There are the conventional ways to start, fund and run a business, and then there’s Jelani Memory’s way of doing it.
The CEO of A Kids Company About launched his Portland, Ore.-based business in 2019. The media venture began with a book that Memory wrote for his children called “A Kids Book About Racism.” Memory, who is Black, is dad to a blended family of four white kids and two brown kids. Memory was already the founder of Circle Media, a successful tech company that provides parents with tools for regulating their kids’ use of devices and apps.
When people began requesting copies of his book for their own families, he decided to take the startup leap again.
Two years later, what began as a book publishing company has expanded to include podcast production and this month the business launched a series of online classes targeting middle-school and early high school students. Issues covered on the startup’s platforms include divorce, anxiety, activism, cancer, career choices, authenticity, gender and other challenging issues.
“We think of ourselves as the most inclusive, the most diverse kids media brand ever,” Memory said.
In April, the startup closed a $7 million Series A round that was 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 adviser to former President Barack Obama, according to Recode.
With the cash infusion, A Kids Company About has quadrupled its staff in the past year to 25 employees.
We recently caught up with Memory for a GeekWire interview to learn more about his non-traditional business strategies that support diversity, beginning with product creation to building a group of investors. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
GeekWire: You’ve adopted an unusual approach to creating your content that makes it easier for new contributors to break into media. How did that happen?
Memory: I wrote my book and my kids glommed on to it and then so did other parents, teachers, adults, etc. And so I thought, ‘How do I redo what I did?’
First I needed to collaborate with somebody. And it can’t be like, send them off to a cabin to be brilliant for six months. I have to work with them.
Two, I’m likely going to go find somebody whose trade is not writing. They’re probably not a writer but they do have something to say. So I’m gonna go find these ‘owned voices’ that can speak on these topics. If I’m having “authors” for each of them, people who are trained writers, that’s going be a lot more difficult and less inclusive.
The very first book that we created after mine used this workshop model and it was really simple. It was, let’s collaborate 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 wish kids heard and create some honesty and urgency to it and write the book in the room together.
GW: Can you describe the workshop model in more detail?
Memory: For our books, we write them in a single day. We bring in somebody for a five-hour workshop. We now do this with podcasts and classes. Of course the whole thing doesn’t get produced in that moment, but we workshop all of them for the core of the content.
So for the podcast that’s the show name, the conceit, the episode count, the topics, the ideas, and the tone and voice of the show. For the classes we workshop all of the curriculum within the class — the locations, tone, approach and we essentially develop what I call a shooting script.
GW: You emphasize honesty with kids. Why is that important and how do you facilitate that?
Memory: We grownups, we always feel the need to lie to kids, like all the time. Spare them from the hurt, the hard feelings, the tears, the potential confusion. They might not understand this word, or, am I talking about this too early.
And so my job in the workshop really became helping [authors] write the book but also pushing them to ask, “What do you really wish somebody told you when you were six?” Not, it’s gonna be okay, everything’s gonna work out. You wish somebody told you the truth, right? And so we’re pushing the storyteller to do that.
[Workshopping] was a test. We didn’t know if it was going to work. And we got through the first 12 books and it was like, this doesn’t just work, it might be the only way to tell these stories because it creates so much honesty, so much clarity. And then what’s cool from the author standpoint, it’s a very low ask: ‘Come write a book in a day with us.’ As opposed to spend what’s often eight to 12 months.
GW: Your funding round was led by Pendulum Holdings, which is a newly launched firm. What can you tell us about it?
Memory: In a lot of ways they are a traditional VC firm. They’re deploying capital at a specific stage with a specific thesis for a return. That’s normal and average and everybody does that in the VC world.
What I love that was different was they were focusing on Black founders, they were cutting checks that weren’t for small, what I call “peanuts checks.” They were deploying $5 million-plus of capital into companies, which is really Series A, Series B and beyond. And they were a majority-owned Black general partnership.
GW: Why is having a diverse company and investors important to your mission?
Memory: I’m a second-time founder. The last business that I started as co-founder, as chief product officer, raised $30 million dollars, I was the only black or brown person on the cap table out of all the investors, which was sort of the worst-case scenario and really unfortunate and yet not uncommon.
So when I had the reins of the role of CEO and founder of this company, I just said it won’t be that way. Our team will be diverse. Our authors, our collaborators and teachers and hosts will be diverse. And our cap table will be diverse because we think that reflects and embodies the values that we have as a company.
GW: Black investors have provided most of your funding. How did that happen?
Memory: I had a chance to prove that it could be done a different way. That it wasn’t the same VCs, the same angels all investing in the same companies that all became billion-dollar-plus companies and made all the money and did it all over again — there was genuinely a new way to do it.
That’s really what I went out with for the seed round as well as the Series A. There’s a lot of what I’ll call “unconscious barriers” that happen to exclude folks of color from investing in companies like mine. One is the accreditation rules around who can invest. Are your accredited or are you not? It that turns out you have to have a lot of money to be accredited.
We took on unaccredited investors and that’s a big no-no in the VC world. They won’t say that, but it’s a big no-no. They call it not having a clean cap table. And they also don’t like when you take small checks. And I said, “Look, it’s my company, I get to decide who’s the cap table. If you don’t like it, I don’t want you on my cap table.”
With that, we got to go out and get folks who are giving a $1,000 check, a $5,000 check. I can tell you, we did not need those checks. I had folks lining up to write me $1 million-plus checks. We could have filled it up with two investors if we wanted to.
But we decided to carve out space for folks who aren’t usually included in the wealth creation process, not because they shouldn’t be, but because of the rules and the regulations and the access to those deals. All of those folks, they bring diversity, they bring input, they bring credibility. They bring so much to what we’re doing.
(Editor’s note: U.S. accredited investors need to have net worth of at least $1 million, excluding the value of their primary home, or earn at least $200,000 per year for an individual or $300,000 for a couple for the last two years, and expect to make the same amount in the current year.)
GW: Do you see yourself setting an example for others for how to support diversity in meaningful ways?
Memory: Not only is it where the puck is heading in terms of the industry at large both in startups and VC investing, but my hope was to not just prove that it’s possible, but that it can be normal, that it doesn’t have to be extraordinary, that it can actually just be a normal way of doing business.
And founders, it’s on them to really choose who they want on their cap table. For me, if you’re pitching a partnership of VCs and you go to their team page and everyone is white and a male, you just sort of have to ask yourself as a company, “What do we care about? What matters to us?”
I have to do my job; I have to build a healthy company and grow it. And we have to have some sort of meaningful liquidity event, which is my job and I’m trying to do that. But who I bring along for the ride is so important.
This wealth gap that exists for black and brown folks in this country doesn’t always have to exist, and I can’t just make that somebody else’s problem. It’s okay for me as a part of the mission, this company, to make it my problem.