The Making of StepFwd: A Productivity Tool for Social Justice
“If everyone just takes one step forward, then we are all marching towards a better place.” – Rakia Finley.
Rakia Finley, founder of Copper & Vine, and Melanie Charlton, founder of Brllnt, discuss intersectionality, motherhood, leadership, and empathy as the first steps towards building a better world for the next generation through their new joint venture, StepFwd. StepFwd is your productivity app for building collective momentum towards racial equality, available in the App Store and Google Play.
On July 20th, Mel & Rakia discussed their creative process and journey towards developing StepFwd on Copper & Vine’s Instagram Live series, For The Win. If you were not able to attend the event, you can access the full recording here.
Finding Allyship in Womanhood
Rakia Finley (RF): Mel and I met at the Wonderbread Factory WeWork in Shaw where there were not a lot of women at the time, let alone women owning their own companies. When I became pregnant and got into my motherhood, Mel became my little ray of sunshine.
Melanie Charlton (MC): I remember you stepping into your motherhood and coming back to work with a renewed focus, grounded in yourself and in your womanhood, and clear about what you wanted for your life. I was so impressed with your ability to balance everything and lead as a woman and a mother. I knew that was something that I wanted in the future, too.
RF: Our womanhood was our mutual struggle and through that we became each other’s allies. We owned the fact that we were each one of very few women and that a lot of our decisions were embraced in light of the inequalities we were facing for different reasons.
MC: Fast forward a few years, and here we are, together as mothers. Throughout these years of friendship, as we’ve grown personally and professionally, we’ve kept coming back to each other asking, “what can we create together? What’s the opportunity here?” We flirted with a couple of different concepts and then all of a sudden you had it with StepFwd.
RF: I always knew working with you and Brllnt would happen because of the respect and vulnerability between us. When we met we were both co-founders and now we both single-handedly run our own firms. Supporting each other through those visions and always seeing each other as creatives, doers, and solution-based people has been the ultimate blessing of our friendship.
MC: Totally agree. Working on StepFwd together has been a really beautiful process because of that trust and openness built over the years of friendship. Any time there was a moment of giving feedback, suggesting other ideas, or trimming things back into an MVP, It was just easy. A lot of it happened in the middle of the night via text message!
RF: Stepfwd is a testament to what it looks like when two people come together with whole hearts, vulnerability, trust, and a determination to solve a problem.
Converting Anger into Empathy to Solve a Problem
RF: StepFwd started with anger, as a Black person watching her Black friends and family wake up and say “no more”. I knew there was something that the tech community, especially the Black tech community, was responsible for and had the opportunity to do. I watched what was happening with Facebook’s employees and the algorithms of Instagram and YouTube, and then saw the emails of companies saying they were doing things for change but weren’t really doing anything. I called the co-founder of Dream Defenders, Ahmad Abuznaid, in anger and I asked him what I should be doing that I’m not doing to get the tech community to act. With all his empathy he said, “Rakia, we get to meet everybody where they are. Everyone gets to be a part of this conversation. And we need everybody to be a part of change.” That same day, I got a beautiful email from Brllnt saying ‘Enough is enough,’ which is exactly how I felt. And because it came from my ally, my friend, and someone that I can trust, I immediately responded to Mel and told her I had an idea. She was there, even though I didn’t have a strong concept of what Stepfwd was yet.
MC: That email we sent was one of the first things that I created as a sole owner of Brllnt and it was such an important moment for me. We are currently a team of only white people and it’s so important to me to be a strong ally because diversity and inclusion is such a core part of who Brllnt is and has been shaped to be by the amazing strong female leaders who have come through this company and helped me become the leader that I am today.
RF: I’ve always been really passionate about what inclusion and diversity in technology look like. I’ve spoken on it for years and I felt like this was my moment to do what I had been talking about. When Mel gave her immediate yes, I sent her my idea without knowing if it made sense or was a good idea. At the end of my email I wrote, “this is why this belongs to us: because we know what allyship is, what hard conversations look like, and we have two children on this earth who get to live absolutely free, not because of their gender or their race, but because we’re their mothers”. Mel’s response back was immediate action. She came up with the perfect name in less than 72 hours and all of a sudden there was a branding package in my email. That gave me so much fire, I don’t think I’ve built a database back-end that quickly. The first steps of StepFwd were a text message and heart.
MC: It was an obvious yes for me. Hearing Rakia’s immediate response to my email affirmed for me that I was using my voice in a way that was powerful and authentic, as a white woman and an entrepreneur acknowledging my own privilege and the privilege of our team to make an impact on the world and create something that’s different, new, better, and turns the momentum that’s been building for decades and into something real and lasting. I truly believe that this piece of technology that we’ve created together has the power to do that. I feel so honored and blessed that Rakia trusted me with her vision and that we can make it a reality together.
