Election Bridge, a civic engagement app created by co-founders Ackeem Evans and Jermaine Hartsfield, is changing the way that communities understand and interact with their government. Their mobile platform serves as a conduit and activator for households to connect and share feedback with federal, state, and local levels of the U.S. government, generating data-led insights for better governance. This innovative startup is also a member of the Roux Institute Founder Residency 2022 Cohort, making them one of five companies chosen for their high-growth ideas and impact potential.
We sat down with Ackeem and Jermaine to talk about their company’s mission, origin story, and journey so far. We also got the chance to ask them about their personal motivations, interests, and experiences in the startup world.
Ackeem Evans is a Georgia State graduate with over 8 years of political, governmental, and organizational development experience. He worked as a U.S. Congressional Staffer, before moving into a Community and Organizational Development role in Albania. While in Albania he worked with local governments to implement projects around gender equality, governmental transparency, and economic / organizational development. After his time abroad he transitioned into a project management role with World Central Kitchen to oversee relief operations for the state of Georgia. In response to COVID-19, Ackeem oversaw a project that injected over 4 million dollars into Georgia’s service industry over the span of 4 months. He also served in the Georgia National Guard as a Paralegal specialist. During his time with the CDC as a Grants Management Specialist, he awarded $139,188,181 in funding to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ackeem is a co-founder of the non-profit Everyone Eats Foundation that has been servicing underserved communities since 2017.
Jermaine Hartsfield is a Widener University graduate with over 7 years of organizational development and leadership experience. He served in various organizational development and leadership roles in both private and government sectors before moving into a Community and Organizational Development role in Albania, during which he met Election Bridge’s Co-founder Ackeem Evans. After his time abroad he began his tenure as an Adjunct Professor of Team Dynamics for the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, as well as a new role as an analyst for a Foreign Development Federal agency. Jermaine also served on the executive board of the Philadelphia Regional Organizational Development Network.
What’s the origin story of Election Bridge, or the core idea that inspired your mission?
Election Bridge started as a personal project that Ackeem was working on while serving as a project manager for World Central Kitchen. As he continued to look deeper past the political engagement aspect of governance, he realized that a communication gap existed between citizens and the government. Initially, Election Bridge’s mission was to create a platform that centralizes government information and creates personalized’ civic engagement experiences for everyday citizens. However, as we shifted our focus to civic intelligence, the company’s mission has transformed into developing a civic intelligence tool that provides a frictionless communication channel between citizens and governing entities.
You mentioned that you’re shifting focus from civic engagement to civic intelligence. Can you explain the difference between those terms?
Jermaine: Yeah, absolutely. There are multiple approaches to civic engagement, and there are different apps like Next Door or Mobilize that do an awesome job at connecting neighborhoods and mission-driven people to action. However, as we started to grow and learn more about how governance and our interactions with governance impact the places that we call home, we switched gears and focused on taking it a step further. We really want to use this platform not only to engage people but to find ways that we can capture that engagement and utilize it to help impact our communities for generations.
Ackeem: Right. And then just to build on what Jermaine said, we saw that there’s a lot more to governance that people don’t expect or anticipate. You have a person, but then you have this whole slew of government agencies and initiatives and nonprofits and programs that are designed to help alleviate some of the problems that you would like the elected officials to help resolve. So as we create exposure to these different programs and agencies, we create this ecosystem of intelligence where we store, maintain, catalog, and distribute information to our users. There’s an engagement, a learning, and an information-communication piece that brings together this whole intelligence platform.
Why are you each personally interested in civic engagement and civic intelligence?
A: I’ve spent the majority of my career working in the public sector within various levels of government from Congress to the CDC. As a result of these experiences, my family and peers have always utilized me as a resource when interacting with the government. So after returning from assignment with the Peace Corps in Albania, during both the height of COVID and the 2020 presidential election cycle, many from this community reached out asking for my help.
