Jelani Memory, Founder and CEO of A Kids Company About, with the book that started it all. (A child company via photo)
There are the traditional ways to start, fund, and run a business and then there is the Jelani Memory approach.
The CEO of A Kids Company About founded his Portland, Oregon-based company in 2019. The media company started with a book that Memory wrote for his children called “A Kids Book About Racism.” Memory, who is Black, is the father of a mixed family of four white and two brown children. Memory co-founded Circle Media, a successful technology company that provides parents with tools to regulate how their children use devices and apps.
When people started requesting copies of his book for their own families, he decided to give it another shot.
Two years later, what started out as a book publisher expanded to include podcast production. This month the company launched a series of online courses for middle and high school students. Topics such as divorce, fear, activism, cancer, career choice, authenticity, gender and other challenging topics are dealt with on the startup’s platforms.
“We consider ourselves the most inclusive and diverse kids media brand of all time,” said Memory.
In April, the startup completed a $ 7 million Series A Round led by Pendulum Holdings and funded almost entirely by black investors, including some who would normally have been excluded from VC opportunities. Pendulum was recently launched by Robbie Robinson, a financial advisor to former President Barack Obama, according to Recode.
With the cash injection, A Kids Company About quadrupled its workforce to 25 employees last year.
We recently caught up with Memory for a GeekWire interview to learn more about his nontraditional business strategies that support diversity, from product development to building a group of investors. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
A selection of the books, podcasts and online courses offered by A Kids Company About. (A child company via photo)
GeekWire: You’ve taken an unusual approach to creating your content that makes it easier for new contributors to get into the media. How did this happen?
Storage: I wrote my book and my kids got involved, and then other parents, teachers, adults, etc. So I thought, ‘How can I repeat what I’ve done?’
First I had to work with someone. And it can’t be sending her to a booth to be brilliant for six months. I have to work with them.
Second, I’ll likely find someone who doesn’t write. You are probably not a writer, but you have something to say. So I’ll find these ‘voices of my own’ that can speak on these issues. When I have “writers” for each of them, people who are trained writers, it becomes much more difficult and less inclusive.
The very first book we made after mine used this workshop model and it was really easy. It was, let’s work with this first person owned voice story. Let’s create a vulnerable context where we can all be open and honest and really share what we really want the kids to be heard and let’s create some honesty and urgency and write the book in the room together.
GW: Can you describe the workshop model in more detail?
Storage: For our books we write them in a single day. We’ll bring someone along for a five-hour workshop. We are doing this now with podcasts and classes. Of course, the whole thing isn’t being produced at that moment, but we’re all editing them for the core of the content.
For the podcast, these are the name of the show, the imagination, the number of episodes, the topics, the ideas, and the tone and voice of the show. For the classes, we work on the whole curriculum within the class – the locations, the tone, the approach and we basically develop what I call a script.
GW: You value honesty with children. Why is it important and how do you make it easier?
Memory with another of his titles. (A child company via photo)
Storage: We adults always feel the need to lie to children, as we do all the time. Spare them the pain, the hard feelings, the tears, the possible confusion. Maybe they don’t understand this word or I speak about it too soon.
And so my job in the workshop really helped me [authors] write the book, but also urge them to ask, “What do you really wish someone told you when you were six?” Not, it’ll be fine, everything will be fine. You wish someone would tell you the truth, don’t you? And so we urge the storyteller to do it.
[Workshopping] was an exam. We didn’t know if it would work. And we went through the first 12 books and it was like that, not only does it work, it is maybe the only way to tell those stories because it creates so much honesty and clarity. And then what’s cool from the author’s point of view, it’s a very low-level question, “Come on and write a book with us in one day.” As opposed to spending, which is often eight to twelve months.
GW: Your round of funding was led by Pendulum Holdings, a start-up company. What can you tell us about it?
Storage: In many ways, they are a traditional VC company. You use capital in a certain phase with a certain thesis for a return. This is normal and average and everyone in the VC world does it.
What I love was different that they focused on black founders, they cut off checks that weren’t for small ones, what I call “peanuts checks”. They invested more than $ 5 million in capital in what is really Series A, Series B, and beyond. And they were a majority-owned black general partnership.
GW: Why is it important to your mission to have a diverse company and investors?
Storage: I am a second founder. The last company I started as a co-founder, chief product officer, raised $ 30 million. I was the only black or brown person among all investors, which was the worst-case scenario and a real shame and yet not uncommon.
When I got the role of CEO and founder of this company, all I said was that it wasn’t going to be. Our team will be mixed. Our writers, staff, and teachers and hosts will be diverse. And our cap table will be diverse because we think it reflects and embodies the values that we have as a company.
GW: Black investors provided most of your funding. How did this happen?
Storage: I had the chance to prove that there is another way. That it wasn’t the same VCs, the same angels, all investing in the same companies, all becoming billion dollar companies, making all the money, doing it all over again – there really was a new way to do it.
This is really what I chose for both the seed round and Serie A. There are a lot of what I call “unconscious barriers” that keep people of skin color from investing in companies like mine. One of them is the accreditation rules for who is allowed to invest. Are you accredited or not? It turns out that you need to have a lot of money to get accredited.
We hired non-accredited investors and that is a big no-go in the VC world. You won’t say that, but it’s a big no-go. They don’t call it a clean cap table. And they don’t like it when you take small checks, either. And I said, “Look, it’s my company, I can decide who the cap table is. If you don’t like it, I don’t want you on my cap table. “
There are a lot of what I call “unconscious barriers” that keep people of skin color from investing in companies like mine.
With that, we have to go out and get people who give a check for $ 1,000, a check for $ 5,000. I can tell you we didn’t need those checks. I’ve had people waiting in line to write me checks for a million dollars. We could have replenished it with two investors if we wanted.
But we chose to make room for people who are normally not included in the wealth creation process, not because they shouldn’t be, but because of the rules and regulations and access to those deals. All of these people bring diversity, they bring input, they bring credibility. They add so much to what we do.
(Editor’s Note: U.S. Accredited Investors must have a net worth of at least $ 1 million excluding the value of their primary residence, or at least $ 200,000 per year for an individual or $ 300,000 for a couple over the past two years earn and expect to make the same amount this year.)
GW: Do you see yourself as a role model for others as to how diversity can be meaningfully supported?
Storage: Not only is it the puck in terms of the industry in general, both startups and VC investing, but my hope was to not only prove that it is possible, but that it can be normal that it cannot it has to be extraordinary that it can actually only be a completely normal course of business.
And founders, it’s up to them to really choose who they want on their cap-table. For me, if you propose a partnership of VCs and go to their team page and all are white and male, you as a company simply have to ask yourself: “What are we interested in? What is important to us? “
I have to do my job; I have to build a healthy company and let it grow. And we have to have a meaningful liquidity event, that’s my job and I’m trying to do that. But who I bring for the trip is so important.
This prosperity gap that exists for blacks and browns in this country doesn’t always have to exist, and I can’t just make it a problem for others. It’s okay for me as part of the mission of this company to make it my problem.