Fighting Poverty With Fingerprint Technology: Toby Norman, Co-founder and CEO of Simprints
Sustainable Development Goals: 1, 3, 9, 10
- SDG 1 - No Poverty
- SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
- SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
- SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
This week’s Business of Giving features Toby Norman, co-founder of Simprints. Technology, such as fingerprint biometrics, is radically increasing the effectiveness and transparency of delivering aid. The World Bank estimates that 1.1 billion people have no formal identification, dramatically diminishing the ability to fight poverty when, for instance, it is unclear who has been vaccinated. Simprints’ is trying to change that.
Listen to the podcast, which is hosted by Denver Frederick, or read the transcript further below.
In this podcast, Toby Norman discusses how fingerprint biometrics is increasing the effectiveness of aid delivery and the fight against poverty. The podcast touches on the problem of identification for children globally that need, but are not always receiving, vaccinations.
Denver: How effective can you be in helping someone improve their life if they have no formal identification? Likewise, how can they be agents of their own change if they lack that same identification? Difficult, maybe impossible. Yet, there are over one billion people worldwide who find themselves in this very predicament, preventing them access to essential services. Fortunately, there is a young and innovative organization that is tackling this head on. It’s called Simprints. And it’s a pleasure to have with us their co-founder and CEO, Toby Norman.
Good evening, Toby, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Toby: Good evening! Pleasure to be here.
Denver: So, Toby, what is the mission of Simprints?
Toby: So, at its heart, Simprints’ mission is really to transform the way that we fight poverty. What we do is we build technology – like fingerprint biometrics – to radically increase the effectiveness and transparency the way we deliver aid. Our goal is really to make sure that every vaccine, every bed net, every dollar in this fight is reaching its intended recipient.
Denver: This all started at a hackathon at the University of Cambridge over in England and has evolved in a fashion that I suspect you had never anticipated. Tell us how Simprints came to be.
Toby: So I had never ever planned to get into technology entrepreneurship and social enterprise. I was going into a completely different track. But in 2012, I was doing my PhD at the University of Cambridge, and I spent about four years studying frontline nonprofit workers with BRAC in Bangladesh. For those who might not be familiar, BRAC is actually currently the world’s largest NGO. It’s in over 15 countries, has huge programs in health care, microfinance, education. I was particularly looking at their health programs, and one of the challenges that I was seeing, one of the exciting trends that I was also seeing, was the shift towards digital services. So health workers, for example, going house to house in slums, using low-cost mobile smart phones to record patient data.
It was around this time in 2012, there was actually a hackathon at the University of Cambridge that posed the question: How can we improve the effectiveness of mobile health care services? The main point that we really thought about, and the main point that we came up with, was this challenge of patient identification. It seems pretty obvious to us, but actually, if you imagine yourself in the shoes of a community health worker in Bangladesh, there’s a child in front of you, and that child has no birth certificate, no vaccine record, no health care record. They share a name with maybe hundreds of others kids in that slum. How do you actually link them consistently to a vaccine record so you know which vaccines they’ve had and which vaccines they need next? That was really the spark of what took us into a journey of a massive field that we had no idea what we were getting into.
Denver: To fully appreciate the value of identity, describe to me what my life would be like without it, without any formal identification.
Toby: Well, let’s imagine I go into your wallet, and I throw away your driver’s license. I’m able to, say, go online and delete your birth certificate, your social security number, any medical insurance numbers you have. Think about what you would be able to do. Could you open a bank account without those details? Absolutely not. Would you be able to enroll your kids in school? Definitely no. Would you be able to travel? No. You’d essentially be a refugee within your own country.
And so although we don’t think about identity a lot, it’s actually a massive issue, made even more big by the number of people who don’t have it — 1.1 billion people worldwide without identity is the latest statistics from The World Bank. That’s nearly one in every seven people on the planet.
Denver: Why has something as fundamental as this not been addressed by now?
Toby: It’s a good question. I think there are a lot of factors. Really, there are two levels of challenge to identity, or two different approaches to it.
