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Benefits Data Trust’s new chief technology officer, Leona Thomas, is committed to helping people access public benefits as easily and quickly as possible with technology guiding the way.
Thomas’ strategy for supporting the nonprofit’s mission, which connects residents of six U.S. states with benefits such as SNAP and LIHEAP through machine learning that supports its call center staffers, comes from her engineering background as well as lived experience: She’s a Drexel University alumna with a BSE in electrical and computer engineering and an executive masters in business administration, as well as someone whose family once relied on benefits like food stamps when she was growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“I am actually one of those people 40 or so years ago whose family needed that help,” she told Technical.ly. “We didn’t have Medicaid back then. These social programs are critical for those who need a helping hand. That’s not a ‘hand out.’ It’s a hand up.”
Before joining Center City-based BDT in June, Thomas was the founder of Enabling Investments, LLC, during which time she said she helped establish seven new women- and minority-owned businesses and provided management and technology consulting for corporations and nonprofits.
Supporting diversity and inclusion efforts has played an important role in the more than 25 years of Thomas’ career. She is currently a member of organizations that support diversity such as Philadelphia’s LGBTQ-focused William Way Community Center, where she serves as a board member.
As a high school student, the mentorship Thomas received from women in engineering shaped her views on helping other people like her enter the workforce.
“I have been really lucky in my life from others that have helped me,” Thomas said. “One of the reasons I am willing to put myself out there to help others is because I’ve been told that if you’re an African American LGBTQ woman, [you] can’t make it in tech.”
Thomas believes organizations that overlook applicants from diverse backgrounds are putting themselves at a disadvantage. In her previous work, she found that many minorities and women start their own businesses after experiencing the difficulties that come from working at a traditional organization.
The CTO holds herself and other tech leaders and executives accountable in emphasizing the need for high-level tech professionals to reach out to prospective employees of diverse backgrounds. In return, she wants to see people of diverse backgrounds entering tech to seek out people like them to be sounding boards for what to do next.
“As people coming in, you have opportunities to look for other organizations to build that circle of support that will be with you wherever you go,” she said. Thomas herself has reached out to people who “may not know my problem but could be a sounding board on where to go and what to do next. I’ve had the benefit of it and had a conscious opportunity to build that for myself.”
COVID-19 negatively impacted life for the millions who experienced layoffs and lost income. Many college students are even facing homelessness after their schools closed and switched to virtual learning. As a result, Thomas said that there is a new contingent of people who are not even aware of the public benefits available to them.
According to Thomas, $60 billion in public health benefits go unclaimed every year. Of that $60 billion, $450 million in benefits went unclaimed in Philadelphia in 2019. She wants to see both of those dollar amounts at zero.
“If you’re worrying about how to put food on the table the next day, you’re not thinking about next steps,” she said. “With COVID, you’re seeing people in a spot they weren’t in before.”
Thomas plans to use her background in innovation and leveraging technology to maximize BDT’s digital resources. The last company she worked at, Wylei, worked heavily in machine learning, so the predictive technology of initiatives like BDT’s new chatbot to assist students in filling out the FAFSA form are familiar.
By using data science to analyze information from the state and partners like AETNA that work heavily with the public, Thomas wants to help lead her new team in optimizing the way people access information and benefits that they need.
Not many nonprofits have software development teams. Thomas considers the group to be part of BDT’s “secret sauce.” (Read about former CTO Ravindar Gujral’s case for why devs should consider a job at the nonprofit.)
“I’m interested in where we are going next and also how to keep the phones running or lights on,” Thomas said.
Originally published in Technical.ly on July 17, 2020.