Campus & community, Campus news

A digital revival: Startup Blackbook University continues Berkeley legacy

Student-run tech company collaborates with Berkeley community to launch app that elevates Black student experience on campus

Graphic showing a woman reading a book next to a man looking at his cell phone

Student-run tech company Blackbook University has collaborated with various UC Berkeley campus partners to launch an app that elevates Black student experience on campus, and honors the history and work of Berkeley’s Black community. (Graphic by Neil Freese)

The Berkeley Changemaker is a Berkeley News series highlighting innovative members of the campus community engaged in work and research that tackles society’s most pressing issues.

As a child growing up in Oakland, Miya Hayes remembers the prestige and allure that UC Berkeley represented in her community. Being one of the best academic institutions in the nation, it had a reputation for producing innovative research and changemaking leaders with global impact.

Hayes, who hoped to attend Berkeley as an undergraduate, took advanced-level courses at the university in middle school and high school and would often stroll through Sather Gate with her classmates.

Drawing of Black Book cover from 1998

This 40-page handbook “made campus feel more like home” for Black students, Miya Hayes said. (Courtesy of UC Berkeley African American Student Development)

When she was admitted in fall 1988, Hayes reveled in excitement for her journey at Berkeley to begin, yet also wondered how she would fit in as a mixed-race Black student at a predominantly white school.

Some of her concerns dissipated after she received the African American Student Handbook, also known as the Black Book, a student guide distributed by Black campus groups to Black students in the 1980s and ‘90s. Brimming with drawings, poetry and words of encouragement, the glossy, hard copy booklet was a conduit to Berkeley’s Black community, providing information about student groups and events, Black faculty and staff, Black businesses in the area, and job opportunities dedicated to Black students.

“It made campus feel more like home,” said Hayes, who now directs partnerships and engagements for Berkeley’s admissions office. “And there was power in it. You could send it to your mom or grandma, so that they knew that there was a community at Berkeley where Black students could go to for support.”

“It was something that assured them that their babies were going to be OK.”

The legacy of that handbook today is continued by Blackbook University, a Berkeley tech startup founded in 2019 by Berkeley students and alumni to combat institutional inequities in higher education by using digital tools to enhance the Black student experience.

UC Berkeley student, Sydney Roberts, details her experience at Cal and shares her tips for incoming students as part of a Blackbook University digital campaign. (Edited and Directed by Chase Ali-Watkins)

The company’s website provides Berkeley’s Black students with online access to academic and professional resources and offers career opportunities, such as internships for students interested in tech entrepreneurship. Blackbook University’s social media channels also bring attention to Black student experiences on campus through video profiles of Black students who tell personal stories about what it means to be Black at Berkeley.

Students can download the Blackbook University app and create their own profiles to navigate various resources, including a directory of Berkeley’s Black community members and a calendar with events geared toward educational enrichment and career development.

Ibrahim Balde smiling

Alameda native and Blackbook University co-founder Ibrahim Balde. (Courtesy of Ibrahim Balde)

“It’s an equity and diversity solution for the digital age,” said Ibrahim Balde, a Haas School of Business graduate who co-founded Blackbook as a student with his fellow graduates, Nicholas Brathwaite, Chase Ali-Watkins and Nahom Solomon, and with current Berkeley students Farhiya Ali and Imran Sekalala.

“Our platform can really help level the playing field and optimize visibility for Black students in academic spaces,” he said.

Launched last year, the app integrates all social media platforms so students can connect seamlessly through other social networking sites, like TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. The app, which is compatible with iOS and Android devices, also features a scholarship and internship database and soon will include a live chat feed for users to interact with other students and peers.

Finding other Black students was hard for Naomi Yonas to do when she moved to Berkeley from Georgia two years ago. As an electrical engineering and computer science student, she was shocked that there weren’t many Black students on campus. It was an isolating transition to go from a large Black community in Atlanta to living in Berkeley, she said.

Yonas, who worked for Blackbook last semester as a student intern, said the Blackbook University app will help newer students get connected with Berkeley’s Black community faster.

