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Networking for Good

Alum Teaches Social Media Skills to the Impoverished and Homeless

By Sala Levin ’10

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Illustration by Steffanie Espat

Illustration by Steffanie Espat

ShahWhen Kushaan Shah ‘15 first met Mayamerica Cortez, the writer and immigrant from El Salvador feared that she would never find an audience among the anonymous masses of the American public.

But Shah (right) showed her how to create a blog and use social networking websites to find other Spanish speakers and Salvadoran expatriates, linking her to like-minded potential readers. “My goal was to let people know about my poetry,” says Cortez. “It’s all about social media.”

Using LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to build professional and personal networks is second nature to those of us with easy access to computers and the Internet. Now, through his new nonprofit called Social Rise, Shah is teaching these skills to groups often left behind on technological advances: immigrants, people living in poverty and the homeless.

“If you get all these people in poverty and connect them with social media and allow them to actually build relationships that can help them cover their basic needs,” Shah says, “then in the long run they would be able to gain economic independence and also have social and emotional benefits.”

Shah, a full-time consultant for IBM in Washington, D.C., discovered his interest in addressing social inequality while pursuing a business degree at UMD. He volunteered at LIFT, a national nonprofit organization working on poverty, as part of the Social Innovation Fellows program in the Robert H. Smith School of Business, and saw how people without “social capital” struggled to find jobs.

“I wanted to find a way to bridge these gaps, to help these people who were looking to rebuild and were forced to compete in this economy where they were a lot farther behind than their peers,” he says.

Teaching IBM executives to use Twitter and LinkedIn gave Shah insight into how the websites could be powerful tools for job hunters. So he began leading social media workshops for social service organizations, picked up a few volunteers to help and, this fall, incorporated Social Rise as a 501(c)3.

But Shah caters to the needs of a low-income population—for example, building a personality- or mission-based LinkedIn profile rather than one focused on education and professional accomplishments.

Since last year, he’s worked with some 23 organizations and estimates that nearly 150 people have attended his workshops; some attendees have their own cell phones or computer, while other rely on computers at public libraries.

One of his partnerships is with Empowered Women International (EWI), an organization that provides business training and mentoring to immigrant, refugee and low-income women in the D.C. area.

The women affiliated with EWI are primarily starting their own nonprofit organizations or are micro-entrepreneurs launching small businesses, many of them in the fields of clothing, food or accessories, says Joy Cabanda, a program and outreach fellow at EWI.

Shah “would welcome questions and answer them as much as he could,” Cabanda says. “He’d try to connect it with the value that each and every woman has and how [their business] would help the community.”

He acknowledges that social media may not seem to be the most compelling need of homeless and low-income people. But creating a community for the traditionally marginalized is at the heart of Shah’s vision—and it’s hard to do that today without social media.

In one workshop, he taught participants how to take part in a Twitter chat—a skill they implemented that very week when many of them joined a Twitter chat about the digital divide.

“On Twitter you see policymakers, thought leaders, executives making their opinions heard” on how to handle unequal access to the Internet, says Shah. “Now you had people who were actually impacted by it, you got to hear their stories—all because they had learned a little bit about how to use Twitter and get online.”

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