By Imani J. Jackson
#Blackboyjoy sounded more like hustle than hubris earlier this week during a telephonic interview with Trevor Wilkins. The tech entrepreneur is a Southside of Chicago native and celebrant. He is also a Princeton sociology graduate who shared parts of his journey to co-creating an app with more than a half million users that encourages students to get good grades.
Wilkins and Logan Cohen, his business partner, co-founded KÜDZOO, a free mobile application that pays students, in app cash, scholarship opportunities, and experiences, for good grades and improved grades. While some users target their cash-outs for bigger ticket items, Trevor said other users cash in their KÜDZOO currency to take their mothers out to eat. Some users Trevor said, each who must be age 13 or older, earned more KÜDZOO cash through consistent app check-ins and sustained usage than they expended in actual dollars weekly. Collegians and graduate students may also use the app.
And next month, a new perk will roll out in time for a couple of users to participate in a high school rite of passage. “Two girls will get a prom makeover for their academic achievements,” Wilkins said. “Makeovers are going to be provided by a company out of Philly called Manestreem.”
How exactly did KÜDZOO come to Trevor? As a child, Trevor’s parents paid him and his siblings for earning high marks. In the Wilkins family, A’s received $10. B’s received $5. C’s meant the kid(s) paid their parents $20. Inherent in this practice was the message that lower marks have costs.
Trevor said this payment system taught him competition. He wanted to compete with and become his best self. As the eldest sibling, a perspective which I also share, Trevor kept his siblings’ accomplishments in mind as fuel. He put in work in the classroom because he valued learning. He also put in work in the classroom because his sister Nya, for example, was “not about to stunt on” him.
Now, what about those who say payment does not support a true love of learning? Trevor responded with the utility of encouraging knowledge. He said individuals and society benefit from people learning in school. He also said that the app is a quicker way to show students that learning pays. It is not just about attaining a degree somewhere down the line, he said. They can profit from what they learn earlier than that.
“We are not giving them stuff for no reason,” he said. “They earned the grades.”
The app creation discussion ventured into art and life. In Issa Rae’s hit show Insecure, the character Lawrence simultaneously grinded viewers’ gears and presented a working guy narrative to which many related. This character’s suffering, however, was largely connected with his inability to make his app idea an actuality instead of a moving target that kept him tethered to his girlfriend’s couch. I asked Trevor how not to become Lawrence in the app game.
Trevor did not launch into a special, sparkly snowflake diatribe about how much better his ideas or work are than other people’s. He said planning is essential. He emphasized the importance of a team, instead of isolated idea creation.
Trevor then shared that many would-be entrepreneurs and creators stymie their development because of fear. They are so afraid to share their ideas that they hoard them, which does not provide the thinkers with valuable sounding boards or people with whom to build. He big-upped his team, especially his business partner. He added that many people are too busy with their own projects to plot on other people’s ideas.
His willingness to dive in collaboratively pays. Wilkins and Cohen’s work secured recognition on the Forbes “30 under 30” list for the app, which has more than $1 million in funding. The Princeton Entrepreneurship Council believed in the class of 2013 alum, and the idea, enough to name Wilkins as an inaugural member of their Alumni Entrepreneurs Fund. Further, Wilkins effectively participated in the Uber Pool Pitch, a process of pitching ideas to venture capitalists.
KÜDZOO seems especially timely. The Pew Research Center reports that 95 percent of Americans own cell phones and nearly 80 percent of cell phone owners own smart phones. As a result, meeting people where they are, to do business, means via technology and in real life.
Innovators are particularly necessary. As the national education climate is fraught with crony leadership, everyday people need to see and remember that they can build with and for like minds. And diversifying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields can mean supporting contemporary apps with Black creators like KÜDZOO, Kaya Thomas’ We Read Too and Godwin Gabriel’s MOOVN.
When it came to Trevor’s hometown, and specifically the side of town from which he hails, the businessman described “flashes of greatness.” He called Hyde Park an “oasis” and said the difference between his Princeton classmates and people in Chicago is opportunity, not raw intellect. He said many people needed positive endeavors in which to funnel their smarts.
With feet literally pounding the pavement (he was walking around NYC during the call), one can wonder whether Trevor’s work is his purpose. When asked, Trevor paused. He is still finding his purpose. However, “I’m in the neighborhood.”
Imani J. Jackson is a columnist and policy adviser with Dynamic Education Foundation. She earned a mass communication B.A., with a journalism focus and psychology minor, from Grambling State University and a J.D. from Florida A&M University College of Law. She has written for a variety of publications including the Black Youth Project, USA Today, Teen Vogue and Politic365.