How Hajj Flemings is crushing the digital divide by bringing 10,000 small businesses online [Video]

Meet Hajj Flemings

Brand strategist and tech entrepreneur Hajj Flemings is on a mission. When he was selected as one of eight entrepreneurs for CNN’s documentary Black in America 4: The New Promised Land – Silicon Valley, he had an epiphany.

He came to understand the real meaning of the term ‘meritocracy’ and recognised that lack of access in the technology space was creating a permanent underclass in communities of colour. Cities are collections of neighbourhoods – and neighbourhoods are powered by small business. Hajj discovered that there are 28 million small businesses that drive the US economy but 46 percent of those don’t have a website, while 81 percent of people research a business online before making a purchase.

So Hajj launched Rebrand Detroit, a project to bring 100 businesses in Detroit online. But that was just the beginning. Last year he founded Rebrand Cities, a global civic initiative in partnership with WordPress.com that has the ambitious goal of bringing 10,000 neighbourhood businesses online. The project started in Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago with more cities rolling out soon, including Boston, Seattle, and Oakland. But what makes Rebrand Cities really stand out are the personal stories behind the businesses that are coming online.

We sat down with Hajj after his energetic talk at WordCamp Europe (which ended with a massive group selfie) to find out more about the project.

How’s Rebrand Cities going so far?

HF: It’s been great. We activated around 8 cities so far, and are now starting to do some international work. We have a ton of channel partners and a lot of businesses that we’re working with. The quality of the stories has been really interesting – there’s a lot diversity in terms of race, ethnic background, business background, and age.

There are some incredible stories, like Mia ‘X’ or Margie Johnson, who is a spoken word artist in New York New Jersey. We added a simple PayPal payment button to her site, so that she could take donations. Or Ledger Kellier, who runs a business called iLumenFi. He has come up with street lights that can activate a wifi signal in communities that don’t have a dense enough signal. In Detroit we had the chance to work with Ne’Gyle Beaman, who runs Bleu Bowtique, a store for bow ties. We integrated an ecommerce theme with a shopping cart to his site, and now he’s generating revenue by selling products online. There are so many interesting people doing tremendous work in their communities.

I can run through scores of stories, and in each one of them there’s something interesting about what they do. It’s also helping to keep the money that they generate in their neighbourhood. If you run a small, local business, 70 percent of that money stays in the neighbourhood. If it’s a national chain, it’s only 10 per cent.

What’s been the biggest challenge you needed to overcome?

HF: One of the biggest challenges has been working with entrepreneurs who work 10 to 12 hour days and are focused on keeping their doors open. Marketing and website development is not at the top of their list. And so helping them overcome their pain points becomes important. We have to help them to be able to tell their stories, and getting good content from the business owners has been somewhat of a challenge. We’re working on ways to make it easier for them to to get the information to us.

mia x artist
Rebrand Cities developed the website of spoken word artist and poet Mia X, reimagined her domain name and added a PayPal button, so that she could start taking donations

How do you choose the businesses and the cities?

HF: We’ve started up with cities, where we have channel partners or relationships that already exist. When we went to New York, we worked with the New York City Economic Development Corporation, for example. We’ve been able to identify great partners and people who believe in what we’re doing. It’s starting to gain some momentum now. The word is getting out, and it’s creating opportunities for us to go into cities that we only dreamed of.

What kind of tools and training do you provide for the businesses?

HF: The web platform is WordPress.com. We’re trying to help the entrepreneurs to create better content and offer some brand training. I host our brand builders workshop, so we go through the process of thinking about how you frame and position your business authentically. We don’t just help them get online but also to stay online and drive more business. We also use a lot of online tools. All the domain names that are part of our free package are offered through GoDaddy, which is an important part of the relationship. We’ve also identified thought leaders in the various cities, who are creatives, photographers, and business development people.

How did the partnership with WordPress.com come about?

HF: It started with a conversation that I had with Chris Taylor, the CMO of WordPress.com and Automattic. We just began to talk about the value of working with small businesses in communities, uncovering stories that weren’t visible and profiling entrepreneurs that are doing tremendous work in the cities that we live, work and play in. It resonated with some of the goals that Chris had for the marketing department, and we’ve been running ever since.

You’re offering a website and branding for $300. How do you do that?

HF: We’re very thoughtful. It requires us to be extremely lean. To get to the price of $300 means we have to have people who believe in what we’re doing. There’s some sweat equity that goes into it. We’ve been very fortunate to have a partnership with WordPress.com that allows us some funding, so that we’re able to provide a great solution at an affordable price. And then we’ve had great organisations and universities and co-working spaces that we’ve partnered with in the various cities, for example Blue Lacuna in Chicago, CIC in Miami, and entrepreneurship hub TechTown in Detroit.

rebrand cities chicago team
Rebrand Cities is all about the people: Hajj with John Maeda, global head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic, the Chicago team and the remote developers

And the sites are usually up and running within a day?

HF: We do the photoshoot the day before. The business owners interact with the developer and go through the process with business coaches. So by the end of the day we’re typically 75 percent done. Our goal is 100 percent, and we know that we will get there. But at the moment we’re pretty much getting businesses online within a couple of days, so that the business owner can commit to leaving their office or workplace for a day or two and know that at the end of it they’re going to have a website.

What role does inclusive design play in the process?

HF: Inclusive design means that we’re always thinking about the fringes and how we can make our project better. So my world view and the way that a designer, who has grown up differently and been trained differently, sees the world might be totally different. We also look to make sure that we’re not just a tech startup and don’t just work with people who are on mobile apps or who graduated from Harvard or Stanford. We work with a variety of entrepreneurs of different ages and backgrounds. Some of them are first time or accidental entrepreneurs. And we work with all kinds of industries. We have businesses that are restaurants, some are services, and some are entertainment and bloggers. There’s a variety of different backgrounds, so when you look at our collection of entrepreneurs and stakeholders and creatives, it’s an eclectic group of people who have just tremendous ideas that come together for a common cause.

What’s next?

HF: We’re having a conversation with the city of Liverpool and are looking to expand to the UK and Europe. It’s not just a domestic project. We’ve realised from the beginning, as we started to do our research, that this was not a Detroit issue in terms of access. This is a global issue. And so it’s great to be able to really think with a global mindset to create a solution that’s age and city agnostic. We did an activation in Chicago, and we had developers in Tokyo and in another country, so thinking about timezones and where people are located is another important piece in terms of really helping people to get online.

Rebrand Cities is looking for UI and UX designers, developers, photographers, copywriters, sponsors and partners and of course business owners in cities all over the world. Find out more about getting involved with Rebrand Cities here.

 

Oliver Lindberg
Oliver is an independent editor, content consultant, and founder of the Pixel Pioneers events series. He has been involved with the web design and development industry for more than a decade, and helps businesses across the world create content that connects with their customers. He is particularly passionate about user experience, inclusive design, and advocating for social good.