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Identities shape our perceptions of others. They influence the friends we make, the schools we attend, the activities we undertake—and who has access to what.
I learned that very quickly after moving to the United States at the tender age of 5, in 1999, with my mother.
Coming from French-speaking Cameroon (there is an English-speaking part, as well), I was often teased for my accent and poor English-speaking skills. In the first grade, I recall telling my mom that I wanted to abandon my African-sounding name, Méola (inspired by Mexican-American U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper, Tony Méola) for my other middle name, Jeffrey. I wanted to fit in. To do so, I needed an American name.
But the question of identity is about much more than the struggles of an immigrant boy to fit in. This sort of camouflaging happens every day in our Black communities. Not just switching our names to appear more American, but masking and downplaying our backgrounds to get ahead. We work hard to attend the best schools, and code-switch to get jobs, but neither ensures socio-economic success.
For those fortunate to get the job, more roadblocks await them. In 2015, A Boston University study found that Black employees received more criticism from their bosses than their white colleagues. Such an enhanced focus on Black employees, the study found, made small mistakes seem bigger and less forgivable, leading to poor performance reviews, lower wages, loss of jobs and sometimes recurring unemployment.
Surviving at a job is one hurdle, getting that job or opportunity is another
The majority of U.S. companies acknowledge that hiring diverse applicants is important. While that’s a great starting point, many companies struggle to meet their diversity and inclusion goals. According to a study by Mercer, an employee healthcare and investment consulting firm, 64 percent of workers in entry-level positions in the corporate workforce are white. In senior-level positions that number balloons to 85 percent.
Last summer, Charles Scharf, the CEO of the largest U.S. bank employer, Wells Fargo, acknowledged that his company struggled to reach its diversity and inclusion goals. “While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of Black talent to recruit from,” he said in a meeting.
Many Black employees who attended the meeting scoffed at the idea that there was a shortage of talent. They knew, like many Black employees in predominantly white workspaces, that the issue wasn’t the lack of quality candidates. It was the lack of a pipeline to find, cultivate and develop Black talent.
Like these Black Wells Fargo employees, I’ve been part of newsrooms and media companies that desperately searched for great Black and POC talent, only to hire more white staffers. It happens every day, across all industries, in the United States.
As a young Black journalist, observing these trends frustrated me, because I knew the talent was out there. Every time I’d find myself doomscrolling on Twitter, Instagram, or, now, Tik Tok, I’d see the most amazing Black creatives and entrepreneurs just waiting to be discovered. I’d also see folks constantly posting, “Where can I find a Black-owned business to help me do X, or I’m looking for a Black Creative to help me do XYZ?”
What if there was a platform that could help meet that demand?
There’s lots of dope Black talent in the world. How are they discovered and getting opportunities?
Since the spring of 2019, I’ve been thinking about the Black talent pipeline and how to help organizations reach their diversity and inclusion goals. That summer I connected with two friends, David Peterson and Abdul-Hafeez Nakumbe, from the Kente Summit conference, a conference for Black men attending colleges in Minnesota.
The three of us met for a routine check-in, but we quickly locked into a four-hour conversation about how to empower our Black communities. We talked about economic mobility, storytelling and journalism, and how to get more resources and opportunities for our Twin Cities’ community.
The thing we kept coming back to was how small Minneapolis and St. Paul were, and still, if you didn’t know the right person, it was hard to learn about great opportunities and events happening in our diverse Black communities.
I went home that night and thought about what we could do to address these problems. The next morning, I texted both of them that we needed to meet up again. We met at Spyhouse Coffee, near Uptown, and started strategizing on how to tackle racial inequality in our home state.
We talked for hours and finally came to an ‘aha’ moment: “What if we built a platform that helped folks connect to their Black community?”
From there we discussed how we could build a multi-purpose app that helps businesses hire diverse talent, and also assists Black creatives and entrepreneurs in branding themselves, marketing and selling their art, products, and services. We also developed ideas about how the app could be used to highlight upcoming, in-person and virtual events, from professional workshops to poetry slams, comedy shows, concerts and more.
We even strategized on how the app could be used not just in the Twin Cities or the United States, but anywhere worldwide where there was a large Black or pan-African population. Long-term, we thought about how we could grow to tell unique stories of our diverse Black communities.
A name encompasses a mission
We decided on the name Plugged, because our aim was to plug communities into Black creativity and innovation in their local ecosystems.
Since the spring of 2020, Plugged has grown to a team of nine and several volunteers, working with app development and community outreach. We’ve conducted focus groups with Black creatives and entrepreneurs to understand the challenges they face with visibility, marketing and sales.
We started social media pages (@thepluggedapp on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter) where we feature amazing Black talent from across the globe. We’ve also hosted ongoing conversations with business leaders about the challenges they face in hiring diverse talent for their organizations.
One artist we featured, Ameen Tahir, was hired to do some illustration work for MPR News for a project on George Floyd Square. We’ve also helped promote artists who had album or project releases. We’ve even assisted with the promotion of a new Black-owned business, Cleanzy Sponges, a weighted sponge that makes it easy to clean water bottles.
Currently, our team of developers are nearing a beta version of The Plugged App that we plan to test in the upcoming months.
Being a Black founder comes with its own barriers as well.
Black founders are disproportionately at risk of not having access to traditional funding methods, such as banking loans, venture capital, and angel investors.
For this reason, our Plugged team is currently running a kickstarter to fund development of the app. We have a grand goal of $100,000 by March 27, which will help us invest in data storage, security and other intangibles, ahead of our launch this summer. We’re just short of halfway to our goal, which is great. But we need more help.
As important as the issue is, the potential payoff isn’t limited to dismantling racial discrimination. It’s about the entire U.S. economy. Since 2000, according to Citigroup, the U.S. has lost $16 trillion dollars due to systemic racism.
If we jumpstart Black-owned businesses and the Black workforce, Citigroup says the U.S. economy could also see a $5 trillion boost over the next five years, which would create transformative economic and social change in Black communities in the Twin Cities and across the United States.