One is foundational identity. This is an identity that’s provided by the government. That is the government ID that you use to access critical services. Now, in many of the places that Simprints works, countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, and many other countries, actually creating foundational identity systems… and making sure those reach the poorest of the poor, or the last 10 percent, is incredibly hard. It hasn’t been done yet. And I think this is still a challenge that many organizations and many countries are working on, and it’s getting better, but it’s not getting better fast enough.
The second layer is functional identity. This is now: let’s imagine, it’s not your driver’s license given to you by the US government, but it’s a medical insurance number given to you by your medical insurance or your health care provider. Now, they also need that identity to deliver care to you. Without that, you’re not going to be able to get the care or the access to care that you need. This also is incredibly difficult in countries where we work, like Bangladesh where the poorest of the poor rarely have any formal identity they can rely on. And so NGOs and other key service providers in this context don’t actually have a reliable way to link you to the records. You could use the name–would be an obvious one– but there are huge overlaps in name.
For example, in my PhD research in Bangladesh, about 40 percent of my data set was called some variation of Mohamed, so it wasn’t reliable. You could use age, but actually in many cases, people don’t know their exact date of birth. They can tell you, "I was born two years before the revolution or right after the cyclone. I think I’m around 35?" But very often, they don’t know their exact date of birth.
And so what this leads to is huge levels of overlap, duplications, accidental misidentification in the field, which makes it really hard for service providers to know if the care they’re providing, whether it’s health care, education or something else, is actually reaching the intended audience.
Denver: Got it. Speaking of revolutions, there has been a revolution going on in biometrics, and you’ve talked about it in your opening. And there’s probably no better bang for the buck in biometrics, at least currently, than fingertips. But there are a lot of fingertip scanners out there already. You went out and had to design a new one. Why was that the case?
Toby: That’s a great question. So, we are completely agnostic about which biometric modality you use in this context. You can use things like fingerprints, which is very well known. You can use things like facial recognition, iris identification; there’s a whole field. Simprints works with a couple of different modalities, but the one that we really built the organization on was fingerprints. The reason we chose fingerprints is that it still gives you incredibly high accuracy per cost. Has high levels of cultural acceptability. So, for example, when we first started in Bangladesh, we looked at iris, we looked at facial recognition. But in many contexts, this is Islamic culture, some women were veiled, and that just meant those weren’t appropriate. So, finding something that was both culturally appropriate but also gave us the accuracy needed was really key.
We never planned to build our own biometric technology. Even before we started, we suspected that would be way too hard. But when we started testing scanners in the field and saying, "Look. A biometric, like a fingerprint, could be a great way to link someone to the health care records," we were shocked by how poorly the technology worked. It constantly failed in terms of accuracy and also in terms of the appropriateness of design. Most of these scanners were USB scanners designed to plug into powerful desktop computers or even online servers, and that’s not the context we’re working in. We’re working with mobile health workers who have to go house to house delivering care to patients.
So, essentially, we had to do two things. The first is we had to figure out why was the accuracy so bad. And so what we did is we actually took the six leading fingerprint technologies on the market. We put them in a number of different boxes, and we conducted a research study across four countries, enrolling over 135,000 fingerprints from Benin, Zambia, Bangladesh and Nepal, trying to understand what was highly accurate with last-mile populations, really the poorest of the poor.
What we saw consistently was that these are populations that are doing a ton of manual labor. These are farmers. These are day laborers in the cities. These are women and housewives cooking on open fires. And what that meant is that we actually saw huge levels of scar, wear, and burns on their fingerprints. In over 70 percent of the data we saw, we saw some type of fingerprint damage, particularly with women. We actually got a lot of thermal burns on their finger pads because they’re cooking, lifting hot pots off open fires, which meant that when we use the technology that was on the market, it failed. It had error rates over 30 percent, which is just unusable.
So we, I think, derailed a few PhDs while we were at Cambridge together with the co-founding team, and spent our time saying, "Could we actually optimize technology to deal with scarred and damaged fingerprints so that you could actually identify this group, and then package that in a sensor in our technology that was designed for and, actually, really by community health workers in the field?" And that was I think the key technical challenge we had to overcome in the early days.
Denver: How much more accurate is this scanner that you designed compared to what we’ve had on the market previously?
