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In Mobile, Alabama, a new app named Vivian’s Door aims to boost minority businesses

It’s named after the University of Alabama’s first black graduate

Want to find and support minority-owned businesses? Well, now there is an app for that.

During the Jim Crow era, black motorists used a guidebook known as The Green Book to help them find safe hotels and restaurants while on their road trips in order to limit their encounters with racism.

Now, decades later, Janice Malone has partnered with the Mobile (Alabama) Area Chamber of Commerce to create the Vivian’s Door app, which will provide users with a catalog of minority-owned businesses, scholarship and training resources, and mentorship and networking opportunities. The app is set to be released to the Mobile area and along the Gulf Coast region in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida in 2019. A prototype is currently in the iOS and Google Play stores.

“I think minority businesses cover every spectrum out there today. Some way or another, we as a people haven’t really put the full portfolio together, so that’s part of what Vivian’s Door is attempting to do. We are going to dig deep and pull those businesses together and map those supply chains,” said Malone, program director for the project.

Vivian’s Door app

The journey began when Malone was asked by the chamber of commerce to create a paper directory for people looking to shop at minority businesses. Because of her experience in app development, she thought a directory seemed old school and concluded it should be done in an app.

When it was time to turn the dream into reality, they ran into an obstacle: The data was hard to compile. After gathering lists from the chamber, the Alabama transportation department and local cities, it still wasn’t enough. Currently, they have about 1,000 businesses listed on the app — everything from construction firms, hair and beauty salons, health and wellness businesses, lawyers, doctors and accountants to marketing services.

After the app is fully released, Malone is hoping institutions will provide data on minority businesses to Vivian’s Door once they see that the tool works.

“I need to see this app become that tool we envisioned it to become. It becomes a way for minority businesses to grow, to scale, and reinvest in their communities,” she said.

Another goal of this app is to bridge the gap between the minority businesses and larger establishments, creating an easy way to interact.

“The corporations and the anchor institutions need the minority businesses and their supply chain as much as the minority businesses need to be in their supply chain,” said Malone.

The name of the app was inspired by Vivian Malone Jones, who was one of the first two African-American students to enroll at the University of Alabama in 1963 and became its first black graduate in 1965.

“I said I need a cause. We need to take this civil rights icon and push her into the 21st century. And the cause she needs to carry is creating economic self-sufficiency for minority business.

“She gave two years of her life for the betterment of her community. I thought, that’s what this initiative has to be: these small businesses rallying together, trying to reinvest in their communities,” said Malone, who is married to Jones’ cousin.

Identifying minority businesses is labor-intensive and costly. Slightly less than $10,000 has been raised, although they need $100,000 to get the app to its full potential. The money will go toward research, development, upkeep, security and marketing of the app. They are seeking grants and will begin a crowdfunding campaign on July 16.

Malone has also created a training program that will enable minority businesses to collaborate with larger businesses starting in October. The goal is to coach 40 minority businesses each year.

Winifred Dotch-Jones, who owns Dotch’s Barber and Style Salon in Mobile, says the app is a gateway to give money back to the community and support minority business owners. She has installed it on her phone, and her business is set to be involved in the training program.

“It’s an awesome idea. Not only in Mobile, Alabama, but I’m sure there are other cities across this nation that have minority business that needs help growing. Unfortunately, we don’t have the capital and the educational resources to maintain our businesses,” said Dotch-Jones.

Malone said she recognized the dire need for the app because she and her husband own a company called Business Resource Center Design and Print, which specializes in marketing, printing and design.

“There was no ecosystem for me to climb higher [as a minority business] and to grow bigger, so I set out to try to create it. What I created is what I believe an ideal system,” she said.

Malone hopes the app will not only help minority businesses grow but also help communities maximize their economic capacity. Eventually, she hopes, it will be available across the United States.

Miniya Shabazz is a Rhoden Fellow and a junior mass communication major from Laurel, MD. She attends Grambling State University and is a staff writer for The Gramblinite.