Alex Stephany is the Founder and CEO of Beam: the pioneering tech platform that supports homeless people into stable paid work.
1. How did you get into entrepreneurship?
I cut my professional teeth as a corporate lawyer at Clifford Chance before a stint in consulting. I then hustled my way into the tech scene through countless Meetups and coffees. I was in the process of starting a marketplace for independent retailers (much like Trouva) before taking up an offer at a VC-backed startup, JustPark, as COO to accelerate my learning even more. A year later I became CEO and led JustPark’s equity crowdfunding campaign to raise £1 million on CrowdCube. It ended up being the largest ever crowdfunding campaign for a tech startup at the time, reaching £3.5m. I remember thinking ‘what if we could use this power of crowdfunding for social good?’ That idea found an outlet several years later in Beam.
2. How did you come up with the idea of Beam?
Three years ago, I got to know a homeless man at my local Tube station in London. I’d buy him cups of coffee and pairs of thermal socks when it was getting cold. At one point, he disappeared for weeks on end. When he reappeared, he looked years older: he told me he’d had a heart attack and had just come out of hospital. Despite the well-meaning gestures from myself and no doubt others, he was in a worse position than ever.
So I began to ask myself a question: what it would take to make a lasting difference to this man’s life? He had never had a job and was illiterate. For me, the answer lay in empowering him with the skills, training and confidence to sustainably support himself. Of course, that would cost far more than coffees or socks – but what if everyone chipped in?
The idea of crowdfunding employment training for homeless people was born. Over the following nine months, I developed the model working with homeless people and charities and officially launched Beam in September 2017.
3. How did you start your company and were they any obstacles you had to overcome?
I knew very little about the issue of homelessness when I first came up with the idea for Beam, so I spent as much time reading about homelessness as possible. I also met with a number of experts, as well as people experiencing homelessness, so that I could truly understand how Beam could support this community.
The first person we supported is a man called Tony. Like the overwhelming majority of homeless people in the UK, he lived in a homeless hostel so he had a roof over his head but a real lack of opportunity. I met with him and told him about Beam. He didn’t say anything for the entire meeting, apart from at one point when he said: ‘I don’t understand. Why would anyone help me?’ It was a real punch-in-the-stomach moment when I realised that one of the key problems faced by the long-term unemployed is a lack of confidence and belief, even though there are millions of people who would want to support them.
I explained that I thought people would care but I couldn’t make any promises, and he trusted me enough to say he’d give it a shot. We went to see some electrical training providers who said they would teach Tony to become an electrician if we could get the money together, and we built his campaign. I picked up the phone to a number of journalists, who started writing about us, and Tony’s campaign funded within about a month. Since that moment, we’ve supported more than 160 homeless people.
4. How can the homeless problem be solved and what would you recommend to individuals to do to help?
I’m a strong believer that we can only solve a massive social issue like homelessness if we all play to our strengths. In London, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with some wonderful charities and forward-thinking government authorities who refer people to Beam. We work with concerned citizens who fund the campaigns, either through one-off or monthly donations. We work with training providers who provide in-demand skills. Finally, we work with fantastic companies who hire from our talent pool.
By giving to Beam, members of the public are supporting a homeless person for the long-term. What’s more, 100% of donations are applied charitably through our unique 100% giving model which sees our overheads funded separately by philanthropists and foundations. You also receive email updates about the people you’ve supported – from when they complete their training to starting work – so you can see the direct impact your money has made. As a supporter, it’s a pretty powerful experience which makes people feel amazing.
5. What advice would you give to young budding entrepreneurs and how should they begin their journey?
You don’t have to be the founder of a start-up to take credit for its impact. It’s genuinely inspiring that there are so many young people who have seen the scale of problems facing society, whether that’s the climate crisis or homelessness or others, and want to put their skills and minds to solving these issues.
However, if you’re new to startups, my advice would be to join the most impactful organisation you can, rather than start your own. Beam is hiring – and so are many other startups. Entrepreneurs have been over-glamorized in today’s society, which is resulting in a proliferation of start-ups – most of which will fail. When I left the corporate world, I played around with starting my own thing. But I ended up cutting my teeth in a startup. That was exactly what I needed. For while working on billion-dollar deals had taught me so much, startups are a different sport altogether, requiring different skills and different mindsets. In fact, there’s plenty you have to unlearn.
Unless you’re the next Elon Musk (and hey, you just might be!), the most impactful thing you can do is to not be the founder. Be part of the founding team or the early team. Work on the thing that you see around you that makes your hairs stand on end. These early joiners are the people that really make history because that’s where the impact is – when people can get around a strong idea and team and make real progress towards a bold and important vision.
We would like to thank Alex for speaking with us today.