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  • Writer's pictureEllie Naider

Founder Spotlight: Jasmine Qin of re+connect

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Jasmine Qin is the co-founder and CEO of re+connect, PollyLabs's portfolio company. re+connect integrates software technology, data intelligence, and social infrastructure to close the last-mile disaster relief delivery gap and build long-term resilience for underserved communities.

We met with Jasmine to learn more about her motivational journey as a founder.

From growing up in a fast-developing China, to traveling on big rivers as a Watson Fellow, to building data platforms in Washington D.C., to obtaining two Masters at Yale and MIT, to witnessing the aftermath of hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico, Jasmine illuminates the pipeline that inspired her to build her mission-driven startup.

Why do you do what you do? What was the motive behind your company, re+connect?

What led to re+connect came from multifold experiences and inspirations. Growing up in China, as a teenager, I witnessed first-hand how the rivers, mountains, and lakes where I used to play as a child become unrecognizable as a result of urbanization and industrialization. These were also the places that inspired our greatest poets, writers, and statesmen, whose words I memorized by heart growing up. I felt a profound sense of loss. When I went to the US for college, I knew from the beginning that I was going to pursue a career in the environmental field. I partook in a study abroad program called "Cities in the 21st Century" where a group of college students traveled to Detroit, Brazil, South Africa, and Vietnam searching for better solutions for our cities. When I graduated from college, I was awarded a Watson Fellowship that enabled me to embark on a year of purposeful solo travel to explore how humans and rivers can have a shared future. I journeyed through the Mekong, Ganges, Amazon, and Rhine rivers, which led me to realize that communities have the tenacity, innovation, and knowledge to thrive and need to be at the table where decisions are made.

After my Watson journey, I went on to Yale for my Master's in Environmental Management and the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC, where I built digital platforms to help communities, businesses, and individuals make better decisions with data. While I was in DC and flying around the world advising governments, I felt an angst to break free from the top-down process and echo chambers and return to the field to co-create solutions with communities on the front line. I went back to school at MIT to add new design, engineering, and business tools to tackle environmental and social challenges and to connect with diverse groups of people, where I learned to be a better listener and strived to understand people and organizations as complex, connected beings.

A few months before MIT started, I returned to Puerto Rico in April 2023, six months after Hurricane Maria hit the archipelago, a place where I had fallen in love with from my previous trips. As I was flying into San Juan, I could still see blue tarps dotting the landscape. These up-close experiences of devastation in communities from climate disasters stayed with me. While I was at MIT, with the support of my master's program (IDM - Integrated Design & Management), the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center, and MIT Sandbox, I spent my spring, summer, and winter breaks in Puerto Rico interviewing civil society and government entities while joining residents who rallied their neighbors to build temporary camps, keep a record of affected families, and cooked and delivered hot meals to those in need. In many parts of Puerto Rico, these community leaders were often the first and only ones responding to crises. What I learned from the field is that the lack of reliable community information, mechanisms for collaboration, and accountability measures had led to the multitude of challenges facing Puerto Rico post-disasters. And Puerto Rico is only one of the many places that are hit by disasters again and again.

Bringing together my experience living and working with communities, building data platforms, and a desire to turn potential opportunities into real changes, I took the leap and turned the pages of my thesis into action through re+connect.

Aftermath of the 2020 earthquakes in Puerto Rico.

If you were to give a basic synopsis of re+connect to someone unfamiliar with the company, what would you say?

Re+connect works to close the last-mile disaster relief gaps and create long-term resilience for underserved communities with software technology, data intelligence, and social infrastructure. The initiative integrates an accessible, reliable, and user-friendly software application with an inclusive community engagement program to enable and empower residents to act as “community ambassadors” to crowdsource key information to bridge the gap between essential resources and services provision and community needs in the face of disasters. We also work closely with all key stakeholders -- residents, community groups, and disaster management agencies -- to actively co-create the solution while improving the collaboration mechanisms and capacity through collaborative design workshops.

Re+connect team worked with residents, community groups, and disaster management agencies via virtual platforms to conduct collaborative design workshops during the pandemic.

What is the hardest thing about doing what you do?

In many ways, innovation in the humanitarian sector takes time. If not carefully implemented, new technology can cause unintended harm to already vulnerable communities impacted by humanitarian crises. It’s hard to have both speed and quality. Disasters also often pose severe stress on social and physical infrastructure and their impacts are hard to predict depending on the context and location. That’s why we take an intentional, collaborative approach with our stakeholder groups to co-develop the solution, which takes a lot of time, resources, and humility, but it also facilitates credibility, reliability and capacity building along the way.

What would you change in the world to make your mission easier?

We need pioneers like PollyLabs to bring in new structures and financial instruments to accelerate responsible innovation in the humanitarian and development space to break the existing status quo.

What is the most recent thing you learned on the job?

