The last few weeks (but really years) have been nothing short of emotionally challenging. In between bouts of deep sadness and profound rage, I’m a confused mess. It hurts deeply to care so much about a world that’s not designed to promote the prosperity of Black people.
While I’m consistently proud of (and enamored by) the resilience of our community throughout history, I often wonder about the amount of violence a community of people can endure before the damage is irreparable. I frequently worry about the collective psyche of oppressed people (including my own) — both the damage we can see, but also the damage we can’t.
Despite all this, I’m grateful for those who continue to be committed to seeking solutions to this problem. It’s because of these creators, writers, ideators, and conversation-starters that I’ve managed to turn my bouts of helplessness into activism over the last few years rather than retreat inward into my emotions. It’s imperative that we re-prioritize and organize in a new way.
In an effort to spark collective ideation, I’ve put together different ideas that have been in my head for some time now in hopes of even one person acting upon one of them. At this point, none of us “own” any ideas. We do, however, own a collective responsibility to the uplifting of our community. We must share ideas with each other and find those best suited to bring them to fruition.
Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that the goal isn’t to suggest these approaches as being the best ways to solve these problems (or as being new), but rather to spark both collective and/or individual ideation that results in the execution of various forms of these ideas over time.
Here are 10 ideas in tech that I believe will be critical to the collective economic and political advancement of the Black community:
1. Equity CrowdFunding Will Democratize the Way Black Founders Gain Access to Capital
I pitched almost 100 VCs during the early days of Jetpack — sadly, initially no luck. It wasn’t until I launched an equity crowdfunding campaign on Republic that I was able to raise $250k from over 800 people to continue building on the initial prototype and gain traction at Stanford. It was only after that traction that I was able to pitch VCs and raise $1.5M. This journey is problematic, yet inspiring for several reasons.
I believe that some of the biggest barriers to accessing seed funding for Black Founders are the expectations placed on Black Founders during the early days (co-founders, traction, etc.). Many of these requirements are usually more possible with capital.
While there’s a whole suite of challenges that arise from Capital, it’s also difficult to attract co-founders and employees willing to work for free during the early days if you’re Black. I’m sure you can extrapolate why it would be exponentially harder to sell a dream (and get them to temporarily work for free) to others who have a few examples to reference in terms of “successfully exited” Black Founders in tech. Another great example of a crowdfunding success is Ofo Ezeugwu’s campaign for WhoseYourLandlord.
That said, I believe more Black Founders should turn to equity crowdfunding as a means of accessing early-stage capital. Without this opportunity, it would have been increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to even get a shot at seeing whether an idea potentially has legs — an opportunity we all deserve.
2. Platforms That Allow for the Monetization of Unused Resources
The success of several marketplaces over the last decade has been a direct result of their ability to enable people to unlock additional streams of revenue.
One exciting example is ShearShare. ShearShare is a platform that allows salon and barbershop owners to rent out booths to different hairstylists and barbers. Many hairstylists and barbers experience unpredictable demand and can’t pay for monthly booth rentals when demand isn’t always present. ShearShare allows them to also rent booths for even a day and be able to take clients on an ongoing, less predictable basis. My mom is an owner of a beauty salon, and platforms like these also enable people like her to make additional revenue on her unused booths. Tom McCleod’s vision and work on companies such as Omni enabled people to monetize items such as golf clubs and equipment they may not be using all the time. How can we enable groups of Black creators to collectively buy into collective high-quality equipment such as cameras and studios (that are shared with one another) to perfect their craft?
I wonder about the potential for more platforms to do similar things with unused resources in the Black community — goods, physical space, time, etc. I believe there’s a tremendous opportunity for this type of model to be applied to art tools/equipment, music production tools, restaurant space, and photography, furniture, etc.
3. Cloud Kitchens Are the Future for Black Chefs and Restaurant Owners
An article on Eater by Angela Burke describes how COVID-19 will disproportionately impact Black women restaurateurs, and their businesses, much harder. In another article, Burke also discusses the importance of mentorship for young Black chefs.
Let’s talk about cloud kitchens. Cloud kitchens are essentially centralized licensed commercial food production facilities where anywhere from one or two to dozens of restaurants and/or chefs rent space to prepare food optimized for delivery. They are mainly created for delivery-only restaurants and enable businesses to grow with less investment.
