First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Kris Kepler: We are doing well. Thanks so much for asking. We’re healthy, have a roof over our heads and food on the table, and for that, I’m extremely grateful. My husband and I both work full-time and have two young children at home who are still attending school virtually, so we’re juggling a lot. I know many other parents are in the same position, but we’re very lucky to have the ability to work from home and be with our children.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded LavaMaeX.
Kris Kepler: I have spent the majority of my career in the private sector as a consultant. I was a strategist and creator of user-centered services, products, and interactive experiences. One day, I got tired of creating experiences that I was convinced were not making a real impact on people’s lives. I craved a role in social impact and to use my design skills for those that could really benefit from a compassionate and genuine experience: the unhoused.
I was on LinkedIn and saw an article on Lava Mae—at that time, it was a nonprofit that provided mobile showers and services to the unhoused in San Francisco, the East Bay, and Los Angeles—and its founder Doniece Sandoval. I fell in love with the mission and vision of the organization. I grew up serving the unhoused, and I knew Lava Mae was the perfect place for me to combine my personal and professional passions. I sent Doniece a message offering to help lead programs, strategy, and user experience for the organization. She responded within the day, inviting me to present my ideas. I met her and the team, began volunteering at Lava Mae’s Pop-Up Care Villages (PUCVs), and was hired as senior director of programs and impact. I love this organization, this team, and serving our unhoused neighbors. I’ve never looked back.
How does LavaMaeX innovate?
Kris Kepler: In 2020, Lava Mae became LavaMaeX, a nonprofit accelerator that’s building a worldwide network of providers who take critical services to the street. Innovation is a part of our DNA. We dedicate ten percent of staff time to innovating new programs or products. We take a “bottom up” approach, letting the needs and gaps of what the unhoused are experiencing drive our ideas. For example, during the pandemic, we developed a DIY handwashing station and the LavaMaeˣ Clean Hands for All initiative to help stop the spread of COVID-19 among the unhoused.
Everything we do is in service of making hygiene more accessible to those living on the streets. We ask a lot of questions and listen to our guests, the replicator network, and our team. The key to innovation is staying engaged with our guests and those who replicate our program: observing, listening, ideating, and acting on what we see and focusing on solving their problems. We also solicit feedback from our replication network, including the hygiene challenges in their communities and how they address them. We learn from how they deploy our programs, such as mobile hygiene services or DIY handwashing stations.
We make innovation fun by hosting team-wide internal strategy and design sessions on new programs and product ideas. When we have a concept, we start prototyping. It’s a critical step for us to know if our design actually works and where we should modify it. For example, we’ve been through three iterations of our DIY handwashing stations. Inspired by a model co-created by students at the USC Annenberg School of Communication in partnership with Los Angeles Community Action Network, LavaMaeX designed a large-scale handwashing station that can hold enough water for up to 500 handwashes. Since that prototype, we’ve deployed 17 of our own in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco. We’ve launched a DIY toolkit, along with a supply list, to help any community build and install handwashing stations in their community. A total of 541 units have been deployed across 12 communities, providing over a million handwashes.
By responding to feedback from local partners and replicators, we ensure our services are truly valuable to those who are using it. Lastly, a huge part of our innovation is creating free toolkits (blueprints) for others to access and use across all our programs. Open-sourcing our IP was the best decision we ever made. There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Kris Kepler: When the pandemic hit, we had to make the difficult decision to suspend our direct service programs, including shower service and PUCVs. With the risk of the airborne virus present at shower services, we agreed it wasn’t safe to host large groups of people in one setting. We weren’t trained to deliver shower service in a pandemic and couldn’t secure the appropriate PPE gear.
However, we all agreed to one single premise: We would not leave our guests behind during this time. We needed to keep their trust and make sure they were okay. We knew there had to be a path to service, even if it looked different from our usual offerings. Instead of feeling paralyzed, we mobilized into action. We began assembling hygiene kits with COVID-specific items—including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer—and distributed water, food, and clothes. We’ve served over 35 locations, delivering 7,000 hygiene kits across LA, Oakland, and SF.
