Confidence-boosting travel, food delivery, wearable tech proposed at social justice competition in Pittsburgh

“We have a moral obligation to make sure that economic change comes with societal change,” Mayor Bill Peduto said.

Annia Aleman pitches travel resource Ella.

Annia Aleman pitches travel resource Ella.

MJ / the incline
MJ Slaby

Updated, Noon Wednesday

Kelauni Cook was 20 when she went on her first international trip to Ecuador. Now 28, she’s been to 12 countries.

But it was during that first trip that she thought of helping kids travel: “Everyone like me needs to see this.”

When she signed up for Repair the World Pittsburgh’s Social Justice Innovation Weekend, she thought she’d code for a team using someone else’s idea. But Cook of Arlington pitched her idea for Inner-City International, a program to help low-income students learn about the world through out-of-state and international travel.

Her team was one of nine that pitched projects revolving around art, faith and technology to a panel of judges at Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty on Monday in front of nearly 100 audience members. Mayor Bill Peduto, a guest judge, said ideas like the ones at the event have to be part of change in the city.

“We have a moral obligation to make sure that economic change comes with societal change,” Peduto said.

Cook wasn’t the only participant who brought an idea trying to boost confidence while traveling. Annia Aleman, 26, of Shadyside pitched Ella, a website and app, as a simplified resource for solo female travelers.

Both women, new to participating in pitch weekends, said their ideas centered on confidence and demystifying new places — and their ideas came from personal experience.

‘Off their blocks’

Growing up in Chicago, Cook said she and her classmates “would have been the target for” Inner-City International.

After her trip to Ecuador, she said she came home with an increased self-value and self-determination and new pride for her home. Cook said leaving the country changed her worldview and made her more openminded and confident.

Cook said being social is about being part of a community and sharing experiences with your neighbor, even if they are different from you. She said a program like hers gives people a fair shot at those experiences.

Students could take three trips in late middle school and early high school through Inner-City International. The first, in Pittsburgh, would be to a place the students have never been before, like a restaurant or museum. They’d then go on an out-of-state weekend trip, and finally, on an international trip.

“If they don’t get off their streets and off their blocks, that’s all they are going to know,” Cook said.

A simplified trip planner

Aleman said she was thinking of visiting Cape Town, South Africa, and so she turned to Google to learn about safe options for a solo trip. But she said she was only able to find info for wealthy women, who could stay at five-star hotels, or too much information on Facebook. She ended up traveling to California because it was more familiar and safe, she said.

It left her wanting a simple resource that could tell her what bars to go to and safe, off-the-beaten-path places.

Ella would provide a peer-to-peer network that could help women answer questions about places they want to travel. Not only would it help with safety, but it would hold businesses accountable and promote businesses, Aleman said. She started with female travelers because of her experience, but the resource could expand to religious communities, LGBT travelers and international students.

And the winners are…

Following the pitch presentations, judges awarded prizes to the top three teams. Inner-City International placed third, winning $1,000. For teams like Ella that didn’t place, organizers encouraged them to stay in touch with the people they met through the weekend event and to continue to develop their ideas.

Here’s more about the top two ideas:

  • FarePost placed second, winning $1,500. This team created a meal planning resource and food delivery program to eliminate transportation challenges for people using SNAP benefits.
  • RecoverEQ took first place, winning $2,000. This team created a wearable device that would collect data about the habits of recovering drug addicts to alert medical staff if that person’s behaviors indicate he or she is about to relapse. Team member Courtney McFeaters, 38, of East Liberty, who said she is three years sober from a heroin addiction, said joining the team was a “career-changing decision,” and the team plans to continue working on its idea.

A previous version of this article misidentified the town Aleman wanted to visit.