Update: RainbowMe closed a successful Indiegogo campaign on October 30, 2015, raising $35,322. Here's the link and video:
Long before his scandals made today’s headlines, Bill Cosby
sparked a different type of controversy through his long-running comedy, The Cosby Show,
and its portrayal of a middle-class African American family called the Huxtables.
Before The Cosby Show
, African Americans appeared on television in limited and diminished roles
like maids and servants. The Cosby Show
reversed that stereotype with lead characters who were black, middle-class, and successful, showing a different side of the African American community than had been previously portrayed in the media.
The show drew (and still draws) criticism as some believed the Huxtables' achievements and lifestyle to be as fictional as the characters themselves. But others were inspired and relieved to see a more positive representation of African Americans on television.
Kya Johnson—attorney, serial entrepreneur and founder and CEO of RainbowMe—was one such viewer. As a child, she was drawn to the show because of the striking similarities she saw between the Huxtables and her own family.
Later in life she learned that not all of her peers shared her opinions. The root of this disconnect, Johnson identified, was a lack of exposure to opportunities for people of her race.
She’s been on a mission to eliminate that disconnect ever since.
, the entertainment platform aimed to expose young children to a wide variety of cultures and traditions, is her latest focused effort to bridge the divide through positive exposure of all races. And with a strong team, early interest from investors, a partnership with San Francisco-based CODE2040 and a Kickstarter campaign launching next week, it has the potential to accomplish what The Cosby Show
failed to do—to accurately and believably portray disparate cultures to a broad audience.
From Greensboro to UNC
Johnson grew up in a middle-class African American family in Greensboro, much like the Huxtables. Her parents’ careers even mirrored the Huxtable parents. Only her parents’ professions were reversed—her father was the attorney and her mother worked in healthcare as a physical therapist.
There were similarities between the Huxtable and Johnson children too. Johnson’s brother’s antics were on par with those of Theo, the Huxtable’s son. And Johnson, saw herself in the Huxtable’s middle daughter Rudy and her sister in Olivia.
As a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, Johnson learned that not all African Americans had the same fond memories of the Cosby characters. During one class discussion on the influence of television characters in culture, her classmates argued that seemingly successful African American families like the Huxtables, “did not and could not exist in the real world.”
Johnson was both surprised and disheartened by her classmates’ views.
But it was at that moment she realized she could help others—particularly children of color—see opportunities they might not otherwise see. So she set out to do just that. First, by mentoring, volunteering and hosting career fairs in K-12 schools alongside other attorneys and professionals. Later by founding RainbowMe.
Attorney Turned Entrepreneur
RainbowMe isn’t Johnson’s first business. In 2002, she started Pink Shoe Builders, a real estate investment firm she still runs. And in 2011, she founded Wagging Tongue Tees
, an online shop dedicated to making and selling expressive t-shirts for dogs. She sold it for an undisclosed sum in 2014.
Throughout this time, she also practiced civil law with her father and sister in her father’s law practice. Johnson sat on the idea for RainbowMe for some time before deciding to pursue it as a business. Unlike her other business ventures, she knew she’d need a team to help her accomplish her goal. It was in 2013 that she began to identify her key people.
A friend connected Johnson with Bernard Bell, who had experience managing four entertainment networks including the African American-targeted TV One. Bell soon joined RainbowMe as COO. He then introduced Johnson to Talib Graves-Manns, a serial entrepreneur with years of marketing and technical experience, and he became the company’s CIO. Graves-Manns is leading marketing efforts and the site’s back-end development while developer Breon Williams develops the user interface.
While Johnson initially envisioned a magazine, television programming, games and books eventually won out. While there is an increasing amount of programming with children of color cast as protagonists—Dora the Explorer and Doc McStuffins to name two—Johnson notes that children of color are still woefully underrepresented in entertainment.
RainbowMe will differ from other entertainment sites because it will “balance the playing field” with its one-stop-shop where users can be inundated with multi-cultural content featuring kids like them. All content will be targeted to children ages 2 to 12.
Eventually, the RainbowMe team will develop some original content for the site, but for now all content is acquired through licensing agreements from worldwide sources. So far, there are games like the “Five Senses,” and shows like "Global Wonders", which aim to teach children about topics like the senses and pyramids through a diverse set of characters. Johnson’s law degree has and will continue to aid her as she negotiates those licensing deals. It typically takes 30-60 days to negotiate each content agreement—more will be added before the full site launches in April 2016.
Today, RainbowMe’s content is located only on its website (which is mobile-friendly), but once funding is secured, the team will develop a dedicated app too. Books will eventually be able for download or to read on the site itself, but for now appear as just an overview.
The team is still determining pricing, but will offer some type of membership and an associated membership fee through which users can access all the site’s content.
Johnson has two big goals for the platform. First, the educational multi-cultural content will teach the children about other cultures and traditions. Thus, the children will learn about the differences and subsequently the similarities between themselves and children from other cultures at an early age. That, in turn, will create more understanding, tolerance and empathy among children as they grow into adults.
The second major impact, will be that children of color will be able to see a positive representation of themselves, alleviating the limitations to success Johnson witnessed in her peers' experience. Research backs up Johnson’s belief, showing that children of color who do not see a positive representation of themselves in entertainment or the media have decreased self-esteem. She believes portrayal of children of color on her platform will help reverse this trend.
Since ExitEvent last checked in on RainbowMe
, the team has finished a beta test, moved its headquarters to American Underground @Main, and gained traction with funders and consumers. Graves-Manns was selected as a CODE2040
Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) based at American Underground, bringing in $40,000 along with national press and opportunities to connect with Google NextWave
and Silicon Valley based venture capitalists.
And although Graves-Manns is the official EIR, Johnson has assisted with many of the diversity initiatives he’s spearheaded thus far—like Black Girls Code
and Triangle Startup Weekend Trailblazers
. She also joined Graves-Manns in the Valley for the CODE2040 retreat in May.
Up next, the team will continue to improve the RainbowMe platform and release a new version early next year. On August 3rd, the team launches a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. Their goal is to raise $100,000 for new programs and platform development. They’re also still accepting friend, family and angel investments.
The team will use traditional advertisement channels (web, newspapers, radio, etc.) to broadcast the site’s formal launch in April 2016. They've also formed relationships with 60 daycares and schools in Greensboro and Durham to disseminate the content once its live—that number will continue to grow.
Tackling an issue like the disparity of opportunities between races is a monumental task. But with the RainbowMe team’s expertise, experience and commitment, Johnson is determined to broaden the next generation’s perspective on diversity and opportunity.