'Building a community for black voices:’ St. Louisan Morgan DeBaun's Silicon Valley startup Blavity
Morgan DeBaun is co-founder and CEO of Blavity, a media startup that seeks to be the “voice of black millennials.” She says the organization got the name from a phenomenon she witnessed while attending Washington University.
A St. Louis Start
DeBaum, St. Louis native, said that if you head to the Danforth University Center on campus, you’ll find a bunch of tables with a big, round table in the middle.
“That’s the table most black people sit at every day,” DeBaun told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “You go through your day, you might be the only black person on your freshman floor or in your economics class and then you go to the lunchroom, sit at this table, one person sits down, then five people sit down and pretty soon there are 20 people sitting at a table that only fits eight. They’re talking about everything from critical race theory to what happened in the Greek community last night at SLU to arguing over what the best products are for natural hair. It is this unique opportunity every day to be connected and to feel like you’re part of a community.”
This daily happening was referred to as “blavity,” or “black gravity.”
“For me and my co-founders, who also went to Wash U, the black table was this moment of peace that allowed us to grow and to come into our full selves in this college experience,” Debaun said.
The ‘Eureka! Moment’
Blavity just surpassed 100,000 followers on Facebook. Based in California's Silicon Valley, Blavity was founded in July 2014, and “is built for and by passionate black techies trying to add more balance to the way black people are represented in media and culture.” On the site, you’ll find everything from think pieces about Beyonce’s visual album "Lemonade" to breaking news and health and wellness features.
DeBaun, who was this year named to Forbes 30 under 30 lists year, moved to Silicon Valley after graduating from Washington University to work for Intuit, an American software company. “I was pretty lonely,” she said.
During this period, she started reflecting on her experience at Washington University. Instead of merely dwelling in nostalgia, DeBaun decided to do something about it.
“Being a St. Louis native, going to Rosati Kain and Wash U, I had traveled but I hadn’t lived in another city,” DeBaun said. “It was a culture shock. I flocked to things like Black Twitter, reddit and internet communities, as well as my peers from Wash U that were scattered across the U.S., to connect with them and have a shared experience. We’d laugh about funny memes we saw online or watching Scandal. That was the inspiration. It was that pain point I was feeling and saw my friends feeling, just a lack of connection and wanting to build a platform and community online that is agnostic of wherever you are.”
Building a community for black voices to be heard and shared
For DeBaun, her goals for the company’s success are built on this vision.
“Success looks like building an ecosystem of products and a community for black millennial voices,” she said. “Enabling creators who make awesome content and awesome ideas and allowing them to reach a wider audience outside of their immediate friend network.”
Over the past two years, Blavity has grown quite a bit by engaging a group of loyal contributors. It has also called in some lucrative partnerships with brands looking to engage with black millennials.
“It is a $1.1 trillion buying power, the black community in the U.S, not to mention the influence that black culture has on American culture and the world’s culture,” DeBaun said.
The secret to the startup’s success? Not treating every black person like they are the exact same person with the exact same interests.
“Often, when you think about black culture, a few things come to mind: music, hip-hop, activism, community growth and economic power,” DeBaun said. “Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream media companies haven’t taken the incredible diversity of the black diaspora to heart and they often just focus on that hip-hop/pop culture audience and that’s not necessarily accurate.”
"Each one of these communities has their own attributes, is interested in different things and can't be stereotyped." — Morgan DeBaun co-founder and CEO of Blavity
Blavity tries to consider different sub-communities and subcultures among black people, and create content around those segments of the population.
“You have people who are native to the U.S. or first generation Nigerians or interested in the Afrofuturism community or black veganism,” DeBaun said. “Each one of these communities has their own attributes, is interested in different things and can’t be stereotyped.”
What’s next for Blavity
While most people view Blavity as a media site, DeBaun said that the startup is branching out in other directions, including the release of new technology products and in-person conferences such as Empower Her, which is coming up on May 21 in New York.
“While people are flocking to the internet to connect with each other, there’s actually a disconnect, there’s a need for people to interact in real life,” DeBaun said. “At the same time, spaces for black women specifically, there are very, very few.”
"I can sit in a coffee shop and hear someone talking about building a billion-dollar company." — Morgan DeBaun
With a burgeoning startup in St. Louis itself, what made Debaun move to the west coast to find her own community?
“Silicon Valley is an exciting place to be in the tech world because of the access to resources,” DeBaun said. “The majority of our seed investors are based in San Francisco. Not just that but the thought process. I can sit in a coffee shop and hear someone talking about building a billion-dollar company. They’re not even batting an eye when they say things like that, they’re serious. That was a culture that I needed to be a part of to get outside of myself and to break through some of the limits and boundaries I could have fallen into if I stayed in St. Louis.”
There may be one way we can lure her back, though:
“I wish I could do it in St. Louis, rent would be much cheaper,” DeBaun said.
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