2020 has truly been the year of flexibility. When it comes to our AfroTech family, it’s meant learning to pivot to ensure the show indeed goes on. Each year, the Oakland-based event provides the opportunity for founders and employees at some of the nation’s fastest-growing tech startups to officially debut their companies and present their digital strategies for success.
This year’s AfroTech conference culminated in a virtual avatar experience called AfroTech World and featured a two-day initiative called the AfroTech World Founders Showcase presented by the Amazon Alexa Fund. Designed as a means for seed-stage startups to pitch to and network with notable venture capitalists, incubators and angel investors — including Y Combinator, Founder Gym, Precursor Ventures and MaC Venture Capital among others — dialed in all week long at AfroTech World to scope out emerging change-makers.
It’s an opportunity not often given to Black and Latinx startups, who received less than 3% of available VC funding in 2020. Yes, you read that right. This is one of the reasons the Amazon-funded showcase was created — to highlight founders, products and services in a whole new way.
In case you missed it, eight Black-owned startups illustrated just why investing in these initiatives is so vital. Learn more about these companies, and the founders behind them, below.
Liberate | Meditation Application
Institutionalized racism often takes a silent toll on Black and brown communities, making Liberate, a subscription-based meditation app, a creative option for those seeking a safe space to tackle and dismantle such issues. The app has grown a following by offering talks and practices specifically customized for the Black community.
By focusing on mental health, Julio Rivera, an Afro-Latinx software engineer, is filling a void left by all-white mediation apps and services. “I started Liberate because after suffering from depression, I was introduced to meditation through a popular app called Headspace. When I made meditation a daily habit, I noticed a shift in how I was managing my overwhelming levels of stress and anxiety.”
Realizing the lack of diversity in existing applications, Julio committed to creating the change he wanted to see. “While I was improving my mental health, I had a challenge. The meditations I was listening to didn’t reflect my experience as someone that identifies as Black & Latinx. I felt this longing to hear and see people that knew what my experience was like, and I wanted to meditate in safe spaces,” he says.
In short: “When the Black community comes to Liberate, I want them to feel hopeful and empowered to take care of their mental health.”
BoxedUP, Inc. | Online Rental Marketplace
From audio to technological issues, if you’ve ever put together an event (or attended a bad one), you know firsthand just how many things can go wrong the day of. With this in mind, Donald Boone launched BoxedUp, Inc. as an on-demand rental marketplace specially designed for those seeking audio or visual equipment.
Like other great ideas, Donald’s came from a place of necessity after a DIY project resulted in months of traveling back and forth between Home Depot and YouTube videos for assistance. Inspired, he decided to create a company that would readily connect people with equipment owners.
“Shortly after graduating from college, I wanted to do something really nice for my mom, since she was loving enough to let me live in her basement despite having a full-time job. I decided to gift her something she’d never find in the store: a new living room. What followed was three months teaching myself every trick of the trade,” says Donald.
He adds, “I’ll never forget the feeling I had watching her enjoy her new space for the first time, or the feeling of wasting so much of my money on tools and equipment I would never use again, when I was confident I could have borrowed what I needed from somebody nearby, if only I had a way to find them.”
Creating BoxedUp to do just that, the company now connects equipment owners with people in need of such services. By partnering with virtual conferences of all kinds, BoxedUp, Inc. has positioned itself as a premier go-to for those seeking quality. The company continues to grow, thanks in part to their custom designs, printed offerings and wholesale shipping.
Ready to get started? Visit BoxedUp here.
OnRamp | Workforce Solutions
Lateesha Thomas created OnRamp to help businesses build pipelines to hire new talent for all HR and technical needs. Using their targeted OnRamp sales module, this innovative startup helps clients attract and retain customers, while also offering real-time data and reporting.
Taking a non-traditional approach to entering the tech industry, Lateesha leveraged her own experience to grow OnRamp’s market share by tapping into a deep recruiting pool of talent from non-traditional backgrounds.
“We’re not the first to say this, but the diversity pipeline problem truly is a myth,” she says. “We’ve seen the depth of diverse talent that exists on the market, so the solution isn’t as simple as ‘Let’s find more Black, Latinx, etc., candidates and teach them to code.’ It’s about fixing broken hiring processes that lock the door to candidates who have the skills.”
“My co-founder and I spent several years working in the coding boot camp industry, where we saw thousands of graduates complete intensive programs with the promise of a new career at the end of that journey. But we learned that even if candidates managed to acquire a baseline set of technical skills that one would think would make them competitive in the job market, they still faced significant bias due to hiring practices in the industry,” she adds before explaining how to work to turn the tide.
“We realized that if we wanted to make meaningful inroads on this problem, we needed to build the bridge backward from the company to the candidates, and encourage businesses to invest in workforce development and candidate upskilling.”
Learn how OnRamp solutions are connecting diverse candidates to new opportunities here.
Bandwagon | Identity & Fraud Protection
Based in Greenville, South Carolina, Bandwagon has emerged as an identity infrastructure company that enables customers to safely store and manage all of their consumer identity information. It’s the brainchild of Harold Hughes, who first found his niche after identifying an area of opportunity via live events.
