In a room full of homeless men and women, all of the people gathered have many needs: A square meal. A decent night of sleep. Clean socks. A home. A Twitter account might not seem high on the list. But on a recent day, Kushaan Shah, an Indian American graduate of the University of Maryland, stood in front of the group and tried to convince these homeless people that they needed Twitter. And Facebook. And LinkedIn. And he wanted to be the guy to sign them up.
Shah, 22, has created a role for himself as a sort of social media consultant to the disadvantaged, whoever they might be. Immigrants. Former prisoners. Schoolchildren from low-income families. And, one day last month, homeless people selling $2 copies of the newspaper Street Sense on D.C. street corners.
Shah told the vendors, most of whom had never heard of Twitter, that he once tweeted to encourage people to buy the paper from a vendor named Leonard at the corner of 18th and M streets NW. That tweet was seen by 987 people. “Hold on. Hold on. Run that by me again!” Leonard said. He high-fived Shah. That’s the reaction Shah aims for with his social-media-for-good program, which he calls Social Rise.
The idea was born when Shah was a student at the University of Maryland and volunteering with a program that helps low-income families. He watched the participants strike out again and again as they filled out job applications, and he thought: That’s not how I would get a job. Why tell these people to do it that way?
Shah knew that studies have found that 70 or 80 percent of people get their jobs through networking, not just blindly applying. And much of that networking happens nowadays via screens, not face to face.
So after Shah graduated from college and started a job at IBM — where his duties include teaching executives to use Twitter and LinkedIn — he created a Web site, recruited a few volunteers and launched Social Rise. On Nov. 3, he said, he learned that Social Rise had been accepted as a federally recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity.
Social Rise offers instructional presentations and one-on-one coaching to any nonprofit organization with which Shah can connect. One that took him up on his offer is Empowered Women International, which teaches low-income and immigrant women to start their own businesses.
Rebecca Lazar sells baked goods at farmers markets and wants eventually to open her own storefront bakery. With Shah’s help, Lazar started Facebook and Google+ pages to tell people when and where they can find her products.
“Before this, I wouldn’t see any need for the Internet to get the business out there. I’ve been swamped — working at another bakery, raising a family and trying to get my own business,” said Lazar, 39.
She said the social media pages have helped her drum up business. And Shah answered one nagging question she had: “About those hashtags. Maybe I’m that backwards with technology, but the hashtag was something I never understood before. Why do people put the pound sign before everything?”
Mayamerica Cortez, a Salvadoran immigrant who has been writing poetry and prose for decades, said she looks forward to promoting her next novel on her new social media accounts, once she has finished writing it.
“I thought it was more for socializing,” she said. And since she is in her late 60s, she worried she was too late to start. “With Kushaan, I learned that it’s a good tool to expand (the number of) people who can know your work.”
Cortez said that when she had a one-on-one meeting with Shah, she couldn’t believe how easy it was to post her work online. “Oh, my God. I was amazed,” she said. “At that very moment, I put the first little poem on.”
Not everyone immediately feels that excitement, and Shah acknowledges that “there’s no real manual on how to teach social media to the homeless.” At the Street Sense vendors workshop, Shernell Thomas, who sells the paper near the Dupont Circle and Farragut West Metro stations, expressed a common concern.
“Isn’t it also dangerous? Because you’re putting all your personal information out there — this is what you look like, this is who you’re related to over here, this is who your friends are over here,” she said. “I don’t want my life to be an open book on the Internet.” Shah tried to reassure her — and to emphasize ways in which Twitter might be useful.
He suggested, for example, that vendors might figure out the hashtag that a local conference is using, then tweet with that hashtag to encourage conference attendees to buy Street Sense papers while they are in town.
To demonstrate to the group, he clicked on a trending hashtag, (hash)MotivationalMonday. One post caught everyone’s eye — a video of an adorable puppy. Thomas hit upon the fundamental strangeness of social media: “I’m missing something. You pass this particular area where a dog is running across a bed. And you say I’m going to advertise on that?’