ABOVE: Melanoid Exchange Co-Founder and COO Darsha Carter with husband and Melanoid Exchange Co-Founder and CEO Jovante Ham
In January 2020, B.C. (Before Corona) Melanoid Exchange CEO and Co-Founder Jovante Ham walked into the Forward Times office and introduced himself. A humble and articulate young man with a heavy Floridian drawl, he informed me that he was just in the area and wanted to stop by to inform us of the work that his company is doing within the community. He spoke quickly but slowly enough for me to understand that he had recently soft launched a very successful eCommerce platform called Melanoid Exchange. The Prairie View A&M alumnus handed me a business card and modestly informed me that his company was also recently featured in the Forbes Under 30 list. I shook Ham’s hand (a now foreign concept that I admittedly took for granted), stored his card in a safe and visible space on my desk and got back to work.
Fast forward to the beginning of April, A.C. (After Corona); COVID-19 was in full effect and an e-mail from Ham came across my computer informing me that Melanoid Exchange was looking to help at this difficult time by providing a grant to a small minority business. I e-mailed back immediately to schedule a phone interview.
I had the opportunity to engage in a conference call with Jovante Ham and his fiery and brilliant wife, Darsha Carter who is also Co-Founder and COO of Melanoid Exchange.
Chelsea Lenora White: It’s so important for me to talk with you today. When we first met and you came into the office, we had no idea that COVID-19 was going to happen. I recently downloaded the Melanoid Exchange app and I realized that it is more important now, than ever to utilize an app like this. Considering all of the challenges that Black America is facing, small businesses are being forced to close; the unemployment rate is skyrocketing every day and businesses are struggling to keep their doors open. I really feel like Black America has to stick together and circulate our dollar within the community; during and after this time. We have to unite.
Jovante Ham: Definitely.
CLW: Forward Times has such a broad range of readers. We have some younger readers but we also have a lot of older readers who have stuck with us since we opened in 1960. How would you explain eCommerce to those who may not be as technically inclined?
JH: I would explain it as a way to shop. I would explain it differently during COVID-19; than I would before. Because before it was something that everybody didn’t have to do. But now I would explain it as the way that everyone will have to shop moving forward. It’s the future of shopping. Basically you are making a transaction by way of the Internet.
CLW: As a millennial-founded eCommerce business, have you guys received any push back from elders who may be fearful of change?
Darsha Carter: When we were first starting this initiative, I can honestly say that the 40+ group, even the 35+ group, gave it to us because they felt like they were already doing okay.
They were like, “I don’t need y’all coming in here with your tech stuff trying to tell me that I can get a website. I don’t need a website.”
And we were telling them, it’s really free. We charge a small transaction fee which isn’t much at all just to keep the platform going and so that we can spread your products everywhere, not just in Houston. They would be doing these Black Market events and feel like that’s enough because of the turn out there. And my question to them was, what if that same amount of people was coming every day? That’s how it is when it’s online. Thousands of people are visiting our site and could potentially be visiting you every single day.
So it’s been hard for us to get them to understand but I think post-COVID-19 we will really be able to push through with that crowd. A lot of them have finally had to order groceries online and never thought that they would have to do that. They realize that this is going to be the future. So I think that slipping Melanoid Exchange in at a time like this and connecting with that group will be awesome and tremendous. Because they have what we need; not just because we want their business, but we want their insight and wisdom.
CLW: Talk to me about Melanoid Exchange. When did it start? How did it start?
JH: So, essentially, Melanoid Exchange is an eCommerce platform that doesn’t charge any start-up fees; that provides educational tools; same-day payment and powerful marketing algorithm. We give vendors, whether you have a product-based business or a service-based business, the ability to scale your one-of-a-kind product or service to loyal customers around the world.
CLW: When did you guys start Melanoid Exchange?
JH: We had a soft launch for Melanoid Exchange in August 2019. The idea came about I believe last February, when everyone decided that we would cancel Gucci. My then-fiancée and I made an initiative to “buy Black”. That was a time when everyone was really stressing the point to “buy Black”. It really put a light bulb in people’s heads to support Black-owned businesses.
