BlackDollar: Intersecting Justice with Tech
by Brittany E. Bryant
After graduating from Pepperdine University in the midst of a global pandemic, Olivia Robinson single-handedly founded, financially supported, and promoted BlackDollar, LLC, a business that helps others support Black-owned businesses in their communities. As an alumnae of Pepperdine myself, I asked Ms. Robinson if she would be willing to sit down and talk with me about BlackDollar, the process of starting a business right out of college, and the importance of investing in the Black community.
To check out BlackDollar, LLC, follow them on Instagram and Twitter @BlackDollarLLC, Facebook, and sign up to be the first to download the app at www.blackdollarapp.org.
Could you tell me a little about BlackDollar?
BlackDollar is a business that promotes other Black businesses. The main feature of BlackDollar is an app that helps people locate what Black-owned businesses are near them so that they’re always able to find Black-owned businesses to fit the needs that they’re looking for, whether that’s for food, auto repairs, legal services, or anything else. Currently, our biggest communication platform is through our Instagram, @BlackDollarLLC, but the main feature of the business is the app, which will be available very soon.
What inspired you to create BlackDollar?
This idea was born a while ago from my own passion for uplifting the Black community. There has been a long-time need for further connecting and uplifting the Black community economically and I think an app that helps find Black-owned businesses is an innovative and necessary way to achieve just that.
Part of my inspiration for BlackDollar comes from the original Black Wall Street, but there is also a necessity to use technology to go beyond what has existed before and to create new pathways. So, even though the original Black Wall Street is an influence and an inspiration for me, it isn’t the only factor that makes BlackDollar necessary. Especially considering how cultural conditions have started changing this year, and looking forward to the uncertainty of the shifting economy and political times, there’s definitely a necessity for BlackDollar. And so, my idea for it has evolved since I first announced it, not only to fit the now, but also to fit the potential changes of the near future.
How did you go about starting BlackDollar?
When I first looked into it, it looked like something that was way too expensive for anyone in college to even think about doing, but once quarantine hit, and once everyone was locked inside the house, I went on a webinar binge (like a Netflix binge) and I came across one about finding a home for your business. This webinar was mostly shaded towards businesses that were already established, but it was focused on using an app to brand awareness of your business, and the idea for BlackDollar that I had months before came back to mind. I realized that through this webinar, I was actually gaining the tools necessary to create the vision I had in a more affordable way.
So I prayed on it and paid my tithe and then I went ahead and made some initial purchases to start the business. It was quite a leap of faith because starting a business is new territory for me, and it’s a risk given the current political and cultural climates. So I just really set out to educate myself as much as possible on the information I would need and started building the tools needed to make this successful.
First, I outsourced the development of the app to Black-owned app development company that had a great, affordable price, and then I worked on how I’m going to make this app beneficial to the people I wanted to uplift. I also worked on how I’ll be able to monetize the app so it will be something that I can expand and something that will be a good side-income for me because I am putting my own personal savings into this. From there, I built my own knowledge base and tapped into the network that I’ve built at Pepperdine, using other people’s expertise and getting other people’s thoughts.
For the most part, after I announced BlackDollar, it was mostly people reaching out to me asking how they can help, and so I really had to step back and write down how to allow people to help me. I very much do need and appreciate the help, but since this initial process had been entirely inside my head, I truly needed to write it out and remember that there’s no need to be prideful and turn away help especially if it’s something that other people have expertise in. Writing everything out was also really helpful in figuring out what exactly I see BlackDollar doing as it expands.
So that’s been the biggest part of starting BlackDollar, and I’m really grateful that I announced it when I did because I’ve been able to connect with so many sources on how to make my vision become reality.
How has your team expanded? What are these different ways that people have been able to come together and help?
Well first and foremost, exposure has been extremely helpful. Through different podcasts and interviews, I’ve been able to get the word out about BlackDollar organically without even needing to implement the marketing plan I have. That has been so incredibly helpful and I’m really grateful for that.
Also, when people reach out with their different expertise, I’ve had people offer to help through their video and graphics expertise, business expertise, marketing expertise, and investment expertise. Others have either connected me with reading materials or other personal contacts to help me further BlackDollar. Some have actually sat down and said, “OK, let’s talk out this plan and see where we can go with it.”
It’s been such a huge help connecting with my network; I think expanding your network and being able to rely on those connections might be the biggest aspect of college. It feels as though during the last few months I’ve gained so much more knowledge just reading on my own that I did at certain points of actually being in the classroom, but I do really see the value of what I gained from college when I realize how many people I’ve been able to connect with and help with my professional development and expansion.
