Swipe for Service
By Nic Esposito
Karla Ballard’s journey to founding the skill sharing platform Ying is a tale that traverses the country and beyond, from Germantown to Barbados, from Wilmington to the West Coast.
Born and raised in Germantown, Ballard’s upbringing coincided with a serious economic decline and segregation in many parts of the city, compounded by decades of redlining. But even with this racial and economic strife, Ballard’s first memories as a child were of
diversity and inclusion.
“I was given the opportunity to be around such a cross-cultural experience,” she recalls. “To me, that resonates so strongly in terms of what Germantown is about.”
As she tells the tale, her voice almost takes on a melodic tone, each part of her story like the verse of a song.
She describes diverse cultures, neighbors living side by side, sharing their resources and their lives through deep community connections. She fondly recalls getting called on by their Jewish neighbor down the street to babysit her children and her own mother calling on the same favor when she needed it.
Ballard’s cultural perspective was further deepened by the summers she spent with her grandfather in Barbados. “It made a great impression on me to see Barbados, [which] was governed by a Black community that was not seen as equals in America.”
After graduating from the University of Virginia, she began working at the regional bank MBNA in Wilmington, where she jokes that she was delighted to find synergy in the often juxtaposed worlds of capitalism and social justice.
MBNA’s CEO at the time, Charles Cawley, supported Ballard’s efforts to develop the Youth Institute for Economic Leadership Development, or YIELD. This led her to speak before Congress on a juvenile justice law in 1999, which led her to meet now-President Joe Biden and helped her launch the first Urban League in Delaware.
She ended up going back to D.C. in the early 2000s to work with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Points of Light Foundation, where she had the fortuitous opportunity to meet Edgar S. Cahn. Cahn, former counsel and speech writer for Robert F. Kennedy, was promoting his concept of “timebanking” in D.C.’s Congress Heights neighborhood, where neighbors were actively exchanging skills based on the time they could commit.
As a former banker, Ballard recalls thinking, “Wow, here’s a hard-hit neighborhood that may not have a lot of financial capital, but they have so much social and community capital.”
She kept this lesson in the back of her mind as she then took a veer into tech, working to bring broadband internet to low-income (or as she says, “high-potential”) communities across the country. (She also ran for vice president in 2020 alongside former actor Brock Pierce, who is also known for his work in cryptocurrency.)
Her unique experience in banking, tech, social justice and timebanking inspired her to found Ying in 2016 with $800,000 in startup capital.
The concept is simple. Like timebanking, Ying would bring people together to share their skills with others in return for more sharing. Skill sharers receive 24 “digital tokens” through the app that they could spend on requesting another person’s skills. Each token acts as an hour (hence why you start with 24) and is tracked through the app, creating an incentive for people to both receive and give skills to one another as if they were spending fiat currency.
Ballard kept building Ying in Los Angeles until 2018 when a family emergency brought her back to Philly. After taking time for her family, Ballard relaunched Ying right as the pandemic began, but that did not slow her down.
Although Ying 2.0 is still in the beta testing phase, Ballard has grown the company by increasing users. Anyone can sign up through the Ying app or Yingme.co. But Ying also allows organizations to create “skill sharing groups” for a yearly fee on the platform.
Organizations get a bank of 2,400 tokens to recruit users through unique group codes. An organization can post a task in their network and offer tokens from their bank based on the amount of time a task will take, basically expanding an organization’s volunteer management system through the new dimension of timebanking.
Ballard has also built her staff by bringing on Victoria Mendoza as director of community engagement in 2021.
“It’s so exciting to see how much skill sharing is going on in Philly already, and how Ying creates the platform to execute it even more,” she says.
Mendoza, a performing artist by trade and founder of Revolutionary Artists, found that the best way to build Ying’s community was to use the app herself.
While scrolling through the opportunities, she came across a request by Ami Yares, the executive director of the nonprofit BuildaBridge International, for their need for trauma-informed artists. After a successful partnership, Yares is now preparing to trade his skills by hosting a workshop for Mendoza’s art group.
“Philadelphia is facing some serious issues these days regarding gun violence, opioids, poverty, gentrification, refugee resettlement and more,” Yares explains. “There is a lot going on to meet these crises head on and not a lot of intraorganizational communication. So when communities like We Love Philly, Revolutionary Artists, Builda-Bridge and others team up with information, resources and capacity expand, it is not cliché to think ‘together, we’re better.’”
As Yares points out, We Love Philly, which was featured on the cover of Grid’s December issue, used Ying during four events in the fall of 2021 at the La Placita flea market in Fairhill and in Germantown to do child tax credit and vaccine outreach. We Love Philly requested for the nonprofit Pheed Philly to make care packages during the events. Then Pheed Philly requested We Love Philly students to make care packages at one of their own events.
“We already are asking each other for favors in the nonprofit world,” Carlos Aponte, executive director of We Love Philly, explains. “But Ying puts those favor requests on a platform so we can keep track of those exchanges to see each other’s skills, opportunities and make sure we’re keeping the exchanges fair.”
There are already over 350 users and 30 skill sharing groups on Ying, even though they will formally launch on January 17 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by installing a mural in Germantown with the help of artist Marco Santini and Ying volunteers.
Why MLK Day for the launch?
Ballard shares, “Like Dr. King’s dream, the sense of a beloved community showing up as a united front to create a culture that is more connected and cares is what fuels the mission.”