This CEO and Founder Is Investing in Social Impact
After her father was shot by Chicago Police, Chloë Cheyenne launched COMMUNITYx to build networks of change-agents
Doing It My Way is a candid ZORA Q&A series with newsmakers and changemakers in our community who are charting their own paths with conviction and defying convention.
Chloë Cheyenne is just getting started. Fresh off the success of an inaugural summit and app launch in September, the CEO and founder of COMMUNITYx, a social impact tech startup, recently tied for a $250,000 first-place prize at the Forbes Under 30 Summit.
After learning of the police brutality her father endured in 1989, at the hands of Chicago police in a case of mistaken identity, Chloë decided to make a difference. Chloë, a former business development manager at Google, started COMMUNITYx in 2018.
“In a lot of ways, my dad’s tragedy was my childhood reality. My family and I had to watch him in pain every single day because he still has a bullet fragment launched in his spine that can never be taken out, or else he’d become a paraplegic,” she says. “When I was old enough to finally understand what happened, I decided I needed to use my education and my experience to do something about issues like these. That’s how COMMUNITYx was founded.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ZORA: How did your parents talk to you and your siblings about race?
Chloë Cheyenne: Race was always a big thing in my family. I’m multiracial. My mom immigrated from the Philippines when she was eight. My dad’s mom is African American from St. Louis, Missouri. His dad is Caucasian, he’s from England.
After my dad was shot, his mom moved her family out of Chicago, Illinois to Evanston, Illinois. My primary years were spent there and then my dad moved us even farther north to Highland Park, Illinois. We grew up in a place where there was nobody who looked like us and the community wasn’t always welcoming.
From my dad’s standpoint, he just wanted us to be somewhere safe, but we were always on the low-income side of the communities we grew up in. We were called names and looked at a certain way, but the most important thing to my dad was that we were safe.
How did your experience at Howard shaped your outlook on race and social justice?
I have this thing about choosing where you bring your talent. I knew in high school, when I was in AP classes and I got really good grades, that I would have a lot of opportunities. But I had a conversation with one of my mentors and she recommended Howard. I wanted to go because it’s important to me that my talent and potential were dedicated to an HBCU and not a PWI. I wanted to make a difference in my own community.
And how has that influenced your leadership style?
In Silicon Valley, there are these billion-dollar tech companies where the founders are White males and if you look at their funders, they are White males. But if you look at their user bases, like Black Twitter for instance, those people look a lot like you and I. So the leadership of the community is White, the funders are White, but the people who are carrying those platforms all the way to IPO and making them the success that they are look like us.
When I set out to build COMMUNITYx, the first thing I expressed to my board was the first round of funding was going out exclusively to people of color. Our first round of our investors were 100% people of color. All but one are African American and the one that’s not is a Pakistani woman. It was really important for me as the founder and CEO to make a statement in that way.
Everything that we experience on a day-to-day basis really sets us up for success in this space because we’re used to being told we can’t do something. And yet, we keep going.
How did COMMUNITYx come to be?
My last role at Google was around data and mapping. As I was leaving, I started to think about building an app and did a couple of years of market research about the space. I care about social impact and justice, so I was thinking about how do I marry that with my experience in tech?
One of the most important things you can do within activism is find allies, connect with them, and help each other move your causes forward. But there was no platform that did that. I realized there was a way we could start to leverage user data in a positive way and help them build these cause-based digitally native communities that could help them accelerate their causes.
How is COMMUNITYx different from other social media platforms?
In the very beginning of your experience on the app, we ask you specifically what you care about. Then we take that data and say, here are other people local to you, nationally and globally, who also care about those same things.
We’re constantly helping our users build their communities of like-minded change agents so that when communities are faced with certain issues, our users have a place to go where they already know I have a community of 10,000 people I can mobilize today because I’ve connected with them on COMMUNITYx. We are a tech company, but we’re also curating experiences where people can connect with each other as humans and discuss what's going on, face-to-face. We aim to connect our mobile experience with things that are happening on the ground.
What is like being a woman of color in such a White male-dominated space?
It’s challenging and it’s taken me many years to get to this point. I have been told “no” so many times that I stopped keeping count. I’ve been told this is a bad idea and it’s not a viable business. A lot of it is because when VCs in the space look at opportunities, they’re not usually facing a founder that looks like me. But another part of it is that a lot of these investors are also not used to things that can have a real impact.
But the silver lining is that this is just a metaphor for everything we’ve experienced in our lives already. We’re used to being told we can’t do something. And yet, we keep going. The most important thing you can do in this space is to keep going.
What keeps you going?
My dad. I can’t stop doing this because the two people who drive me are my parents. They’re the reason why I’m here and after what they went through, I feel like I owe it to them. And I owe it to other people who’ve shared these experiences. I really feel like the platform we’re building can make a difference… it’s simply not an option for me to stop.
What advice do you have for other women of color founders?
You have to be very comfortable in a space of extreme sacrifice. And in order to do that, you have to have a core group of people around you who are constantly supporting you and reminding you that what you’re doing is important and valid.
From idea to launch, there have been so many hard sacrifices I’ve had to make in order to get this far, starting with leaving my job at Google. Coming from a low-income family, getting that job at Google was everything for me and everything for my parents. It gave me a sense of financial independence I never thought I’d have, so walking away from that was the first sacrifice that I made. It was hard at the time but it definitely wasn’t the hardest.
I’m a mom, I have an 18-month-old daughter I need to take care of. Every day, she and I make sacrifices in order to keep building this thing. You have to find a space of comfort within the sacrifice and just know that something good is going to come out of it.