Clearly Innovative, a Black-owned tech firm in Washington, D.C., beat out 30,000 other businesses across the country to win a competitive $100,000 grant.
Chase bank recognized, earlier this month, the Web and mobile development business as one of its 2015 Mission Main Street Grants recipients, making it the first Beltway-area recipient since the grant program’s inception in 2012. “It validates what we are doing because if a national organization picks us out of thousands of applicants, it should be clear that we are doing something right,” said Aaron Saunder, CEO of Clearly Innovative, told the AFRO in an e-mail.
Clearly Innovative facilitates digital entrepreneurship by taking a client’s idea for a product and bringing it to fruition through Web and mobile technology. “You come to us with an idea on a napkin and we can work with you to make it a reality,” Saunders said.
Perhaps more importantly, however, the company exposes non-traditional talent – particularly minorities who are rarities in the STEM fields – to opportunities in the tech world. In addition to teaching mobile development at Howard University, a historically Black institution in the District, Saunders also tries to expose young people to the tech arena through his company’s Luma Lab program.
“We hire people with non-traditional background and teach them to be part of the Clearly Innovative team,” said Saunders. For example, Clearly Innovative hires from the Summer Youth Employment Program in D.C. every year and it hired two developers from Howard University during the summer.
“We also, through our Luma Lab initiative, teach about collaboration, innovation and technology,” he added. “We expose our students to technology from a problem-solving perspective instead of a pure technology perspective. We impress upon them that you don’t have to be a coder to be part of the tech ecosystem. There is a need for project managers, testers, designer . . . all of these people make up a successful product team and they are not coding.”
Saunders said he also provides non-technical information to his students, such as the peculiar challenges faced by minorities in the tech field and advice on how to traverse its rocky terrain. “We have struggled and I don’t believe we are as successful as we could be if there wasn’t an issue of diversity in the tech space,” Saunders said. Though thankful for the success, he added, “I know there are still many challenges ahead [but] I hope that I can be an example for other so that this process will be easier for those who follow.”
Janis Bowdler, head of Community Development for Global Philanthropy, JPMorgan Chase, said Clearly Innovative was an ideal candidate for Mission Main Street, an initiative to increase awareness about the important role small businesses play in local communities and to help small businesses grow. “Small businesses are vital economic pillars of local communities. The jobs, products and services provided by small businesses throughout the U.S. help build and sustain neighborhoods where people can thrive,” Bowdler told the AFRO.
“Clearly Innovative’s profound commitment to youth outreach and development resonated deeply with our selection committee. This is a business that functions to serve both its customers and its community, and in doing so is expanding access to a lucrative skill set for young people in underserved areas,” Bowdler added. “The company’s unique combination of creativity, innovation and education is a business model Chase wants to celebrate and support.”
Saunders said he plans to use the $100,000 grant to make their education initiative a full-time project instead of pulling resources from other tasks and requiring support from volunteers. “I believe that we are leading the way for the next generation; we are showing that you can run a business and give back no matter how small your organization is,” he said. “We are also showing that there are capable people of color who can work in the technology space.. . . The tech industry needs to make an intentional effort to increase diversity and it goes beyond shipping people of color out to Silicon Valley.”