DeShuna Spencer has many titles attached to her name–social entrepreneur, storyteller, journalist, publisher, producer, radio and TV host. She is also the Founder/CEO of kweliTV, which has been nicknamed the Black Netflix. kweliTV is more than television; it’s a streaming network aimed at Black audiences and when it fully rolls out in 2016, it will air independent films (even ones from Nigeria), news, fashion, up-and-coming entertainers, Black history programming, and documentaries. Also, expect shows on budget management, fitness and health and relationship advice.
Spencer came up with the idea for kweliTV two years ago, but finding an investor proved hard. Luckily she applied for the UNITY Journalists for Diversity’s New U seed grant program and in December 2014 she was awarded $20,000 to build her beta prototype.
Spencer has a long history of entrepreneurship. She has been publishing emPowermagazine.com for more than six years. She is also the producer/radio host of emPower Hour on DC’s 89.3 FM WPFW, which focuses on social justice and human rights issues. Additionally, Spencer produces web shows, and recently completed her first documentary called “Mom Interrupted.”
Spencer, who hails from Memphis, graduated from Jackson State University where she studied communications and journalism. Her efforts have been recognized numerous times: in 2012, she was named 40under40 by The Envest Foundation for her entrepreneurial and philanthropic achievements, and she received the “Who’s Got Next” award by the National Action Network.
Spencer talked to TNJ.com about her plans for kweliTV.
TNJ.com: What prompted you to start kweliTV?
DeShuna Spencer: I launched kweliTV for a number of reasons. For one, I was looking for something like this. I have a subscription with a mainstream streaming platform and I was having a hard time finding Black content that spoke to me. I was also frustrated with how Black people around the globe are portrayed in media. Usually if you see a film about Africa in America, it focuses on child soldiers, famine, war, disease, poverty—the list goes on. But we don’t see the positive images—their rich culture…we don’t always hear that narrative. The same goes for African Americans. While not all images are negative, many narratives and even new stories are very stereotypical: the loud, ghetto, single woman; the deadbeat father; the “thug,” criminal youth. It’s frustrating, and does not represent us as a people.
In addition, in my magazine (emPowermagazine.com), we feature many Black indie documentaries. I would get emails from readers asking where could they watch certain films. Most of the films were only showing at film festivals in certain parts of the world. So unless that reader wanted to travel to Cannes in France to watch a particular film, they were out of luck. As I began to talk with filmmakers, they were frustrated that their films, many award winning, had no place to go after they finished the film festival circuit. So another reason for starting kweliTV is to offer filmmakers with really awesome Black films a space to showcase their work and make money. All of these things got me thinking about what would a streaming network for Black people look like and the development started from there. kweliTV is dedicated to the issues, stories and culture of the global Black community. We have indie films, documentaries, web shows and news programming for the African diaspora. We’re still in beta and hope to be out of beta by early 2016.
TNJ.com What were some startup challenges?
DeShuna Spencer: Most startups face challenges; it’s just a part of the game. I think for kweliTV one challenge, which all startups face, is finding the right team. People ask me how did I find my core team, which is still growing. Every person who’s on team kweliTV sought us out, we did not seek them—whether it’s through social media or referral. But along the way, we did make mistakes when choosing some team members. I sometimes rushed to fill a position because that task needed to be done instead of keeping that position open until the right person came along. Also, early on, we got a lot of news coverage. For the first few weeks, we could barely keep up with all of the questions and correspondence that we were receiving. Also, our site was receiving really high traffic and we had challenges early on with streaming because so many people were on. We didn’t anticipate so much traction so quickly. And we had a basic streaming infrastructure in place. We have since then upgraded our video servers to decrease buffering by 30 percent. And we plan to add more features in the future. Looking back, we should’ve had that upgraded component early on since we decided to have an open beta. But having traction is a good challenge to have than no interest at all.
TNJ.com: How did you fund the venture?
DeShuna Spencer: I won a $20,000 business grant competition from Unity Journalist. The grant was funded by the Ford Foundation to help minority journalist start media companies. I received that check December 23, 2014. Talk about a Christmas gift! And that has been the only money that I’ve gotten outside of raising $6,000 in a crowdfunding campaign. We are bootstrapping. You hear about many tech companies these days that raise millions in a matter of months. These “unicorns” are now what seems to be what you hear about all the time. In reality, Black women only get 1 percent of venture capitalist and angel investment funding each year. So many Black women and Latinas are more likely to bootstrap. While many companies bootstrap, you rarely hear about those stories. While many not have gotten our seed round yet, which can be challenging, the we do have paying subscribers during beta. Thanks to our early adopters, we have been able to pay our bills and our filmmakers. While getting investors are important, our goal to meet our subscriber goals are just as important because in doing that, we can bring in revenue and grow kweliTV organically so we fall victim to some startups that take in huge amounts of investments, scale too quickly and ultimately fail. Hey, kweliTV could fail as well, but I believe that if we focus on our customers, the money will come and even the investors!
TNJ.com: Please explain the name?