I don’t see myself as an expert in all facets of governance, but the gap became apparent when I gathered information and resources for those who asked for my help. Few websites provided information related to the upcoming election to include all aspects of the ballot outside of the general high-profile candidate. Additionally, it was difficult for people to differentiate what district their voting address fell into and where/when to vote. As someone who has worked in the public space for many years, I have seen some great people working diligently to provide their constituents with the resources they need to overcome various challenges. By providing the average citizen with a customized civic engagement experience, I believe that we can see a rise in overall participation.
J: I’ve always been fascinated by the values, institutions, and groups that not only define us but connect us. To me, civic engagement represents the process that enables us to make contributions of value to the places we call home. The more integrated we are with this process the more we begin to experience deeper levels of connectedness and transform into communities of possibilities.
What audience are you trying to reach?
Our audience is two-fold. On one hand, the different governments have allocated funding to entities that create programs to best serve the citizens of the United States, and our goal is to help them reach that target audience. On the other hand, many citizens want to be civically engaged and that takes form in many ways: for example, voting, saving a local dog park, gaining access to federally funded medical programs, or leveraging student aid. Our goal is to create exposure opportunities to connect the entity whose mission is to provide resources to those who are seeking these resources but may not know where to look.
Why did you decide to base your company and mission around a mobile platform? What does an app allow people to do that traditional civic engagement strategies don’t allow for?
Most people have smartphones – it’s our portable, personal computer that we use for everything. So we felt an app was more accessible because a core component of the platform is making government personal and accessible. That’s what brought the idea of having it mobile and centralized, and gamified experiences are statistically shown to increase engagement. Building a mobile platform seemed like the best way to give people that quick accessibility that they’re looking for when they’re trying to access and utilize government resources and information.
How does “gamification” come in when people are interacting with the app?
We’re not going to give away all our secrets, but we designed the platform to take you down a journey along this bridge, which is kind of a play on the election bridge. You go down and you experience the different levels of government, and then as you interact you have the ability to share and create a community. We’ve built in different reward systems to help create that gamified experience, and we were able to hit on the three ways people learn: seeing, hearing, and doing. We built those into the platform to make it easy and approachable for whoever’s looking for information.
What levels of government are incorporated into the app?
A: Federal, state, county, and local – everyone from the President of the United States to the local sheriff.
J: Or the Maine town constable!
What have Election Bridge’s greatest accomplishments been so far?
As a company, we have been able to meet some significant milestones over the last two years. We have assembled a great team and group of core advisors that have been key contributors to our growth. Within a year we were able to grow from idea to minimum viable product (MVP). We launched a beta-test of the platform at the President Carter Center located in Atlanta. Another major milestone was being selected as one of five companies selected to participate in the Roux Founder Residency Program.
What challenges have you faced while growing your company, especially as underrepresented founders in the startup world?
The challenges faced by unrepresented founders have been widely documented over the last few years. A 2020 report by the SEC noted that between the years 2013-2017 only 1% of VC-backed businesses were black-owned. Though 2020 was a challenging year for all due to the Covid-19 epidemic there were a lot of promising actions taken by the venture world to address this disproportionate statistic. As a young start-up seeking to be disruptive in the arena of civic intelligence, we find ourselves constantly having to prove our expertise in the industry. However, institutions and programs like the Roux have provided a platform for us to overcome these barriers and build an ecosystem conducive to receiving and supporting our mission financially.
You talked about some promising actions being taken in the venture capital world to address disproportionate investment in Black-owned companies; are there any particular programs or initiatives that you would like to highlight?
One of the programs that we’ve interacted with before is HBCUvc, which is growing out of an HBCU in Atlanta. This is an example of a new program that’s built into an HBCU campus and helping the students there learn how to interact and build that ecosystem, as Atlanta itself is building an ecosystem around venture capital (VC). There are also the conversations we’ve been seeing or hearing in different platforms and mediums where investment is thought of as asset framing. People are saying “Hey, you build upon how different underrepresented groups and BIPOC groups have been a great asset to small businesses and startups, and then you bring in the challenges that they’re experiencing.” You’re showing them as an asset, versus an entity that needs help. And you’re showing that through their great work, there’s an opportunity for growth.