RF: Absolutely. It is a real testament of what allyship gets to look like. Right now there are bold allies out there saying hey, I’m here. And there are Black people with privilege, like me, sitting at the forefront of having those allies. What is being asked is for allies to put their money, effort, or time where their hearts are, but at the same time there’s an opportunity for Black leaders to say, let’s do this together and be the guide and leader who allows these allies to step into their own power. We get to open that door.
MC: Yeah. That came in a moment where I recognized my responsibility was to be supportive of my Black friends and educate myself and my community. It’s not the responsibility of people of color to educate white people about how they should be treated, it’s the responsibility of white people to challenge the biases that we see in ourselves, in our community members, and our family. I was feeling discouraged by the biases I had become aware of within my own circle, that I had not been bold enough to challenge in the past, and I was trying to have conversations that felt impossible. And then suddenly there was this opportunity to create something with Rakia that not only was a tool for myself, but also a tool that I could equip my family and community with.
Creating From a Place of Love and Vulnerability
MC: Through the creation process, we drew each other out and pushed each other from different perspectives, overcompensating in our own ways. I was advocating to go full on Black power to show how strong the movement is and Rakia questioned whether that would be off-putting to some people in the white community. Instead of being too strong or passive, we ended up reaching a strong balance of compassion, empowerment, and true allyship within the visuals of the app.
RF: You’re right. As we were nearing design completion, your empathy on Black lives being equal was in full force, and I had no idea that I had so much empathy for allies. It felt weird to ignite these levels of empathy, but that’s what allyship gets to be when you join forces to create out of love and vulnerability. They become your empathy guide. We ended up in balance because we were fighting for the inclusion of one another.
MC: My empathy guide, I love that.
RF: Let your ally be your empathy guide.
RF: I want the app to be a reminder that getting to a more equal and fully peaceful world requires one step at a time for each of us. Even if we meet you where you are, you still have more steps to take. There’s equality in the fight for equality. I’m a true believer that at some point, with the right elected officials, with the high amount of community knowledge, and with real true allyship continuing, Black lives will be seen as equal, powerful, and beautiful souls – and so will everybody else. With StepFwd, every single day we get to take another step forward on behalf of equality for everybody. Right now the app focuses on the lives of Black people and the needs of dismantling systemic racism. But eventually it gets to support the power and equality of other issues, like immigration or gender equality – whatever our world needs to continue to build towards. Basically, StepFwd gets to create more peace. No big deal.
MC: Just a small goal.
Building a Truly Equal and Inclusive App
MC: Rakia brought in this element of built-in affirmation and encouragement, which we thought about taking out for the MVP because we were afraid it would be too complicated. Rakia pushed back and insisted that it was key to building momentum. It became clear to me that having those moments of reflection is so important to not just taking the steps, but changing yourself and processing it, because we get caught in this cycle of doing right and we don’t take the time to reflect on who we’re becoming, and who we become is what makes change and keeps the momentum going.
RF: That reflection piece made me acknowledge that not all these steps are supposed to be or feel easy. I think there’s an assumption that as a Black person you might go into the app and think you’ve read and heard everything. Even for me, I took a step on a podcast and it was not comfortable, but it was very educational and informative. I got to the “done” button and it asked me how that experience made me feel – and I wrote, it was hard! That was healing for me because we also get to acknowledge that not all of these steps are going to be easy, because the road to equality has never been easy. But we still get to take on one step at a time.
MC: Yeah, and on the flip side, sometimes it is easy! Sometimes we don’t do something because we think it’s going to be too hard. And then we do it and realize it cost us nothing except time or a conversation or a few dollars, which is really no cost at all, it’s an investment. We get to do a combination of hard and easy steps and reflect on both. Some days we have the energy for the hard stuff and some days we have the energy to do a little retail therapy. Both are forward progress.
RF: Everyone has the ability to add a step. The dynamic back-end allows your step submission to immediately go into the database and get approved by a quick review. Our hope is that this is a community-sourced tool that fosters connection. I dare everyone to get to a state where you have no more steps left to take, because that probably means you took 100 steps for equality, and that’s amazing. I bet you sign into the app the next day and there will be new steps for you to take. We encourage you to reflect on the steps you’ve taken and acknowledge your progression. A feature that Mel was adamant about adding and is now one of my favorite components of the app is the confirmation screen after you complete a step. It showcases a Black artist who you’re able to learn more about and follow on Instagram.
MC: Part of our process was reflecting on what’s out there already, which has been a ton of valuable content. It was hard to keep track of which steps I’d taken or wanted to take. We built it to house existing content because there are so many amazing creators already out there. It’s really a productivity tool for justice and equality.