Toby: According to our studies, and actually still today, I believe that that data set is the largest academic data set of developing world fingerprints out there. The technology is 228 percent more accurate with open standards than the next best-performing technology on the market. We’ve used this now in projects in over 11 different countries with over 100,000 beneficiaries and going to a lot more. So I think there is more data to collect, but overall, we found this to be highly effective.
Denver: You touched on this a moment ago, but in developing this hardware scanner, what were some of the things that it had to be capable of to be effective on the frontlines in the field? You guys spent a lot of time living in these communities, so you really knew what would work and what wouldn’t.
Toby: We went through maybe 20 different iterations with eight very distinct design pathways, all trying to come to what would actually be required to work in this context. It had to be rugged in these tough conditions – waterproof, shockproof. It’s got to be able to fall off the back of a motorcycle and still work. It needs to actually be ergonomic, which is really key. Something that we often forget is that these are health workers who are interacting with patients who are very busy. While the health worker is talking to them, the mother is cooking or looking after the kids, and maybe the father is coming back from the field. So, we need something that was ergonomic, that could easily and quickly slip into the palm of someone’s hand, take a fingerprint, even with sort of very worn, scarred fingers.
And so, we had to build this technology. It had to be mobile, it had to be long lasting, and it had to work completely offline. And that was a really hard challenge to correct because most of the technology that was out there was designed to run on servers. We needed something that could, although periodically, sync data to a server, had to be able to work in the most remote locations with no internet connectivity.
Denver: You also built it so it would plug into the international architecture, correct?
Toby: That’s an excellent point. Yes. Something we realized early on, and we were determined not to do, was to duplicate the work that many organizations were already doing. So, for example, a lot of great NGOs and governments now are using digital tools to collect data about the services they provide.
So, for example, with BRAC, their frontline health workers were actually collecting patient data on low-cost, typically Chinese-manufactured smartphones, and moving that to a central server. We didn’t want to recreate the system. What we wanted was something they could plug into existing tools, and one that plugs into both the technical platforms out there. But really critical for us also to be interruptible, something that would not lock in people to specific vendors – meaning if you work with Simprints, you can only work with Simprints – but actually adhere to international standards in terms of the way we store biometric data… so that these can plug into government schemes, other NGOs. Simprints can be replaced by other vendors and actually try and get an ecosystem making better quality, more effective, cheaper technology allowing this access, rather than trying to dominate the market.
Denver: Let’s discuss several ways that it can be used. I think we’re all familiar with the stories of corruption and incompetence when it comes to the distribution of aid. Now, how is Simprints helping to address that?
Toby: Aid is a huge challenge. There have been studies that have shown that of nearly over $2.3 trillion dollars that we’ve spent on aid, huge percentages of that got lost. I’ve seen statistics anywhere from 20 percent to 69 percent of that never actually making it to its intended recipients.
What something like a biometric does, particularly if we combine that with a timestamp and a GPS coordinate, it tells you three things. It tells you, first, who received the service, when did they receive the service, and where did they receive the service. Let’s say it’s a food subsidy, it’s an oil subsidy, or increasingly in the field of international development, it’s a cash transfer, whether conditional or unconditional cash transfer.
And so, if you have those three pieces of data, it makes it much harder, for example, for a middleman to make up lists or names of fake recipients – they’re called ghost beneficiaries – and actually say, "Yes. I’ve handed out all of these cash transfers to this target population. Here’s the list of people who have received them." None of the names on that list are real, but it’s so hard to actually check or prove if they’ve received it.
Now, if you’ve got those three pieces of information, you know a) it’s, first off, incredibly technically difficult to fake any of those pieces of data, but b) you can also go back and backcheck – did this person actually receive this service? Yes or no. And so that radically increases the effectiveness and the transparency in which we deliver critical aid services.
Denver: There are also challenges in the developing world around education, and one of those challenges is teacher absenteeism, and for that matter, student absenteeism. How is your product used there?
Toby: It’s a really interesting one that we never intended to get into. We started this really just focused on patient identification. But when I started talking to my colleagues that worked in the field of development, they kept on saying, "We have the exact same problem in education," or in finance or in all of these other areas.
