A chance trip to Wal-Mart with a college roommate changed Sheena Allen’s life forever. After departing the store toting a long product receipt, Allen wanted an app that would help her keep track of her receipts and money. This was in late 2011, with fewer offerings in the App Store compared to today.
“I searched the App Store and didn’t find anything close to what I wanted and decided I would create it myself,” Allen said in an interview with Opportunity Lives. “The fact that I didn’t have a technical background was never an issue for me. The art of creativity combined with the art of hustle will allow you to get it done some way or another. I designed the app and wrote out the specifications. Once I was done with that, I got a loan from my dad and hired a developer that I found online. “
After she made that first app, Allen, now 27, was hooked, and the rest is history. She grew her work from a single app with 50 downloads to six apps (and counting) with more than 2 million downloads. Her apps focus on taking the world of photo and video and adding a social component.
Allen has now built out 6 apps which have garnered a collective 2 million downloads
“Being innovative and creating apps that allow people to do things with the tap of their finger in an app that they used to have to sit down at a desktop and do before is a major part of our company,” Allen said. “I know more coding now than I did when I first got into apps, but it is still not what I focus on and spend most of my time doing. I am fine with being the visionary and building my company, but I do think having some level of coding skills is important.”
Though currently based in Austin, Texas, Allen was born and raised in Terry, Mississippi, a tiny town with a population of just over 1,000 people. She’s got seven siblings, “but I am definitely what you would call the black sheep of my family,” she says in an interview. “However, my mom is a business analyst, so she is as close to ‘working in the tech field’ as it gets for anyone in my family.”
Allen, who is African-American, created the InstaFunds app which seeks to help what she calls “the unbanked, underbanked, and under-resourced with the goal of creating financial organization, discipline, and resources.”
The InstaFunds app gives users a place to track bills, transactions and create budgets, solving a problem she sees even among her own family members who do not have a bank account. Allen said this past year she’s worked on focus groups around InstaFunds and hopes to build out the app design based on insights gained from this research.
“Mississippi is the number one state for the unbanked and underbanked,” Allen said. “I know plenty of people that I grew up around that would go to the local grocery store or payday lenders to cash their checks. It’s a major problem and it starts with education and mindset … Being from Mississippi, I knew I could relate and make a change that most people couldn’t because I understood a problem from a perspective that those creating finance companies in Boston, New York, and San Francisco couldn’t and wouldn’t.”
Allen said she often speaks about how to encourage greater involvement in the tech sector among African-Americans and Latinos, and the biggest problem she sees is lack of exposure.
“I pretty much fell into the world of technology by having a random idea, but it wasn’t something I was exposed to growing up,” Allen said. “Even when you talk to kids in the African American culture, they usually talk of being a professional sports player, doctor, or lawyer. You rarely find any that says, ‘I want to build a tech empire.’ It is hard to blame someone for something that they do not know, especially kids. So education and exposure is a step in the right direction to change that. They need to see more people that look like them and that they can relate to in the field. I often speak to kids about the tech field and the opportunities available. It is hard for me to say no when asked to speak to kids because I know that I have the chance to touch at least one or two in the room and that is good enough for me.”
Allen also recommended programs like PowerMoves, CODE2040, and Black Girls Code, working to improve exposure.
“We also have some amazing African-American and Latinos in the field that are dong their part in kicking open doors and holding it open for the next person,” she said.
In terms of women in tech, Allen said there are many women doing great things in the industry, but you usually don’t hear about them unless it is a conference for women or an article strictly about “women in tech.”
“For so long, some industries have been looked as ‘a man’s world’ and tech is one of those industries,” Allen said. “However, women are just as creative and just as capable.”
Allen said that in comparing tech money versus entertainment money “there’s no comparison.” Yet, she added, “in our culture, we listen to entertainers brag about the millions of dollars that they have and often show off the foreign cars that they are driving. We want that. They look cool. They look like they have it all. However, we now see that even the biggest names in entertainment are working to transition into the tech world. Dr. Dre did Beats by Dre and Jay Z is currently pushing Tidal.”
“Agree or disagree, I believe Kanye is a mad genius and he often talks about tech and fashion and even infamously went on the Twitter rant asking Mark Zuckerberg to invest in him. So some of the entertainers themselves are starting to understand the different worlds of tech and entertainment. As far as those who spotlight on entertainers, it goes back to perception and exposure.”
Despite the successful startup “unicorns” out there, Allen says the extreme levels of hard work required to build a successful company discourage many aspiring entrepreneurs.
“I always tell myself and tell others, you have to trust the journey, the process, and the struggle,” Allen said. “You are going to be told ‘no’ way more than you are told yes. Your work is never going to be perfect. There is always going to be someone that thinks your idea is stupid. The feedback is not always going to be 100 percent positive. It is rare that you will be an overnight success. All of that can be discouraging. However, the sun eventually shines after the storm. It is just that not every entrepreneur is wiling to endure the storm.”
Allen said she thinks she’ll eventually maker her way to the Bay Area soon.
“I’ve been back and forth, but never truly stationed myself there,” she said. “I want to play with the big boys and if you’re looking for where the big boys play, it is Silicon Valley.”
Focused on building out Sheena Allen Apps and InstaFunds, Allen has until recently been bootstrapping her work and is finally raising funds.
“Long-term, I want to build a tech empire. I have visions that I am determined to make come to life. In the end and more than anything, I want to change lives.”
Cross-posted from Opportunity Lives.
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others. A founding POLITICO reporter, Carrie contributed on political economy at Forbes and wrote editorials for The Washington Times. After earning a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, she managed credit risk at Goldman Sachs and researched for Edward Conard, Bain Capital founding partner and American Enterprise Institute scholar. She earned a B.A. in communications at Brigham Young University and completed a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.