VouchCircle, a professional networking platform that focuses on referrals for people in underserved communities, tied for second place and earned $15,000 in the 2018 John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC) on May 22. Run by Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the SNVC is the social impact track of the University of Chicago’s nationally ranked Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC).

In this Q&A, VouchCircle founder Wenting Xi and teammates Sukrutha Sujai, Valentina Diaz, and Zach Taylor (all Booth students) explain how their professional networking platform will help people stay connected, share jobs with one another, and vouch for one another to get hired.

Q: How did your team come up with the idea for your startup?

Our founder, Wenting Xi, came up with the idea for VouchCircle while enrolled in Professor Ram Shivakumar’s microeconomics class. Professor Shivakumar talked about emerging markets that grew their GDPs rapidly over a couple of decades by adapting existing technologies from developed markets. That sparked a question: can we help people in underserved communities grow their income by adapting technologies that the rich already have? One of these technologies that has the potential to increase people’s income is a tool for professional networking.

Q: What problem does your venture work to solve in society? And can you explain the exact services you offer and to whom?

All people need professional networks to discover careers and find jobs. But only 12 percent of internet users with a high school degree or less use LinkedIn. They need a professional networking app to stay connected to people they meet at work and at social service agencies. They need an app that is not a searchable resume database but a network for peer-to-peer job posting and job referrals.

On VouchCircle, users connect to their coworkers, people at their social service agencies, classmates at vocational SNVC VouchCircle 3schools, and friends. Users post jobs from their employers easily by taking a picture of a job posted in the break room or writing a short post like they would on Facebook. Jobs are posted to a jobs feed, which is visible to all of the job posters’ connections. When users see jobs they’re interested in, they message their connections who posted the jobs and chat on the platform to discuss job details and candidate qualifications. Based on conversations, users can refer their connections to their employers. Users submit employee referrals via VouchCircle to recruiters’ emails, with the candidates’ resumes auto-attached. In the employee referral submissions, users vouch for the candidates’ soft skills like punctuality and reliability.

VouchCircle’s initial location target is Chicago. We are first focusing on signing up users. Once we reach 100,000 users, we will add even more value to the network by bringing on recruiters. The first group of employers will be companies with more than 1,000 employees. We are targeting employers of entry-level, hourly workers.

Q: Who will benefit most from your services?

Initially, people at social service agencies will benefit the most from using VouchCircle. VouchCircle acts as an online version of their offline communities. The app helps people stay connected to their communities while they are receiving services and after they stop receiving services. Most importantly, VouchCircle helps people capture contacts that would otherwise be lost after they leave the social service agencies.

Q: Have you already launched a pilot? What are your short- and long-term goals?

In January, we launched a pilot with Cara Chicago–a Chicago nonprofit that helps individuals affected by poverty get and keep quality jobs. To date, 130 users from Cara Chicago have signed up, 70 jobs have been posted to the platform, and over 400 messages have been exchanged about jobs. Nearly 60 percent of users are active on a monthly basis. Cara is not alone—28 other social service agencies are ready to sign up once we launch our mobile app on Android and iOS in June. Our goal in six months is to sign up 100,000 users. From there, we will expand to other cities beyond Chicago.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

We hope to partner with at least 150 social service agencies in Chicago in the next six months. We are also seeking partnerships with related government programs, such as the WIOA program in Illinois and the Grads of Life campaign by the National Ads Council.

For more information, visit VouchCircle’s website or contact wxi@chicagobooth.edu. Learn more about the other 2018 SNVC winners here.