‘Driven by our own mission’: Blackbook University builds community and belonging

Blackbook’s co-founders and supporters attend a pre-launch presentation. From L-R: Maya Hammond, former BSU president; Farhiya Ali; Imran Sekalala; Ibrahim Baldé; Nahom Solomon; Hana Baba, NPR; Joy Dixon, Salesforce; Marco Lindsey, associate director of DEI at Haas; Nicholas Brathwaite; and Chase Ali-Watkins. Photo courtesy: Ibrahim Baldé.

As an undergraduate, Ibrahim Baldé, BS 20, said he faced many challenges on top of managing a rigorous course load. They included battling imposter syndrome, experiencing microaggressions from peers, and feeling pressured in class to be the spokesperson for his race as he was often the lone Black student.

After speaking with friends and classmates who also identified as Black, Baldé learned that they faced the same hurdles. A 2019 campus-climate report published by UC Berkeley’s Division of Equity, and Inclusion also confirmed Baldé’s experience, which found that many Black students experienced exclusionary behaviors from peers, including being stared at or singled out to represent their race.

Wanting to improve the Black student experience at Berkeley, Baldé co-founded Blackbook University, a website and mobile app that provides educational and professional resources to help Black undergraduate and graduate students navigate their journey at Berkeley. Blackbook’s other co-founders include Nicholas Brathwaite, Chase Ali-Watkins, both BA 20, Nahom Solomon, BA 21, Farhiya Ali and Imran Sekalala, both BA 23.

The app, which launched Nov. 18 and is a revival of a Black student handbook published in the 1980s and 1990s, includes a calendar with extracurricular and career-related events, a student-alumni-faculty directory, a live chat feed for users to interact, and a scholarship and internship database. The website features student profiles and an internship program for students interested in entrepreneurship and tech. 

Brathwaite manages product development, Ali and Sekalala handle data analysis and design, Solomon serves as the director of operations, Ali-Watkins is the chief marketing officer, and Baldé is CEO.

Student Profile – Adaeze Noble from Made By Chase on Vimeo.

The journey

The son of an imam, Baldé was instilled with a “beyond yourself” mindset at an early age. Growing up in Alameda, Calif., Baldé knew that he wanted to combine his three passions: social impact work, business, and tech. Once at Haas, Baldé took Haas Lecturer Alex Budak’s leadership class called Becoming a Changemaker

“That class allowed me to think about my mission and purpose and to understand that leadership isn’t a defined trait,” Baldé said. 

Following that class, Baldé began to lay the groundwork for Blackbook University. He teamed up with his co-founders and formed an advisory board of faculty and staff across campus, including Budak, Marco Lindsey, associate director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Haas; Miya Hayes, BA 92, associate director of Campus Partnerships & Engagement; and staff from the African American Student Development Office. 

Baldé surveyed about 150 Black Berkeley and Haas students to assess if he had a winning idea. The answer was a resounding yes. 

While Slack and GroupMe are useful networking tools, 90% of surveyors reported that it was important to have a tool that was designed for them.

“Students can’t take ownership of Slack and GroupMe, but they can take ownership of Blackbook,” Baldé said.  

A copy of the original UC Berkeley African American Student Handbook published in 1996.

Successes and challenges

Baldé and his team have had some successes. They participated in UC Berkeley’s Free Ventures pre-seed accelerator, allowing them to test and tweak their business model. They also were one of the Big Ideas Contest grand prize winners, earning $10,000 in prize money. 

But they’ve also had some setbacks, including finding the best developer who could deliver the app they envisioned. Another setback was validating their business model to potential investors. Currently, Blackbook is free to download. 

“We just tune out the noise,” Baldé says. “We’re driven by our own mission and that is to build community and to make our resources and networks available to Black student communities.”

Despite the hurdles, the team continues to press on. Their goal is to make customized versions of the app for Black student communities at colleges and universities nationwide. 

Faculty and staff advisors praise Baldé and his team for creating a sense of belonging on campus.

“I’m inspired by how Ibrahim can readily imagine a better future and then rally the people and resources needed to turn these ideas into reality,” said Budak. “We talked about how one of the greatest acts of changemaking is creating the opportunities for others that we wish we had for ourselves and Ibrahim is doing just that.”

Hayes agreed. “I’m in awe of their innovation–taking both the best and most challenging aspects of their time at Berkeley to create something that sustains and nourishes our sense of belonging,” she said. “They’re giants in their own right.”

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