For example, in education, teacher absenteeism is a huge problem globally. We’ve done a project with T3 Systems and actually the Afghani Ministry of Education, looking at the question of how prevalent is teacher absenteeism. Because you now have very remote schools where corrupt officials within the ministry could potentially make fake lists of teachers who are supposedly teaching at these schools, but actually, they’re not there. They’re not coming. Or occasionally, real teachers who just don’t have the incentives or the salary to actually go into the school. And it’s so hard to check: are they actually there?
With something like a fingerprint, we can now see, "Ok. Is that teacher in the classroom? Yes or no." And you can even use the same thing for student attendance. So, for example, saying like "When do kids drop out of school? Why are they starting to drop out of school?" It’s hard to answer those questions if we don’t know who’s in the classroom in the first place. These are not areas we ever planned to get into at the start, but it’s something the market has pulled us into because there’s a real need here that we frankly didn’t anticipate. But now I see huge value in trying to solve these problems.
Denver: Toby, let’s talk a little more about vaccination. Because in the developing world, 17 percent of children under the age of 5 die of vaccine-preventable diseases. What impact have you been able to have on that with Simprints?
Toby: So, this is a big area that we’re just getting into. Simprints was, very fortunately, this year awarded a 2018 Gavi Pacesetter award for our work in the vaccination space and what we hope to continue doing with Gavi. For those who don’t know, Gavi is the Global Alliance for Vaccinations. They’ve done a huge amount of work in reducing the cost of vaccines and increasing access to vaccines globally. And really, one of the key problems they’re trying to focus now is on what they call "the fifth child." It’s that 20 percent of children globally who do not receive the full course of vaccines that they need. Again, a key challenge is identification. It’s knowing which children have received vaccinations and which haven’t. Who’s dropped through the cracks?
For example, Simprints in the early days, we did a lot of field testing in Benin with the Ministry of Health vaccine clinics. And I can tell you the work that the health workers have to do in this context is incredibly difficult. Picture yourself sort of on a concrete floor, maybe with a tin roof above your head. You’ve got 60-, 80 mothers, many of whom have trekked for hours and hours through the heat to come to the vaccine clinic. There are screaming, crying children everywhere. And you’ve got three or four health workers who are trying to get all of these kids vaccinated, with paper records stacked through the roof, many mothers unfortunately forgetting to bring the vaccine card, or losing it, or potentially getting water-damaged. Trying to know which vaccines has the child received and which ones they haven’t received is no easy task, which means sometimes that we’re restarting courses of vaccinations; we’re re-enrolling the same children under different names, and we don’t have an accurate sense of who’s actually been reached.
I sat with the minister of health once and he asked me, "Why is it that I get 130 percent vaccine coverage reports for my different districts, and every year, I see vaccine-preventable epidemics? Why is that happening?" And it’s happening because we can’t see who we’ve reached and who we’ve missed.
Denver: Listening to what you’re saying, this is so much more than just a hardware scanner because I’m just getting an idea of the maintenance of all these records, and I’m sure that’s really the backbone of what you do. But a big piece of all that then is going to be issues around privacy and security, and I know this is very central to everything you do.
Let’s start with privacy, the concerns you’re mindful of, and what you do to safeguard an individual’s privacy.
Toby: Privacy is a huge concern. It’s something really important that you need to address head on. I think in the past couple of years, it has become something that we can actually, on a personal level, relate to much more. Cambridge Analytica, the Facebook scandals, there’s really a scenario that it’s becoming more and more part of the public consciousness, as it should.
We think about this in a couple of different layers. The first question is: "What information do we actually need?" And that’s really critical because there’s a temptation – and I know this coming from the research space – to collect tons of data on everything because maybe it could be useful. But actually Simprints is a privacy-first organization, really makes it very clear that we don’t want to collect any information that’s not required.
The second thing we need to do is think about "How do you genuinely get informed consent in the field from beneficiaries who might not have very high levels of education?" I don’t know about you, but when I see sort of the terms and conditions update on my iTunes or Play Store accounts, I don’t read them. I click the accept box, and I go through. I know it’s actually something that I should not be doing. Could you imagine trying to get genuinely informed consent from someone who’s maybe had five years of education total in their life?
