Toward the end of January, Apple hosted a Black History Month Virtual Developer Showcase that highlighted five Black app creators building platforms needed by their communities but not addressed by mainstream app builders.
Apple launched its $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative (REJI) in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, while public outrage was at an all-time high. Alisha Johnson, the director of REJI at Apple, described the program as “an effort, first and foremost to address systemic racism.”
“[REJI] also [aims] to expand opportunities for communities of color across the country,” Johnson said at the panel. “We really recognize the urgency in focusing on and expanding this work to fight systemic racism for Black and brown people.”
To further try to level the playing field, Johnson mentioned that Apple has additionally invested nearly $50 billion with financial institutions that focus on providing access and resources to minority-owned and minority-founded businesses.
“The growing app economy is a place where all entrepreneurs have an opportunity to make a mark on their world,” Johnson continued.
Simmone Taitt, one of the panel members, knows that she has already made that mark. Taitt is the CEO and founder of Poppy Seed Health, an app that makes pregnancy and postpartum care accessible 24/7. In 2016, at Taitt’s first pregnancy appointment, the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat.
“Instead of getting the care and comfort that I expected to get from my provider,” Taitt told the panel, “I left that appointment with no medical, no emotional or mental health resources. So I did what 85% of all of us do in this county — I took to the internet looking for healthcare answers.”
Of the experience, Taitt said she felt “enraged and upset and frustrated, and I didn’t feel good.”
That moment would become a turning point in her life — she went on to become a professionally trained doula and then launched Poppy Seed Health.
“We built poppy seed health to democratize access to emotional and mental health support in the moments when people need it the most,” she said. “Many of us are first generation immigrants. Many of us speak English as a second language. Many of us are going through the same exact kind of journeys that we are building for to meet people exactly where they need to be met with our app.”
Smokey Fontaine, the global editorial for the App Store, reiterated how much finding an app like Poppy Seed Health could change the lives of thousands of people.
“Anyone with a great idea and the ability to code can connect with over 600 million people each week across 175 countries,” he explained to the panel. “Small developers make up more than 90% of all the developers on the app store.”
Another one of those small developers is DeShuna Spencer, the founder and CEO of kweliTV — a highly renowned interactive streaming platform that celebrates global Black culture and the African Diaspora through selected and award-winning indie films, documentaries, web series and children’s programming.
Similar to Taitt, Spencer started kweliTV out of frustration.
“I remember one day like flipping through hundreds of channels, not finding anything I could relate to as a Black woman,” she said. “Studies show that 83% of Black people believe that the media perpetuates negative stereotypes about us. When you look at leadership, 90% of film execs and 87% of TV execs are white and mostly male. And we look at writers, directors, showrunners — only 6% of them are black.”
KweliTV’s name comes from the Swahili word for “truth.”
“We stream Black stories from North America, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, Australia, all in one place,” Spencer said. “This world needs to hear [Black] voices, see Black love, recognize Black brilliance, appreciate Black beauty and courage, find joy.”
In 2020, PCMag gave kweliTV an “excellent” rating compared to other streaming platforms and wrote, “The passion is admirable, and the results are successful.”
Apple also highlighted its Entrepreneur Camp for Black Founders, a program launched under REJI in 2021 that produced the team of David Alston and Nicco Adams. Alston and Adams both grew up loving fashion and sneakers, but the camp gave them access to coding skills that would allow them to open up their world to a larger audience.
Kickstroid was designed by the duo to help sneaker enthusiasts discover their favorite shoes with features that weren’t available on other sneaker apps. The platform also served to build a community of “sneakerheads” worldwide, but Alston and Adams’ goal is to build the “smartest sneaker app ever.”
“I grew up idolizing people who look like me — Black men and women who found ways to express their creativity through culture and fashion,” Alston said. “I found that in sneaker culture, as I continue growing as a sneakerhead, I also began learning how to do things like how to code.”
It was around a decade ago that Alston said he made his first dollar selling sneakers. But since then sneaker culture has changed so rapidly that Alston and Adams knew they had to take advantage of it.
“It used to be a one-dimensional space, [and] is now crowded by different ideas, concepts and stories, so you no longer have to be the person to camps outside of the sneaker store on a Saturday morning to make sneakers, a part of your personality,” Alston joked.
Kickstroid operates almost like a dating app where users choose between two sneakers, and then the algorithm begins to understand what the user is interested in. The app is truly a first of its kind — machine learning has not really been implemented in sneaker culture.
“We also use machine learning to generate predictive data, such as the resale value of the shoe,” Alston explained. “We’ve been scarily accurate in many situations, oftentimes being almost $3 off of a shoe’s actual resale value.”
Listening to Alston and Adams talk about sneakers, it’s clear their passion runs much deeper than appreciating a good pair of shoes. Before closing out their part of the panel, the duo reiterated how valuable it is to provide platforms that promote and celebrate Black culture and ideas.
“That’s what Apple actually did when they chose us to be a part of their inaugural entrepreneur camp for Black coders — we know how rare it is to see Black people and Black men in tech, and even more rare to see Black at the head of a tech startup like us,” Alston said. “We’re proud of the fact that we use our identity and talents to build a product that celebrates a culture that Black men and women created and continue to influence every single day.”
The sentiment was repeated in the final panelist’s presentation for the event. Damilola Awofisayo is a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and a 2021 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) scholarship winner. She started her own hackathon, TecHacks, which aims to build a supportive environment for girls everywhere to “create, problem-solve and showcase their talents.”
“I realized that women of color specifically were not really represented in the field when it comes to hackathon organizations and hackathons in general,” Awofisayo said. “0.7% of the population [involved in tech] is Black girls and Black student or Black women. So I created TecHacks to change that.”
Awofisayo’s defining “equation” that she said fuels all of her coding and app-building is this idea that “accessibility equals impact.”
“When people have the community to support their ambitions and their goals, as well as accessibility, and they’re able to reach the resources that are able to make their solutions happen, you see an immense and efficient impact throughout the world,” she said. “That is something that just really motivated me to do all the stuff that I’m doing and will hopefully motivate me and the next generation of computer scientists and changemakers for years to come.”
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