While volunteering in Boston, Duane Johnson heard about the National Urban League’s campaign to encourage black citizens to spend at least 10 percent of their income at black-owned businesses. He and another volunteer, Sean Armstrong, took that message to heart, but it wasn’t easy to find out which businesses were owned by black entrepreneurs.
Intending to “Make Everyday Black Friday,” the partners started Tuloko in 2012 to offer people current, digital information about black-owned businesses in their communities. The pair also aims to help small business owners market their products and services to people looking to support black-owned companies. Tuloko essentially serves as an online social network surrounding the notion of supporting economic development for black Americans.
Black individuals spend 6 cents per dollar at black-owned businesses, notes Johnson. But economists report that boosting that amount to 12 cents could lower the national unemployment rate for black Americans from 14 percent to 10 percent.
“At Tuloko, we’re using social media to combat social ills within the African American community and make African American businesses more sustainable,” says Johnson.
With Johnson living in Minnesota and Armstrong living in Boston, the partners developed beta sites for six metro areas—the Twin Cities, Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Oakland, California. They spent more than a year compiling Tuloko’s initial list of 10,000 black-owned businesses, then launched its betas this winter.
The directory includes businesses by category, and categories include dining and nightlife, beauty and shopping, professional services, providers like auto repair or wedding planning, nonprofits, and historical or cultural landmarks. Listings can include a wide range of information for each business—address and hours, link to a website, reviews, and photos and video clips.
With funding from its Minnesota Cup win, Minneapolis-based Tuloko will now build a more robust version of its website that can handle listings for all 2 million black-owned businesses in the country. Tuloko will then work on developing its mobile app.
Tuloko will operate with revenue from advertising from corporate partners that want to support minority entrepreneurs. In one to two years, the company will create a business-to-business site with the hope of helping black- and other minority-owned companies increase supplier diversity across the nation—and making it easier for all companies to support diverse businesses. The final leg of the Tuloko stool: a loyalty rewards program, which it will develop in two to three years.
“We’re offering a solution that’s free to people, with no strings attached, so we can create more unity in the community and be able to provide jobs within the African American community,” says Johnson, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and an MBA from the University of Minnesota.
The company’s name combines “Tulsa” and “Oklahoma.” Tulsa was home to a powerful ecosystem in an area referred to in the early 20th century as “the Black Wall Street.” Tuloko can also mean “to locate.”