We recently finished a project where we conducted design research and user testing through a tabletop simulation exercise. We convened community leaders, residents, and municipal representatives to play a tabletop game to explore how the different user groups would use re+connect to prepare for and respond to a hurricane. We’ve come to learn that people don’t want to be told what to do and changes are often scary. Changes are most effective when people feel like they’ve been part of the decision-making. Since the beginning, we have been deploying collaborative design processes for achieving product design goals, building trust with and getting buy-in from our users, and improving relationships between historically disparate stakeholder groups. This most recent example was one of the most involved and exciting as participants used an analog version of our tools and data to make preparation plans and allocation decisions for different relief resources. They were very excited to participate and told us that they need more of these types of workshops. We have also come to realize the importance of and need for building capacity and improving relationships through these types of workshops for our users.

Jasmine and re+connect team during a collaborative design research workshop with users from a community health clinic.

Are there any lessons from being a founder that you’ve brought into other (i.e: social and personal) spheres of your life?

As a woman, minority, and immigrant, I’ve really come to experience the intersectionality of power as I and the startup faced challenges from all the -isms of our society. I have been studying and working in the environmental and social impact space for more than half of my life. As I build re+connect, I found myself struggling with entrenched power issues and yearning to break the status quo. Last summer, I came across this course on power and influence from Harvard Business School Online, which really helped me to realize that power doesn’t have to be dirty and I do have different sources of power that I can and must understand and cultivate for what I hope to do in life while maintaining integrity and healthy relationships with it.

There is a Puerto Rican word -- bregar. It’s hard to find a perfect translation, but it means to struggle or hustle even when the problems seem too hard or unsolvable. That word also comes with a sense of stubborn optimism and solidarity. When I learned the word - and there is a whole podcast about it, I felt like the universe had conspired for me to finally discover the common thread that ties my life’s pursuits together. I would not be here today as an entrepreneur, environmentalist, immigrant, and explorer if it weren't for all the people that supported me as I bregar through my many adventures, misadventures, and losses. Building a startup with communities in Puerto Rico during a pandemic made me realize that I am honored to be part of the efforts to make sure that when crises hit, we all have strong connections to help each other to rise up from the rubble, bregando juntos.

Communities come together to help and support each other after the 2020 earthquakes. Community groups playing bomba and plena (Puerto Rican music) in solidarity at a shelter.

What is a fun fact about you that isn’t on your LinkedIn/Resume?

I have been a nomad for quite some time! I currently split my time between Puerto Rico, New York, and around Latin America. Right now I’m in Mexico! I thrive in movement and love making new connections in new places. I am always down to try anything twice. I am an avid dancer, artist, and musician, which I also strive to nurture while being a startup founder, as I know building an impact startup is a marathon and we have to make sure that we are thriving as whole persons to make the impact we want to make.

How would you describe your workplace culture and team?

We are a team of women with diverse cultural backgrounds and life experiences. We grew up in different countries with extended experience living, studying, and working across continents. We came together with a common goal to build a more resilient future through different academic and professional paths as environmentalists, researchers, technologists, designers, and engineers. As a diverse team, we have been very intentional co-creating a safe, brave, and inclusive space that builds on the values of empathy, care, and learning. Both through our regular team-building sessions and our day-to-day collaboration, we continuously work to understand and explore how to support each other to align work with who and how we want to be in the world. We also draw lots of inspiration from great women leaders like Brene Brown and Priya Parker. I truly appreciate the growing camaraderie and friendship our team has been building together. I look forward to working with them everyday. Our team culture has also allowed us to develop a deep and caring understanding of the functional and emotional experiences and challenges facing residents, community groups, civil society, and governments through our collaborative research and community engagements.

Re+connect team convened residents, community groups, and disaster management agencies to conduct design research and user testing in Puerto Rico.

What worries and excites you about the future of technology?

Worries: As disasters become more severe and frequent, there are urgent needs to make improvements especially for the underserved communities. However, we do not yet have adequate government policies and legal instruments to make sure that new technology and data products won’t cause more harm to the already vulnerable populations. That is why we’ve been working very closely with both experts and communities to understand what are the best possible data and technology governance strategies that we can deploy to go above and beyond to safeguard the communities we work with.

Excites: We are excited about exploring the possibilities of deploying inclusive and responsive AI and machine learning models to make the resource allocation and delivery processes more transparent and equitable. As we explore various data governance models, blockchain technology may serve as a potential pathway to make distributed, traceable community data management a reality. However, questions around fairness, privacy, security, and transparency are always paramount to what we do. Lastly, while re+connect was first built to improve community disaster resilience, we believe that our community-driven, integrated development process and technology infrastructure can serve as a model to solve other environmental and social challenges, such as public health, education, and poverty alleviation, which can benefit from greater community knowledge information integration and participation.

Thank you very much to Jasmine Qin for graciously speaking with us and sharing her journey and inspirations behind founding a mission-driven startup. To learn more about re+connect, visit their LinkedIn & their website.

About Jasmine:

Jasmine Qin received her Bachelor's Degree in Environmental Studies from Colby College, pursued her Masters in Environmental Management at Yale University, and was selected for MIT's Integrated Design and Management Master's program.

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