And so Simprints has worked with a team of human rights lawyers, privacy and cyber security experts to actually really craft very clear, informed consents in local language, train the workers that we work with to actually deliver those, have fully-detailed frequently-asked questions about what are we collecting and why are we collecting it. And something we’re very proud of is we hold to GDPR privacy standards. So, for those who don’t know, this is the European General Data Protection Regulation. Arguably, it’s the strictest privacy standards in the world. And so although we work in many places that have little or sometimes no privacy regulations in local government, we hold ourselves to that European standard on every single project we do, no matter where we are, because we think this is critically important.
Denver: That’s great because I think sometimes people think that the people at the bottom of the pyramid don’t deserve the same level of privacy as the rest of us, and they most certainly do.
What about security?
Toby: Security is a really key one as well. There are many different layers to security. Security is, but then again, we’ve seen some of the hacks even in the past couple of years that have just been shocking to us. Again, Facebook recently, another massive hack. Huge challenge.
There are a couple of ways we approach it. First is that we always go to the best of the best in terms of who is designing security architecture. So most of our infrastructure is built with Google, who we think is one of the best in the world when it comes to security.
Second thing is, we work very hard on the underlying architectures of the technology. So, for example, Simprints has zero access to any patient record, any financial record, any education record, any of those details. That information is held in separate databases for the NGO and government partners we work with. Don’t touch it, don’t want access to it.
What we do is we silo away biometric data and associate that with a randomly generated anonymous, unique ID. That randomly generated anonymous unique ID is the link to someone’s health care record or their finance record. That means that you keep the biometric data and the patient or beneficiary data separate. So, if there is ever a breach in one of those two databases, you would not have access to the corresponding information.
And so that type of architecture design, coupled with best practice encryption across the different layers at which it works – firmware, Bluetooth, mobile and cloud – means that you have a really simple, very streamlined data collection system that should arguably be incredibly robust or nearly impossible to break into.
Denver: That is good to hear. When you started Simprints, you thought of a couple different business models, kicked them around, but ultimately decided on a nonprofit. What were the factors in making that decision?
Toby: That’s a very interesting question and one that we spent a lot of time thinking about. For those who are actually interested, we did a pretty large landscaping of the different legal options for for-profit, social enterprises and nonprofits in UK. We’ve actually open sourced those findings because we spent quite a lot of time. Worked with a great law firm to figure those out. And so for those who are interested, check out our website, www.simprints.com, and we have the full report available there for other people who are maybe thinking about what are the legal options for them.
For us in the end, we decided to go with a nonprofit model, not a charity, which was actually quite important to us, for the ethos of the organization and how we wanted to structure. We knew that we’d really want to be driven by earned revenues and not just rely purely on philanthropy. I think that has an important place in the system. But we knew we wanted a tied accountability loop to the work we were doing. But at the same time, we wanted to plant a flag in terms of our social impact, social goals, bringing that at the heart of the organization. So we found doing that type of model, that nonprofit business, really for us was the best bet.
Denver: Well, your first paid contract was with an NGO in Nepal called Possible. So, let’s talk about your earned revenue. How is that going? Are you meeting plan?
Toby: That’s a fantastic question. This is something we’ve really focused hard on. So when we started, the entire R&D and the entire organization essentially bootstrapped off grants and a little bit of philanthropy to get us started up. We went to market about a year and a half ago. So we started to get our first earned revenues. We now get 43 percent of our income from earned revenues, meaning sales to NGOs, to governments and other organizations who are using our technology. That’s up from zero percent 15 months ago, 10 percent about a year ago. And our goal really within two years is to get 80 percent driven by our earned revenues, and that’s really important to us for two reasons.
One is: we think ethically that’s the sustainable route to making sure this technology is going to be working and in it for the long haul. Second is: we think that it creates a very important accountability loop for us to build, deploy, and really critically sustain technology that works in the field. And this is something that’s super difficult, but in the ICT4D space, sort of the technology for development field, there’s a lot of wonderful innovations that I think either struggle to get to the field, or once they get to the field, they’re not well sustained.
