If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you know I most recently wrote about why Black Tech Matters. I’ve since been preparing myself to write more about tech inclusion efforts here in LA, but also across the country. One of the ways I’m supporting tech inclusion efforts is by featuring black tech products on my blog! In my personal experience, I’ve found that the black community doesn’t “buy black” enough. By that I mean we don’t make the effort to put money into our community by investing in products and brands built by and made for us. The truth is that most people choose the convenience and cost of big brands over investing into small owned businesses. In moving into tech, especially mobile app development, I’m committed to showcasing the amazing products that exist that support, affirm, and empower the black community. Our first feature: Bantu App.
As a black woman, I cannot simply walk into any salon and ask for a trim. Moreover, wearing my kinky hair natural means I can’t even walk into an African braiding salon without hearing “Your hair is too thick. $50 more.” Bantu is transformative for me because it gives me a plethora of conveniently located stylists, access to their portfolio, and the option to book in home appointments. (Can I get an Amen?!) This means no more hair salons and no more fearing the depletion of my edges! I already have 4 stylists lined up for my next appointment in November. I got the chance to talk to Meron Berhe, Co-founder of Bantu, an app that helps women with kinky, coily, and curly hair find stylists around them. Read her story below:
Tell us about your journey into the tech field. Why tech?
From a young age I was interested in STEM. I’m so grateful that I had a home environment that was supportive of and nurtured my interests. At the time, and I'll gather the same is true now, there weren't many women, let alone people of colour in my classes (both in high school and later on in University). In high school, I learned to code, but I was passionate about science. In my University years, I was involved with NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) in a leadership capacity both at my school and more broadly in the Canadian region. Despite not being an engineer, I continued to be involved because it was just wonderful to be around others that looked like you. I held a position in communications and technology for a number of years after University. I was the "tech guy" and people would be utterly surprised when a young bubbly black girl with her bouncing coils showed up. "You're the tech guy we called?" Why yes... I guess I am... A constant throughout my education and in the working world is that people of colour, and especially women, are highly under-represented, especially in STEM. I am now once again finding myself in the tech space but in a different capacity. I'm working on a team that is using tech to provide a solution for black girls everywhere and I couldn't be happier that we are doing this. It's time for us to start carving out our own spaces. Tech needs us.
Statistics concerning diversity in the tech field are deplorable. Some companies are saying it’s because of the talent pool. What are your thoughts?
I think that the talent exists. Absolutely no question. It is my feeling that companies aren't trying hard enough to recruit or possibly retain this talent. It might come down to how hiring occurs in the first place. I think diversity, true diversity, may be a little bit uncomfortable at first. But many great things come from diversity, including innovation and the ability to problem solve. Looking at it from the other end, I do think that it's harder to fit in at times in spaces where no one looks like you. I do not believe there's a pipeline problem, I think it's a shift in practices that is necessary, and some introspection has to occur if companies want to make change.
Tell us a little bit about your product. What was your motivation to build it?
My team and I have built an app called Bantu, which allows women to discover local stylists who specialize in kinky, coily or curly hair. It is free, and available now on iOS and Android. Bantu currently works in the US, Canada, the UK and France. Our hope is to open it up globally in the near future. My partner John, an international student, created the first iteration of the app in 2014 when he noticed that other international students who were new to the city did not have anyone to go to when they need to get their hair done. It is true that when one is new to an area, you lack this network. I completely resonated with this struggle, despite never having relocated and immediately saw that this could help women everywhere. My co-founders and I got to work implementing some changes, introducing new features, increasing the offering of hairstyles, expanding the areas covered and marketing. We're currently working on introducing more features driven by our user-base and the hairstylists listed on our app. Our latest version of the iOS app came out June 2016, and the Android app in October 2016. We can't wait to keep on improving the experience for everyone!
We have a lot of Entrepreneur readers. Be real with us. How many hours do you sleep a night?
Oh wow. I had to check an app to tell you. I'm averaging 6 hours. That's in the normal range, right?
What’s your life mantra right now?
I love this question. For this moment, I keep telling myself that every failure is a learning, and so it is a blessing. Also, not every one knows your failing, so that's also a bonus.
What unique gift do you bring to the tech industry?
One of my favourite things to say, and this is a nod to the fabulous Issa Rae, is that I'm regular. This is in no way meant to downplay my talents. I can offer perspective, coming from a non-technical background. My strengths lie elsewhere and I think that contributes to a better Bantu.
Tell us about how you give back.
My team and I are mentoring three young black women, who are wonderful, all in their final year of University and poised to make their mark in the world. I love that Bantu is also supporting for the most part, black businesses. This is very important to me. We are arming hairstylists with tools and look forward to being able to give them more. Lastly, as a young black woman myself, everything that I knew about hair and my own hair journey, was quite literally hard. I transitioned for quite some time before doing the big chop, and then couldn't find a hairstylist for my natural hair. Black women cannot just walk into any salon off the street and feel comfortable and confident in the services they are about to pay for. Bantu’s mission is deeply rooted in trying to change that. I'm in a position now where I can give women a means to be able to communicate and create a community that is much more global. Bantu is connecting us. In the future, Bantu will provide a way to not only seek advice and different ways to care for hair that makes us more comfortable and creates a sisterhood that we couldn't even fathom before. There are women that never have to feel alone or different or weird because of their hair. right now
What advice do you have to women and minorities inspiring to enter the tech field?
My advice is simply don't stop trying and don't stop learning. Don't stop believing in your abilities. Surround yourself with good people and blossom together.
How can our readers follow your journey?
You can catch up with myself and the rest of the Bantu team on Twitter, Instagram or on Facebook (@bantuapp), at our blog (blog.bantuapp.com) or on LinkedIn. You can follow me personally on Twitter and Instagram (@meronabella).