Charging back to work
11 March 2022
How could people from low-income backgrounds get higher-paying jobs after the pandemic hit? flow reports on how Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation’s New Initiatives Fund supported the work of ETF@JFFLabs, a US employment technology fund that is helping make this happen
Covid-19 hit people who work in low-wage jobs disproportionately hard in 2020, prompting the International Labour Organization to ask governments around the world to “protect the vulnerable.”1
So, when the opportunity came to support ETF@JFFLabs, a venture fund programme within the US not-for-profit organisation Jobs for the Future (JFF)2, Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation did not hesitate.
As one of 15 capital providers to ETF@JFFLabs, Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, through its New Initiatives Fund programme, has made a US$1m debt investment in the employment technology fund. The loan has a nine-year term at a low rate of interest.
“Our efforts are designed to be responsive to the needs of our communities, support diversity and racial economic equity, and seek opportunities that positively affect low- and moderate-income individuals and households,” says Joanne Gan, Vice President in Deutsche Bank’s Community Development Finance Group, which manages the New Initiatives Fund programme.
A push for economic advancement
ETF@JFFLabs invests in organisations ranging from a company that created an app to help home health care workers acquire credentials, to a startup in the electric vehicle industry that’s been able to pay workers US$30 an hour.
The “ETF” in “ETF@JFFLabs” stands for “Employment Technology Fund” (and not exchange traded funds – its more well-known meaning). The fund supports entrepreneurs building technology solutions that help people who work in low-wage jobs find, secure and prepare for higher-paying jobs. “Our broader mission is to create economic mobility for all,” says Yigal Kerszenbaum, the fund’s Managing Director and founding partner.
ETF was founded in 2017 as a collaborative effort of the Walmart, W.K. Kellogg, Rockefeller and Joyce foundations. “They noticed a dearth of capital flowing to early-stage tech companies serving the needs of low- and middle-income adult workers and learners,” explains Kerszenbaum, who took the fund’s reins after managing the Rockefeller Foundation’s impact investing portfolio.
In 2019, ETF merged with JFF, a national not-for-profit firm focused on driving change in the American workforce and education systems. The goal was “to better support our entrepreneurs and drive impact,” Kerszenbaum says.
Shortly afterward, in February 2020, the pandemic arrived. “In the first six months, nearly 45 million jobs were lost, impacting many people in frontline and essential roles who are the focus of our fund, including recent immigrants, Black and Latinx men, and women of all racial backgrounds,” Kerszenbaum notes.
As the mission of increasing economic advancement became more pressing than ever, the fund went into high gear, he says. “A lot of the products and tools we had invested in became more in demand. It was a call to action, and the entrepreneurs we support redoubled their efforts.”
Entrepreneurial firms step up
On its website, ETF@JFFLabs lists 30 entrepreneurial companies it has invested in. Some common themes include:
- Technology-supported skills development. Anthill is a mobile-based talent platform for the reskilling and development of a deskless workforce; Cell-Ed provides access to instructional materials on a mobile phone, giving adults an opportunity to learn new skills without participating in traditional classes; and NewCampus is an education platform delivering business and leadership training.
- Healthcare. CareAcademy provides mobile learning to upskill and certify adults for home health careers; NextStep offers a mobile, tuition-free training and job placement platform for certified nursing assistants.
- Financing training and education. Climb Credit offers loans that increase access to high-impact training programs; Edquity is a college financial success and emergency aid platform for students; and Stride Funding gives students flexible ways to fund their education with income share.
ChargerHelp! – a case study
Some 70% of the investment and grants from ETF@JFFLabs have gone to companies founded or led by women and/or people of colour. “We look for underrepresented and diverse entrepreneurs who understand the experiences of learners and workers in their communities and are able to design products and tools that can really drive impact,” Kerszenbaum says.
ChargerHelp! founders Evette Ellis and Kameale Terry with their employees
Two such entrepreneurs are Kameale Terry and Evette Ellis, Black women who in spring 2020 co-founded ChargerHelp!, a Los Angeles-based cleantech firm that has 35 employees and already operates in 11 states.3
Terry, the CEO, and Ellis, the Chief Workforce Officer, founded ChargerHelp! to fill a gaping hole in the emerging electronic vehicle (EV) industry that threatened to impact EV adoption: There was no one to quickly and efficiently repair EV charging stations, leaving many of them inoperable.
The two saw an opportunity to create quality jobs by training local workers to diagnose and repair charging stations with the aid of a mobile phone app. They acquired US$400,000 in seed money by winning grant pitch competitions and used that money to hire the staff needed to fulfil an initial contract for charging station repair service with EV Connect, an EV charging management solutions firm, and Southern California Edison, the electricity supply company.
In 2021, ChargerHelp! closed on US$2.75m in venture funding from five investors, including ETF@JFFLabs. The added funding allowed the start-up to improve the technician app and start building a national operation serving EV charging station manufacturers, network providers, utilities, fleet operators and municipalities — the full array of businesses that take responsibility for charging station repair.
“A big component of how we do business is understanding how to employ people locally.”
ChargerHelp! was strategic in taking ETF@JFFLabs on as an investor that could help with workforce development, Terry says. “A big component of how we do business is understanding how to employ people locally, which requires working with government agencies and other entities to have our business be supported by local workers,” she says. “We knew ETF@JFFLabs could get us in the room as far as workforce development partnerships.”
The relationship has helped produce a fast-growing enterprise with a bright future that’s making a big difference in the financial lives of its employees. ChargerHelp! technicians, with just three weeks of training, get paid US$30 an hour and receive equity shares.
“We built our company around equitable pay,” Ellis says. “Sure, we are in this business to solve an industry problem and to make money, but we asked: How can other people live well because of it?”
Supporting communities in a time of need
ETF@JFFLabs provides capital to pave the way for living-wage jobs, the type that ChargerHelp! is now able to provide in communities across the country. In that effort, the venture fund has raised more than US$20m and to date invested just under US$10m across its portfolio companies, Kerszenbaum concludes.