How Jenifer Daniels gives nontraditional founders ...

How Jenifer Daniels gives nontraditional founders a leg up in the tech industry

After launching her own startup, she’s helping Detroit’s social entrepreneurs tackle systemic problems, from internet access to economic empowerment for trans individuals.

jenifer daniels headshot

Jenifer Daniels, photo by Julianne Lindsey

There’s a prevailing notion about tech and startup founders. It says that they’re all uber wealthy, unverified geniuses, who naturally know way more than the rest of us, especially when it comes to computers and coding. If not, then they’re folks decades into the tech industry stacked with multiple graduate degrees. And for sure, they’re white men. 

Thank goodness for the disruptors. They’re people who disprove such a notion by showing up and showing out in the tech industry anyway. In her work as co-executive director at Allied Media Projects (AMP), Jenifer Daniels works with such disruptors every day—and she is one. A startup founder herself, Daniels knows intimately the acumen and capacity to overcome challenges nontraditional entrepreneurs need. 

Learning to code to take on the tech world

Daniels entered the tech world to solve a problem she confronted while working in public relations and communications. While working at Wayne State University, Daniels noticed that the campus photographers who shot images to help her complete her work failed to submit photos that reflected the diversity on campus. 

“And around 2012 and 2013, I really began to understand that technology companies or startups were being built by regular people—regular people who saw a problem and wanted to solve that problem themselves,” Daniels said.

That realization took her back to 2006, when she’d first envisioned a stock photography marketplace that solely provided images of people of color. As a result, Daniels founded Colorstock, which she describes as a “diverse stock photo marketplace focused on telling authentic and positive narratives of people of color.”

Photo by Shea Parikh for Colorstock

She also credits Detroit with giving her the gumption to get started, despite having no tech background.

“It really did have a lot to do with the fact that I’m a Detroiter. Detroit has constantly had its own brand of people constantly telling us the things that we can’t do, so we’re by nature ingenious. We have ingenuity and innovation just off the jump.”

Armed with Detroit ingenuity, grit and swag, Daniels jumped right into identifying her existing skills gaps, taught herself how to code in the languages she’d need to start her business and launched Colorstock in 2015. 

Building on her experience to support founders using ‘media for liberation’

Daniels ultimately shuttered Colorstock in 2018, but she remains committed to advocating for and investing in the work of creators of color. In fact, that’s precisely what she does in her work as co-executive director at Detroit nonprofit Allied Media Projects (AMP). 

“Tech uses language to gatekeep,” Daniels recently explained on Twitter, referencing the business-speak prevalent in the insular founder and funder spheres. This causes would-be founders working outside of tech to shy away from exploring their new business ideas and even avoid the community altogether.

“AMP cultivates media for liberation,” she added. “We act as fiscal sponsor for more than 100 projects. If I were to use tech language, the projects are beta startups seeking funding and users. When they find funding and users, they leave beta to become a business, often a nonprofit. All of our projects solve unique problems using an MVP model—Minimum Viable Product—meaning they find the cheapest, fastest way to be effective. Moreover, every one of the founders of AMP’s Sponsored Projects has talked to their ‘100 customers,’ and they understand their customer’s persona better than any tech company I’ve ever invested in.”

Image of Jenifer Daniels against an orange background with pull quote from the article: "I really began to understand that technology companies or startups were being built by regular people—regular people who saw a problem and wanted to solve that problem themselves."

The founders of AMP’s sponsored projects are tackling tech problems with solutions to change the world, Daniels said, from communities’ lack of internet access to persistent biases in artificial intelligence

The Detroit Community Technology Project, led by Katie Hearn, is building an alternative to access the internet, by training digital stewards to organize Detroit communities and support sustainable wireless network expansion. DCTP has existed in iterations to complete this work since as early as 2012.

“In this city, as we know, we’re leaving our young people behind who might not have access to the internet at home—even while doing homeschooling,” Daniels said. “This is an organization that needs immediate funding because they’re stepping up to the plate to say, ‘We won’t wait for the big cable company or big internet company to come to Detroit and tell us our citizens are worthy of the internet. We’ll just build it ourselves.’”

In 2014, actress and trans rights activist Angelica Ross founded TransTech Social, another AMP sponsored project, to economically empower trans men and women. They do this by creating and facilitating trainings in business and education that are specifically designed to address the needs of the trans community. Their members “show up to spaces and say, not only will you not gatekeep Black men and Black women, you’re not gonna gatekeep us as trans people,” Daniels said. “They’re showing up to spaces fully themselves and demonstrating that, ‘Hey, we can build the things that we need for our liberation in technology by ourselves.’”

A People’s Guide to AI works to demystify the world of artificial intelligence and shift the narrative about how artificial intelligence can be put to practical use in the lives of everyday people. 

“When we think about the fact that the tools that we’re using today, when it comes to artificial intelligence, refer back to either white males or white females—think Siri or Alexa—People’s AI is showing up to say that AI can be for everybody, but you have to code it for everybody. It has to be built for everybody first,” Daniels said.

Daniels’ close understanding of the startup world and her direct tech industry experience has equipped her with the skill set necessary to amplify the growth of AMP’s sponsored projects and support collaboration between founders so that each startup can eventually outgrow a need for AMP.

“If we use tools at AMP that help us save time, money and sanity, then we extend those tools to our sponsored projects so that they can do the same. We function as their laboratory so that they can get out there and do their work better and faster,” she said, “but we also want them to cycle off. We would love for them to be in a place that they could sustain themselves financially, with a board and the right leadership within three to five years.”

Incubating ideas — and love 

AMP’s sponsored projects program is designed for companies that are nearly at the stage where they can exist independently.

For founders who are just starting out, Daniels recommends idea incubators, which “allow you to take your idea and flush it through some tools to see if it’s something that’s viable. They also put you in places where other people are doing similar work to spark collaboration.”

Detroit’s idea incubators include Build Institute, TechTown’s Start Studio and ProsperUS Detroit out of Southwest Solutions. AMP envisions expanding their services to include an idea incubator, too. It’s part of their plans for their new headquarters, now under construction on Grand River in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood.

The Love Building, slated to be completed by the end of the year, is so named in part for a mural that was painted on the side of the building. But it’s also a nod to the intentionality with which AMP engages in the work of using media and technology to cultivate liberation. 

The Love Building, Courtesy Allied Media Projects

“Everything that we do now and that we will do in that building will be rooted in love,” says Daniels. “You will show up to the space and bring it with you. You will enter the space and receive it. You will leave the space and walk away with it.”

If you’re curious about launching a startup or entering the tech space you can check out AMP’s resources published by their existing sponsored projects. There is a robust library of zines and other resources available. There is also an active Speaker’s Bureau that hosts informational sessions and collaborative convenings. During the pandemic, sessions are hosted online.

This story is from The Blend, a digital magazine for Detroit women to find inspiration, advice and resources, while connecting with an inclusive community of women dedicated to supporting each other.

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Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter with a heart for people and their stories. A WDET Storymakers Fellow, she also writes for nonprofits and individuals through her small business Keen Composition.