So once we looked to do that, we found it very difficult to be consistent with it. We had to go to this website or that website; or to this vendor festival and that. It was an inconvenient process, to say the least. So we were wondering, why wasn’t there one place that we could go to “buy Black”? Even on these big platforms like Amazon and Etsy, we were wondering why a lot of Black people weren’t [vendors] on these platforms.
So we went to some vendor festivals and asked entrepreneurs why they weren’t on those platforms, and we got a broad range of answers. A lot of them being that the platforms cost too much, or that they couldn’t be seen because of an oversaturated market. So I already had the idea on my heart working as a software engineer in Dallas before I moved here. Every day before I quit my job I would be thinking of ideas and ways to get out. So that idea was on my heart because I wanted to create a place that was like a Black shopping mall. I didn’t know how to get it done at the time but during the time when everyone was cancelling Gucci, it came back on my heart.
After doing all of that research I decided to go ahead with my mission in opening Melanoid Exchange. I met with one of my co-workers, who is also a software engineer and we started the initiative. We wanted to make a platform hitting on all of those pain points that these vendors and different companies had when trying to open their online shops. We modeled our platform for them.
CLW: It makes so much sense that you are a software engineer because the app is very cohesive. The thing that I love about it is that I feel like it’s simple and accessible enough for anyone to utilize it. There is also a stress on literacy where a featured book and author is highlighted. Talk to me about the importance of literacy to the Melanoid Exchange platform.
JH: I have a soft spot for authors because I’m an author. A lot of authors of color are not getting the credit that they deserve. Me, being an author myself, I read a lot of books. I ended up picking up some of New York Times’ best sellers and reading them; and I realized it’s not a lot of universal information in these books. So I wondered, how does one get recognized by the New York Times? And I realized a lot of it is based on money. So we made a decision to really highlight authors and give them a platform to spotlight them. A lot of people are coming out with books and falling by the wayside. Somebody in our community may have a book with the potential to be a best-seller but due to those pain points we discussed earlier, people just may not know about them. So that’s why we love to highlight authors on Melanoid Exchange.
CLW: How has Melanoid Exchange been coping during COVID-19?
DC: As soon as COVID-19 happened, we were in the middle of raising our seed round for our app because it’s grown tremendously. We have about 300 minority-owned businesses, mostly in the African American community who have an online platform with us and they’re selling their products across the United States; even globally. We have almost a thousand customers right now and it’s just really growing. We realized that this platform is going to need money. So we decided to start an equity crowdfunding which is raising our seed round. We were in the middle of that before COVID-19 started really shutting everything down.
So we raised a little bit of money and realized that we’re in a position now to help. Not necessarily us as a married couple, because we’re not millionaires or anything like that. But we understood that many of the businesses were really going to hurt. Yes, we’re providing them this platform but this also placed a lot of fear in a lot of people’s hearts about starting a business; it halts the growth in so many people’s businesses. This will affect our platform if we don’t encourage and push them to go towards entrepreneurship, even in this time. Because the way that the economy is going, face-to-face economy could change forever. So that means that everyone is going to go towards eCommerce, which is shopping online. So if our minority businesses don’t get on this bandwagon, they’re going to get left behind.
A lot of those brick and mortars have closed their doors temporarily but they may never open up again. So we felt that at Melanoid Exchange, we needed to do something to help. We created a grant for $1,600. For some, that may not be much, but for some, that could be the deciding factor of seeing if they can stay afloat to keep food on the table; or to keep the lights on. These are entrepreneurs who are putting all of their hard-earned money into their businesses. They are severely affected. It may not affect us directly right now but it affects us emotionally and as a brand because this is who we do it for. We have to protect them however we can. So the grant came about by us stepping up to the plate and doing what we say we really do. If we are going to be a brand that supports minority-owned businesses and really helps other Black people to get on the map and get that visibility and exposure that we deserve; then we need to be the brand who offers assistance at a time like this. So this is us paying it forward.
Connect with Melanoid Exchange and learn more by visiting www.melanoidexchange.com.
Download the Melanoid Exchange app, which is available in both the Apple and Google Play stores.