In fact, the 32-year-old cofounder/chief executive of the on-demand flood vulnerability mapping startup Cloud To Street kicked off her career about as far as you can get from software engineering and Silicon Valley. Armed with a B.A. in Philosophy and Environmental Studies from Carleton College, she was a community organizer driven by idealism and a desire to hit the ground to preserve the land she loved.
Just how did Schwarz go from a curious teenager selling solar-system maps at the Discovery Channel Store to a scientist equipping clients such as the World Bank with flood-vulnerability data aimed to protect millions of flood-vulnerable people (and their possessions) in the developing world?
As she left her Brooklyn climbing gym en route to her office for the afternoon—a coffee shop—we spoke about her semi-accidental journey to become founder of Cloud To Street, along with the future she sees for the company.
Hacking Finance: Bring us back to the very beginning, before you became an environmental organizer, a scientist, and a tech entrepreneur. What was your very first job?
Bessie Schwarz: My favorite first job was working at the Discovery Channel Store. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, and prior to that I’d worked at summer camp and babysat. But this was in the mall, and it was my job to get parents hyped about all this interesting stuff in the store’s children’s section—like the Howard Zinn book The People’s History of the United States and maps of the solar system. I found real joy in that—not exactly from selling, but from getting people excited about something interesting.
Hacking Finance: Was protecting the environment baked into your aspirations early on? Where’d that stem from?
Bessie Schwarz: I went on a seven-week hiking trip one summer in Maine where we pretty much didn’t leave the woods. I was 15, and when I got home to New Jersey, I saw land around me that had been destroyed and realized that just because the types of places I’d seen in Maine all summer are so precious doesn’t mean that they will always be there. It profoundly moved something in me. That’s when I decided to commit myself to the environment. I realized we have to protect the things we love.
Hacking Finance: Is protecting the environment—those woods you hiked through as a teenager—still a big motivator for you?
Bessie Schwarz: It’s been an evolution realizing how much protecting the environment is about protecting people. There’s deep inequity and power imbalance in how the natural world and its resources are used and who uses them. Certain people, frankly, get disproportionately screwed by environmental degradation.
Hacking Finance: How did you line up your first full-time job post-graduation? Had community organizing been on your radar?
Bessie Schwarz: I had this sense that after college most people lose their idealism—their belief that they can make the kind of change that they’ve seen needs to happen. My feeling at the time was: Whatever profession lets you keep that belief, I am into it.
I didn’t really understand what it meant to be an organizer, but Green Corps, a program designed specifically to show people that environmental community organizing is a profession, recruited at my college. When I met their team, I loved that these older people interested in hiring me were talking like 22-year-olds.
Hacking Finance: What did that 22-year-old talk sound like?
Bessie Schwarz: Like they were going to change the world and that it was possible if we brought everybody together. Oftentimes people learn about organizing and find that they have been organizing non-professionally. That was definitely the case for me.
Hacking Finance: How did you like organizing? What’d you learn?
Bessie Schwarz: Even when I started, I still didn’t totally understand what it meant. But it made so much sense to me when I first hit the pavement. It was this realization of: “Oh, it’s my job to get people to realize their own agency and power within a system in which they are underserved so that together we can shift those power dynamics and get them what they need.” That’s when it clicked.
Hacking Finance: Now that you’re a decade out from your college experience, has the chase for idealism stuck with you? Did you lose any of your 22-year-old idealism upon turning 23?
Bessie Schwarz: It’s funny. It’s as much of a struggle as I sort of intuited it would be when I was 22 and noticing most older people weren’t as idealistic. So yes, that is still an emotional North Star for me. But it’s definitely difficult.
Hacking Finance: How have you balanced staying true to that North Star in your transition from community organizer to startup CEO?
Bessie Schwarz: I think there are probably many pivots in here. I loved being an organizer. I had the chance to work with coastal communities in Florida, lower-income communities in the Midwest, and a lot of other weather-vulnerable communities across the U.S. That’s when I realized that the sort of methods I was using—going into communities to talk to people and empowering them – were just not going to scale. We were up against a changing landscape of a lot of power fighting climate change in this country.
Hacking Finance: How’d you respond to that realization around the limits of scale?