There’s a whole bunch of complex reasons we can go into for that, but I think one of the most important is that the incentives aren’t lined up well. You’re not getting paid for keeping that technology working in the field, and that’s something we want to do. And so making sure that the technology genuinely works day in, day out in the hands of health workers or teachers or whoever we’re working with… That’s tough to do, but if we’re getting paid based on whether or not that happens, we’ve got the right accountability.
Denver: No question about it. That’s a wonderful thing about earned revenue, you actually know that people really want this. If you get a grant, you’re not really sure.
Your values are prominently displayed on your website. Tell us about several of them and the impact that they’ve had in the way you approach your work.
Toby: We think about values pretty simply. We think values are the rules that we agreed to play by as a team. And so our mission is really objective, it’s what we’re trying to do, but how we are going to achieve that mission is just as important as what we’re attempting to do. And so we thought long and hard about the values. We tried to make them non-traditional.
A couple of ones we really like…one of my favorites is: " Confront the grey."
Denver: I like that, too.
Toby: We work in a complicated field, and I think sometimes we tend to simplify. People put up stuff like integrity on the walls. I think Enron actually had that as one of their core values. But look, this is a complicated space. The easy questions are the ones that are black and white. The easy questions "Is this corrupt? Yes or no?" and if the answer is yes, you don’t do it. That’s not a really hard conversation. It shouldn’t be the conversation we need to have at this stage.
But there’s a lot of questions like "How much security is enough?" That is not binary. It’s not black or white. You can go from very little all the way to so much that the systems aren’t useful. Safest thing to always do is to sit on your hands, and they’ll stay clean forever; but that we don’t think works. Not only does action require integrity, but we really think integrity requires action. If you see something that’s not right, you’ve got to do something to get into that space.
So," Confront the Grey" is our value at Simprints which means, "Look. We know we’re going to be entering complex areas. This is a difficult field with issues like privacy, security, informed consent, use of technology, vulnerable populations. How do we make sure that what we actually do, at the end of the day, is the right thing?" The most important thing we can do is we talk about it. If we see something that doesn’t feel right, we confront the grey at that moment, and we raise it and we debate and we disagree and we argue, but we have those critical conversations.
I think it was Louis D. Brandeis who once said that: sunlight is the best disinfectant. We fundamentally believe that. If we are transparent, and we talk about the hard things, we think at the end of the day, more often than not, we’re going to get to the right place.
Denver: Well, they are definitely an interesting set of values. I don’t ever think I’ve seen "robust as fudge" on anybody’s website as a value. Toby, speak to us about innovation. I know you have developed very tight and fast feedback loops to help accelerate it. Give us an example of how this works in practice.
Toby: This I think was something that we really took from Agile Methodologies, which develops really from the software development space, but now are getting applied to a whole bunch of various areas of business. And the core concept is that for things that are very complicated, it’s often impossible to predict in your planning cycles how they’re going to play out. So if I’m launching a new piece of technology, there are so many moving parts that for me to sit down and do what’s known as a waterfall approach…. So, say, first we’re going to do this, then a month later we’ll do this, and then a month later we’ll do this, and then maybe two years at the end of the process, we’ll release that technology to the market and hope it works. That is simply too slow. We do not have the ability to predict what’s going to happen upfront. And I think for us, that’s actually been a really insightful and critical piece, not only how we think about the way we built technology. So as a team, we run Agile. We work on a two-week sprint cycle. We try and get feedback on everything we’re doing on a really regular cadence, but also in terms of what Simprints is able to help organizations improve. Are there feedback loops?
It is tough to measure social impact. And there are great methodologies out there. Things like randomized control trials, difference in difference methods, cluster sampling. There’s a lot of different methodologies, but one of the challenges many of them have is that they’re slow.
Denver: And expensive.
Toby: And expensive. It can cost you a million dollars and take two years to run a rigorous RCT trying to see if this program works. And while I think that absolutely has its place in the sector, that’s a really slow innovation cycle. That’s way too slow.
