Braiding News and Resource Group: A Startup Sprint Project
My name is Houreidja Tall and my community throughout my time at Newmark has been West African hair braiders in Harlem, New York City. I was already familiar with this community because it’s one I grew up in (my mother is a hair braider from Mali), but I learned more about them by simply listening to them. I visited salons on 125th street and spoke with braiders about how they get news and some of their concerns. I struck up conversations with them while they were braiding and while they took breaks between customers.
The braiders have different needs, but they include keeping in the loop with social services such as housing, transportation and obtaining health insurance. The vocabulary in forms and applications can be complicated to figure out for native English speakers, let alone the braiders for whom English may be a third or fourth language. I know this because my mother, who is a braider, often comes home with paperwork that her colleagues have asked her to fill out because they do not understand what it says.
I noticed that many of the braiders used WhatsApp; it is an easy way for them to stay connected with their family in West Africa and with their coworkers. They use WhatsApp to share life updates, news and memes. I figured that whatever product I developed for Startup Sprint should involve WhatsApp in some capacity.
I decided to create a WhatsApp group that connects NYC-based braiders with social services and keeps them abreast of news concerning their livelihood. I sent out weekly posts detailing resources that are available for residents of New York City and notifying the braiders of news that is related to their line of work.
So far, seven women have joined the group. Since creating the group in early November, I have made five posts. The picture below shows the first post I made; it was a post I created about how to find out if one is eligible for Fair Fares, which is a NYC program to receive half-fare MetroCards. In the post, I mentioned that braiders can have their children help them if they need assistance because most of the braiders have children who are fluent in English and are computer literate.
Generating revenue was not something that was a priority for me because I wanted to keep the project free for the users, but some of the potential revenue streams I came up with included applying for grants, requesting donations and hosting workshops where people can learn to braid their hair in certain styles.
As I mentioned earlier, I was able to develop the community easily. I spread awareness of the group by mentioning it to braiders in conversations and asking them to share a link to the group to anyone who may benefit from joining.
The product’s strength is that it is hosted on a platform that is used by all of the braiders I encountered, so it was not necessary for them to take extra steps like downloading a new app. One weakness is that braiders were not very active in the group. I could check and see who had read the messages I sent and when I sought out feedback I got positive responses (one woman told me that she got her son to help her apply for Fair Fares after reading my post, for example), but within the group, I did most of the talking. I figured this is because since all of the women knew each other already, they had their own salon-specific WhatsApp groups and chatted there.
Throughout the semester I was in contact with African Communities Together, which is a Harlem-based advocacy organization for African immigrants living in the city. They have expressed interest in taking over the group after I graduate, and they have far more resources than I do.
I looked at creating this product as a way of giving back to a community that helped raise me. Creating the WhatsApp group was a project that I really enjoyed and I’m happy that it was useful for my community.