Bessie Schwarz: I went back to graduate school to look for new ways to scale this work that could help protect people left behind and hit first.
Hacking Finance: What did getting a Master’s in Science—with a focus on climate change psychology and natural resources decision-making—equip you with?
Bessie Schwarz: I studied risk perception and social psychology around climate change, with disasters being the epitome of the impact, and then I also studied spatial analysis. I discovered that both of those areas could be powerful tools for protecting people—for rebalancing power and giving people what they need.
Hacking Finance: Tell us more about the genesis of Cloud To Street. How did you and your cofounder get started?
Bessie Schwarz: My cofounder Beth Tellman’s background is in disaster relief. She had moved to El Salvador before a major hurricane, and some remote communities where she had been working were hit hard. She went back to school for hydrology, and that’s when we met. She and I were sitting in an auditorium when Google came to Yale to promote this crazy new remote-sensing platform they were working on. Beth realized she could use that technology to help farmers in communities she’d been working with, and I thought it sounded like a really powerful organizing tool.
Hacking Finance: What came next? Did you enlist the help of software engineers?
Bessie Schwarz: Beth and I started building this algorithm. We had never really coded before, so we taught ourselves and presented the algorithm [at Google’s office] in Mountain View later that summer.
There was a clear need for the data we were working to surface. Google helped us go to a development conference in Kenya to show what was possible using the platform, and they’d given us some core funding for the science so we could keep building it. We took on side projects, and we started getting requests from people at the World Bank and other development agencies who had heard through word-of-mouth that we could help get them the data they needed, too.
Hacking Finance: Was Google sending you to Kenya to demo the product a big game-changer? Did you commit to building the Cloud To Street platform once you finished your Master’s?
It actually did not come for years after that. We basically tried not to do this. Beth and I thought, “Who are we? This is so experimental.”
In 2013, a single flood killed 6,000 people in India, and we began working with the World Bank a year later because the state government still didn’t have flood maps that they needed to prepare for the next one.
I graduated in 2014, which is both when I pitched a Yale professor on a separate idea I had for a consultancy (basically a research and development project for American climate change movement), and when Google gave Beth and me our first grant. So for the first two years, my main focus was the consultancy at Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication. In 2016, it switched to Cloud To Street.
Hacking Finance: What prompted that switch?
Bessie Schwarz: When we got an Echoing Green fellowship for Cloud To Street in the summer of 2016, we had to decide if we were going to fully dedicate ourselves to this.
There were still many holes in the maps where some of the most at-risk people lived because traditional flood mapping is too expensive and slow. Yet there are satellites circling Earth every day that are gathering useful information. We realized this massive data gap was too important and that we’d need to fully commit ourselves to building Cloud To Street. It was hard to choose, but we’re very happy we did.
Hacking Finance: What does Cloud To Street offer today, and how is the service you’re providing different from traditional flood modeling?
Bessie Schwarz: We help fix critical gaps in disaster data in developing countries so people, governments, and organizations can better prepare for and respond to flooding. We’re focused on building safety nets around disaster, because that’s where marginalized people are feeling the worst impacts of climate change.
Cloud to Street has identified four governments with well over a million people at high risk for future floods. Our goal within the next five years is to get ten million people protected under insurance or some other new safety net within their countries. We are going to need to expand our team to do that. We’re hiring a bunch right now.
Hacking Finance: What does your business model look like? Your customer base?
Bessie Schwarz: We’re halfway between a SaaS and a custom model, so we mostly sell premium products on top of a SaaS. We’re moving towards being more exclusively subscription.
We focus on two markets. The first is governmental disaster managers in developing countries affected by floods. We need to make sure that the kinds of data we are providing are actually helping these managers make decisions. The second is building an equitable insurance market in places where it doesn’t exist that are hit by floods quite a bit.
On the insurance side of it, we are working to understand what people will need and what kind of services it will take [for stakeholders] to have a profitable business model in insurance in a new place. We’re trying to shape a whole new market there, which is unusual for a data provider.
Hacking Finance: Where does your data come from?
Bessie Schwarz: Our maps are created from public and private global satellites and cloud-computing, and they can snap into action anytime. We set up projects for specific locations, and we currently have active projects in six countries: Senegal, Argentina, Sudan, South Sudan, India, and Ethiopia.
