Behind The Click: Marissa Jennings’ SOCIALgrlz App Targets Black Teen Girls, An Often Overlooked Demographic

December 12, 2014  |  

Welcome back to “Behind the Click,” the column in which we profile Black women in STEM professions. Want to pitch this section? Email tgarcia@madamenoire.com.

Name: Marissa Jennings

Favorite read: Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughter and African Tale by John Steptoe

Recent read: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Most inspired by: “Improving the quality of life for African-American girls through technology.”

One quote that inspires you: “…I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.” – Nelson Mandela

Twitter handle: @mjrissa / @socialgrlz

Mobile devices and apps place nearly everything in the palm of our hands. Think of Apple’s App Store or Google Play and the numerous apps held in each. Seems like there’s no shortage of content, tools or resources, but technology founder Marissa Jennings found a void when it came to a digital hub for African-American girls.

Her senior project in college morphed into the creation of SOCIALgrlz, a website and mobile app that houses interactive content for African-American girls between the ages of 13 and 17. “The SOCIALgrlz app is being designed for the average African-American girl,” says the founder.

We caught up with the Washington, DC–based entrepreneur to discuss the importance of SOCIALgrlz, running your own company and the best piece of advice, among other things.

MadameNoire: How did you get your start in the technology space?
Marissa Jennings: SOCIALgrlz was actually my senior college project at Bennett College. I was challenged by my college advisor, Charmaine McKissick- Melton, to create a public relations campaign for a product or company.  I decided to create my own company and started to think, “What kind of company would I want to run.” I realized that I would love to create a magazine for African-American girls. I wrestled with the idea and realized paper was dying; websites were becoming a resource center, and apps were actually the future for interactive content.

After research and discussions with my COO and mentor Elenore Vaughn, I decided to develop a website and mobile app with interactive content for African-American girls ages 13- 17. Our research showed that not one mobile app was designed for this precious demographic. I became frustrated and excited at the same time. How can this demographic spend nearly $100 a month and not one app be designed for them? How could this demographic set unbelievable trends in fashion, education, sports, and no one is engaging them? I was presented with facts indicating that African-American girls were being overlooked in the mobile and web industry.  I had to do something about this. Our girls deserve to be recognized in an industry they utilize every day.

MN: You’re the founder of SOCIALgrlz LLC. What inspired you to create this community and, furthermore, the app?
MJ: My nieces, Bennett sisters, my mother and grandmother inspired me to create this community. The young lady who helps her mother and other siblings get ready for school inspires me. She inspires me because she takes public transportation to school, uses her phone to check in with her family when she leaves and arrives to school. She inspires me when she walks through her community and has to be careful and cautious of strangers. I am inspired by the girl who is too shy to ask questions, but uses the internet as the help desk. She inspires me, and I don’t even know her name. I just know she exists and I have to make sure she has a safe place to see women and girls who look like her through technology. The SOCIALgrlz app is being designed for the average African-American girl. Apps are communities with like interests. I believe it is time to cultivate, nurture and educate the girls where they are.  This demographic utilizes apps and we need to go to them.

MN: Blacks and Latinos lead the charge on social media, namely Twitter and Instagram. How do you think SOCIALgrlz will tap into these users and encourage content creation among young women of color?
MJ: We have designed various platforms that include Twitter and Instagram. What sets SOCIAlgrlz apart from other content-driven apps is we have a platform where we crowdsource content with images, video and text. Here, girls are able to add their voice to the story and identify solutions to practical [issues] they may face in a creative and exciting way. (It hints to our slogan: “Your Voice. Your Story.”) I believe once the girls are able to take ownership in their content creation, they will be inspired, feel like their opinion matters and have an opportunity to share thoughts in a positive and productive manner through social media.

MN: As a startup founder and CEO, what’s a day in the life for you?
MJ: I usually wake up very early to catch the headlines and crank out a few corresponding emails to my team (some live on the West coast).  Once I check in with my team on goals, task and mini fires that seem to be burning, I exercise and find some “me time.” I often find myself researching, meeting with my tech solutions partner, Clearly Innovative, and seek new ways SOCIALgrlz can be visible and a resource to our target audience and our target audience’s parents. I think it is important to check in with everyone, the very people who believe in SOCIALgrlz, but also the future of SOCIALgrlz, including my mentee, Briana Hammons, a political science major at Howard University.  She and I have cultivated a relationship that helps me truly identify the needs of girls younger than me. With a simple text or call, I am able to learn so much about the generation that grew up with technology. Although she is very much a responsible young lady — and no child — she also faces the challenges I once did. It is extremely important to have these conversations to help me and, my secret weapons, as we strategize the best way to tackle topics African-American girls face. My days and nights seem to run together only because I am so excited about the work I am doing. Here at SOCIALgrlz I refer to the team as “Team No Sleep!”

MN: There’s been a lot of conversation around diversity in technology. How has your experience been in maneuvering through the space?
MJ: I have been maneuvering in the tech industry with my gut and guidance from experts in several fields. As an African-American millennial tech CEO, I have found this journey to be challenging but equally rewarding. Raising awareness of the lack of apps designed for African Americans, let alone African-American girls, is the very reason why I created SOCIALgrlz.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded with experts and individuals, near and far, who have offered a helping hand, suggestions and evaluation in and out of the tech industry. I can also stand on solid ground and say that I know I can call upon other women in the tech industry who are taking a similar journey in the tech industry. We often share our experiences, contacts, disappointments and congratulatory tweets! This is what has helped me maneuver in the tech space. We have a long way to go breaking the barriers, but I believe holding companies accountable will help shift the diversity data.

MN: What will it take to bridge the current tech-talent pipeline issue?
MJ: We need the tech industry to be more receptive and reach out to communities of color who are active and visible in the tech industry. We also have to be more visible to giant tech organizations. For example, Microsoft recently reached out to me to develop a partnership with SOCIALgrlz because I was visible and active at various tech events. SOCIALgrlz has a 3-D vision that I shared at SXSW earlier this year.  We realize we need doers, donors and door openers. With this vision my team and I were challenged to get out there and tell our story. We have learned in a short amount of time visibility pays off; success does not occur in the dark.

MN: Your startup is based in Washington, DC, which has a burgeoning tech scene. What does the DC tech scene offer that San Francisco or New York City may not?
MJ: The DC tech scene literally has the World Wide Web at our fingertips. Every embassy in the world has offices in Washington, DC. As a result we have international and national opportunities for the DC tech industry. In addition to the significant access, diversity resides in every major industry in Washington, DC — from energy, tech, finance, policy and education. Our tight-knit tech community does not have one face like many other tech communities. DC also has the best testing grounds for tech startups. It brings a great diversity in age, interest, professions and ethnicities.

MN: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received or given?
MJ: Stop being a jack-of-all-trades and master being a CEO!

Based in New York City, Janel Martinez is a multimedia journalist who covers technology and entrepreneurship. She is the founder of “Ain’t I Latina?” an online destination geared toward Afro-Latinas. You can follow her up-to-the-minute musings on Twitter @janelmwrites.

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