It all started with one of those “There should be an app for that” moments. In 2014, longtime Grey’s Anatomy co-star Jesse Williams and his wife Aryn Drakelee-Williams were chopping it up about the confounding lack of racial diversity of smart phone texting options. Shortly thereafter, they came up with an idea that would quickly evolve into a subversive, groundbreaking tech startup called Ebroji.
“Aryn was saying, ‘Emojis are so popular. Why on earth would there only be pink-faced emojis?’” Williams, his gray eyes gleaming, recalls. “‘Only white people get emojis? That’s preposterous! Somebody needs to make that. We need to make that!’” Cut to January of this year. Realizing emojis are so-five-minutes-ago technology-wise, the social justice-minded couple pivoted and made Ebroji’s core focus a curated GIF keyboard.
According to activist-actor Williams, its aim is to obliterate “imposed restrictions, to let our language be us—and not clean it up for anybody.” Created in partnership with acclaimed conceptual artist Glenn Kaino—with whom Drakelee-Williams serves on the board of directors at the Los Angeles non-profit contemporary art exhibition space The Mistake Room—the app has been certified “lit” by The Huffington Post and applauded for its “mad flava” by Ebony.
Ebroji headquarters is an upstairs studio in downtown Hollywood made up of ringing phones, a handful of workers coding at computers, small resin sculptures of melting buildings, and renderings of the app’s first sticker pack, which includes LeBron James’ disembodied head and the Beyonce-inspired pull-quote “Ask Becky With the Good Hair.” Gathered around a conference table, the three founders say that Ebroji already boasts twice the average retention rate of most apps and four times as many daily users (they decline to reveal specific install numbers).
Organized around such tellingly specific categories as “Blackgirlmagic—Blackboy Joy,” “C’mon Son—Really?,” “Yaaass—Slay,” “Calmaté—Encouragement” and “Oprah,” Ebroji is hilarious and poignant. The app is firmly on the cutting edge with daily, sometimes hourly GIF updates to maintain its currency. There’s a whole section devoted to the Michael Jordan crying meme, while NeNe Leakes’ snap-tacular blonde visage dominates a category devoted to “Real Housewives.” “Election 2016,” meanwhile, catalogues a dizzying array of Donald Trump mansplainations and resting duck faces. Users can even upload their own GIFs.
But the app also shoulders a social conscience and strives to be broadly inclusive, providing a digital outlet for authentic cultural expressions catering to “Brown, trans, ALL people,” in the words of its tweeted-out mission statement. “We said, let’s try to create categories that feel like us,” says Williams, 35, a Chicago native who taught American, African and African American history in low-income Philadelphia charter schools prior to landing acting roles on TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and movies like Lee Daniels' The Butler. “You don’t have to institutionalize or sterilize the way you talk. If you mean, ‘Come on, son,’ you can put that down as a category.”
Drakelee-Williams, 36, is a Barnard College graduate who established herself as a successful real estate broker in New York before co-founding the transmedia farWord Inc., a company separate from Ebroji, with her husband. The idea was to enable a new, “refreshing” kind of self-representation for communities of color who have discovered that “LOL” and cute cat videos simply don’t cut it for them. “It’s about having the tools at your fingertips to speak and express yourself the way you naturally would, versus trying to morph how somebody else’s system functions for you,” she says, as Williams and Kaino nod in agreement.
(Above) The Ebroji team from left to right: Glenn Kaino, Aryn Drakelee-Williams, and Jesse Williams.
None of which would be such a big deal, had Ebroji not come to rank among just a small handful of tech start-ups founded and operated by Americans of color. Kaino is a painter-sculptor-video-performance artist whose work has been shown at the prestigious Whitney Biennial and has also served as executive VP of digital operations for the Oprah Winfrey Network and chief creative officer at Napster. To hear him tell it, Ebroji’s mission was born, in part, out of a certain barrier to an insular industry almost homogeneously white, male and moneyed.
“The tech business is pretty exclusive,” says Kaino, 41. “An investor said to me, ‘You’re not a 25-year-old in a garage in Silicon Valley. I can’t put money in!’ I have a track record of accomplishment. But it doesn’t matter. The only ones getting investment are white kids from the Valley.”