What goals are you setting for Election Bridge in the next year?
We anticipate welcoming our 1000th user by the end of 2022. As a result of some strategic partnerships and development opportunities through the Roux Residency Program, we plan to launch the mobile app version of Election Bridge and cover a minimum of two states, starting with Georgia and Maine.
Shifting gears, how did the two of you meet and why did you decide to start this company together?
A: We both served in the Peace Corps in Albania, and that’s actually where we met. He was there a year before me.
J: I was in a really lush Venetian city in the north, a little bit south of Montenegro. Really cool tourist destination called Shkoder, Albania. Ackeem was in a very different place.
A: Yeah, I was in a more nature-focused, rural, amazing town called Belsh. So we’re both working in community organization development, Jermaine more so in organization development, me more so in economic development working with the municipal government around gender, gender equality, youth transparency, etc. We met there through the Peace Corps, on different sides of the country, but still ended up connecting at some point, traveling together, and collaborating on some projects. Jermaine returned to the states before I did, but we stayed in contact. He was one of the first people I thought of when starting up Election Bridge.
What do you enjoy most about working at a startup?
A: I’ve always described being a CEO of a start-up as the most challenging but rewarding thing I’ve done to this point in my life. Seeing an idea become tangible and seeing the expression on the customers’ faces when you help them solve a problem is what I enjoy the most about this experience. Your passion for the company’s mission gives you that extra push you need to work that extra hour or find a creative solution for a problem that most may see as unsurmountable.
J: The creative process of connecting people, tech, and information from a grassroots level into an impactful business. Developing and leading a mission-driven startup with people that are committed to our ultimate vision has been an honor and one of the best experiences I’ve had so far.
How did you first hear about the Roux Institute Founder Residency program, and what drew you to apply?
We first read about the Roux Institute Founder Residency Program in a VC newsletter that we received from one of our mentors. Several major components of our business align with the Roux Institute’s target areas of Artificial Intelligence and Data Visualization. This alignment would allow us to engage and collaborate with experts as we develop our platform’s database. Additionally, the Founder Residency program presented an opportunity for us to shift away from the noise of the traditional busier hubs and relocate to a state that offers a thriving innovation culture and unparalleled natural beauty.
Was this your first introduction to Maine? Have you had a chance to explore the state yet?
J: We’ve explored parts of Portland; we’ve only been here for a month, and it seems like every weekend it’s been snowing. We have a sports car, so we’re ill-prepared for the winter in Maine, and when it snows we stay inside. We haven’t been to too many places outside of Willard Beach, the local beaches around the Cape Elizabeth area, and the gym.
A: We’ve heard a lot about places we should go. We of course went to L.L.Bean, and we’ve been walking around, meeting different people. Everyone’s great here – they’ve given us recommendations for places to go and beaches where you can take your dogs. But this was my first introduction to Maine; I haven’t been further north than New York. But everything’s been great, and we’re still learning and have a lot more to see.
What are your passions and hobbies outside of your job?
A: I enjoy reading, but when I’m not buried in a book you can find me outdoors. I enjoy hiking with my Australian Shepherd or relaxing on a beach, especially during sunrise.
J: Watching spy thrillers or 90’s action movies with my Fiancé, reading philosophy books, and writing poetry. Since I moved to Maine I’ve started to train for rowing this summer.
Do you have any book, podcast, or media recommendations for people interested in entrepreneurship, tech, or civic engagement?
A: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, The 1% Rule by Tommy Baker, Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur.
J: Community by Peter Block and Tribes by Seth Godin are two books I recommend for people interested in building ideas that connect people in a meaningful way.