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Propel's technology simplifies the food stamp application process by streamlining the initial enrollment form, eliminating the hassle of submitting paper documents, and providing a phone-friendly interface. 15 million Americans qualify for food stamps but aren't enrolled, and the complexity of the enrollment process is a major barrier to accessing this critical lifeline. Propel makes the food stamp program more friendly. 

Their Story

Building Technology To Make Food Stamps More Accessible From Your Smartphone

When Jimmy Chen arrived at the food stamps office in Brooklyn, New York one afternoon last summer, the attendant at the front desk laughed in his face. He’d shown up two hours before the office closed  – plenty of time, he’d reasoned, to sign up for the service. But the average wait time, he quickly learned, was more like six hours.

Chen scanned the waiting room filled with people – many of them mothers and fathers missing work, some with young kids in tow. “It seemed like an experience that was out of this century – like something totally antiquated,” says Chen. Except for one detail: “A lot of the folks waiting in line were passing the time on their smart phones.”

That gave Chen an idea. At that very moment, Silicon Valley was bustling with software developers obsessing over how to make countless daily tasks simpler – ordering takeout, hailing a taxi, finding a date. Chen knew this tech world all too well, having studied software engineering at Stanford and worked at some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley including LinkedIn and Facebook. “Coming of age in Silicon Valley, I saw the power of startups to effect real change in the world,” says Chen. “The reason people don’t start more companies that focus on the challenges of low-income Americans is because they don’t deeply understand those problems.”

But in 2014, Chen packed two suitcases and moved across the country to New York, hoping to put his tech skills to use toward greater social good. “I realized software is a really powerful tool that has the ability to change not just how we order lunch, but how we survive,” he says.

That same year, Chen founded Propel, a company focused on using technology to make government more user-friendly. Chen’s visits to the food stamps office, along with the countless conversations he had with people across New York’s five boroughs – asking about their families, communities, and challenges – is what lead him to found Propel. Its first product, easyfoodstamps.com, is a mobile-friendly site that streamlines the process of applying for food stamps. Propel is also building a mobile app that improves the daily experience of receiving and spending food stamp benefits, helping families stretch their budgets.

While 45 million people receive food stamps each year, another 8 million qualify but are not enrolled. “Poor user experiences during enrollment or administration can create barriers between the food stamp program – also known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or SNAP – and the Americans it aims to serve,” says Chen.

“We don’t have many safety-net programs nationally and SNAP is one of them. It’s a really important safety net,” says Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity in Philadelphia, which Propel has worked with closely while developing its food stamps software. “Being able to [sign up for food stamps] on your smartphone if you have one, is going to be easier for a mom than dragging her kids into the county assistance office,” she says.

Chen, who came to the U.S. with his parents from China when he was only four, saw first-hand how complicated dealing with bureaucracy could be for families trying to get on their feet. “Growing up, my parents had a lot of trouble navigating the government,” he says. “I grew up with this idea that the government is cold and unapproachable.”

But with Propel, Chen is trying to change that. Through a fellowship withBlue Ridge Labs, he was able to connect with people on the ground to learn about their challenges first-hand and through the Philadelphia-based accelerator program FastFWD, Chen began collaborating with local government to learn how to better meet the needs of low-income families.

Most recently, thanks to $250,000 in funding from the Financial Solutions Lab, Chen was able to expand the company’s team with two new hires and connect with valuable resources in the FinLab network including the law firm Bryan Cave.

Now, instead of waiting six hours in line to see a caseworker and scrambling to submit the right documentation, users can find out if they qualify for food stamps by answering five simple questions online. They can file their documentation using photos taken with their smartphones. “For somebody for whom money is really tight, getting the extra five dollars off your bill or making sure your benefits come on time is a do-or-die kind of thing,” says Chen. “You have to make sure it happens.”

Thanks to companies like Propel, more people can get access to such lifesaving resources.

What They Do

Makes government user friendly

Key People

Jimmy Chen

Co-Founder and CEO

Shelly Ni

Co-Founder and Design Lead

Ram Mehta

Co-Founder and Tech Lead


New York, NY



2015 Challenge Winner
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