Jess Riegel, co-founder of Motivote
“There is a disconnect for my generation. We possess strong political opinions, but this doesn’t translate to voting. How do we bridge the gap between intention and action?”
Meet Jess Riegel. Jess describes herself as a first-grade-teacher-turned political tech founder. She started her career as a Teach For America corps member, leading classrooms in New Orleans and Newark. Jess has also worked in social impact consulting, impact investing, and program evaluation. As a Master of Public Administration candidate at NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, she launched Motivote as her MPA capstone project.
“Motivote takes the same approach to voter turnout as I did with managing 6-year-olds — if you make things fun, people will do them! Motivote uses research-proven behavioral nudges to voting, like social accountability and incentivized plan-making, to get young people over the “microbarriers” to voting.”
Jess has been a Social Innovation Fellow at StartingBloc, as well as a Deep-Dive Fellow at Ashoka. She adds: “I have no hobbies. I like to watch tv. And take naps on the weekends.” You can reach Jess via email, LinkedIn, as well as Twitter.
What Does She Do?
Jess is the co-founder of Motivote.
“We’re about using peer pressure for social good and meeting young voters where they are. I manage the overall strategic direction and our product. I’m also starting to fundraise. I don’t have a daily routine, but most days involve running around the city, NYC or DC, talking to people about Motivote.”
How Did She Get Into This Work?
“I never thought that I would be doing this work.”
Jess grew up in the suburbs of central New Jersey. While her dad commuted into Manhattan, her mom ran for the local school board when she was in fifth grade. “Mom ran because she was frustrated and wanted to bring a data-driven approach” to measurement and governance.
It was a road trip to the Women’s Global March in 2017 that served as the catalyst for Motivote. That, and, she needed a capstone project to graduate from NYU Stern. That winter she was taking a behavioral economics class with Prof. Tatiana Homonoff and it inspired the initial approach she and her co-founders would take with Motivote.
Jess’ Stern cohort was new to Stern, focusing on social impact innovation and investment. Instead of consulting for others, her team would make the business case for an entirely new social venture. Even before they scoped out their mission, assembling the team was key. With Rachel Konovitz (an organizer) and Emily Graham (a DC comms maven), their first experiment was looking at how to raise turnout for student elections at Wagner. Despite a voting process that was a simple online web form with a two-week timeframe to cast one’s ballot, participation was abysmal. Leveraging theories of loss aversion, students were organized in teams and Venmo’ed Jess and the team $5. You got these monies back only if your entire team voted. This simple nudge increased turnout 165% year over year; only one person in the pilot failed to vote. (Size of the group continues to be an active line of inquiry.) While Motivote has since moved away from sticks to carrots as its theory of change, the platform is now in use across all of NYU’s twelve schools.
Beyond her MPA peers, Motivote’s interrogation of youth voter engagement has resulted in hundreds of interviews with college students, listening to what influences them to vote, or not vote, as the case may be. “There is a disconnect for my generation. We possess strong political opinions, but this doesn’t translate to voting. How do we bridge the gap between intention and action?”
While low turnout is an artifact of all former twentysomethings – Jess thinks that declining faith in institutions is also playing a role.
Motivote ran further pilots during the June 2018 primaries, the midterm elections, and the Public Advocate primary this winter. Until recently, Motivote has focused mostly on hyperlocal sponsorships – nail salons, movie theaters, restaurants. While it’s also landed a handful of national sponsors including SoulCycle, Sonos, and Ben & Jerry’s, Motivote is looking to move from local business partnerships to long-term brand partnerships if it is to be sustainable.
“[Over 2019] we want to go deep in a couple of places. We have partners in Louisiana, MI, with the New Georgia Project, and a few groups down in TX. We need to help these groups fundraise to get these pilots off the ground.”
How Did She Come to Civic Hall?
Jess joined Civic Hall in April. “I don’t remember how I learned about Civic Hall initially, but it was some time in Fall 2018 while still in grad school project mode. I had gotten connected to a couple of folks who happened to be members, and they asked me to meet with them there. Every time I was there, I met more awesome people and joined with the network membership.”
What Is She Reading?
While Jess let it be known that she’s a voracious reader, she’s been preoccupied with bringing Motivote to life. Recently, a roommate had J.K. Rowling’s latest novel lying around. Once Jess learned that A Casual Vacancy centers around voting and local elections, she devoured it.
What Is Her Ask and Offer of Civic Hall?
Ask: After piloting several successful trials over 2018, Motivote is thinking about its next steps. “This year is all about iterating and building to nail our behavioral model so we can truly move the needle in 2020. If you have connections to any of the following types of groups, please get in touch: 1) Group that does direct voter engagement work, 2) Group that has a membership model, 3) Group that supports or trains candidates.”
Offer: Jess has offered to schedule an upcoming Lunch and Learn to share a Motivote demo and take any questions from the community.
Motivote’s pitch to partners: “[It’s] really important for you as a business to engage your Millennials and show off your social impact work. For example, 81% of consumers are more likely to patronize a band which supports Democracy – as opposed to spending on that Kendall Jenner ad. By working with us you’re supporting people voting.”