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Meet Shani Dowell, the first Black woman in Tennessee to raise $1 million for a start-up

  • July 12, 2020

In high school in Houston, Shani Dowell and her friend were dancing in their seats in English class as a pep rally roared nearby in the school’s common area. The teacher said something that made them stop for a second:

“Look at Shani and Erin getting in touch with their tribal rhythms.”

The offhand racist remark stung the girls, and Dowell told her mom and dad when she got home from that school. Their reaction stopped Dowell in her tracks for the second time that day.

Shani Dowell is the first African American woman to raise $1 million for a start up in Tennessee.Her her app, Possip, helps parents report racism and any other concerns to school administrators in Nashville, Tenn. Friday, June 26, 2020

“My parents were like, ‘So what? Do your work,'” Dowell said. “I got the message, ‘Yeah, she’s racist. But you need to navigate that in your life so you can succeed.'”

Dowell, 43, navigated several more racist episodes in that school and afterward. 

She eventually started a family, moved to Nashville and became the first Black woman in Tennessee to raise $1 million for a start-up company.

Her app, Possip, is designed to encourage better and more communication between parents and administrators.

To that end, Dowell hopes Possip — among other things — opens a dialogue for parents to let school leaders know about acts of racism in their buildings or on their school buses. 

“Our platform makes it just a little easier for parents to share and educators to learn about what matters the most for parents in the moment, whether it’s about coronavirus or racial injustice or mental health issues, or something else altogether,” she said.

Low expectations of Black students

Shani Dowell, a Nashville tech innovator, in her freshman year of high school in 1990 in Houston, Texas. The picture is from her high school year book.

Dowell hopes that can make schools more aware of some of the slights she faced as a student at Lamar High School in Houston. 

Like the time she won at a debate tournament, but the school’s debate teacher afterward didn’t congratulate her, instead berating her white teammates for not doing as well.

Like the time a white student told her her dad was “handsome for a Black man.”

Like the time her homeroom teacher was surprised to learn Dowell took honors classes.

Like the time some of her white friends wore “The South will rise again” T-shirts to school.

“It was in some ways super magical,” Dowell said about the academically rigorous school that was about a third white, a third Black and a third Latinx. “But some teachers didn’t expect much from (Black students), and some white teachers had some disdain for us.”

Dowell sometimes confronted what she perceived to be teachers’ incorrect assumptions.

“I was a little bit mouthy,” she said. “I would talk back, especially to the homeroom teacher. “I would talk back if I didn’t like the way she talked to us or the assumptions she was making.”

Dowell went to historically-black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and business school in California before joining Knowledge is Power Program — also known as KIPP — college prep schools in low-income areas.

Positive gossip

She met her husband, Randy Dowell, and they eventually moved to Nashville where he now runs Nashville’s KIPP schools.

Shani Dowell started working for other education and teacher recruitment organizations. She eventually saw how seemingly small issues for parents sometimes lead to big, stressful situations — usually because of a lack of communication on the front end.

Shani Dowell poses for a profile picture at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center in Nashville, Tenn. Friday, June 26, 2020

On the teachers’ side, she learned they often felt like they only heard from parents when there were complaints.

What if, Dowell wondered, there were an easy way for parents to give feedback, positive and constructive? What if there were a way to compile and break down that feedback for school administrators so they could quickly digest it?

That’s when Dowell created Possip, a play on the words “positive gossip.” She knew little about code writing or fundraising. She started small, sending text messages to parents at her children’s schools with links to surveys.

Then, Dowell would cut and paste together reports for administrators, who then learned more quickly about bullying on a bus, academic problems, personality conflicts with teachers or teachers who were doing outstanding jobs.

Dowell asked administrators: Was the feedback helpful? Would you pay for it?

Yes and yes.

Since 2017, participating school districts pay an average of about $2-5 a student for 40 weeks of surveys. Possip, with a staff of seven, now serves about 350 schools in 17 states, including all of Metro Nashville Public Schools.

‘Voices matter’

Shani Dowell: It's empowering to me to see voices matter.

Dowell reached that $1 million mark last year, becoming the first Black woman in Tennessee to raise that much for a start-up.

And she’s hoping to potentially raise more. Possip should be profitable in about six to 18 months, she said.

In the meantime, Dowell said parents and administrators rely on Possip even more during the pandemic. Schools are able to more quickly assess the needs of students, whether it be food or laptops for remote learning.

And Dowell is pleased that more parents feel they have voices.

“I’m happy about how Possip has more equitably gotten voices shared,” she said. “In terms of making sure voices are represented by all diverse people whose voices typically aren’t being heard, I feel confident that Possip is doing that.

“I’m watching other people’s voices have an impact on decisions that are being made on the front line. It’s empowering to me to see voices matter.”

Reach Brad Schmitt at brad@tennessean.com or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt.

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