Every morning, Tiffani Ashley Bell wakes up and scrolls through Twitter. Exactly three weeks ago, she came across a piece in The Atlantic about the 100,000+ people in Detroit that had their water shut off and had to live in unsanitary conditions because they couldn’t afford to pay the bill. The news bothered her all day long.
Bell asked people via Twitter what was being done to help the situation, but she just didn’t like the answers. So she and her partner on the project, Kristy Tillman, decided to build a website to pay people’s bills directly using their Detroit Water Department account. They called it the Detroit Water Project.
By Sunday of the same week, they had to add a field to allow donors to pledge money — creating a sort of micropayment system — because they had so many people interested in helping the cause. The Detroit Water Project now has more than 7,000 donors and has helped more than 600 residents and paid $65,000 directly to the city for water bills. Bell and Tillman make no money from the project. It’s not a non-profit.
“This is totally in my free time. We didn’t expect it to become this big thing, we just figured people would retweet it and it would fizzle out,” Bell said. “It’s totally taken a life of its own, so I’m excited.”
Bell moves quickly. As we chat, she’s hustling down the streets of San Francisco, dodging construction trucks while breezing through her life story.
The 29-year-old was born in Georgia. Her mother and father were in the military, so she doesn’t ever say she’s “from” one place or another. Most of her childhood was spent in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where she attended school (her dad, who was in the US Army, was stationed at nearby Fort Bragg). She spent a lot of time at her uncle’s house, who she credits to getting her interested in computer programming. While her brother and cousin played outside, she played on the computer.
Bell wrote her first line of code when she was six years old. She built her first webpage in the fourth grade. Her 15th birthday present was a how-to guide for Java. She was also well-known for her cartoons of evil political leaders-turned puppets, and was dead-set on becoming a cartoonist, no matter how much of a natural at computer science she was.
At the base station libraries, Bell would check out books about computer programming to teach herself. She took a programming course in high school in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Bell got a 100% in the class — the highest grade of anyone. Then she got a full ride scholarship to Howard University in Washington D.C.
That was enough to finally convince herself that she was good enough — and passionate enough — about technology to pursue it as a career. Bell majored in computer science and interned with IBM and HP, working on web and mobile development, while at Howard.
After college, Bell worked for her uncle (the same one that sparked her interest in programming in grade school) after he retired from the military and started a business, R4 Incorporated. She revamped his website and built a tracking system for purchasing.
At the same time, Bell worked on an idea she came up with in college. It turned into Pencil You In, a website that allows small businesses to accept appointments online., after she graduated. She founded it in 2009 and left R4 to pursue it full-time in 2011.
That same year, Bell was featured in CNN’s Black in America, a series that featured black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
“That was interesting, and different. It gave me this sort of interesting experience pitching VCs and I figured out how much I didn’t know,” she said.
A friend of hers recently commented on the fact Bell isn’t exceptionally vocal about the topic of minorities in the tech industry on social media or online, though it is obviously something she feels strongly about. But Bell has a good explanation for that, and no problem telling people exactly why.
“My approach is to do, and then point to work and then ask people: Is it still valid for you to not pay attention because I’m a minority, I’m a woman, what is it?”
She explained it further: the landscape in Silicon Valley is the way it is because venture capitalists — who are overwhelmingly white males — like to fund who they are comfortable with and who they identify best with, she said.
So her answer is to just do. Build and do. And then make sure people know what you’re building so they don’t have any excuses to ignore it.
After a sabbatical from the business world because of personal issues, Bell decided to come back full-force to San Francisco. Since January, she has been a fellow for the city of Atlanta with Code For America, an organization that uses technology to better connect people with their governments. Bell travels to Atlanta to run projects that promote transparency and efficiency in the city government, like rebuilding city websites or creating better systems for communication. Many startups could benefit from having government as a customer, she said, but because of confusing requirements and lack of communication, it doesn’t happen. She wants to change that.
“I’m a very determined person. At some points in my life I’ve been called hard-headed,” she laughed. “As an adult it’s determination. I have a lot of faith in what I’m doing. If it’s something that just agitates to the point where i need to talk about it, I should probably do something about it.”
These projects — from Pencil You In to Detroit Water — all started with passion, and she wants it to stay that way in the future.
“I argue to some degree what ties them all together is I’ve always tried to do things for other people, things that have some purpose behind them,” she said.
In her own words…
What are your hobbies?
“My hobbies are mostly I work a lot and I read a lot. I have periods of time where I go on book binges. I’ve gone to seven or eight used bookstores here in San Francisco and bought a bunch of books that I have to read. My hobbies are my work, and thats how Detroit Water Project came about. My friends and I like building things in our spare time. I’m a lot less boring than I sound.”
How do you juggle multiple gigs at a time?
“Sometimes I don’t. I have friends that have to check on me and make sure I’ve eaten for example. The times I’ve done well is when I’m prioritizing time. I realized I can’t do everything. I have to make sure I take care of own basic needs first, and I’m getting better at that.”
Where do you see yourself in the future?
“For me it’s about they all will have the similar theme of helping people in some way and making businesses run more efficiently, however that ends up manifesting.”