Morgan DeBaun, AB ’12, and her co-founders named their media startup after a phenomenon they observed while they were students at Washington University.
“Blavity” — a combination of the words “black” and “gravity” — describes how black students from across the university were drawn together during lunch every day to share stories, support each other and enjoy each other’s company.
“It was just this beautiful space where everybody was welcome,” DeBaun says. “No conversation was off limits. People could be vulnerable, people could laugh, people could cry. It was a space where I felt as if I could be my full self.”
And now Blavity.com has filled that role in cyberspace.
In 2014, at age 24, DeBaun co-founded Blavity, a news and entertainment website featuring stories told from a black point of view. She and her co-founders — fellow alumni Aaron Samuels, BSBA ’11; Jeff Nelson, BS ’10; and Jonathan Jackson, AB ’13 — decided to target the underserved black millennial audience.
“There is so much creativity and innovation, and there are so many voices within the black community, particularly in this new generation,” says DeBaun, CEO of Blavity, Inc. “But there was no place for us to connect with each other, to read each other’s ideas and thoughts.”
Blavity brought in $6.5 million in venture capital in 2018 and is growing quickly. The Los Angeles–based startup opened a satellite office in Atlanta in 2018. With 55 employees and some 100 contractors, the company doubled in size last year, and DeBaun expects it to double again this year. She says the Blavity flagship news site now reaches more than 1.8 million unique readers each month.
In June 2018, the company branched out to include other brands: 21Ninety, a beauty and wellness site for multicultural millennial women; Travel Noire, a black travel platform; Shadow and Act, a black entertainment and film news site; and AfroTech, a website for black entrepreneurs and innovators. The company also has frequent in-person events, including two annual conferences: AfroTech, in Silicon Valley, and Summit21, a women’s conference in Atlanta.
Before she was running a booming startup, DeBaun was a product manager at Intuit in San Francisco. She liked her job but felt something was missing.
“I asked myself, ‘What do I want to be doing with this? How am I helping to change the world?’” she says. “And then, at the same time, Mike Brown happened.”
DeBaun, a proud St. Louis native (“I’m a St. Louis girl 100 percent.”), felt helpless after the fatal police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.
“I wasn’t going to fly back to St. Louis and protest, so how was I going to contribute?” she says. “What was in front of me was my laptop, along with my knowledge of how to get information around and build products.”
The shooting was the tipping point that pushed her and her co-founders to launch Blavity. “It really was that moment that made me take a leap of faith,” she says.
That leap paid off, thanks in part to skills she learned at Washington University. Drawn to the university because of its flexible curriculum, DeBaun was a political science major with a double minor in education and entrepreneurship. She also was Student Union president as a sophomore, which taught her leadership skills like how to run meetings, speak up and argue her point. This flexible and entrepreneurial ecosystem is a result of university priorities established during Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton’s tenure.
“I use so much of what I learned at WashU every single day at Blavity,” she says.
DeBaun, named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2016, sees a bright future for the company born around a lunch table at the Mallinckrodt Food Court.
“I want to make sure we continue to build a strong new publication and media brand for the black community,” she says. “The vision is to be a brand that people trust — and also to push the culture forward. That’s ultimately what we are trying to do.”
Julie Kennedy is a senior editor at Washington University.