Hacking Finance: What do you find most powerful about this work and the challenge you’re addressing?
Bessie Schwarz: Ninety percent of the economic losses from disasters in the developing world are uninsured, yet the number of people exposed to flooding is going to double by 2030. That part of the problem really shocks me. But the other fact that really inspires me is that we can now regularly see critical disaster patterns in new corners on Earth. We see its flood exposure through a satellite and other forms of big data and try to provide that information to people who need it.
Hacking Finance: What are the implications of mapping both biophysical and social flood vulnerability?
Bessie Schwarz: Disasters so clearly reveal underlying marginalization of already vulnerable communities. In addition to all the flood exposure and the physical hazards there are to think about, we study the social dynamics of disasters: What are the socio-demographic, economic struggles and cultural conditions that somebody lives in that makes them less likely to survive a flood than your neighbor who is more privileged?
We have this paper coming out showing which U.S. communities would see more death and damage just because of their social conditions if a 500-year flood were to hit every community in the U.S. completely equally. The map wouldn’t shock you, but it really reveals the inequities that we live in and create.
Hacking Finance: To what extent is your business tied to current events? Are there other use cases for the platform—beyond flooding—that you may explore down the road?
Bessie Schwarz: As far as current events, an NGO in Bangladesh recently reached out about the Myanmar refugee crisis [in which hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have settled in flood-vulnerable camps over the Bangladesh border]. We rapidly mapped that area. We think that the floods there are going to be very different. We’re monitoring the precipitation there, which is changing. We can see what settlements are in the floodplain. We’ve also started to do some landslide social vulnerability analysis.
Flooding impacts more people than any other natural disaster, and now we can reveal and help counteract injustices in the systems. But we also have the potential to map drought vulnerability and more slow onset disasters, and to support more search and rescue and humanitarian aid operations.
Hacking Finance: Going back to activism and your work to address inequity, what were the biggest blockers you found yourself up against as an organizer? Any overlap with the blockers you face as a founder today?
Bessie Schwarz: Most people want to protect some open space, and most people think that global climate change is a problem and that we should protect people. So why aren’t we getting our act together? That was confusing to me because I studied science, and at the beginning I thought this was probably a scientific problem.
Early on, though, I started realizing: “You know we would have solved this if science was really the only problem—we would start finding solutions to it.” There are powerful people and incentives that stand in the way. There are a lot of corollaries between organizing and entrepreneurship. I still very much consider myself an organizer at my core.
Hacking Finance: Would you say you’re an entrepreneur at your core too?
Bessie Schwarz: I don’t want to sound cliché, but that is sort of my orientation toward things. Even going back to working at the Discovery Channel Store, I thought, “OK, I can sit around here answering questions when people come to me, or I can create an exciting department and build relationships with people who then come back.” That’s the kind of person I am. I see a big new thing—a problem or some exciting new solution where I am not exactly sure how it is going to go or how it is going to work out. But if I think I can make a platform to do something about it, let’s just go full steam ahead. In my training as an organizer, I had that exact same mentality.
Hacking Finance: How might others look to apply some of the skill-sets and knowledge you’ve acquired in the tech world to, for example, community organizing?
Bessie Schwarz: Oh, wow—I’ve actually thought about that in the reverse quite a bit, like how being an organizer is helpful for business. But in the other direction, I have been most impressed by the power of living and dying by your user’s feedback. The financial life blood of your organization is dependent upon whether or not someone finds it valuable and will pay you for it. You have to be brutally focused on what value you’re delivering. In nonprofits, it’s less direct, and you’re optimizing—necessarily and thankfully—for something that is often harder to measure and is outside of the market. We can think we listen and then do what is best for those we serve…but the end users or beneficiaries don’t decide. I think the best nonprofits do incorporate real user input into their core model. That realization would be really useful if I went back to organizing.
As she passes a gaggle of rowdy students at play on New York City’s first real spring-feeling afternoon, Schwarz laughs. After all, going from educational toy store salesperson to organizer to scientist to tech entrepreneur and back to tech-enabled community organizer would really be full circle.