Kenya Boswell. Image courtesy of BNY Mellon Foundation of SWPA.

As president of BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Kenya Boswell became instrumental in creating UpPrize, an open competition seeking innovative solutions to problems facing area nonprofits and vulnerable populations. With the help of The Forbes Funds, the two-year-old challenge has generated interest from hundreds of Pittsburgh-based entrepreneurs and organizations willing to contribute their technology and ideas. Later this month, the latest finalists will compete for prizes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As the latest competition prepares for its final round on March 30, Boswell spoke to NEXTpittsburgh about how UpPrize has changed, and her hopes for its future.

What drove you to help create this competition?

This was a combination of a lot of the work being done through the foundation, and really looking at nonprofit capacity building. We received a lot of requests specifically for technology-type assistance that helped nonprofits run more efficiently and effectively. We realized there was a huge need out there.

We talked to you about UpPrize when it debuted in 2015. How do you think the challenge has changed since then?

When we first launched it, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. One of the things we were totally blown away by was the interest in what we consider purpose-driven innovation. We didn’t know what the appetite would be, particularly for a challenge focused solely on community issues, nonprofits and vulnerable populations.

One of the major changes we had this year was to stay true to our technology challenge with BNY Mellon, but we brought on another challenge partner, Bridgeway Capital, who did a challenge area focused on food. The response that we received to that was, again, overwhelming.

Kenya Boswell (left) and Matt Zieger at the 2016 UpPrize networking event. Photo by Dave DiCello
Kenya Boswell (left) and Matt Zieger at the 2016 UpPrize networking event. Photo by Dave DiCello.

How do you think the Healthy Food access category will expand the idea of what innovation means?

It’s the way that these solutions are being implemented. You’re not looking at just food delivery systems. For example, the [Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op] is using land that is underutilized to help create gardens and farms. They’re looking at resources already in their community. That is an innovative use of space, and looking at innovation through a different lens.

What are some other areas you’d like to see addressed in future UpPrize competitions?

Because of the success with the Bridgeway Capital partnership, we would love to have other challenge areas as well. Can we have a third or fourth challenge area looking at some of the pressing needs within our communities?

We did a very deliberate outreach effort this year. We love Pittsburgh, but we’re for all of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Seeing [the challenge] grow and include some of the more rural areas as well, that’s very important to us. We’re meeting with several nonprofits in Westmoreland County and making sure folks outside of Allegheny County know that this challenge is open to them as well.

A lot of UpPrize applicants are from startup companies with early-stage technologies. Do you see the competition playing a role in Pittsburgh’s growth as a startup and technology hub?

Absolutely! The one thing that’s really amazing about this is the fact that we’re not trying to recreate the wheel. We have very strong partnerships with Carnegie Mellon University, with the University of Pittsburgh and with all of the incubators in town. We’re using everybody’s collective resources. That is what made UpPrize very successful. It’s literally adding one more link to the innovation ecosystem that Pittsburgh is becoming known for.

Our tagline is Everyone Wins. Last year, there were several projects that were not winners per se but they received funding from other sources because of the visibility that they received from this competition. We’re already hearing interest from investors and the nonprofit community looking at the semi-finalists or finalists from this pool. There are no guarantees whatsoever, but I would say UpPrize is carrying some weight, if you will. Other investors and funders are seeing this as an opportunity to identify some impactful projects or companies.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.