On the surface, Ebroji redresses the balance of racial representation in the iTunes App Store and provides a little GIF-based “comic relief” in a year dominated by the divisive vitriol of presidential campaign politics. But more importantly, the Ebroji founders hope to convince other would-be digi-preneurs of limited technological means that creating a successful startup is, in fact, within their grasp.
“People pursue attainable goals—things they actually feel they can do,” says the grey-eyed Williams, who is charming but surprisingly intense in person. “Why is this tech so not inclusive? People don’t have the literacy to do it. ‘I’ve got an idea for an app, but I don’t even know how to finish that sentence because I don’t even know what the back end looks like.’ Nobody sits around the ‘hood trying to be an astronaut, ‘cause they don’t know anybody who’s ever been an astronaut. Basketball, I know. I can touch and feel and practice it. If you want to find ways to express yourself, we’re a model.”
Viewed a certain way, Ebroji arrives as Williams’ latest effort to spotlight race relations in America over a lifetime of social justice outreach. The Temple University alum serves on the board of directors for the Advancement Project, a multiracial civil rights organization; he executive produced Question Bridge: Black Males, an innovative art project that became an official selection of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival; and he executive produced the galvanizing BET documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement (which premiered in May). Receiving a Humanitarian Award at the BET Awards in July, though, Williams’ activist streak went viral when his fiery acceptance speech denouncing racism, police brutality and cultural appropriation lit up social media. It prompted an outbreak of chin-stroking thinkpieces and a Change.org petition demanding the actor be fired from Grey’s Anatomy, which went nowhere.
Williams admits he wasn’t expecting the backlash but isn’t exactly sweating it either (the Ebroji GIF of Nicki Minaj mouthing “Y U MAD?” probably applies here). “People asked right afterwards, ‘Ooh, that was so brave! How are white people reacting? How is the business reacting?’” Williams says. “Everybody’s fine. A hit dog don’t holler. That’s an old phrase. If I say something about the KKK, you’re not going to be offended because you’re not a Klansman. People aren’t offended.”
(Above) Jesse Williams, Glenn Kaino, and Aryn Drakelee-Williams.
If anything, he draws a through-line from his remarks onstage to his new digital venture. “This is connected,” Williams says. “It’s about behaving without constant fear of retribution about what other people will think. We don’t need qualifications from other people. You gotta have some courage to get in there and figure it out for yourself. I’d rather fail and know than sit in my room and wonder. So that’s a common thread around our behavior and our company.”
It’s probably worth pointing out the chain of command within the company: Drakelee-Williams serves as CEO while Williams is their creative director. “That was Glenn’s idea,” she says with a laugh.
“Creatives sometimes need handling!” says Williams, who in conversation is unfailingly decorous toward his wife, seconding her talking points and pridefully pointing out her ability to speak fluent French and Spanish.
The couple got together in 2003 while Williams was still teaching high school and middle school prior to his breakthrough acting role in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2. Early on in their relationship, the two began “flipping” homes together (that is, buying, renovating and selling them for a substantial profit). It’s clear he values both her companionship and self-made business acumen. “She taught me everything I know about real estate,” Williams says.
When asked what it’s like maintaining a work-life balance as partners, married both to the business and one another, Williams admits things can get complicated. “It’s not always easy. But it’s got a ton of benefits. You can kick around any idea before putting it in a work email. You always have this cork board to spitball with somebody. But yeah, you’ve got to try to figure out a way to have a church and state [separation] so you can function.”
Adds Drakelee-Williams: “It’s nice to have something where it’s about the work and the experience we’re sharing with people and that they, in turn, are enjoying. I stay very private. But when there is something to talk about, I talk about it.”
On Nov. 5 and 6, Williams will draw upon his unique experience shepherding Ebroji into existence, serving as Curator of Tech and Innovation at ComplexCon—the inaugural edition of Complex’s music, art, food and culture festival taking place in Long Beach, CA. “One of the panels we’re putting together that I’m most excited about is around culture as language,” he says. “The impact of cultural language, whether it’s music or visual arts or something as simple as the uses of power and exclusion as expressions of language and reflections of culture. It’s consistent with our mission.”
It begs the question: does the company have more apps planned, or are Ebrojis a one-off thing? The co-founders deliberate about what they can and can’t say on the record, before agreeing upon a suitably cryptic answer.
“We’re grinding on some stuff,” says Williams.
“I would say Ebroji has just begun,” adds Kaino, breaking into a wide smile.