RF: We built the app for equality and inclusion. So it does not pull location metadata, which allows it to be downloaded in every country. It’s also a low data application, which means it is accessible to low-tethered communities or low data phones like 2G. It’s an example of building inclusive technology for all, and something that technologists get to really start daring themselves to create.
Becoming Better Employers to Creatives
MC: This was a project where we got to do a lot of the work ourselves, which is not something we do often as leaders. It was eye opening and gave me a greater appreciation for the work that my team does every day and how good work takes time. By executing as a leader we get to make approval decisions on the fly. That’s made me think about how I can empower my team to make those decisions for themselves and fulfill the needs of our clients more quickly.
RF: It was the same for me. Stepping back into being the lead developer generated a lot of imposter syndrome and vulnerability for me. There was one time where I had to text Mel because she built a really beautiful page and I did not know how to code that much layering. That experience made me want to encourage vulnerability in my team so they feel comfortable coming to me and saying, I don’t know how to do this well and I want to learn how to do it but I need more time to figure it out. Without being our intention at all, this project has made us better employers to creatives.
RF: The design is all the Brllnt team, Mel, Cam, [and Galen]. During the feedback process we always got back to the why. It was no longer about putting buttons or features in certain places because it would look better with the design, but about aligning the design with the functionality and giving everything a clear purpose.
MC: I totally agree and have to credit Cam with helping me step back and see that too. He challenged me to define my vision for him, so that he could execute, or continue to define it as I went and execute it myself. It was good to have an outside perspective to push us to get to a true lean MVP, where we’re just doing what’s needed, and not cluttering or distracting.
RF: What it created was one of the leanest and most robust MVPs of my 15 year career. Our reviews on the Apple Store are from people saying how simplistic and easy it is to navigate. All the features that didn’t make it into the MVP are not missed by the people using the app. It taught me the importance of lean value, and that robust doesn’t mean longer lines of code.
MC: From a design perspective, it taught me a lot about my perfectionism and how to adjust those expectations. There is value in launching something that’s good enough, and committing to iterating.
RF: From the outside, this project may look like two businesses that just donated their time but it’s really two businesses donating their resources, expertise, skill, and hearts to something with no anticipation of gain. As companies continue to figure out how they can support the advancement of equality for Black lives all over this world and be more morally based in what they produce in our world, virtue signaling isn’t enough. A one-time check to an organization isn’t enough. As a business you have resources, skills, and expertise that can be utilized for change. StepFwd is a call to action to businesses and individuals all over to check their virtue at the door and put in solution-based change.
MC: So well said. Through the process of creating this with Rakia I found that I didn’t have time to post on social and be part of conversations, and it was because we were investing our time and effort on real impactful work. Now that we’ve built the thing we get to talk about it and encourage other people to engage with it. That’s a powerful place to stand as a business: we talk when we need to talk and we’re silent when we need to be silent, and we put our heads down and we do the work that needs to be done and we get to invest in that. Sometimes that’s for tangible profit and sometimes that’s for profit for the world, for the greater good. That’s the type of business that I want to be about building.
Taking Steps Towards a Better World
MC: Rakia, you had this beautiful idea of, as two moms, putting the focus on the next generation as the heart of why we want to build a better world in the future.
RF: It came from trying to find a gift for Sofi, and remembering when Nathan was that size. I had this vision of when Nathan was learning to walk, he would stand up, take one step, fall down, then stand back up, fall down, and he just took it one step at a time. Now looking at my son, at a time where a lot of my Black friends are finding power in teaching their children how to walk through this world not being seen as equal as others, I made a very unpopular decision not to have that conversation with my Black son. I will not give him language to understand that when a police officer or anyone else looks at him, they might consider harming him as a sense of justice. It’s a fearful decision I’ve made, and it’s a decision that I can only really make if I believe that his world can be better than ours. As someone who, prior to being a mother, was a deep advocate for the equality of women, I’ve been a proud feminist all my life, I think of Sofi and the inequality she has to face if we don’t generate change. For me, as a mother, I need everyone to take a step forward towards a better world. This app gets to be part of creating that world for Nathan and Sofi.
MC: I cannot imagine the pain of having to make that choice that you’ve made for your son. And that just deepens my commitment to building that world where there’s not the choice to be made. Where your son is not looked at as a threat and my daughter is not looked at as a piece of flesh for somebody to take advantage of. They’re both seen as beautiful creatures. Giving them that opportunity is a huge responsibility that we both do not take lightly, but also are willing to do what it takes to make that possibility a reality.
MC: Rakia, thank you for the strength that you have brought me in the last several months. It’s been such a privilege to be a friend of yours, and to be supported by you, and to see what motherhood can look like.
RF: Thank you, too. Thank you for saying yes. I’m really proud of both of us, and I acknowledge both of us for being able to be the mothers that we want to be. And we get to show this whole world that mothers and women get to birth change.