This has given us a perspective on our guests’ survival skills and kept us in tune with what they need on a daily basis. To witness the pain of pervasive hopelessness is emotionally heavy and heartbreaking. But we’ve been able to connect, smile, and provide hope by showing up, being consistent, and caring. We tapped into our approach of Radical Hospitality—meeting people, wherever they are, with extraordinary care—which helps restore dignity, rekindle optimism, and fuel a sense of opportunity for people experiencing homelessness. Many of our guests are so happy to see a familiar face.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned.
Kris Kepler: The most difficult choice was making the decision to suspend direct services. However, continuing to serve guests in the form of hygiene kit drops was our solution to staying connected with those on the streets. This is the ultimate form of Radical Hospitality: going to their doorstep and asking, “what do you need now?”
Going directly into encampments has been an “aha” moment. It’s a completely different experience than when our mobile hygiene trailer is parked at a particular location or when we host a PUCV with other providers. In that case, we’re still expecting guests to come to our space, and now we’re going directly to theirs. We would have never served on the streets in this way if COVID-19 had not arrived. We’re now re-launching shower service in LA and SF and will continue to drop hygiene kits streetside.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and LavaMaeX in the future?
Kris Kepler: I am very aware of my own and my team’s mental health. I lead by listening and being flexible, especially during these uncertain times, while still setting expectations and creating boundaries. I pride myself on reading the room on a daily basis. I am also direct, transparent, empathetic, and a self-proclaimed over-communicator. I like to think I model that for the team. The pandemic has posed so many new challenges for us as individuals, let alone the impact on our guests on the streets. We’re all feeling isolated and lonely right now.
I firmly believe that our ability to serve compassionately and effectively is only as good as the individuals who deliver that service. That’s why I prioritize our employee’s mental health. We find time to vent; we find space to come together to have fun without a “work” focus; we have a flexible work from home policy for the days we’re not working on the street. We introduced mental health days this year, which give individuals a license to spontaneously take a day off if they need a break. We also host group brainstorm sessions around designing new products and services in order to encourage all to innovate collectively and make it fun. It’s been critical for me to show my team that I care about them as a valuable part of this team and organization, not just tell them I do. We all know actions speak louder than words, and when you extend Radical Hospitality to your team at the highest level, they pay it forward in spades to our guests, partners, replicators, and each other.
Looking to the future, I project next year to be very difficult. Half of the nonprofits are projected to close from lack of funding. We’re actively fundraising to make sure we meet our budget for 2021. But our biggest focus will be on continuing to build a community for those who replicate our programs, and we’re launching a community platform at the end of the year with the goal of building knowledge, sharing information and resources, and connecting like-minded community members with one another. This work truly takes a village, and we’re committed to fostering collaboration and partnering with communities to bring hygiene and galvanize action around homelessness.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Kris Kepler: LavaMaeX’s goal is to make hygiene accessible for all. Anyone who is focused on making that happen in their community is our partner in our common goal. Our five-year impact goal is to create a network of 75 providers that bring LavaMaeX programs to communities to serve 100,000 people by 2024. We are invested in building a network of providers and helping them succeed by advising, mentoring, and training them to bring hygiene services to the streets to their communities. For us, there are no competitors, only collaborators, and partners. The game plan is to stay laser-focused on our mission and impact goal.
Your final thoughts?
Kris Kepler: 2020 has been a really tough year all the way around, especially for the unhoused who now have even less access to resources and services than before the pandemic hit. We’re seeing more people and new faces on the streets. I like to think of LavaMaeX as a catalyst and provider of hope—both for the unhoused in our communities and for our partners. If there’s anything that I would want the reader to take away, it is when you see someone experiencing homelessness, smile, and say hello. Maybe even take the time to have a conversation with them, ask them how they are and what they need. You may be the only person they talk to that day, week, or month. Every single person deserves to be seen.