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Valeria Robayo named a Reimagine Challenge winner

Inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic, the MIT sophomore has proposed a centralized resource app for those who need help.
Valeria Robayo
Valeria Robayo
Photo courtesy of Valeria Robayo

Valeria Robayo, a sophomore majoring in management and minoring in German, has been named one of 20 Reimagine Challenge winners for her proposal of a centralized mobile- and web-based service offering local community resources.

Co-founder of Schmidt Futures and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt launched the Reimagine Challenge scholarship contest in August 2020. Contestants were challenged either to find community-based solutions related to the Covid-19 pandemic or to spark a movement to make the world “meaningfully better” in 10 years. The contest garnered 838 submissions from graduate and undergraduate students around the world, and each of the 20 winners was awarded up to $25,000 in tuition scholarship funds.

Robayo focused on the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted minority and lower-income populations. Her proposal, called Resource Hub, is a free online and mobile-based service pairing underserved community members with all of the local services they desperately need — such as rental assistance or health care services — all in one place. Although many communities offer free online job banks or other listings, these databases often are not user-friendly, nor are they updated often enough, Robayo notes. Resource Hub would fill the gap to match these services with people who need them, and would be open to all.

Limits to research

The pandemic influenced Robayo’s idea, but the origins for Resource Hub go back further for her as a first-generation American whose family didn’t have the means to pay for a lot of extras while she and her younger sister were growing up in Texas. Robayo’s parents – originally from Bogotá, Colombia – worked long hours, and Robayo researched her own scholarship and educational opportunities.

“There wasn’t money to pay for tutors … or expensive summer school programs, so I had to become very resourceful and I used my local library and my Google skills,” Robayo says.

In high school, Robayo interned at a local hospital, where she often noticed patients who didn’t receive timely health care because of language barriers, hospital disorganization, or other factors. Robayo saw how fortunate she was to find her own opportunities because of her strong research skills.

“I realized that I was so lucky that I didn’t have to work a full-time job or even a part-time job, and that I’m not the main provider for a family with children, because if I were, I would not have had the time to this kind of research, and I would have lost out,” she says.

How it works

Robayo and her future team members will network closely with a local area to build a database of resources, including nonprofits and funding programs that target community needs. A local user then downloads the Resource Hub app, or visits online, to provide some basic demographic and employment questions. After answering a few short questions, they are then matched with resources that they may qualify for — such as health, employment, or financial assistance.

Robayo’s proposal outlines a fictitious user, Laura, a 42-year-old single Mexican-American mother in Boston whose job as a restaurant manager is in peril because of the pandemic. While juggling another job and struggling to pay her rent, Laura doesn’t have time to research assistance for herself, but she downloads the Resource Hub app, and in minutes learns about programs such as the City of Boston Rental Relief Fund. Resources will be constantly updated and users will be encouraged to submit new sources of assistance that might not yet be included.

Robayo says Resource Hub will not sell users’ information, but she might be able to monitor who’s using the app to see what services are being requested the most. Ultimately, she could use the information to lobby government officials to help them make informed decisions about budgets.

MIT Sloan Professor Erin Kelly, who is Robayo’s Course 15 faculty advisor, says she was “delighted but not surprised,” to learn about Robayo’s prize.

“Valeria combines a terrific intellect with creativity and a commitment to finding ways to benefit our larger community. She has a longstanding interest in medicine and she has pursued classes, internships, and other opportunities to learn more about what she can do to improve health care access and equity,” Kelly says.

All of the Reimagine Challenge winning proposals are available in an online anthology.

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