DeShuna Spencer knows media: She has been a newspaper reporter and a magazine owner, a radio host and a marketing executive. Perhaps you read the social-justice publication she founded, emPower, or heard the weekly radio show she used to host on DC’s WPFW. But these days, the Alexandria resident is finding success with a different medium—television. In 2016, Spencer launched the video-streaming platform kweliTV, which is devoted to the work of Black creators, both in the US and around the world.
Now, with the increased interest in Black voices in the wake of this summer’s protests, kweliTV is seeing a big boost. Subscriptions have more than doubled since April, and the service offers 400-plus films, documentaries, and TV series. “There’s been an evolution of people wanting to support Black stories and understand Black stories,” says Spencer, whose service costs $5.99 a month and is available via Roku, Apple TV, and other common streaming vehicles. “People are embracing our mission.”
She came up with the idea for kweliTV one night while flipping through channels at home in Alexandria, where the Memphis native moved in 2005 to try to find a media job. There was so much on TV to choose from, but where were all the Black voices? “I knew I wanted to create something that showed a different lens about the Black experience that we may not see in media,” says Spencer. “We want to have the type of programming to counteract the representation of Black people being criminals.”
But turning that flash of inspiration into a workable business was a challenge because, as multiple studies have shown, Black women are typically ignored by early-stage investors. “I had to ask myself, ‘How do I make this happen if I don’t get one dollar?’ ” Spencer says. So she entered a competition for journalists of color looking to start businesses. She won, then used the $20,000 prize to launch kweliTV.
Today, it has 36,000 users and a trove of programming you’re unlikely to encounter elsewhere. Spencer recently announced the platform’s new offerings for fall, including a documentary about the impact of basketball on Africa and a series about three friends who find out they’re witches.
Spencer is working on building a fundraising platform that will help Black filmmakers get projects off the ground, and she’s hoping that one day kweliTV can, à la Netflix and Hulu, create its own content. But for now, Spencer—who is still the only full-time employee and runs the company from her home—is eager to expand the business she already has. “I work so blanking hard,” she says. “I have gotten four hours of sleep at night for the past five years.”
This article appears in the November 2020 issue of Washingtonian.