***Every Friday (#FeatureFriday), we will feature a young, up and coming woman working in film and television who is fearlessly blazing her own path in the world of television and film while proving to the world that anything is possible. This week, K. Nicole Mills had the pleasure of speaking with DeShuna Spencer, the founder of kweliTV, about the evolution of kweliTV.
The new streaming network kweliTV aims to showcase films, original series, and documentaries from emerging black content creators that do not receive exposure on mainstream networks. This platform launched in July of 2015, and is quickly becoming the ‘go to’ streaming network for those who want to see documentaries, news programs, original docu-series, and independent films that exclusively cater to the global black community.
Spencer’s goal in creating kweliTV (kweli means ‘truth’ in Swahili) is to provide a platform that showcases the many different aspects of black culture, in an attempt to change the one dimensional stereotypes that have negatively impacted the black community since the inception of mass media. The streaming platform focuses on positive content that aims to inspire our community and people across the globe.
HBR: What was the inspiration behind kweliTV?
The idea came from the frustration of not seeing movies and films that I wanted to see in mainstream media. I never watch television, but I understood the type of content that was out there, and I wasn’t interested in watching it. It also seemed as if the same stories about black women were being repeated, and I got frustrated. Either we can’t find a man, no one wants to marry us, we’re angry, we’re sassy etc. I started looking for something that resonated with me as a black woman. I decided to purchase an internet TV device and subscribed to the streaming network thinking it would solve my problem. When I still couldn’t find engaging content that reflected my life and the lives of my friends, I thought, ‘What if I created this. A platform with engaging content for the black community?’
I was crazy enough to believe that I could be the one to change how black people were represented on screen! I own an independent magazine called emPower, and through this media outlet, we promote a lot of independent documentaries. I started receiving multiple emails a day asking how certain documentaries that were featured could be found. I would inform our readers that they could find these films at film festivals; however, once the film festival circuit was over, most of those films would not have a home. We see kweliTV as a destination for awesome independent films.
HBR: Once you came up with the concept, figured out a business plan, and decided that you were going to execute this idea, how did you go about raising funds without tech experience to get the platform up and running?
I won a business plan competition in December 2014 for journalists of color with media venture ideas where I received $20,000. Once I received this startup money, I started researching how to build the streaming platforms, and built a very small tech team consisting of three people. This is how I started.
I have applied for a number of incubators and submitted my pitch deck to VC firms; however, the $20,000 won in the competition is the only money that I have received for the business thus far. We would like more; however, it’s been a struggle to get investors behind this idea. A study came out that shows that technology companies owned by black women only get 2% of start-up funds available. Statistically speaking, I have a very little chance of getting the adequate funding needed to grow and sustain my tech start up even though we have been able to prove our business model. Black women just don’t receive funding to start these types of tech corporations. We launched in July 2015, and I have been bootstrapping the cost of the company ever since. Despite the data that suggests that I will fail, I’m determined to make this happen.
It has been a great experience because I am passionate about solving this problem in our community; however, it has been really difficult to get investors to fund this business. Because of this, a lot of the tech people on our team have come and gone. They receive so many other lucrative offers, and since we’re bootstrapping, and unable to pay big salaries, people move on. It’s been difficult to find tech people who see the vision, and are willing to stick around for very little pay. I have not seen any profit from kweliTV, every dime that we receive, is reinvested into the platform. Despite the many challenges that present themselves, I am going to continue pushing forward!
HBR: This platform allows millions of people to have access to really great content that they may not have been exposed to otherwise. Despite how tough it has been to really get things off the ground, what motivates you to keep going forward?
I’m not a quitter. I know a lot of people who start things, and then when life gets hard, they stop. Sometimes, it’s really difficult to keep going when there’s no money; however, I truly believe in what I am doing. I believe in the mission. Sometimes, I look at the bank account and wonder how we’re going to move forward, but I’m not a quitter, and I won’t give up on myself or my community.
Despite all of the challenges, when we launched kweliTV, we received a very positive response. We had no idea that thousands of people would join the platform in a matter of weeks.
HBR: How do you get filmmakers to partner with you so that kweliTV can distribute their content?
We receive submissions from filmmakers and also seek out submissions from those who have really great content. We find a lot of filmmakers on the film festival circuit, and establish a contract with them. Before we had a platform, I was cold emailing filmmakers in attempts to get licensing agreements so we could have a solid library of content when we launched. We had 30 great filmmakers who gave us their content without even knowing what would happen to their films. These days, it’s a lot easier because more filmmakers know who we are, and are excited about the platform.
HBR: In terms of content, is there anything in particular you look for in films?
About 98% of the films chosen for the kweliTV platform have been in film festivals; however, if a film has not been in a festival, we will still look at the work and make a decision once we have viewed the content. If people are interested in submitting to us, I would tell them to look at the type of content that we have on the platform already, so that they can get a better sense regarding the type of content that we choose. We take all types of genres, but it can’t be the stereotypical content of mainstream media. We’re really interested in filmmakers with interesting and unique content.
HBR: We think you and your team have done some amazing work. What’s the most rewarding aspect of your career thus far?
I love the fact that I have the ability to tell true black stories. That is the most rewarding aspect of this journey. We are telling true, honest, and real stories for our community, and uplifting them through these stories. I go to bed at night knowing that I make an impact. I’m not a Scientist. I can’t create this or have a patent for that, but I have a knack for telling and finding creative stories. That is what we are using this platform for.
Do you have any plans to dive into original content similar to a Netflix or Hulu? Initially they were solely content distribution platforms, but now they have original programming. Is that something you see for kweliTV down the line?
We definitely have plans for getting into original content. We get emails from people already, like, “Here’s my Script! What do you think?” Thank you to those people (laughter), but we’re only 8 months old! It took Netflix years to get to this point, but eventually that is our goal. We have a lot of ideas in the pipeline.
What can we expect from kweliTV in the near future?
We’re going to start doing some live streaming in the next 12-24 months.
To women who want to be entrepreneurs or content creators of any kind, what advice would you give them?
I meet a lot of people who say they want to do this or do that, but they don’t. A lot of it has to do with fear of failure. I also know a lot women who have spouses or a full-time jobs, and children. I don’t have kids, so I can’t imagine what that would be like, but I have a friend who has five kids and a husband. They have an online business where they blog and video blog. They’re hustling and have even appeared numerous times on the OWN Network as a licensed therapist for a television show! The difference between her and maybe others, is that she’s still pushing forward. Don’t be afraid to be awesome, because a lot of times we look at other women and think, ‘Wow, I wish I could do that!’ It’s hard because right now I’m in grind mode and we haven’t even touched what we’re trying to do with Kweli TV, but I know that if I keep pushing, one day it will happen.
There is nothing magical about people who create things – I had an idea and I was crazy enough to think I could do it. I think we need to be ok with being our best selves, and we can’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t worry about what it will look like, or what you don’t have. Once you start doing the work, it will happen. That’s my biggest piece of advice. Put yourself and your work out there. People will find you, and they will support you.
*** kweliTV has grown to nearly 10,000 registered users, and has secured partnerships with three major, well-established companies. They have more than 180 video projects on the platform and have been able to release two new films a week. kweliTV also has 75+ (and growing) independent filmmakers, most of who are award-winning and of African descent.
To subscribe to kweliTV please click HERE – It is important to continue to support and empower leaders of our community.