CEO Charlotte Culina on the Social Purpose Behind The Urban Helper

CEO Charlotte Culina on the Social Purpose Behind The Urban Helper

Q: The Urban Helper is both familiar and innovative—part employment engine, part community empowerment engine. As an entrepreneur, how did you put these two ideas together?

I think most successful business ideas come from creative thinkers trying to find solutions to common problems and The Urban Helper is no different. I was having a very common, ordinary problem: I had this big tree root in my garden and I had to get it out. I was short on time, I was short on money, and I was short on skill for the task. This is a scenario that everyone can identify with—maybe it's not a tree root, maybe it's your kid's physics homework or a leaking sink. You need to do something, but you don't have the time, money, or skill to do it, right? At the time, I didn't really have an alternative: I just stubbornly hacked the thing out over the course of two days at the end of which I had a root-free garden, and a sore back. But during those two days I was also thinking about how neighborhoods used to work. And how a couple generations ago I probably would have known who on my street would be able to help me out and I would have just gone over and asked that person. I mean, I've lived in my neighborhood for a long time and I know many of my neighbors, but it just seems like we've lost the habit of getting to know the people we're in closest proximity to well enough to ask for help. So I looked into that, and found that it's actually true—Americans just don't know their neighbors the way we used to. And whatever you want to ascribe that to—people's busy lives, the fact that so much of our social interaction happens online, whatever it is—I just think that's a loss. And not just from the standpoint of needing help with something, but just—it just seems like our neighborhoods are crammed with skills and knowledge but if we don't know the people who live close to us there's no way to access that stuff.  

Q: Totally—and we've also gotten out of the habit of asking people for help, it seems. We might go online to find the answer to a question or to find a service, but then you're paying someone random to do something that maybe someone on your block could do just as well or better.

Exactly. I mean, I've run businesses, I've been a video producer, I'm a mum to two amazing girls.  I know there are people in my neighborhood—on my block even—who are looking for those skills, but how would they ever know that I'm literally around the corner? So that's really the idea: I wanted to make something that would facilitate getting work done in a hyperlocal community—something that would even reward hirers for hiring that way. And then I wanted to make sure that whatever I made would be accessible by these huge demographics that are usually ignored entirely by entrepreneurs. And I wanted to find a way to make that system profitable, but not at the expense of the planet or the users of The Urban Helper. I'm guided by the concept of People, Planet, Profit. I think all three things have to be in balance to have a truly sustainable business.


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