The Making of StepFwd: A Productivity Tool for Social Justice

February 21, 2019

Rakia Finley, founder of Copper & Vine, and Melanie Charlton, founder of Brllnt, discuss intersectionality, motherhood, leadership, and empathy as the first steps towards building a better world for the next generation through their new joint venture, StepFwd. StepFwd is your productivity app for building collective momentum towards racial equality, available in the App Store and Google Play.

On July 20th, Mel & Rakia discussed their creative process and journey towards developing StepFwd on Copper & Vine’s Instagram Live series, For The Win. If you were not able to attend the event, you can access the full recording here.

Finding Allyship in Womanhood

Rakia Finley (RF): Mel and I met at the Wonderbread Factory WeWork in Shaw where there were not a lot of women at the time, let alone women owning their own companies. When I became pregnant and got into my motherhood, Mel became my little ray of sunshine.

Melanie Charlton (MC): I remember you stepping into your motherhood and coming back to work with a renewed focus, grounded in yourself and in your womanhood, and clear about what you wanted for your life. I was so impressed with your ability to balance everything and lead as a woman and a mother. I knew that was something that I wanted in the future, too.

RF: Our womanhood was our mutual struggle and through that we became each other’s allies. We owned the fact that we were each one of very few women and that a lot of our decisions were embraced in light of the inequalities we were facing for different reasons.

MC: Fast forward a few years, and here we are, together as mothers. Throughout these years of friendship, as we’ve grown personally and professionally, we’ve kept coming back to each other asking, “what can we create together? What’s the opportunity here?” We flirted with a couple of different concepts and then all of a sudden you had it with StepFwd.

RF: I always knew working with you and Brllnt would happen because of the respect and vulnerability between us. When we met we were both co-founders and now we both single-handedly run our own firms. Supporting each other through those visions and always seeing each other as creatives, doers, and solution-based people has been the ultimate blessing of our friendship.

MC: Totally agree. Working on StepFwd together has been a really beautiful process because of that trust and openness built over the years of friendship. Any time there was a moment of giving feedback, suggesting other ideas, or trimming things back into an MVP, It was just easy. A lot of it happened in the middle of the night via text message!

RF: Stepfwd is a testament to what it looks like when two people come together with whole hearts, vulnerability, trust, and a determination to solve a problem.

Converting Anger into Empathy to Solve a Problem

RF: StepFwd started with anger, as a Black person watching her Black friends and family wake up and say “no more”. I knew there was something that the tech community, especially the Black tech community, was responsible for and had the opportunity to do. I watched what was happening with Facebook’s employees and the algorithms of Instagram and YouTube, and then saw the emails of companies saying they were doing things for change but weren’t really doing anything. I called the co-founder of Dream Defenders, Ahmad Abuznaid, in anger and I asked him what I should be doing that I’m not doing to get the tech community to act. With all his empathy he said, “Rakia, we get to meet everybody where they are. Everyone gets to be a part of this conversation. And we need everybody to be a part of change.” That same day, I got a beautiful email from Brllnt saying ‘Enough is enough,’ which is exactly how I felt. And because it came from my ally, my friend, and someone that I can trust, I immediately responded to Mel and told her I had an idea. She was there, even though I didn’t have a strong concept of what Stepfwd was yet.

MC: That email we sent was one of the first things that I created as a sole owner of Brllnt and it was such an important moment for me. We are currently a team of only white people and it’s so important to me to be a strong ally because diversity and inclusion is such a core part of who Brllnt is and has been shaped to be by the amazing strong female leaders who have come through this company and helped me become the leader that I am today.

RF: I’ve always been really passionate about what inclusion and diversity in technology look like. I’ve spoken on it for years and I felt like this was my moment to do what I had been talking about. When Mel gave her immediate yes, I sent her my idea without knowing if it made sense or was a good idea. At the end of my email I wrote, “this is why this belongs to us: because we know what allyship is, what hard conversations look like, and we have two children on this earth who get to live absolutely free, not because of their gender or their race, but because we’re their mothers”. Mel’s response back was immediate action. She came up with the perfect name in less than 72 hours and all of a sudden there was a branding package in my email. That gave me so much fire, I don’t think I’ve built a database back-end that quickly. The first steps of StepFwd were a text message and heart.

MC: It was an obvious yes for me. Hearing Rakia’s immediate response to my email affirmed for me that I was using my voice in a way that was powerful and authentic, as a white woman and an entrepreneur acknowledging my own privilege and the privilege of our team to make an impact on the world and create something that’s different, new, better, and turns the momentum that’s been building for decades and into something real and lasting. I truly believe that this piece of technology that we’ve created together has the power to do that. I feel so honored and blessed that Rakia trusted me with her vision and that we can make it a reality together.

RF: Absolutely. It is a real testament of what allyship gets to look like. Right now there are bold allies out there saying hey, I’m here. And there are Black people with privilege, like me, sitting at the forefront of having those allies. What is being asked is for allies to put their money, effort, or time where their hearts are, but at the same time there’s an opportunity for Black leaders to say, let’s do this together and be the guide and leader who allows these allies to step into their own power. We get to open that door.

MC: Yeah. That came in a moment where I recognized my responsibility was to be supportive of my Black friends and educate myself and my community. It’s not the responsibility of people of color to educate white people about how they should be treated, it’s the responsibility of white people to challenge the biases that we see in ourselves, in our community members, and our family. I was feeling discouraged by the biases I had become aware of within my own circle, that I had not been bold enough to challenge in the past, and I was trying to have conversations that felt impossible. And then suddenly there was this opportunity to create something with Rakia that not only was a tool for myself, but also a tool that I could equip my family and community with.

MC: I cannot imagine the pain of having to make that choice that you’ve made for your son. And that just deepens my commitment to building that world where there’s not the choice to be made. Where your son is not looked at as a threat and my daughter is not looked at as a piece of flesh for somebody to take advantage of. They’re both seen as beautiful creatures. Giving them that opportunity is a huge responsibility that we both do not take lightly, but also are willing to do what it takes to make that possibility a reality.

MC: Rakia, thank you for the strength that you have brought me in the last several months. It’s been such a privilege to be a friend of yours, and to be supported by you, and to see what motherhood can look like.

RF: Thank you, too. Thank you for saying yes. I’m really proud of both of us, and I acknowledge both of us for being able to be the mothers that we want to be. And we get to show this whole world that mothers and women get to birth change.

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