Omolara Fatiregun’s parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, but they separated a few years later, and her father moved back to Nigeria. That left her mother in a challenging position as a low-income Black woman raising two children outside of Philadelphia.
“That is usually a statistic that ends in the worst catastrophe and disaster,” Fatiregun said. “But she ended up sending me and my brother to Harvard College for our undergraduate [education].”
Fatiregun said her mother attended school at night to become a pharmacist, saving money so she and her brother could grow up involved in extracurricular activities and academic programs. Fatiregun, who also earned a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University, is now back at Harvard, studying for a doctorate in education.
“That idea of mom working really hard, me and my brother seeing her put everything into school . . . it made us put everything into school,” she said. “As hard as we were looking at her, she was looking at our successes . . . it’s a chain reaction.”
Now, Fatiregun wants to build on her family’s experience so other low-income families can escape poverty. In August, she launched a government technology and social justice company called Thrive! out of the Harvard Innovation Lab. It aims to help local governments invest in programs that serve parents and children at the same time.
Thrive! is in local government pilot programs in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York. It focuses on two main areas: money and power. A core part of the startup is software Fatiregun is developing that can show whether government spending is equitable and effective.
“It is a simple interface where you answer yes or no questions and more detailed questions about the budget,” she said. “The audit gives you a roadmap of where challenges are, and where things are moving in the right direction.”
Thrive! produces a dashboard report, using red, yellow, and green indicators to classify the quality of spending across dozens of areas. She said the technology is based on scientific data and research, and it can help inform decisions on how to transfer municipal budget funds in ways that will create a greater and longer-lasting impact.
For example, Fatiregun said, “If we are investing more in police officers patrolling schools, as opposed to social workers and guidance counselors, then that is a problem.”
Thrive! also aims to highlight the voices of low-income community members so public officials can make better decisions on where to allocate resources. Somerville started an early program with Thrive! in late August with the goal of better serving low-income families. Now Fatiregun is interviewing parents with young children — mostly recent immigrants from Brazil — and plans to relay her findings to the city.
“Is it workforce development, English classes? What exactly do moms and dads need to be successful?” she said. “Their success will inform the success of the children, and Somerville sees that.”
She said immigrant mothers in Somerville have been telling her that they are interested in pursuing jobs in construction and the trades.
“I’m not sure the extent to which government officials thought that is what their community wanted,” she said. “I get to be that middle person.”
She said it has been easiest to make inroads in cities that have recently declared racism a public health crisis, or those that have hired diversity officers or directors, such as in Burlington, Vt., which is using Thrive! for equity audits.
Although she is just a few months in, Fatiregun said she has been taken aback by the positive responses.
The only employee at Thrive!, Fatiregun said she hopes to be operating in five to 10 states next year, and she will be looking to hire a lead data scientist. At the moment, she is funding the company with money from pitch competitions and grants, but may eventually seek investors.
Her biggest hope is that public officials’ newfound interest in combatting inequity “isn’t just a moment.”
“People have great intentions, and they want to change, but they honestly don’t know how,” she said. “It feels like I have an answer to a problem.”