In July, Blavity, a digital lifestyle media startup correcting the representation of black millennials in media, snagged a $6.5 million Series A round led by GV with participation from Comcast Ventures, Plexo Capital and Baron Davis Enterprises.
Founded by Morgan DeBaun, CEO and co-founders Aaron Samuels, Jeff Nelson and Jonathan Jackson in July 2014, Blavity is roaring to be the digital voice for black millennials. It offers a range of services: media commentary, insight and thought-leadership along with products and conferences. It is through its delivery of content (reaching 7 million black millennials) and technology-related services that the startup is poised as a frontrunner in changing how black millennials are perceived online.
Seat At The Table
Morgan DeBaun, from St Louis, always wanted to be an entrepreneur. When she went to Washington University in St. Louis, a predominantly white institution, some black students started to sit together at the lunch table. “Before we knew it,” she says “there would more than 20 of us… we would skip class and talk about critical race theories… That moment when everyone would come to the table from different classes, parts of the country, and ethnicities of the diaspora – that was Black Gravity, or Blavity”.
DeBaun wanted to take that sense of community and inclusiveness to black millennials all over the country. The desire was accentuated by everyday problems of how black millennials were consistently dismissed and misrepresented by mainstream media.
In 2014 when Debaun had a fulltime job and was building Blavity on the side,
Michael Brown, an African American teenager was shot by a white police officer. When Debaun saw the lack of media coverage around the grave incident or how polarized mainstream media was, she realized that there was a problem that had to be fixed. She told CNN, “Yes, I could have marched in the streets. Yes, I could have flown back to St. Louis, but really my unique contribution and the contribution of our Blavity team was being able to be a platform for people to get the word out about what was happening.”
She quit her job and sprung to action with Blavity, which had already started off as a video email newsletter curating the top videos of the day. But it wasn’t attracting any users. The team iterated and moved towards content marketing and started writing blogs. “The blogs,” Debaun says, “were getting thousand times more traffic than the videos themselves”. During the iterations, DeBaun also realized that neither were numerous black creators and artists getting the platform they richly deserved nor were alternate opinions being showcased.
Inspired by the need to create a safespace or an ecosystem for black millennials, Blavity started to put out blogs and promote artists. One such artist was Quinta Brunson known for her Youtube videos such as The Girl Who Has Never Been On A Nice Date and subsequent internet stardom resulting in massive social media following. DeBaun claims that Brunson was a Blavity find. Now DeBaun believes that as the artists have grown, so have they, to a point where DeBaun says, “half the content they now publish comes from the community”. Community-driven content, also used by numerous other startups such as Thrive Global, ensures that wider perspectives are heard and that Blavity doesn’t go down the rabbit hole of producing biased stories it accused mainstream media of producing.
Building An Ecosystem For the Black Community
From its launch in 2014 to September 2016, Debaun and her co-founders bootstrapped the startup, which, she believes gave them “the space to build a strong foundation without distractions.” Debaun has been vocal about the difficulties in raising money not only as a female founder of colour but also because of being unable to effectively explain her vision to investors. “The vision is of an entire world of products, websites, brands and experiences” for the ‘underserved’ black community. She has also spoken about a personal mental block of not believing in herself and her own vision.
However, what Blavity was selling in 2015 failed to appeal to investors. It pushed the team back to the drawing board to first, build numbers and then worry about the funding. After bootstrapping for a year, Blavity raised about $2.9 million in a seed round from MACRO, New Media Ventures, Base Ventures, Cross Culture Ventures, Harlem Capital Partners, the Knight Enterprise Fund and others in 2016 and 2017.
The funding is a testimony to the fact that black millennials are an active part of the U.S. market. While it is common knowledge that there is a wealth gap between white and black Americans, what isn’t known is how quickly black millennials are bridging the gap. According to a report by Nielsen, “black consumers have brokered a seat at the table and are demanding that brands and marketers speak to them in ways that resonate culturally and experientially”. This path-breaking shift has been possible because African Americans’ spending power has risen to reach $1.2 trillion annually.
“Major corporations and agencies,” Debaun says, “who aren’t paying attention to Black millennials are simply missing out on a huge business opportunity.” Aided by the increasing spending power of the black community, Blavity is moving fast and has leaped beyond its content and video curation to launch a string of products and services.
It runs two conferences – a tech conference in San Francisco called Afrotech and a black women’s conference called Empowerher. Along with the Blavity website, the startup also runs 21ninety, a black women’s lifestyle brand. The startup has also acquired two other startups: entertainment website Shadow and Act along with Travel Noire, a travel company delivering tools & transformative retreats to help travelers discover new places. With an eye on more than just ad revenue, the startup is taking bold decisions to benefit from, and help strengthen, the choices of the African American consumer and thereby ascertain that #BlackLivesMatter.