How effective have social media platforms been in helping grow BlackDollar? In addition to the podcasts and interviews you mentioned, what would you say is your current main way of publicizing?
Facebook and Instagram have definitely been my biggest platforms; I would say Instagram moreso, just because it blew up and I’ve been able to connect with a lot of people I know personally in addition to businesses all over the country. Even before the app is formally released, I’ve been able to connect with businesses and start promoting them through Instagram, so that’s been really helpful. Facebook has been especially helpful when I shared the initial announcement video; I was able to get a lot of attention on Facebook and connect with potential investors that way. I never even planned to have investors at this stage of BlackDollar, but through Facebook, immediately within the first day of the announcement, people were asking me how they could help. So Facebook more than Instagram helped me genuinely connect with people who are interested in supporting BlackDollar.
Was there anything else that’s surprised you about this process so far?
The amount of organic support has been really surprising. I didn’t expect to gain this much traction this early on, and I think that’s part of why I was hesitant towards announcing it: There has been a lot of delays on Apple’s side with the App Store in regards to publishing apps (not just for BlackDollar, but across the board right now) and so I was really hesitant about announcing it just because I feel as though people would want some sort of immediate interaction with the app. But I took a leap, I announced it before it was available, and people’s support has been overwhelming. I didn’t expect people to be offering their help, or even have my pages growing in numbers like they have..
One of the things that has surprised me most has been my ability to connect, not just with other potential users of the app, but also with potential businesses that we can help. I’ve also been able to network with other business owners who are either also learning the ropes alongside me or those who already have a lot of knowledge.
I think once you announce yourself to the world as a business owner, you’re brought into this new realm of other people who are also in business, and you get to connect in a different way than when you’re just an observer. And I think for a while I was very observant in trying to learn how other people were moving and what strategies they were using, but after the announcement I was able to enter this business community where people have wanted to help each other. It’s not something I’ve expected, but definitely has been a blessing because it’s helped me to learn and connect with resources in a way I couldn’t have imagined.
On the flip side of that, have there been any stumbling blocks, complaints, or backlash that you’ve had to deal with during this process?
For the most part, no. I’m really grateful that even for the mistakes I could’ve made, I avoided them unknowingly. Ever since, I’ve been very careful because there are a lot of things to watch out for that you really don’t know about in advance. One thing in particular that I was surprised to find were the complications of trademarking: Beefing up our trademarking is definitely going to be the next phase for BlackDollar. Connecting people to Black economics is definitely a growing arena, so I want to make sure this brand is protected and won’t be harmed by any potential trademarking risks.
What makes the action of intentionally shopping at Black-owned businesses so powerful?
If you spend money in the Black community, oftentimes, it goes back to that community. Instead of just giving your money to the same billion-dollar companies, people could be putting their own money into other people, small business, local communities, and families, and building them up so that we can have a greater spread of wealth in this country.
When you buy Black-owned products, you’re supporting Black families, Black communities, and you’re still getting quality products, quality services, and connecting with people on a personal level instead of a necessarily corporate level. You can connect with a Black corporate company, but you’re also connecting with businesses you can put faces to: I think there’s something beautiful about that, just because it brings it down to a human connection. Participating in the economy doesn’t necessarily mean participating in a super-structured, faceless entity, and I think personalizing it to being investing in the Black community is something that will be really beneficial long-term. And when you uplift communities, there’s a trickle-down effect of who you’re impacting: you’re putting more money into local schools, you’re putting more money into local programs, and you’re funding non-profit services.
So when you put money into Black businesses, you’re also putting money into the Black community, and that’s vital not only right now, but also at every point in our country’s history. I think it’s becoming more important to people as they become more aware of it, and I’m really hoping that this is a change we’ll see where people are committed to investing directly into the Black community and their local communities in general. It’s important to uplift the people who own the businesses in your community instead of just giving money to big corporations. We will see more direct change when we see acceptance of people’s businesses on a more homegrown level because more money will circulate directly into that community.
What is your vision for the future of BlackDollar?
As it grows and as it gains momentum, I’m really looking forward to seeing something that impacts both individuals and businesses and can stand alone as its own brand.
I’m hoping to eventually have merchandise that not only has the BlackDollar name and logo on it, but also has uplifting and empowering messages on it. I’m looking forward to educating people---I want there to be an educational aspect to BlackDollar---because education is empowerment. That might look like scholarships in the future, or online workshops where people can get information about starting businesses, supporting businesses, being a good neighbor, and investing in your community.
There are a lot of avenues that we can go in as BlackDollar expands and so I’m grateful to be within this vision at this point and also see it evolve to its fullest potential. With the momentum it’s gaining, BlackDollar will be something that impacts people and will grow beyond what I can see at this point.