DeShuna Spencer: Kweli means truth in Swahili. I spent weeks looking through a Swahili dictionary looking for the perfect word that best represents what I was trying to launch. Our mission is to show the true stories, issues and culture of the African diaspora that what we see in mainstream media. kweliTV also has a ring to it.
TNJ.com: Why do you feel it was needed for the Black consumer?
DeShuna Spencer: When you’re the founder of a company it is easy to think that everyone “needs” what you created. Need is relative. Look at Facebook, before circa Facebook I’m sure no one thought they needed a social media network where you could share media and life events or grow your business. Now most people integrate Facebook into their daily lives. But it’s not a need; it’s a want. I see kweliTV as a platform that Black people want and eventually find hard to live without once they try it because we have content that no one has and will eventually create new features that no one else is doing. kweliTV is more than just a “Black Netflix.” We’re a movement, a destination. I can’t wait until we’re able to release many of the features that are coming down the line. Stay tuned!
TNJ.com: How does it work with you other venture emPowermagazine.com?
DeShuna Spencer: Right now it doesn’t, but in the future it will. emPower focuses on social issues affecting Black people and challenge readers to take action. We have any annual emPower Players Awards in which we honor everyday people making a difference in their communities. In the future, I see kweliTV live streaming the event and creating content within its own channel on the platform.
TNJ.com: Why did you want to be an entrepreneur? And now a serial entrepreneur?
DeShuna Spencer: I’m the type of person who sees a need and is crazy enough to start something to fill the void. I am passionate about writing, storytelling, news, and film. As a child, I was an avid reader and connoisseur of news. I used to write short stories. I liked creating things. I was always an independent thinker and I never followed the crowd. When I became an adult, particularly college, when working for my first media job—as a obit writer for the “Clarion-Ledger”—I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and use my passion for storytelling to do so.
Initially, I wanted to start a magazine for Black teenagers. I loved “YM” and “Seventeen” growing up. I read them religiously and had a subscription until I went to college when I was 17, but I was frustrated that many of the hair and makeup tips did not apply to my hair texture or skin tone so I thought I could fill that void. But around my senior year, I wanted to focus more on the entire Black community. It wasn’t until I volunteered as an AmeriCorps*VISTA in Buffalo, NY, at 23 (where I also met my husband) did I decide to dedicate my life to social justice, social impact journalism. That’s when I began working on launching emPower magazine.
As far as being a serial entrepreneur, I have a lot of interest. When I started emPower, I knew that I wanted to expand to film, television, and online video. Of course I never imagined that I would be starting a streaming network back then. But as an entrepreneur, you always have to keep track of trends and streaming is the future…I have lots of ideas swarming in my head that I would love to create one day. And, that’s how most entrepreneurs think. But ultimately for me, being an entrepreneur is more than just the drive to create something that I’m passionate about, it is also about how that creation can make a difference. As my businesses grow, I want to give more. I think that is my responsibility as an entrepreneur. I want to create jobs for my community. I want to invest in other black businesses. I want to leave this world better than how I came into it.
TNJ.com: What has been your most important business lesson?
DeShuna Spencer: I’m constantly learning. My biggest lesson so far is to not let setbacks break me. It’s hard work to start and scale a tech company, especially when you bootstrap. And we make mistakes. But when you make mistakes while bootstrapping, it sets you back so much further. Most entrepreneurs question why are they doing what they do from time to time. I’m working to stop asking myself that question so much. I know why I’m doing this. Yes, it’s hard, but life is hard. I chose this path and I now have to own it.
TNJ.com: What are your goals for kweliTV for 2016 and beyond?
DeShuna Spencer: It’s simple. Hustle hard. Of course we have a lot of cool enhancements we want to accomplish in 2016. And I can’t wait to start announcing them early next year. Our main focus right now is to launch out of beta, have apps on AppleTV, Roku and Chromecast, and begin our news division.
TNJ.com: I understand you are also a board member for Best Kids. What made you want to get involved with the organization?
DeShuna Spencer: I actually resigned from the board this summer. I felt that I could not properly fulfill my duties while also trying to launch a tech company. I was not fair to the organization. But I joined because my mom had family challenges growing up. She went from one home to the next. Knowing her story, I understand what many children go through when they have dysfunctional family situations. Thankfully my mom overcame many of those challenges, but many people don’t. So I am passionate about it.
TNJ.com: How do you juggle it all?
DeShuna Spencer: I swear by my calendar and to-do list on my phone. Every night, I write down my tasks for the next day and I make sure all of my appointments are on my phone with alerts attached to them—otherwise, I would forget. I rarely answer random calls during the day. I can easily have 4-7 meetings and conference calls in one day. Any time someone calls me out the blue, usually I’m in the middle of a conference call or deadline. So, I usually check voicemail messages once a day and put the follow-up on my to-do list for the following day.
Of course, every good-intended schedule does not go as planned because, as an entrepreneur, fires sometimes happen on any given day. It can steer you away from your to-do list. But that’s the life of an entrepreneur. Some days you accomplish a lot; other days, you fail miserably. I just make sure I plan out my day as best as possible.