Business runs through Dionne Mahaffey’s veins. Her father was an entrepreneur as she grew up in Birmingham, Alabama.
So, it was almost inevitable that Mahaffey, a business psychologist and self-described “techie,” would develop WhereU. It’s in her DNA.
Mahaffey’s app works as a search engine and GPS-driven directory. Its “near me” function helps users find black-owned businesses in dozens of U.S. cities.
Consumers can search among 17 categories of African-American-owned companies, including business services, arts and entertainment, health care, real estate and automotive.
WhereU has been downloaded more than 100,000 times since its February launch, according to Mahaffey. Former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal and comedian D.L. Hughley have encouraged their fans to use WhereU to “support black business,” as they said via Twitter.
“As a child, I was taught to be intentional about patronizing family, friends and black-owned businesses,” said Mahaffey, an Auburn University graduate and mother of two daughters. “I grew up watching my parents support black doctors, accountants, general contractors, grocery stores, mechanics, banks and more. My first bank account was with a black-owned bank — and I still bank black.”
The idea for WhereU came to Mahaffey on December 5, 2015, in a dream, she said. Seventy-two days later, she made the app available on Google Play and Apple’s iTunes, during Black History Month.
“For me, with everything that has been happening, with uprisings after black lives were taken by police officers,” said Roman Lyles, a WhereU user in Atlanta, “it’s important to protest with where I spend my dollars. I’m almost ashamed to say I didn’t know there were so many black-owned businesses here. This app has opened my eyes. And I have spent more money on black businesses in the last few months than I probably have all my life.”
Lyles’ story illustrates what WhereU can do. Black buying power is expected to reach $1.2 trillion this year and $1.4 trillion by 2020, according to the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth. Those figures would make “Black America” the world’s 15th largest economy, based on the World Bank’s Gross Domestic Product data. This figure makes “Black America” as wealthy as Mexico.
“The app gets dialogue going about how to effect change in the community,” Mahaffey said. “It helps us address the dearth of sustainable black-owned businesses and route money back into our communities. We’ve heard from several businesses listed on the app that being listed has increased traffic.”
Between 500,000 and 1 million jobs could be created if higher-income black households spent just $1 of every $10 at black-owned stores and other enterprises, according to research by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. The NAACP also cites data that suggest that entrepreneurial success is linked to generational economic empowerment.
“So,” Mahaffey said, “I agree with the NAACP’s Nicole Kenney who says, ‘If we are serious about improving our communities, improving our schools, providing jobs (black businesses are the second highest employer of African-Americans after the government), we must advance and strengthen black-owned businesses.’ That’s what WhereU is about.”
Mahaffey said she learned how to code in high school and advanced her software-development knowledge in college. She said “the lion’s share” of her professional career has been spent in the tech world.
“The beauty of being engaged in STEM,” she said, “is that you can build what you dream,” through science, technology, engineering and math.
Mahaffey’s December dream has become a reality that could have a major impact on America’s black businesses. New York leads the U.S. with 250,890 black-owned enterprises, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Atlanta is second with 176,245. So far, Mahaffey said, WhereU lists 75,000 such companies.
“WhereU is a directory, not a marketplace,” Mahaffey said. “But we do offer a badge for stores that ship globally or have online stores. Consumers can link to their websites from the app.”
Mahaffey is “exploring a partnership with black-owned websites that provide e-commerce and marketplace solutions,” she said. “We are committed to marketing the app to users in a way that encourages them to be intentional about using the app to search for black businesses . . . I’ve been supporting black business all my life. WhereU gives everyone a chance to do the same.”