For around 6 in 10 young adults in the United States, streaming is the primary way they watch television, according to a 2017 survey conducted by Pew Research Center. But DeShuna Spencer found that the most popular streaming platforms failed to showcase content representing the wide range of interests and experiences of black people around the world.
Spencer, founder and CEO of kweliTV, took her frustration with the lack of diversity in mainstream media and with it (and a lot of persistence) boostrapped the recently launched kweliTV, a video streaming service that curates indie films, documentaries, web shows, news and kids programming from the entire African Diaspora--North America, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. The platform currently features programming by over 130 filmmakers, half of them women.
Spencer is not only looking to fill this programming void with kweliTV, but wants to debunk stereotypes about the global black community as well. She shares the changes she would like to see in her industry, the highs and lows of bootstrapping, and dispenses some amazing advice for early-stage entrepreneurs.
Project Entrepreneur: What inspired you to start your business?
Spencer: The inspiration for kweliTV came one evening while flipping through what felt like 100 cable channels. It kind of hit me, cable sucks especially if you're black. I was frustrated with the same tired stereotypes, lack of diversity in TV shows and movies, as well as the few choices of content that focused on issues important to me.
Most networks were recycling the same black movies and comedy TV shows from the 80s-90s, or they were showing black women fight each other on reality TV. Where were the educational documentaries, the black and African history content beyond the month of February, and the cinematic films with clever storylines and engaging characters?
That next morning, I cut cable and got a popular video subscription service hoping I would find more of the independent films and documentaries from black filmmakers I read about on various blogs. I was again disappointed when I couldn't find any of it, so I cancelled my video subscription after a few months.
I started to do some research online to see where could I find black films and documentaries from film festivals. When I realized that there was no place for them, then I decided to create one myself!
Being black in the U.S., I felt disconnected from the stories about people who look like me living elsewhere. I was curious about what black culture was like for people living in places like Ghana, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Mozambique, Antiqua, Cuba and other parts of the world.
Because of the slave trade, African people were displaced all over the world. Many of the African traditions that they brought with them blended with the culture of their new country--cultural identities that are still strong today. Yet, we never see these stories in mainstream media. kweliTV's mission is to fill that void.
What's been the biggest challenge you've faced so far?
By far the biggest challenge has been starting a tech company without being a technical founder. I have an extensive background in media. Before I started kweliTV, I had an online magazine, I worked for a few newspapers, and was a managing editor and communications director leading an organization's media properties (magazine, e-newsletters, and video).
I knew enough HTML to create and manage my website, but starting kweliTV was a totally different animal. There is no "How To Start A Streaming Service for Dummies." You can't purchase a glorified WordPress template and upload videos. It doesn't work like that.
For the first year or so of launching kweliTV's beta, I was failing miserably. I have gone through countless developers, lost lots of money and wasted a lot of time because I didn't have the technical background to ensure the platform was being built properly. I kept hitting a brick wall by trying the same tactic with developers, but this year, I decided to go in a different technical direction, and it paid off.
What's been the greatest reward?
I'm always excited and humbled that I'm able to work with so many amazing, award-winning filmmakers. We currently work with 130+ filmmakers across the globe. More than 85 percent are of African descent, and half of them are women.
Even as a baby startup, we're paying filmmakers for their content, some of whom had challenges getting on mainstream media and streaming series.
What is the biggest thing you'd like to see changed in your industry, and how are you working toward making that change happen?
More diverse representation both in front of and behind the camera is key. Despite being the largest consumers of media, people of color are less likely to have leadership positions in traditional and new media.
About 90 percent of newsroom supervisors are white, and more than 93 percent of content creators who receive director roles or distribution deals are white men. Studies show that blacks in criminal roles tend to outnumber blacks in socially positive roles.
Negative imagery of black women appears twice as often as positive depictions. This creates a perfect storm for implicit bias. The Sentencing Project revealed that implicit bias from producers and journalists shapes how black people are portrayed in the media. According to Project Implicit, 88 percent of whites and even 48 percent of black have implicit racial bias against black people because of media images.
False perceptions affect policing, the criminal justice system, hiring practices and academic expectations. While our content focuses on the stories of the African diaspora, kweliTV is for all communities and ethnicities and can be used to dispel myths and false stereotypes. This is also an opportunity to create a pipeline to increase the number of black journalists & filmmakers in the U.S. and across the globe.
Who or what motivates you to keep going, even when things get tough?
As a bootstrapped entrepreneur, there are extreme highs and very extreme lows. For me, I get my motivation different ways. First, I get it from my family. My husband, parents and siblings are my biggest cheerleaders.
They see how hard I work, and when I get really down, they are the ones who tell me to keep going. Startups can wreck relationships, and I'm happy that I have an understanding husband who makes sure all of the bills are paid and there's food to eat while I pour my all into the company. I would not be able to do this without him.
Another motivator for me is meditation and prayer. I work 14-hour days, and sometimes the anxiety and stress level can be overwhelming. Whenever I feel myself getting anxious, I take a few minutes to close my eyes and take deep breaths.
What's one piece of advice you'd give to another entrepreneur just starting out?
There's this quote by one of the founders of LinkedIn who says that if you're not embarrassed by your first MVP (Minimum Viable Product), you started too late. Our first developer never completely finished our MVP per our contract, and we had to launch it about 90 percent completed.
Our beta had so many issues, but it worked. It played movies. Even with its problems, we were able to get our mission across to our potential customers, gain traction, win a few pitch competitions, and obtain user feedback.
So my biggest advice is to not wait until everything's perfect to launch. If people like the idea, they will ride the journey with you as you tweak and improve your product. My second piece of advice is to do it afraid.
People assume I'm fearless, but I have crazy doubts all of the time. For every one "yes" that I get, I receive ten "no's." It's hard to keep putting yourself out there to only face rejection. I make mistakes. I don't know if I'm doing everything correctly. But I continue to push forward, even as I'm afraid.