Photo by: Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

By Allison Matyus

Chicago Ideas Week is about bringing ideas and people together to implement change. Some folks, however, are ahead of the game, and their ideas have already brought about change. The Chicago Ideas Week 2017 BHSI Fellows include six people who have done just that with their own ideas.

The Bluhm/Helfand Social Innovation Fellowship recognizes young social entrepreneurs whose innovative organizations have created significant change for social challenges. This year, five applicants were chosen out of 250 to be recognized and receive financial support for their ventures.

Alex Niemczewski is a Chicagoan who came up with the idea for Ballot Ready when she didn’t know the names on her ballot in 2014. Now, three years later, her work is more important than ever.

The Idea Forge: What does it mean to you to be honored with this fellowship?

Niemczewski: One is being in a program with these other social entrepreneurs who are working on huge hard-to-solve problems is really exciting, but also having it be centered in Chicago and around Chicago Ideas Week where there are all these people coming in from around the world to talk, brainstorm, and be creative around big challenges makes me super excited.

How would you describe your own personal entrepreneur journey?

So when I started Ballot Ready I just made a website for myself. I wanted to know who was going to be on my ballot in 2014 so I just made it for myself then realized many other people had this problem of being totally ready to vote for those people at the top of the ballot, but as you go further down, there are all these offices that you don’t recognize and people whose names you’ve never heard of. I realized this was A) a problem for voters and B) a problem for municipalities and advocacy groups that want to get candidates elected that support their causes. Often voters don’t even know when their local elections happen, and it turned out to be a much bigger problem. We have now been working on it for almost three years and we have been able to make a huge impact in that short time.

What’s the social aspect of Ballot Ready?

We want to make sure that democracy works the way it should, so we want everyone to complete their entire ballot without guessing and to actually know who they’re voting for at the local level. We want voters to never miss an election, even the local ones where often turnout is super low–we want it to be 100 percent.

How did the 2016 election change Ballot Ready’s mission or course?

I would say we still do now what we did before, which is making it easy to know what’s on your ballot and when elections are. I think especially on the left, there have been much more interest in the local level and advocacy groups have gotten tons and tons of donations and voters are just more aware of what’s going on and care more. We are more in demand than we may have been in October 2016, which is good.

What’s new for Ballot Ready since October 2016?

A lot of things. One is we added a new tool so that voters can see where their polling place is, and another is they can get reminded via text about elections so they never miss a local election. We’ve covered every election that’s happened this year, and next year we will be in all 50 states for the mid-terms.

What is the next election coming up that people should know about?

There are elections in 31 states coming up this fall, but not in Illinois. The election for Illinois Governor is in spring of 2018, and then every state has elections in 2018.

What is some advice that you would give to someone that wants to start their own company?

Find some people who are awesome and super passionate about the problem you are trying to solve. It’s totally cool to start small and I think it’s a natural human emotion to think “Oh I’m not big enough yet,” but when you start, just take it one step at a time and you eventually will be able to get bigger.