Black Streaming: Interview Part 1

In the past, cable was the only way to watch TV. Now there are tons of different streaming services to choose from. Each has their own selection of TV shows and movies. Some of them have their own original content. However, black people aren’t getting enough good representation on these streaming services. Shows and movies with good representation can be incredibly hard to find. Many black folks want to see shows and movies featuring black people and created by Black people. The lack of representation is a problem, but this problem might already have an answer. I talked with the founder of KweliTV, a Black streaming service, to learn more.

Who is DeShuna Spencer?

“I’m DeShuna Spencer, Founder and CEO of KweliTV. So, I’m originally from Memphis, Tennessee born and raised, working class parents. Actually, very religious parents; we grew up COGIC, very strict household. I would say that I was an avid reader; I loved reading as a kid. I was actually the top reader in my elementary school, and I was really proud of that. And early on, I was an avid writer – I wrote short stories. As a kid I actually wanted to be a novelist. Then I started reading the biographies of novelists and I was like “man, a lot of them have mental illness.” I thought, “How could I make money as a novelist?” A lot of them ended up working as professors and stuff. Once I got to middle school, I started considering journalism as an option. I loved reading news; I loved watching 60 Minutes on Sundays. I used to watch Meet the Press before going to church, which is not the usual thing that many kids do. At my high school, we didn’t have a newspaper or anything, but I was on the yearbook staff. I was the assistant editor and that’s when my leader was like “maybe you should consider journalism.” And it kind of clicked because I was really into media anyway, so I ended up going to Jackson State University.

I initially I was a broadcast journalism [major], even though I loved writing. My parents were like “you should be on TV!” And so, I ended up changing my major my first semester. We once had “teleprompter day” in class; they had a monitor so we could see ourselves and other students could see us reading from the teleprompter. I had really bad teeth – and I wasn’t aware of how bad my teeth were until this class. So, I remember reading the teleprompter and students were like “Oh my God” and making fun of my teeth. I lost my rhythm because I was mortified by how they were whispering about my teeth. After that class, I left. I went to my advisor and said, “I want to change my major to Mass Communications and just focus on writing and working for the school newspaper.” Seriously, [with] that one experience I ended up changing my major. But it actually was a good thing because I enjoyed writing for the school paper. Then, my Junior year I ended up working for The Clarion-Ledger, which is, like, the largest newspaper in the state. And that’s how I got my braces, working a job [where] I could actually make some money. So that’s kind of like my journey as far as college.

I’ve always been very passionate about things I care about. I’ve always been somewhat rebellious as well. As a kid, I would do what my parents told me to do, but since my parents were so religious, some of the things they told me to do, I just didn’t agree with it. I grew up in a kind of chauvinistic household where they discounted women in power. Sometimes I wasn’t sure how successful I could be as an adult, just because I’m a woman. And then when you’re black and from the South, its way more than that – I had confidence issues growing up. I was very quiet. When it came to my peers in school, I was very, very shy. Most people are very surprised at what I’m doing now. People just discount when you’re not outgoing. Especially in the DC area; it’s all about being super-type A. In college, I really started to understand who I am as a person. I’m not as shy anymore. I really found my passion. That’s kind of like my origin story. “

When did you start KweliTV?

“Kweli started beta in 2017, so about 5 years ago. I’ve been working on the idea for about 7 years. When I started the company, it was 2015. It was just Netflix and Hulu at the time [in streaming]. When I was in college, I wanted to start a business, but I thought it would be an online magazine. I never envisioned starting a streaming service. So, I worked for the Oakland Tribune, and then doing AmeriCorps. I did all of that just to kind of figure out where I wanted to go. Then I moved to the DC area to work for a trade association, and my whole goal was to learn how to manage people and run something. I was communications manager – only 24 at the time. I was the first black person to be in this position. I had an assistant, and I had freelance writers who were sometimes in their 60s and 70s. I was in charge of an entire department and budget, I was in charge of all of the publications, social media, all of that. Me, at 24. It was very intimidating, but I would work till midnight because I knew I wanted to start a business. I did eventually start my online magazine, and I hosted a show here in DC as well. And this idea for KweliTV popped in my head.

Flipping through channels – I stopped getting cable in 2015 because cable sucks – I didn’t really see anything I liked. So, I thought I’d do a deeper dive on Netflix. I couldn’t find what I was looking for there, so I said “maybe there is a black streaming service that has the content I’m looking for.” I wanted to see independent black films, not just the mainstream stuff. I like the old black movies. I love Martin reruns, but how many times can we see him propose to Gina? We all know these episodes by heart. I wanted to see something different. So, I was like “I’ll start a streaming service.” At the time I was working on this online magazine, and I wasn’t seeing the traction I wanted. One of my board members – I had to put together a board for my online magazine – was a full site developer. It was on WordPress. You can’t start a streaming service with a WordPress site. I reached out to him, saying “Hey, I have this idea, what do you think I should do?” He connected me with another developer. Then, I ended up winning this pitch competition called Unity Journalists. Myself and one other person won, he was with National Association of Hispanic Journalists [NAHJ]. We both won $20,000. His business was Baller Alert, an app for basketball lovers, and my company, KweliTV. That’s how I started the company.

The website developer that my friend connected me to built the beta by himself. It was not so great; sh*tty beta, to be honest. And he skipped town and he doesn’t finish it. I made the decision to release it anyway. It played movies and accepted payments, but that was it. It took me two years to launch out of beta, mainly because we couldn’t raise money. I was really beating myself up about it. After a while I couldn’t pay people anymore because we were making money, but it wasn’t enough to move the needle. I’ll never forget, it was December 2016…I was watching a video on YouTube, and it was Ava DuVernay, and she was talking about how she made her first film. She ended up using her credit cards to make her first film, and the rest is history. And that’s when I started doing pitch competitions. My first one was in February of 2017, Harvard Business School. I was terrified. I practiced, practiced, practiced. I was like “I’m gonna win this money.” And I won! There were 600 people in the audience. I went to an HBCU. I’m from Memphis. Being at Harvard Business School was very intimidating for me, but I knew I needed it. Every other pitch competition that year, I won…that’s how I was able to launch out of beta. From there we raised a little bit of money, but it’s been crazy just trying to build the company, despite everything we’ve been able to accomplish. “

Check out next week for Black Streaming: Interview Part 2!

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