There are several Black chefs managing to grow their business (PinchofLove in Los Angeles is my all-time favorite — literally the best soul food I’ve ever tasted in my life, and my friends and attest to that). Owner Tashia has impressively managed to grow her business strictly from Instagram DM orders and was featured at any and every event I put together in the last year. The ability to bring Chefs like Tashia onto platforms that enable her food to be delivered as well as provide her with low-cost cloud kitchen options to scale her menu options will be transformative.
4. Toys! For Black Kids
Sometimes the biggest ideas are the most simple. In the 1940s, Black psychologists Kenneth Bancroft Clark and his wife Mamie Phillps Clark designed a test known as the “doll test” to see how children responded to race. The test was administered to Black children between the ages of three and seven years. When the children were asked which of the four dolls that they were shown they preferred, the majority selected the white doll and described it as most desirable, whereas the black dolls were described as the least desirable. These dangerous consequences resulting from a lack of representation has led to several innovations even outside the toy industry, such as Tonl by Joshua Kissi — a platform where people can find culturally diverse stock photos that represent the true world we live in.
In recent years, there have been deliberate attempts within the toy industry to present a more diverse selection of dolls; however, many Black Americans have taken it upon themselves to create and produce dolls and other kid-friendly items specifically for Black children. One powerful example is Yelitsa Jean-Charles and her creation of Healthy Roots Dolls — with a featured, lovable doll named Zoe.
There are very powerful ideas being created based on findings from research, including Ideo’s innovative take on creating an Elmo App where toddlers can “call” and engage with Elmo in a realistic, personal way. This got me thinking about the many ways we can leverage technology to create toys that:
1. Help instill a sense of self-pride and self-awareness
2. Are created with design constraints in mind that disproportionately impact Black children (e.g. fitness/sports toys designed for certain home sizes and layouts)
Jason Mayden’s work with Super Heroic proved the importance of designing for the next generation of superheroes — including Black superheroes. Super Heroic was started with a unique goal: Convince every kid who puts on a pair of its kicks that they are a superhero come to life. For the past 15 years, Jason has created experiences that have existed at the intersection of youth culture and technology. The products he designed while at Nike/Jordan Brand have become some of the most coveted cultural artifacts of our time. At the core of all of his design innovation is the premise that products need to be designed with Black children in mind — full stop.
5. Lowering the Barriers to Entry for Homebuying and Real Estate Investing
After learning about the entire town of Toomsboro, Georgia, on the market for $1.7M, I started thinking more about the future of real estate crowdfunding.
Real estate crowdfunding works similar to many other crowdfunding ventures: Investors pool their money together to back a product or company in hopes of a future return. One of the barriers to entry with real estate investing is the capital required to make a down payment. To address this, some real estate crowdfunding platforms are working to lower that barrier so people can invest with as little as a few hundred dollars. However, there’s still a lot of work to do to optimize these platforms.
For the most part, real estate crowdfunding platforms use investors’ money to fund real estate investment trusts or similar investments. As mentioned in an article on Nerdwallet, REITs are companies that own, and sometimes operate, real estate, such as apartments, warehouses, malls, and hotels. Shares of some REITs are publicly traded on stock exchanges, while other REITs are privately owned. REITs, both public and non-traded, are legally mandated to pay 90% of their taxable income to investors. Because of this, many REITs offer a strong history of dividends.
In short, real estate crowdfunding platforms are designed to give investors access to private market real estate investments that may offer higher returns than publicly-traded REITs. According to one platform, Fundrise, a REIT investment in the public market with daily liquidity (the ability to sell at any time) has an average trailing 20-year annual return of 8.2%, while a REIT investment in the private market with an investment span of 3–7 years has an average 20-year trailing return of 12.3%.
In addition to bringing innovation to these platforms, education about investment readiness is key. Platforms such as HomeLendingPal (Founder & CEO Bryan Young) are working to reduce the barriers to traditional home buying. Home Lending Pal merges your data from trusted online sources to educate you on your most affordable home-buying options, streamline pre-approval, show financial impact on your lifestyle, and simplify the home-buying process.
6. Technologies Advancing the Operations of Bodegas and Small Shops in Food Deserts
Environmental justice is concerned with an equitable distribution of environmental burdens. These burdens comprise immediate health hazards as well as subtle inequities, such as limited access to healthy foods. A food desert is an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. By contrast, a food oasis is an area with greater access to supermarkets or vegetable shops with fresh foods. Most measures and definitions take into account at least some of the following indicators of access:
- Accessibility to sources of healthy food, as measured by distance to a store or by the number of stores in an area.
