DeShuna Spencer: Changing the Narrative About Black Entertainment

Founder and CEO of kweliTV

DeShuna Spencer wanted to create a safe space for Black people to watch films featuring characters that looked like them, so she created a streaming service filled with just that. 

DeShuna Spencer
DeShuna Spencer

Think Netflix meets Black cinema. That's what prompted Spencer to launch kweliTV, a streaming service that specifically features Black independent films, documentaries, news, and other content that can’t easily be found elsewhere. For a small monthly fee, viewers can tap into Black entertainment spanning various genres, from shorts to dramas, science fiction films, and more.

When someone first suggested she start a Black-focused streaming service when she couldn’t find the type of content she was seeking, Spencer said she thought they were crazy. Fast forward nearly a decade, and she has over 39,000 users on the kweliTV platform, which can be accessed through various streaming devices and apps, including Roku, Apple TV, and Google Play. 

"It’s always been about changing the narrative and using the narrative for healing, for education, for impact," Spencer told Lifewire in a phone interview.

Quick Facts About DeShuna Spencer

Name: DeShuna Spencer 

From: Memphis, Tennessee 

Something you may not know: She’s the middle child and she grew up in a very religious household, which she says could make her a bit rebellious and stubborn. 

Key quote or motto she lives by: “Do it afraid.”

Rooted in a Search for Equality

Dating back to elementary school, Spencer can remember seeing a lack of representation around her, from the skin color of Barbie dolls to her disproportionately white classmates. Her observations of the world, mixed with her introverted and quiet personality, has shaped her mission at kweliTV.

"I felt like I just really didn’t fit in, but over time, especially as I got older, I became more comfortable in my skin, who I am as a person, and really just started to love myself more," she said. 

DeShuna Spencer
DeShuna Spencer

One interest that has stuck with her since she was a kid was her love for storytelling and writing. She said she often would escape her childhood traumas by getting lost in a book, watching a movie, or writing out her thoughts. She actually thought she would become a novelist one day, but when she saw the opportunity to launch kweliTV, she followed that calling. 

Her idea for the service originally came in 2012, when she was flipping through her cable lineup and couldn't find anything she wanted to watch. She was interested in Black independent films, but couldn’t even find an adequate streaming service with a good selection. 

"I got this very popular streaming service and again, I couldn’t find the content I was looking for," she said. 

Despite having a clear vision for what she wanted kweliTV to be, Spencer said that building her business came with a whole new set of challenges. 

The Road Wasn’t Easy, but It’s Slowly Getting Better

Of all the guidance you can find online, there’s no playbook for how to start a streaming service, Spencer said. She spent a good chunk of time researching how to even start kweliTV.

In fact, it took five years to get the business off the ground, prior to its official launch in 2017. Not having much of a technological background, she first had to learn about what constituted a minimum viable product, then had to figure out how to get that product into beta testing, and how to manage kweliTV’s platform on the back end. 

"I was totally new and green to all of it, and I was really just soaking in all the information as far as how to make this a company," she said.

Screenshot of the kweliTV service.
Screenshot of the kweliTV service.

Like most Black tech founders, Spencer still has struggled to secure venture capital. After coming up empty at multiple pitch competitions, she said she often would ask judges why they didn’t support her product. They would tell her they "weren’t sure about the future of streaming," she recalled.

These instances often would make Spencer doubt herself, even though her offering was markedly different than mass-market services of the time like HBO Go and Netflix.

After taking a short hiatus, Spencer returned to pitch competitions in 2015. This time, she managed to win a few pitches, and put that funding toward building the first iteration of her service, which launched in the fall of 2015 with films from 37 independent filmmakers. kweliTV then moved out of beta in September 2017 and now features more than 450 films. 

Even so, Spencer still is struggling to secure funding, despite continuing to grow her business. She tried raising a seed round in 2016 with the intent of securing $1 million, but that effort ultimately went nowhere.

With the lack of financial support, this leaves Spencer to pretty much run the business herself full time, with the help of two part-time coworkers. 

Screenshot of kweliTV
Screenshot of kweliTV.

"We’re technically bootstrapped; we’re not a venture-backed company that has raised millions of dollars," she said.

Right now, the only thing keeping kweliTV financially afloat is Spencer’s continued wins at pitch competitions over the past four years. She said she’s tried to be resourceful with the limited funds she has, as kweliTV continues to grow. 

"I pitched to win, and that was how I was able to get us out of beta finally and kind of move us to the next level," she said.

Looking ahead, Spencer is excited about the increased popularity of streaming, with people still spending a lot more time indoors. She said 2020 was one of kweliTV’s best years ever, with a growth rate of 123%. The growth came not only from Black customers, but also from other racial groups, as the civil unrest last summer prompted people to want to learn more. 

"Don’t watch 'The Help' on Netflix," she said. “Go to a platform like kweliTV, where we’re intentional about the content we put out there."

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