We’ve all walked by or driven past folks in a busy city who are panhandling or asking for change. Some people offer change or a few bucks, but in a mostly cashless world, not everyone has anything to offer them even if they want to.

This fundamental want to help others is what compelled Jonathan Kumar to pivot from his initial startup, Food Circles, essentially Ebay meets Yelp, to create Samaritan. Basically Food Circles allowed restaurants to bid on groups of friends who were trying to decide where they should all eat.

“I was always trying to make something that made an impact,” said Jonathan.

As an ENTR 407 E-Hour speaker this fall, Jonathan talked about how his time at Michigan (BS 2011) helped shape his desire to use his knowledge and technical skills to help those around him. He also spoke about his entrepreneurial endeavors while still a student. From trying to sell ponchos to potential rain soaked attendees when President Obama came to commencement (Jonathan called his business PonchObamas and it had stopped raining hours before Obama was set to speak) to his failed attempt to sell PB&Js to the late night crowd waiting in long lines for burritos.

Kumar and a friend with their sign to sell ponchos when President Obama visited campus.
Kumar and a friend with their sign to sell ponchos when President Obama visited campus.

However, through all of this, he kept going back to trying to help others. He even credited his campus pastor, John Allen, with helping to steer his ultimate goal.

“He said, ’Jonathan, even if this Food Circles thing hits it big, don’t forget about people who may not be able to dine out at all,’” Jonathan said of his pastor’s advice.

With his background in UX design, Jonathan chose to look at the issue of homelessness in Seattle, where Food Circles was located, and truly put himself in their shoes, “literally begging strangers for help,” to get a better idea of how he could lend a hand.

Together with members from his first startup, Jonathan started Samaritan. The team built “beacons” which are distributed to local nonprofits and clinics who help the homeless community. Individuals can then download the Samaritan app and when they are near a beacon holder, the bluetooth pings users phones. This allows people to learn the individual’s story and give directly toward their critical, unmet needs.

Illustration demonstrating how the bluetooth function works
Illustration demonstrating how the bluetooth function works

“We chose Seattle originally to show that Food Circles would work in a larger market (outside of Grand Rapids, MI) and found it was a Goldilocks situation between San Francisco and Madison, WI, aka, ‘just right,’” Jonathan said of his decision to shut down Food Circles and pivot to launching the Samaritan pilot in the NorthWest.

Besides the entities that already serve the homeless community in Seattle, Samaritan has been able to partner with other large corporations such as Facebook, Amazon, Costco and Deloitte, just to name a few.

A Samaritan beacon around the neck of a participant
Blue beacon around a neck with the slogan

In the end, Jonathan credits the continued success of Samaritan (which he hopes to expand to 99 more cities in the next five years) to his early failures with Food Circles.

“Very rarely do most entrepreneurs hit on their first venture, so I would just say: get rolling. Get that first failure out of the way. Everything that Samaritan is, all of the impact it has had, I owe to that really difficult experience with Food Circles,” said Jonathan.


Illustration of how funds can be used
Illustration of how funds can be used

To learn more about Samaritan and how the community of Seattle, Washington is giving back to those in need, feel free to check out their website: https://www.samaritan.city.

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