- Individual-level resources that may affect accessibility, such as family income or vehicle availability.
- Neighborhood-level indicators of resources, such as the average income of the neighborhood and the availability of public transportation.
I’ve thought a lot about the operational advancements that can be provided to neighborhood bodegas that can allow for easier and more cost-effective storage options. One initiative launched in 2005, called the Healthy Bodega Initiative, was created to increase nutritional offerings in at-risk neighborhoods. Greenmarket, a project of New York City’s Council on the Environment, has taken a more drastic measure to bring healthy food into bodegas. They’ve recently begun giving bodegas refrigerators in which to keep seasonal fruits, vegetables, and 100% juice.
There seems to be a lot more work to do, and I believe technology can play a critical role in addressing many of the barriers that exist today when it comes to education and access. Big ideas will create solutions that make it easier to:
- Bring people who live in food deserts to healthy food options
- Bring healthy food options to them
7. Platforms To Facilitate Crowdsourced Video Production
Sabaah Folayan is a filmmaker and activist whose debut documentary feature, Whose Streets?told the story of the Ferguson uprising as experienced by the people who lived it. The film analyzed how the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown inspired a community to fight back and sparked a global movement.
In The Guardian, Jordan Hoffman gave the film five stars and praised Folayan and directorial choice to make a “tremendous end run around mainstream news outlets and the agenda-driven narratives that emerge, particularly on television” by not using “images…leaked by law enforcement or stage managed for the media, but [which] come directly from the people who lived through the violent events of 2014.” In The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney said Folayan’s “raw connection to the material informs the film’s entire approach, investing it with an urgency that never lets up.”
Demonstrated by the global impact of Whose Streets?, there continues to be a critical need to tell stories through the eyes of those who have experienced the problem themselves. There’s an opportunity for storytellers, filmmakers, and creatives to leverage technology to:
- Share both equipment needed to produce critical films as well as
- Quickly and efficiently share and leverage approved video content and facts from those around the country in a way that is conducive to crowdsourced filmmaking.
8. Marketplaces Enabling Virtual Training With Black Fitness & Wellness Coaches
I recently embarked on a fitness journey over the last eight months. In a nutshell, being a founder caused me to develop some very unhealthy lifestyle habits that resulted in me gaining over 50 lbs last year. I recently (and finally) reached my fitness goal and have lost over 50 lbs thanks to a variety of supportive people and resources along the way. I attribute a lot of my fitness journey success to Keith Thompson of KTXFitness — an innovative spin class, originally founded in Atlanta, that plays genres such as hip-hop, afrobeats, and soca during all the workouts.
I went to KTXFitness every single day because I felt at home and understood. He spoke to me about sleep, eating, and stress in a way that was culturally relevant and important for me to hear. I needed advice that matched my life from someone who understood the stresses I was under in a real way.
With the rise of more Black trainers and wellness coaches using their platform to impact the lives of thousands (in some cases, millions) of people, I believe there are ways to more easily match those lookings to transform their health and wellness with those who can provide services AND have a better understanding of the cultural factors potentially hindering one’s progression toward their fitness goals.
9. Designing Products for the Unbanked & Underbanked…With Their Needs in Mind
Based on a 2017 survey conducted by the FDIC, 25.2% of American households are either unbanked or underbanked. However, Black communities tend to face higher rates of financial exclusion and continue to be the least “banked” in the country: Only 45.8% of Black families are considered “fully-banked,” compared with 77% of white households.
PayPal is one company that has vowed to help the unbanked. Customers who visit a Walmart store can now withdraw cash from their PayPal accounts for a small fee ($3). PayPal customers can also deposit cash and paychecks into their accounts. And through partnerships with some smaller banks, PayPal wants to offer new products for the unbanked, including debit cards and mobile check deposit.
However, there’s no point in creating a product or service targeting the unbanked — unless it’s designed with their specific needs in mind. Similar to advancements in mobile money in countries such as Kenya and Tanzania, new innovators have the opportunity to step in and optimize the process of daily transactions for Blacks who continue to be unbanked.
