There are more than 2.5 million black-owned businesses in the United States—and according to the most recent statistics, they’re booming, generating over $150 billion a year collectively. This Black History Month, we’re celebrating some of those boundary-pushing black business owners who also happen to be WeWork members.
Technology is a versatile problem solver, particularly in the labyrinthine realm of public policies and systems. Whether it’s untangling a wonky tangle of bureaucratic red tape or fostering a sense of connection between loved ones fractured by incarceration, innovation can help entrepreneurs clear seemingly insurmountable hurdles.
Meet two business owners who are doing just that: Marcus Bullock of Flikshop, an app offering a groundbreaking method of connecting inmates with their family and friends; and Yemi Adewunmi of Civic Eagle, a platform making it easier for policy professionals to access and interpret legislation.
Sending love with letters
Flikshop founder and CEO Marcus Bullock understands the connective power of mail—and not just because that’s the principle behind his company. Based on his own experience in prison, Bullock created the mobile app, which allows users to send postcards to inmates in correctional facilities.
Mail call—which takes place in prisons and jails throughout the country every day around 4 p.m.—is a huge deal when you’re incarcerated, he explains.
“That’s the moment when you and your cell partner are secretly hoping and praying that someone took the time to send you anything in the mail,” he says. “Because that’s the only way to know that you’re actually cared about and loved while you’re in prison. It’s like, ‘My family didn’t denounce me—they believe that I made a mistake, and they do care.’ It’s someone acknowledging that you exist in the world.”
The prison mail system is often sluggish, due in part to limited technology. So, after his release in 2004, Bullock started a side project developing a much-needed technology that would allow him to connect more efficiently with still-incarcerated friends. The app allows families and friends of inmates to purchase and create personalized postcards in the app that can then be physically mailed to inmates.
At the time, Bullock had already founded a successful painting business that evolved into a construction firm. But his side project eventually became his full-time job. He started meeting with corrections facility administrators to show them his app and soon realized its full potential.
“We had a huge win because we were able to involve the Arizona Department of Corrections,” he says. “Twenty families in Arizona were able to use this product. And then 50 families in Maryland were able to use it, and 150 families in California were able to use it. That’s when we were like, ‘Wait a minute. There are millions of people who are incarcerated around the world. We’re onto something.’”
In 2012, Flikshop landed in the Apple App Store, and over the years it’s flourished. Today, Flikshop (a member of WeWork 80 M Street SE in Washington, D.C.) has four full-time employees, many of whom, like Bullock, have a personal connection to the mission.
“Think of a mom who’s sitting in prison right now, who hasn’t seen her son since he was three years old,” says Bullock. “Her son’s now 10, and he’s sending her pictures of his report card. And she’s thinking that she has something to live for when she leaves that place.”
Today, Bullock’s mother is Flikshop’s relationship manager (“She used to write me those letters when I was in prison,” he says). “As we continue to grow, we want to be intentional about hiring other people who are returning citizens,” he says. “We’re going to create a wave. I want to build an environment where fair-chance hiring is inclusive of people with a felony on their record.”
Alhough Flikshop has seen a great deal of success, the journey came with challenges. “I’m still a young black man, with my last grade completed being ninth, and here I am wanting to rumble with the Stanford grads who look similar to [the people] typical VCs would fund,” Bullock says.
“I’m walking into those offices looking completely different than what they typically see, and then on top of that, they’re like, ‘So you’ve been to prison and you want me to help you fund a business that helps people in prison? I can’t relate to this.’”
But Bullock’s determination hasn’t flagged—he attributes it to having enough tenacity “to outlast the expected failure” and collaborating with partners who “see the value in the work we do.” In 2017, Flikshop received an investment from John Legend’s FREEAMERICA Unlocked Futures Fund, a moment he sees as a major turning point for the company.
Bullock says the most rewarding part of his work is being able to bridge gaps between loved ones. “There’s no way for me to articulate how much joy it brings me to know that there are hundreds if not thousands of people who are going to receive love simply because of something that I invented,” he says.
Deciphering byzantine legislative materials can be a daunting task, even for seasoned public policy professionals who deal with them on a daily basis.
“[Legislative] bills are updated—sometimes our users are aware of the updates, and sometimes they’re not,” says Yemi Adewunmi, cofounder of Civic Eagle. “And that makes a difference in whether a company can fully operate or whether a community can get their budget passed. Our tool helps them do their job better and faster.”
Adewunmi and her cofounder, Damola Ogundipe, launched their software platform Enview, which serves nonprofits, for-profit organizations, trade associations, and any organization that has a policy department or role.
Adewunmi and Ogundipe, both Nigerian-Americans, met as college students studying abroad in London. They stayed in touch, and their paths converged again in 2014, when Ogundipe, now working in healthcare IT, was frustrated by how the opaqueness of legislative policy impacted his job.
“He was trying to figure out how technology can help everyday people understand politics and policy and who represents them in government,” says Adewunmi.
Meanwhile, Adewunmi had built a career in the sphere—earning a master’s in public administration and having worked as a policy analyst in the New York State Legislature—so Ogundipe reached out to her, hoping to collaborate. After assembling a team that included engineers and programmers, they built an early version of the software that became Enview.
In Civic Eagle’s relatively young life, its founders have already seen success. In 2019, they were accepted into the prestigious Techstars startup accelerator program, which Adewunmi sees as one of their most significant milestones. Today, the company has 11 employees in several locations, including Washington, D.C., at WeWork 80 M Street SE.
“Employees care about contributing to community and doing tech for good,” says Adewunmi. “We think carefully about our contribution to the larger political landscape, because that is a civic duty.”
Rachel Mosely is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Town & Country, Elle, and more.
Growing from a few to a few hundred employees takes strategy and the right space.