With something like Simprints, you can see now real time data on who’s receiving services, when they’re receiving services, and where they’re receiving services. That starts to create really tight feedback loops now between what genuinely happened in the field, often the next level up, which is the field managers, all the way up to headquarters. And if you start to get those feedback loops tighter and faster, we think you can make massive operational improvements, actually knowing for the first time what’s happening. It’s like taking a blindfold off and saying, "Oh, that’s actually what’s happening in the field. This is where we’re reaching; this is where we’re not. Let’s fix that now. Let’s not fix that in two years when the RCT results come back."
Denver: And one observation I have about RCT results is that too many organizations do those too early before they have the proof of concept, and they just slow the whole organization down, only to find out, "Oh, it doesn’t work." They should be spending more time in the iteration phase.
You had said, Toby, that the most important resource is the team that you’ve built. Tell us how you went about building it and what you’ve learned about building a great team.
Toby: So for me, this is critical. I think at the end of the day, actually in my heart of hearts, I’m an HR nerd. To me, talent is the most important part of my role. I think it’s one of the most important factors in determining whether or not Simprints and the work and the mission we’re trying to achieve will be successful. There’s nothing that will make a bigger difference in our success than having great people on board. So, I spent a lot of my time and a lot of my headspace thinking about that, and I’m lucky to work with a phenomenal group of advisors, mentors and supporters to get through that.
To give a couple of examples of what that looks like in practice. First is: we take recruiting incredibly seriously. We looked at some work that came out of Harvard Business School in terms of: how do you, for example, a value curve? When Simprints is on the talent market and we’re trying to steal people from McKinsey and from Google and from Goldman and from all the places where really smart, bright people are going to go, how do we win that talent war?
And what some of that research shows is that you don’t get a marginal benefit from being sort of 40 percent versus 30 percent away from salary benchmarks. There’s very little return for you for that 10 percent underpaid people. If that’s the primary motivator, they are always going to go to the higher-paying job. So, you have to think: where else can we compete? And for a lot of people, salary is only one part of the equation.
If you look at, for example, autonomy, so, how much freedom do they have, how much control over their time and their team. You look at mastery, so the level of professional development, how fast are they learning. You look at purpose – do they connect to the organization’s purpose? You look at team and culture. And actually, there is no reason that the nonprofit sector, or more broadly, the social enterprise sector, cannot compete incredibly effectively on those different areas. So, it’s different parts of the value curve.
And so, we make no bones about the fact that we pay low salaries, but we invest heavily in professional development…. I think really with sort of the same discipline and same caliber as I see it with my colleagues at McKinsey or BCG. We take team really seriously. We put a ton of effort behind purpose and making sure people have a regular and authentic connection to the north star.
We put a lot of effort into culture, and I think these things matter. And particularly when we look at the millennials who are coming into our organization, these are really important factors. And that’s how we steal smart people, convince them to in some cases take 5X pay cuts to come work on this mission because it’s such an exciting team. And they feel so passionate about what we’re trying to do. That, I think, is how you win that talent war.
Denver: Let me close with this, Toby. How long do you see it taking for this problem, for all intents and purposes, to be solved? A legal identity for everyone by 2030 is one of the sustainable development goals. Do you think that is too ambitious? Or do you think it’s not ambitious enough?
Toby: It’s a good question. In my heart, I’m very much an optimist. I’d like to think we’re going to get there. I think it’s going to be bloody difficult. I don’t think we’re on track at the moment. I think there’s a lot more work we need to do between now and then, and I think it’s really critical that we see that identity and that right to identity as a stepping stone to access to services, whether it’s healthcare, education, finance. And so, I think this is the first part of a journey that really could make a lot of difference for a lot of people on the planet, over a billion people. I want to believe we can get there. I know from our side we’re going to be working day and night to do everything we can to make it possible. So let’s see how this plays out.
Denver: It sounds like you will be. Well, Toby Norman, the co-founder and CEO of Simprints, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Where can people learn more about your organization and help you with this work if they should be so inclined?
Toby: Thank you very much. If you’re interested in the organization, come check us out at www.simprints.com. All the information is there. We work with a bunch of great partners, volunteers. So please get involved. We’d love your support. And more broadly, let’s keep pushing for more transparency and more effectiveness in this space.
Denver: And that’s also M for Manhattan. Thanks, Toby. It was a pleasure to have you on the program.
Toby: Pleasure to be here. Thanks very much!