Students sitting on chairs looking at their phones.

Berkeley students navigating the Blackbook University’s app during the company’s launch event on campus last year. (UC Berkeley photo by Sofia Liascheva)

“The networking capabilities on the app are crucial for Black students,” she said. “And the ability to organize and be notified of upcoming events in your calendar really keeps you connected to campus resources. … New students don’t have to wait until they see another Black student to show them around campus to feel like they belong.”

‘Knowledge of our community’

When Hayes, who graduated in 1992, was a student, Berkeley’s Black student population was larger than it is now. But she’d still hear about troubling experiences that made Black students feel unwelcome on campus: In lecture halls, they often sat alone and were not readily selected to join group projects or discussions. Some were followed around campus and racially profiled by law enforcement. Hayes said students also expressed being treated differently by faculty and staff.

Being told how “articulate I am” for a Black person, Hayes said, was a normal occurrence.

Old photo of Miya Hayes during a Berkeley gradaution

Miya Hayes graduated in spring 1992 with degrees in Spanish and Portuguese. The ceremony was held in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. (Courtesy of Miya Hayes)

While there were places on campus for Black students to gather, meet and socialize, like the Black Wednesday Wall located outside of the Golden Bear Café, “the narrative around Berkeley was that it was not a supportive or friendly place for Black students,” she said.

“As a Black student and person of color,” Hayes added, “you had to be cognizant of these racial aggressions on a daily basis.”

When California passed Proposition 209 in 1996, an affirmative action initiative that decreased Berkeley’s Black student enrollment, Hayes said, Black Book fell by the wayside. But the community, and the issues Black students experienced on campus, never did.

More than 20 years later, a 2019 campus climate report published by Berkeley’s Division of Equity and Inclusion showed that nearly half of Berkeley’s Black community members felt they, too, were not respected on campus. Over 60% of Black people surveyed also felt diversity, equity and inclusion were not being promoted.

link to the Changemaker page on Berkeley News

Berkeley News is highlighting innovators on campus that bring societal benefit through their work and research.

In response, Balde proposed the initial business idea for Blackbook University — which he created as a student in the Haas Berkeley changemaker course — to classmates who would later help him found the company. The group agreed to engage with Berkeley’s Black student population to see if there was a demand.

After surveying 150 Black students at Berkeley about their experiences on campus, 90% expressed a need for a digital platform dedicated solely to them.

“Navigating Berkeley day to day and going to classes on a campus with over 40,000 students, you might not see one Black student at all,” said Ali, a Blackbook co-founder and Berkeley engineering student. “So, that’s why it’s very important for Black students to be able to connect to our African American Student Development office — that hosts Black Wednesdays once a week — or go to our Fannie Lou Hamer Center. And that’s what Blackbook provides: knowledge of our community, which is not as visible as we’d like it to be.”

A collaborative dream

Blackbook founders and community members smile for a group photo.

Students, staff, alumni and faculty from Berkeley’s Black community across campus have all had a hand in supporting and promoting Blackbook University. (Courtesy of Ibrahim Balde)

An obvious homage to the original Black Book, the startup and its vision have been a campus collaboration from the beginning.

To capitalize on campus resources, Blackbook University’s founders created an advisory board with faculty and staff from Berkeley’s admissions office, Berkeley Haas, the SEED Scholars Honors Program, the campus technology office, the African American Student Development office (AASD) and the Division of Equity and Inclusion.

Takiyah Jackson, director of the AASD, said that her team was already discussing ideas to commemorate the original African American Student Handbook through Berkeley’s African American Initiative when Marco T. Lindsey, associate director of equity and inclusion at Berkeley Haas, connected the office with Balde and company.

Jackson said the students shared the same vision: to celebrate the legacy and purpose of the original Black Book, in digital form.

Takiyah Jackson smiling

UC Berkeley African American Student Development Director Takiyah Jackson. (UC Berkeley photo)

“We dreamed this up together, and we launched this together,” said Jackson. “And this really is a unique platform to have on campus. I don’t know of any other colleges that have something comparable to Blackbook U. It can be a total gamechanger for Black students at Berkeley and beyond.”

