For the past couple weeks, I feel like I can’t escape Agora, a startup out of the Harvard Innovation Lab founded last year, at any and every event I attend. And in light of all of the election buzz, it makes sense: Agora offers an online network that gives citizens a soap box to stand on, while also letting government officials hear the opinions of the people.
Elsa Sze, founder and CEO of Agora, found some time to speak with me just before the Democratic debate last night. Although Agora has been gaining traction the past several months, Sze anticipates that her startup’s busy season is about to begin.
“Suddenly, everyone cares about politics and they want to talk about it, which is great for us because that’s the nature of our platform,” she laughed. “I don’t see us having much free time in the near future.”
“I’ve noticed that up until now, votes have only counted on Election Day. But I want it so people have a voice every day.”
In 2014, Sze graduated from Harvard with an MBA and MPP. Despite having spent time at HBS, she never imagined becoming an entrepreneur. But oddly enough, her interest in politics has been the force driving her into the startup world.
“I’m from Hong Kong,” she explained. “I didn’t grow up with democracy, so I’ve always been fascinated by it. I’ve noticed that up until now, votes have only counted on Election Day. But I want it so people have a voice every day.”
“Technology is enabling how we communicate,” Sze continued. “It lets us connect with other people and broadcast our opinion to the world. So why isn’t this being translated to the civic realm?”
Only the squeaky wheels get the oil
During her time at Harvard, she’d attend nearby town hall meetings, which is where she started to notice a pattern.
“The meetings were usually at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday,” Sze told me. “Most people would have school, their jobs, kids to take care of. A large portion of people wouldn’t be able to go. Only a certain group of people would be able to make the meetings, and it was usually the louder and crankier people who were the ones heard and influencing decisions.”
Armed with ample inspiration, Sze decided to create an online civic community that enables more people to participate and have a say about hot button issues being discussed in government – local and beyond. She explained that Agora offers three functions that engage users and help them get feedback to their representatives.
For starters, a staple of the Agora platform is its town halls, where people can participate in Q&A sessions with civic and government officials, as well as other members of their community. This feature helps folks stay informed, sound off on key issues and connect with people who share their opinions.
Agora also boasts live streaming meetings that users can tap into and watch no matter where they may be. Sze clarified that people don’t have to be passive observers during these virtually broadcasted meetings. Agora allows them to submit questions to elected officials running the town halls in real-time.
Lastly, Sze’s platform lets representatives have insight into how citizens feel about certain issues impacting their communities. Agora features text polls, which allow users to vote to express their sentiments on a specific issue in question. For instance, if legislators are considering a bill, they can create a text poll so they know how the people their representing really feel.
Baby steps to a global mission
For the time being, Agora will be operating solely out of the Boston area. But Sze said they do want to go beyond the borders of the city in due time. The startup has already been contacted by people across the country and around the world. Countries like Costa Rice, Iceland, Libya and Australia are already itching to get their hands on this empowering platform.
“It just shows that our technology transcends country lines,” Sze concluded. “Boston is the perfect launchpad and, once we perfect our formula here, we’ll be able to replicate it everywhere. We’re trying to redefine democracy for the modern world, which is a huge goal, so we’re looking at the small day-to-day victories now.”