According to Harold, “We created Bandwagon to help fans everywhere have better experiences at live events. As a first-generation American and person that grew up in the lower-middle class, I loved how live events (sports, concerts, etc.) brought people of all backgrounds together despite their differences. We created Bandwagon to create better communities in those live events so that everyone had an amazing experience.”
With more and more aspects of our lives transitioning to online platforms, Bandwagon has become a sought-out identity infrastructure company thanks to its growing reputation for safely housing files and financial details. For Harold, it’s just the first step in enhancing the overall user experience.
“We deserve better. Better marketing messaging. Better products and services. Better experiences. As consumers, we deserve personalized and curated experiences, but to pull that off, we need to trust that the organizations we share data with are good stewards of it.
Bandwagon is built to make sure that the data that you share is used as it is intended to be used and stored in a secure way,” he explains.
Learn how Bandwagon transparently manages invaluable consumer identity information here.
The Most Curls | Hair & Beauty Line
As natural hair (thankfully) becomes more and more accepted in the workplace, founder Dawn Myers created a loyal following with her custom all-in-one styling tools. Motivated by a desire to empower women of color to embrace their curls, Dawn is on a mission to develop products that ease the styling of and caring for natural hair.
“My story is fairly straightforward. I myself was struggling with my natural hair, and I was desperate for something to make my three-plus-hour styling sessions easier. I saw that Black women all around me were also struggling with the same, and we had no tools that were responsive to our needs and there was a real thirst for solutions, so I got work to make them,” says Dawn.
The Most Curls was inspired by the idea that styling “texturized hair doesn’t have to be hard, and we’re making it easier with culturally informed engineering that improves user experience and increases portability in natural style routines.”
“At our core, we’re advocates for Black women and getting their needs met by the market,” Dawn says. “Over time, we plan to leverage our manufacturing expertise to build more products that improve the quality of life of Black women. We’re creating a world where Black women are catered to. It starts with hair, but we see lots of opportunity in skin, health and wellness.”
Discover how The Most Curls can unlock your most efficient hair care routine here.
Journey Foods | Product Management Software
A company on a mission, Journey Foods has a goal to help companies reach Nutrition 3.0, based on the idea that food can be provided with an optimized cost, nutrition and sustainability. Using food science, this supply chain software empowers food companies to flourish by monitoring their portfolios and detecting gaps in performance.
Journey Foods is the creative brainchild of biologist and entrepreneur Riana Lynn, whose personal experience is what inspired her to launch the brand. Speaking with Forbes in 2019, she explained, “We had food stamps and my grandmother’s flourishing backyard garden to feed us. I was able to get scholarships to a private school that gave great breakfast and lunch meals, so I didn’t actually realize the food deserts around me until I lived closer to the University of Chicago.”
She added, “We need healthy foods for those who are less fortunate than the average organic shopper.”
Using technology, Journey Foods analyzes millions of ingredients in order to deliver nutritional value and other supply chain insights. This in turn allows food companies to identify the best ingredients for any products or recipe.
Grain | Financial Services
With millions of Americans swimming in credit card and student loan debt, financial security is something that remains elusive for many. Serving as an alternative way to secure a credit card, Grain links an existing debit card to a line of credit solely based on how much cash flows into your account each month — opening the doors for those that might otherwise be denied access to credit.
Founder Christian Joseph was inspired by a desire to tackle growing gentrification all around him. “Gentrification is the reason why I founded Grain. I want to give everyone the opportunity to access and build credit so that they can one day be able to purchase a home, instead of renting, he says.
He adds “My life experience places me in a position to empathize with those who haven’t been afforded the opportunity to benefit from the financial services many take for granted. My work experience as a product manager enables me to create an intuitive, customer-centric product that truly solves a pain point for many.”
With an emphasis on managing credit responsibly, Grain allows users to handle and monitor day-to-day expenses with free cash advances available as needed.
Learn how to go against the Grain here.
Goalsetter | Financial Literacy App
Motivated by a desire to offer financial literacy and savings resources, Goalsetter founder Tanya Van Court has worked to develop a space for families to become empowered to save and spend money more responsibly.
For the parents of kids and teens, it’s become an invaluable tool for teaching their children the value of money in a unique and innovative way. As a parent, equipping other parents with the tools to instill the same in their children is the motivation that keeps Tanya going.
“My daughter Gabrielle is the driving force behind me starting my business,” she says. “When she was eight, turning nine, for her birthday she only wanted two things: enough money to start an investment account and a bike. I knew if I could get every Black kid in America to say that, I could change the world for the next generation of kids and our culture.”
In addition to teaching financial literacy and language, the Goalsetter app delivers in a way that the younger generation can relate to by developing and amplifying memes and gifs from artists, pop culture personalities, social media influencers and more. Tap into their unique teen and tween debit card, the Cashola, here.
Black-owned businesses are alive and well, and startups are no different. Stay connected to both by tapping into future Amazon events and initiatives here.
This editorial is brought to you in partnership with Amazon Alexa Fund.