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When Artavia Berry, the founder and CEO of Blaqmoji, shared how she went from being raised in one of Chicago’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods to becoming the first female college graduate in her family, her voice trembled. She took a pause and pushed through her tears and said, “I had to grow up super fast. It’s amazing how far we could come.”
As far back as she can remember, the Hayward resident has faced all manner of barriers but has always managed to pave a new path and push forward. Berry’s mindset, as well as representation and perception, was the driving factor behind creating Blaqmoji, emojis that celebrate and represent the Black community.
“With the rise of Black Lives Matter over the past year, people are starting to actually deal with the injustices, stereotypes and even their own bias against Black people,” she said. “Having beautiful images of Black people provides a different look at who we are, what we do and what we achieve. Perhaps these images can help reshape perception.”
The Blaqmoji app highlights all nine Black Greek letter societies (fraternities and sororities), also known as the “Divine Nine,” and provides an opportunity to learn about the history of each organization, the culture and the various career paths of members who have made history over the last 100 years.
“We deserve to be visible, to be seen in our best lights, meaning as doctors as the Vice President of the United States, as astronauts,” Berry said, who is also a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. “We deserve to have the same visibility as everyone else.”
Dr. Chimille Tillery, a member of the focus group used to create Blaqmoji emojis and a current user of the app, says the vast majority of emojis representing Black people do not provide excellent representation of the diversity, culture and beauty of the Black community.
“The lack of emojis that look like Black people sends an explicit message to Black children that white is ‘the norm’ and ‘better,’” Tillery said.
A majority of the app’s funding has come from personal investments from Berry and her co-founder Joy Mitchell. Some of Berry’s sorority sisters have also contributed to the venture, in addition to trading services with other businesses such as cross-promotion, brand awareness and plans to partner with educational institutions to offer a course on Black emojis and the history of Black Greek members. Altogether, the co-founders have raised around $25,000.
Berry says she’ll figure out ways to keep garnering funds, but reaching out to Silicon Valley will not be one.
“It’s so hard for Black folks to get a meeting, let alone an actual investment,” Berry said. “So when we started this project, we made a very intentional choice that we were going to bootstrap.”
A Crunchbase Diversity Spotlight 2020 report states that Black and Latinx founders in the United States only received 2.6 percent of venture funding from the beginning of 2020 to August 2020, and a measly 2.4 percent from 2015 through August 2020.
Blaqmoji’s CEO, however, is undeterred.
“It went from a passion project to this is going to be my contribution to the movement,” Berry said. “This is not just about a cute emoji. If the American society will not create visibility and a space for us, we will create our own spaces and elevate our own stories.”