Blackbook University has since won a $10,000 grand prize in the 2021 Big Ideas Contest and participated with Berkeley Free Ventures pre-seed accelerator program. The company also received the Discovery Award from Berkeley’s Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society. To help launch the Blackbook University app, Balde and team also raised more than $20,000 on Kickstarter.

Berkeley Chief Technology Officer Bill Allison has advised the company through its app development, said Balde, a process that has helped it use the power of technology and data to reveal insights into student engagement through surveys about campus life.

For instance, the app shows that over 64% of Berkeley’s Black students are part of two or more organizations on campus. Allison said that this information, coupled with sentiment analysis, could help the Blackbook team understand how experiences impact a sense of belonging on campus.

Image of hand holding smartphone logged into Blackbook app.

(Courtesy of Blackbook University)

Based on the surveys conducted on the platform, the app can also potentially gauge the amount of microaggressions or stereotypes that Black students are facing on campus. If the Blackbook platform expanded to other campuses, Balde said, those metrics could be used to help Black high school and community college students choose which universities they want to attend.

“In its essence, Blackbook is kind of this reclamation of exclusivity in what Berkeley is today,” said Balde. “This campus is one of the top producers of startups in the country. But when it comes to the tech ecosystem here on campus, Black students aren’t participating enough. Blackbook is a mechanism that empowers our experiences and can help us make informed decisions.”

Filling a void

The startup is currently piloting paid digital campaigns, in collaboration with Berkeley’s admissions office, like “5 Tips of Navigating UC Berkeley,” which spotlights Black student narratives. This miniseries will be released on the Blackbook app, as well as on YouTube and  Instagram. The second installment will delve into the legacy of Black excellence at Berkeley, said Balde.

Last semester, Blackbook also launched a technology leadership program in collaboration with the AASD, giving students skilled in design and data science an opportunity to increase Blackbook engagement. This semester, the Blackbook team aims to push out an updated version of the Blackbook app that will help capture more experiences from Berkeley’s Black student community and engage with users more readily.

Blackbook University’s first campus community event, held in March 2020, created a space to discuss how to navigate the professional world as a Black person, and how to further elevate the Black community.

“Whenever you have a question or a thought, whenever you want to reach out to connect with someone, this app is at your fingertips and immediately available to you,” Lindsey added. “At a university where people are coming from different parts of the world to this new place, where they don’t know anyone or anything, it is crucial. It fills a void that no one else is addressing.”

While the platform was created for Black students, Balde said the company wants to encourage allies of and advocates for Berkeley’s Black community to also use Blackbook, to broaden the ecosystem of support for Black students on campus.

And for Hayes, being a Black person, in itself, is not a monolithic experience.

“There are some commonalities in our experience, but it doesn’t mean that every single one of us is experiencing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way,” said Hayes. “And that’s what makes Blackbook University so unique. It is dynamic enough to hold all those identities within the Black community in a safe and supportive way.”

As they build a digital presence, Blackbook University has partnered with the campus to provide coverage and content of events around campus, including Berkeley’s 2021 Black 2 Cal Event.

As a way to give back to the community, Blackbook has partnered with Good Tidings Ventures, a national nonprofit that supports personal growth and development for children to excel artistically, athletically and academically. This work, Balde said, has helped the company catalyze its growth strategy.

The startup also plans to develop corporate partners and sponsorships through Black professional networks and Black-owned businesses that would eventually pay to use the Blackbook platform to engage with the community and post job listings.

Currently, Blackbook is collaborating with San José State University and De Anza College. The company’s goal? To leverage its technology to bring visibility to the issues that Black students experience on campuses across the country.

“Companies are now considering: What does it mean to value a Black person?” said Balde. “I feel like the timing is great. The place and ecosystem that we’re in at Berkeley is historically amazing when it comes to innovation. And we’re trying to grab that momentum and progress toward substantial changes. … There is a lot of work ahead, but we’re in it for the long run. ”