows farmers markets, food pantries, and summer meal program locations.

What sets “Near Me” apart from other similar tools is that it’s attached to Fresh EBT — since the average user opens Fresh EBT ten times per month to manage their EBT benefits, “Near Me” provides an incredibly natural and timely opportunity to discover important resources. Mapping out community resources is often knowledge that exists in a social worker’s head. It’s not something that’s been successfully mapped on a national scale before, and having it integrated with an app that clients are already using makes it more powerful. There is incredible potential to make a difference when you can apply technology that exists in this kind of way.For example, yesterday during an interview, a Fresh EBT user told me she’d been on SNAP for over a year but didn’t know about the summer meals program for her son until she saw them on the app.

One of the ethical principles upheld by social workers is to challenge injustice. The Code of Ethics suggests we fulfill this value by providing access to resources and services for our clients, ensuring that they have equality in opportunities, and that they have meaningful participation in their own well-being. Being a social worker in a tech company is a rare opportunity to translate the needs of clients into tech solutions. More than concepts like brand loyalty or customer satisfaction, social workers uphold a commitment to clients firstalways. As technology products for low-income Americans start to gain traction, my hope is that social workers will continued to be hired for key positions within technology companies. We bring a focus on integrity and human relationships that can make these companies successful, both in profits and in the service we provide to people.