Benjamin Fernandes, the Tanzanian co-founder chief executive of Nala, spent hundreds of hours talking to local Tanzanians about their frustrations with mobile money payment services before he launched his new payment platform.
In addition to products designed specifically for the unbanked, there are various tech advancements that can help with many challenges being faced by Black financial institutions. Over the course of the last 20 years, the ranks of banks and credit unions in the United States have declined by about half (to about 5,500 each), while deposits continue to flow into a handful of the largest institutions. Unfortunately, because of this trend, Black banks and credit unions have suffered the most. Similar to the dilemma faced by many HBCUs, increased work done to eliminate the negative effects of redlining has allowed for more Black banks to survive and evolve. This has also led to increased competition (whereas Black banks formerly enjoyed a kind of monopoly in communities neglected by mainstream, white-owned banks). This increased competition has required higher levels of innovation to deliver the best-in-class financial services and products at these institutions.
If you believe that the downfall of Black-owned financial institutions is simply business as usual in a free-market economy, and that the needs of Black communities are (or inevitably will be) equitably met, then this trend probably doesn’t move you to want to do something. However, if you believe that Black financial institutions represent something more than the numbers — that Black ownership matters socially, psychologically, and yes, economically — you have to be concerned about protecting their existence, growth, and evolution.
10. Platforms That Shorten the Time and Barrier to Entry for Collective Political Action
When diving into the recent brutal murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (just to name a few), petition platforms have been instrumental in the small glimpses of justice we’ve seen over the last few years. To date, the four officers who killed George Floyd have been arrested and charged; the three men who participated in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery have also been arrested and charged for his death; and the FBI has launched an investigation into the killing of Breonna Taylor (while her killers have still not been arrested).
The petition-hosting site Change.org considers a number of factors in determining which had the biggest impact: “the number of people who signed, the zeitgeist and the conversations sparked, and whether anything changed as a result”, said Michael Jones, the platform’s managing director of campaigns.
After 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed on February 26, 2012, his parents Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton started a petition calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch leader who shot him. More than 2.2 million people signed in support of the cause. Within a week, it had become one of the most popular petitions in the website’s history — with 877,110 signatures. The local tragedy soon became an international movement. Civil rights activists, politicians, and protesters rallied behind Trayvon’s family and took to the streets to demonstrate against his killing.
In April 2012, Change.org declared the petition a victory after a Florida state attorney announced that charges of second-degree murder would be lodged against Zimmerman. Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013. But Trayvon’s death forced a conversation about police brutality and inequality and helped give rise to one of the most prominent movements of the decade: Black Lives Matter.
Whether it is the demand for justice for those who have been killed at the hands of our law enforcement and their families, or collective unity behind boycotting companies that have any involvement in causing emotional, physical, mental or financial harm to Black people, tech platforms can play a critical role. The next wave of tech products to effect change will make it easier to:
- Share and learn important pieces of information
- Quickly be informed about and engage in collective action (petitioning, voting, boycotting, etc.)
- Have important conversations — with one another, and with the world
Platforms such as CultureBanx co-founded by Kori Hale and Kwame-Som-Pimpong have been redefining business, finance, and tech news for black professionals. These platforms are well-positioned to integrate features designed to do the above-mentioned while simultaneously educating the market.
11. …More Funded Black Founders
Last but certainly not least, funding more Black founders. For many, this seems like a radical idea; however, it’s not.
Oftentimes, the mere existence of Black people in certain spaces and roles (independent of whether or not our work is directly focused on the Black community in the short-term) is the fuel that empowers others who look like us to believe they, too, can achieve the same.
Platforms such as Founder Gym have been instrumental in bridging this gap. Founder Gym is the first online training program specifically designed to help underrepresented tech startup founders raise money to scale their startups with mentors such as Megan Holsten Alexander and Charles Hudson.
In honor of Black History Month, a group of Black founders, VCs, and tech professionals put together the most comprehensive list of US-based venture-backed Black founders ever. While there are a number of individuals that helped compile this list, key contributors include Yonas Beshawred, James Norman, Sefanit Tades, and Sydney Paige Thomas.
With all these ideas being said, please remember that activism doesn’t always look like immediate action. It occasionally involves moments of deeply caring for yourself. It’s often during those moments of self-care when you’ll discover a renewed sense of purpose and an even greater capacity to contribute to the prosperity of a people who have contributed so much to this country through and through.