Digital media entrepreneur DeShuna Spencer says she launched her tech startup, kweliTV, because she was frustrated with what she saw as a the lack of diversity in film and television and the few choices of content that focused on issues important to her as a black woman.
“And some of the shows that do feature black women portray us as loud, violent and ghetto and that did not represent the beautiful black women that I’m blessed enough to call my friends,” Spencer said. “I think it’s important that the media properly represents the many facets of black people.”
The name “kweli” means “truth” in Swahili. True presentation is important to Spencer. “That is my main mission, she said. “If we change the way little black girls and boys see themselves in the media, we have succeeded. If we begin a national dialogue on racial inequality that results in legislative action, we have succeeded. If we are able to create content that causes families to save more, eat healthier and live their best lives, we have succeeded.”
“When we select content for our platform, we make sure that we are staying true to our mission and not promoting any film that misrepresents people of color,” Spencer added.
The best way to describe the concept behind kweliTV is “Netflix for African diaspora content.” Spencer describes the interactive, streaming network platform as “TV on your terms.”
Before launching kweliTV, Spencer started an online magazine, emPower. Each week,emPower would feature indie films or documentaries that were screening at various film festivals worldwide. Spencer said she received a constant stream of emails from readers asking where could they watch these films.
“If they were not going to a film festival in New York, L.A. or even France, they were most likely not going to get the opportunity see the film,” Spencer said. “Unfortunately, black filmmakers do not get the same distribution deals as other groups. kweliTV is creating a space in which award-winning filmmakers of color can make money off of their work.”
What sets kweliTV apart is its international content. About 30 percent of its films and documentaries come from countries outside of the United States, including the United Kingdom, Nigeria, France, Brazil, Germany and Cameroon.
“When we say ‘preserving the African diaspora,’ we mean taking back our stories,” Spencer said. “There have been studies that show that films that depict Africans typically show them as child soldiers, crippled with poverty, stricken with diseases. While we know that the continent has its shares of challenges, those narratives do not tell the full story.”
Spencer points out that Africa has the fastest growing middle class in the world. “Countries like Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana are home to many innovative individuals creating new technologies and providing solutions to many problems facing their communities, she said. “I want to tell those stories through kweliTV.”
Spencer in 2014 was selected by Unity Journalists to participate as a finalist in its business pitch competition for minority journalists. In December of that year, kweliTV was one of two out of eight finalists to win a $20,000 seed grant. With that investment, Spencer created a beta platform that currently has close to 14,000 registered users.
“We’ve built so much with so little, and I’m proud whenever I receive personal messages and thank you notes from subscribers who are enjoying our content,” she said. “Creating and bootstrapping a tech start-up can be challenging and the encouraging words I receive from supporters keep me going.”
Earlier this year, Spencer felt frustrated that she could not raise more money beyond the initial grant. She wrote a public essay on Medium.com called “Diary of a Mad Black Woman Without VC Funding,” which got picked up by NBC News and helped garner further traction. (For the record, “mad” in this context means crazy. As Spencer put it, anyone launching a tech company must be a little crazy.) She was also recently profiled by the Los Angeles Times. Spencer said the essay was her “passion” and “therapy,” and she felt compelled to share her journey as a black female founder.
“I simply was depressed, like many founders, with trying to get funding for my start-up despite having traction,” Spencer said. “And I became more depressed when I saw the study by ProjectJane that revealed that black women only receive 0.2 percent of all investment dollars.”
Spencer also pointed to a story in Good magazine that reported how black women entrepreneurs generate more than $44 million in revenue annually, but are least likely to get funded.
“There is a diversity problem in tech funding,” she said. “Believe me, I know I’m not perfect and I know I can always improve what I’m building. But research shows that white male founders are able to get funded early enough to work out the kinks of their business model. So, it can’t be that all of us don’t have our stuff together. I simply don’t believe it! We just don’t get the same funding opportunities to perfect our business model. The essay allowed me to share my story.”
Spencer’s biggest piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
“Don’t quit. I actually tell myself that about every day,” she said.
“I’ve been told by some budding entrepreneurs that they have second thoughts about starting a company because of the amount of hours you have to put in to make it successful,” she said. “So I always advise aspiring entrepreneurs to create something that you’re passionate about, something that you could do for free, rather than do something that you think will make you a lot of money in five years. Because when it’s 3 a.m., you’re still up working despite having to travel to New York for a 10 a.m. meeting and you haven’t slept or caught a ‘good break’ in months, it will be your passion that sustains you.”
Spencer said she also believes female founders need to find a group of other female founder friends to try out ideas, or to “cry with and just vent.”
“Only those who have taken on the challenge of becoming an entrepreneur understands just ‘how real’ the hustle is. I don’t get a chance to do it often, but when I do get together with another female founder, I’m revitalized.”
The biggest lesson so far, Spencer said, is to be patient.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes since winning my grant in 2014—some cost me money and customers,” Spencer said. “But I’ve learned lessons that I never would’ve gotten if I had not made a wrong decision here and there.”
“I’m happy to have learned them now while in an open beta than years down the line when we have millions of customers,” she added. “It’s been a tough journey, but I love it. There’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing than building kweliTV. I feel blessed and honored that God birthed this idea in me and chose me to pursue this mission.”
Article cross-posted from opportunitylives.com.
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others. A founding reporter at POLITICO, Carrie contributed on political economy at Forbes, wrote editorials for The Washington Times under Tony Blankley and advised Bustle, a popular digital media brand. Carrie earned a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, concentrating in business policy. She has a B.A. in communications at Brigham Young University and completed a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.