As a child, Aaron K. Saunders was small and was often picked on by classmates. Instead of going outside for recess, he sat in the library, where he developed an interest in computer programming. “There was a computer that had been sitting in the box for weeks because none of the librarians knew how to use it, so I asked them if I could open it up and they said yes,” Saunders told the AFRO.
Today, he is the CEO of Washington, D.C.-based tech startup Clearly Innovative. For the past five years, the company has provided services focused on strategy, user experience, design and development for web and mobile apps. Clients have included the NAACP, DC Health Link and the National Military Family Association, among others.
With each product, Saunders’ goal is to empower companies to be effective, innovative leaders in their industries. A solution for the Queens Public Library, for instance, allows library cardholders to access an application to read ebooks and magazines as well as watch movies from home. Individuals who may not have access to mobile devices can rent tablets from the library with the app pre-loaded. In 2014, the project titled “Enriching the Lives of a Challenged Community by Lending Tablets” won the ALA/Information Today Inc. Library of the Future Award from The American Library Association. The solution also received two awards from the state of New York.
“The thing that I’m most proud about is that the bulk of our organization is Black and brown people. We don’t just talk about diversity, we actually stress it,” says Saunders, who makes it a priority to seek interns and youth from Howard University, the University of the District of Columbia, and the DC Summer Youth Employment Program.
Working directly on client projects, internships allow students to apply what they learn in school to real world situations. “That is what’s going to give them the real opportunity when they start going on interviews because they’re going to be competing with other kids who have had internships,” says Saunders. “So I feel that as long as I have my company and I am able to provide this opportunity for kids – as many as I can take – that’s what I’m going to try and do.”
In addition to offering career opportunities to high school and college students, a primary feature of Clearly Innovative is educating even younger youth. The company’s educational branch, Luma Labs, provides summer and yearlong technology classes to middle school students at Howard University Middle School for Math and Sciences, Georgetown Day School, and two branches of the Washington Region Boys and Girls Club. “Tech-based programs of this kind can cost thousand of dollars, a fee that many parents of color cannot afford,” says Saunders.
“And although people in society want to say that it’s a level playing field and money is a non-issue because technology is the great equalizer, the reality is that it’s not. If you don’t have the ability to be exposed to it, it’s not a level playing field.”