Bryan Huang remembers the conversation well.
As a high school senior, Huang staffed a suicide hotline for a group called Samaritans, always listening with respect and empathy. His goal: to de-escalate the situation. One night, a caller left him temporarily flummoxed. “Don’t you think love and attention are the same thing?” the caller asked.
Huang found the question intriguing. He reflected on it. In time, Huang concluded that perhaps they were. “Helping means a nonjudgmental ear, our utmost attention and genuine human love,” said Huang, now a computer science major at USC Viterbi. “As a listener, you unearth what is true and alive. It makes comforting easy.”
Over the years, Huang has volunteered in a hospital and spent hours on the phone talking to despondent men and women considering taking their own lives. He currently serves as president of USC Code the Change, which designs and builds software for social good for area nonprofits.
Huang also contributed to the technological development of Social Benefit, a startup that is developing a digital platform that leverages algorithms to help low-income families navigate changes to their government benefits as their incomes rise. Social Benefit won the $50,000 grand prize at the 2021 Min Family Challenge, an engineering social entrepreneurship competition that encourages entrants to build companies to benefit the underprivileged locally, nationally and even worldwide.
“A lot of meaning in my life is rooted in being able to help others,” Huang said. “I also think there is almost a karmic way of the world giving back good when you put good into it.”
In the city
Huang grew up in gritty inner-city Boston, the child of Chinese immigrants who came to America with big dreams and little education but lots of determination.
With his mother working as a bank teller and his father in a restaurant, money was tight. The Huangs clipped coupons, rarely ate out and shared apartments with other families, scrimping and saving to gain a foothold on America’s ladder to a better life.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and for the Huang family, it did. Fellow Chinese immigrants connected his parents with new jobs and social networks. Through it all, Huang’s parents taught their son the importance of gratitude, of giving back, of helping those in need, just as others had so generously helped them time and again.
Movin’ on up
The Huangs’ frugality, willingness to put in long hours and ambition allowed them to rise economically. So, too, did education. Huang’s father eventually studied accounting at the University of Massachusetts Boston, while his mother matriculated at a junior college on her way to an advanced accounting degree, also at UMass Boston.
By the time he turned 11, the Huangs’ finances had improved to such an extent that they moved to Belmont, a tiny Boston suburb. They came for the good schools, low crime and nice homes. Still, they never allowed Bryan to forget how far they had come, those who had helped them along the way and the imperative to help those in need, perhaps now more than ever given their newfound affluence.
In his new neighborhood, Huang noted that although people in Belmont had far more materially than those with whom he had grown up, money didn’t seem to bring happiness. In fact, many of his high school peers seemed to experience acute emotional distress.
“I saw a problem in the community where I lived and started thinking about how I could do something about it, helping with people’s mental health,” Huang said. “I had worked in hospitals and things like that, but I felt like I needed to do something more. So I began to volunteer for the suicide hotline.”
At Samaritans, Huang developed his listening superpower. “A lot of times people feel like they’re dealing with problems all alone, that they aren’t being heard, that they don’t have anybody to talk to,” he said. “The main thing is to just listen, really listen.”
After graduating from high school, Huang headed more than 2,500 miles west to the land of Troy. He chose USC Viterbi because of its emphasis on hands-on learning and on leveraging technology for the benefit of society. As a sophomore, Huang joined USC Code the Change, which allowed him to put his computer science knowledge to good use. Among his first projects, he helped build an app for an educational company that allowed Los Angeles-area youth to connect with academic mentors.
“Until Code the Change, something was missing for me. That was a commitment to societal good,” Huang said. “Code the Change became the missing piece of the puzzle.”
The esteemed student organization also become a bridge to social entrepreneurship.
As a senior, Huang became president of Code the Change, vowing to increase the organization’s relevance and impact. He and other members reached out to several local nonprofits to see if they could help with their technological needs.
Imagine LA, a social service agency that serves families who have recently exited homelessness, requested assistance, seeking a digital tool to make it easier for low-income families to ascertain how increases in their income would impact their government benefits. Specifically, Imagine LA wanted the USC students to create a benefits calculator to forecast the so-called benefits cliff, the point at which an increase in income, say, from a new job, results in an even larger loss in public assistance.
Huang worked with Anthony Wiencko, a Code the Change member and USC Viterbi computer science major, and Brit Moore Gilmore, then a workforce development consultant. They spent so much time on the Imagine LA project that they eventually created Social Benefit.
Gilmore said Huang made a real contribution by serving as product manager. “Bryan oversaw the UX designers and helped manage them as they built out the interface, which is simple, clean and beautifully designed.”
Soon after winning the Min Family Challenge, Huang left Social Benefit for a summer internship with Cloudflare, a New York-based company working to make the internet more secure and efficient. Although both Huang and Wiencko have ended their formal affiliation with Social Benefit, the firm continues to flourish, having recently made some key strategic hires and begun prototyping its technology with local nonprofits and government agencies.
Huang currently doesn’t have any concrete post-graduation plans, although he muses about founding a startup. Whatever he does, Huang promises to heed his inner voice and moral compass.
“The mission will undeniably have some part that will benefit society,” he said. “That’s a high priority for me.”
Published on May 5th, 2022
Last updated on May 5th, 2022