For many, when photographs emerged of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed ashore on the Turkish holiday island of Bodrum in September 2015, the face of those truly suffering as a result of the conflict in Syria became abundantly clear. This was also the case for Silicon Valley veteran and founder of refugee aid app RefAid Shelley Taylor.
“I had a son who died about seven years before, my only child, and I couldn’t help but think of all of the parents who were suffering trying to take care of their children, escaping war,” Shelley tells us. “This was, in a way, my way of extending my family to include all of those who needed help.”
Founded in early 2016, RefAid utilises geolocation technology and internal communication systems to connect refugees and aid workers to nearby hubs of help – services that offer much-needed shelter, food distribution, legal aid and health care are mapped on the app. Now, more than 400 non-profit humanitarian organisations use the app.
“I couldn’t leave my company to go volunteer because I have investors and employees,” Shelley explains of the early days. “So, I realised that I needed to use what we already had to make a contribution.”
Shelley was already in the business of creating apps for clients with large communities of fans or customers, and she’d noticed refugees were using smart phones. “I thought, why not launch an app for refugees and migrants to find services provided by non-profits that are near them?’”
Her extensive career in technology – including advising brands like Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft, as well as launching her own impressive list of start-ups, including her own company Trellyz, originally conceived to helps brands manage and monetise their social channels – was the perfect footing to begin realising a passion project of a different nature.
“We have investors in Trellyz, angel investors, and they have been happy with my decision to launch RefAid,” she explains. “So, in a sense, the app is partly funded by them, since we used the software and team resources to create RefAid. And I have personally contributed most of the funding and resources to creating the app.”
While the app itself was created in a weekend, thanks to the investment of three years of content management system development that preceded it, it was the gathering of indispensable information that took a little longer to pull together. Tapping into knowledge from non-profits was integral to discovering where services were being offered, but also which services were the most important for refugees and migrants to have access to, leading to the creation of the initial category screen.
“Before building it, I spoke to about a dozen non-profits, including the British Red Cross and UNHCR to make sure that the user experience we had in mind would be appropriate. Then, once the app was live, we continued to listen to feedback from organisations about what refugees think and what they themselves think, so every few weeks we add new features and continue to improve the app.”
Now, RefAid boasts non-profit partners like the British Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, and Save the Children. Some partners were gained through word of mouth, passionate contacts, and outreach programs – RefAid now has four full-time staff members working on outreach education. Other organisations were even successfully converted from cold calls.
“No-one ever said no,” Shelley says. “It is a free resource and something they desperately needed, so what is to say no to?”
The work Shelley has done on her passion project has also expanded her existing business options.
“By launching RefAid, I realised that non-profits all face the same challenges – how to manage their resources (services, volunteers and supplies) for greater impact at a lower cost. So, the success of RefAid convinced me that this market is worth focusing on and we pivoted our business from creating community apps, for the entertainment and retail personalities and companies who had fans and customers, to solely serving the non-profit community.”
Through the building of RefAid, Shelley realised non-profits typically went without a centralised database for their service offerings. “When [non-profits] first started using RefAid, they would typically spend a few weeks to create an Excel of their services in each of their offices. That was a big surprise. Once they gave us this data we bulk uploaded it into our Content Management and Communication System and from then on, they could quickly and easily see their own and other organisations’ services, creating better coordination, communication and collaboration.”
As a result of this learning, Shelley is launching an additional service: LifeSpots, a similar platform and app for all other non-profit organisations. “I’m really excited about this,” she explains. “Our new LifeSpots app will help them (for a small fee) do what RefAid has helped the refugee aid organisations to do.”
“Now environmental organisations, or shelters for victims of domestic violence, or homeless shelter – any non-profit – will be able to use this new system and app to save money and improve their impact… We have found a sector where the people are all trying to do more with less.”