The following is an interview with Mbye Njie, Davidson class of ‘04. Mbye Njie was an Anthropology Major at Davidson. Since he graduated in 2004, he’s been an activist and founder of Legal Equalizer, a mobile app that allows users to capture police encounters after being pulled over, automatically notify loved ones in real-time, provide information on legal rights involving that encounter, and receive legal advice at the scene. Mbye launched the first version of the app in 2015 after seeing the fallout from the Michael Brown case, and pulling from his own personal experiences with law enforcement.
Watch the recording of our interview.
Liz: Give us a little context of your Davidson experience up until the point you founded Legal Equalizer.
Mbye: Davidson was great, enlightening, and also prepared me for life and what I do today. Our class was the first large class of African-American public school students. A lot of aspects of my app came from my experiences from Davidson. If we went off campus 10 times, probably 4 or 5 times we’d get pulled over. We printed out a ton of laws of North Carolina, so the next time we got pulled over we showed them the documents. When I built the app, I wanted people to have a sense of laws from within the app.
I had a job working at Morgan State and at John Hopkins doing research on health disparities. I absolutely despised it, because if you know me, 90% of that job was behind a computer, not interacting and talking with people. I left that job after a year and moved back to Charlotte. I took a job doing door to door sales cold calling. That job is part of what led me to Legal Equalizer. I did that job in North and South Carolina in small towns and remote places. When I tell people I’ve been pulled over 80-100 times I’m not exaggerating.
I left that job and moved back into sales for a while. I was in sales up until when I decided to quit and focus on Legal Equalizer.
Liz: Can you talk to us a bit more about the decisions and feelings when you decided you had to start your app?
Mbye: When I first read the Ferguson story, I didn’t believe it. My whole question during Ferguson was why did no one have a recording? A lot of my white friends at Davidson had never had to deal with this and didn’t understand it. It was the first time a lot of them had heard of police brutality. My black friends said “oh no, here’s what probably happened”. I kept looking for apps that would record and let people know when you got pulled over. That December is when I got pulled over 3 times. When I got handcuffed and put in the back of the car, I realized it wasn’t about my arrest. That was the first time in my life that I felt the need to make an actual police complaint. If I get pulled over, I don’t want people to guess what happened. That December of 2014 is when I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I told myself that if there was nothing on the app store by January I’d do something.
My Gofundme was up, and I had an article written in Huffington Post which caused it to skyrocket. Fast forward a little later, we had the death of Sandra Bland. That’s the one that put me over the edge. It was a little after that when I decided to focus on the app full time.
Liz: How did you initially make the decision of a funding path and forecast out how much runway you had?
Mbye: Honestly, I didn’t know anything about funding. My godbrother was the first person who wanted to invest, so he matched the money we raised on Gofundme. I didn’t even have a runway or know what a runway was. The first big piece of funding we got was $75,000 from a Davidson alum. In 6 years we’ve raised about $360,000, $400,000 if you include my own contributions.
For us, we haven’t made revenue because the app was about saving lives. I had to pivot because people needed a return on their investment, so we started to think about how revenue could be made. That’s how I got the idea of bringing on attorneys to the app. The argument I used to make with people was how other tech companies got the chance to start without making revenue, but we were held to a different standard. We’re still in the process of raising money now. We’re in the process of building out the app where the attorneys can make extra money but also help people in real time who need it.
Liz: I saw in an interview you mention the book The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. He has a line, “the team that got you here isn’t the team that gets you there”. Can you talk a little about how you selected your first team?
Mbye: When I read that book, that was one of those things that let me know I needed to get rid of my first team. For me, there was a point I didn’t expect everyone to be as passionate about the business as me. I found out that my coder sat for a year and made about one update, and I knew I could find someone else. If my team wasn’t focused, we had to separate, no hard feelings. I love when my coder calls me and says they disagree with something because it shows they put thought and time into the business. That’s the biggest way we’ve grown and gotten better.
Liz: Your point about mutual respect and pushback is really important. It’s meant to push things further and make things better. You can’t operate with someone who agrees with you and just says yes all the time.
Question from Audience: Can you say more about how your circular experience in anthropology and co-curricular experience as a student activist has helped you in your entrepreneurial life?
Mbye: I loved anthropology because it gave me a different way of looking at things. When I went to Davidson, I thought I knew I was going to be a political science or history major. Dr. Fairly is the one who sat me down and explained that anthropology isn’t all about fossils and ruins. She explained the cultural and people aspect of it. I’ve appreciated in my whole life that I can pick up some ideas because of anthropology. It’s the ability to relate to others that’s my greatest love of anthropology.
It’s the ability to have an open mind, the willingness to learn, and the willingness to go out and explore other cultures. Anthropology for me is what made me want to have the perspective of police officers when I made the app. If I wasn’t a Davidson student, I wouldn’t have been as curious to go out and learn from that other side. I appreciate all those lessons I learned from that.
Question from Audience: How much time are you spending on fundraising versus managing? Do you spend any time working on the product yourself?
Mbye: I don’t know how to code, so I don’t work on the actual product but I manage all our social media and anything else with the company. I haven’t had too much time to spend with fundraising, but there are things coming down the pipeline that I’m excited about. Getting affirmation that I have something is great to hear. When you’re spending money on so many things, it’s basically bootstrapping. I’m excited to get the opportunity to raise a legitimate amount of funds where we can put a team together.
Question from Audience: How many users do you have now? How are you using marketing?
Mbye: Right now our downloads are about 200,000. We have about 60,00 registered users. I have a PR team that’s been helping me out. Anytime there’s a shooting or altercation, they’ll send out advertisements to that market. We also have some things down the line regarding partnerships. We have a partnership with Rough Riders and I’m talking next week with Wu Tang.
Question from Audience: What advice would you give to more entrepreneurial minded students today?
Mbye: I would tell them to take the risk and don’t be afraid to fail. I believe that it’s going to be successful, I don’t know if it will be, but I’m not afraid to fail. I at least want the opportunity to build out my idea and give it a full try. Once my full platform is out, I believe it’s going to skyrocket. For me, that was the biggest thing that held me back for about 6 months. I thought about the app idea for 6 months before I finally made a move. We stop ourselves a lot of time from doing things based on our fear of failure or fear of not knowing how to do something.
If you have an idea and you’re a student, believe in yourself. Most students are intelligent individuals who can look at the resources around them. Don’t be afraid, everyone has failed at some point. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get your ideas out there and don’t be afraid.
Question from Audience: Can you talk a little more about privacy and how you intend to protect user privacy?
Mbye: Privacy was one of our number one worries when we first created the app. As far as user privacy goes, all of it is incredibly secure. We have multiple servers, the video is held by the user as well, not by us. We haven’t had any cases yet with law enforcement subpoenas yet. We wanted to make sure the app was essentially hack proof. The app is encrypted as well, and it was very important to us that the users held the data.
People think I’m crazy because I’m helping some people build out an app very similar to ours right now. My example is that when I go to Kroger, I can pick Essentia water, or I can pick Smartwater. We don’t complain about that. Why is it when it comes to saving lives, there can only be one? Anytime someone has an app that’s similar to ours, we get a spike as well. I don’t mind helping out other people or having competitors; I think it’s healthy.
Question from Audience: Does the company partner with police departments in any way?
Mbye: My first endorsement was from my hometown police chief. He wrote a letter and signed it, because we approached based on accountability. Most police departments are excited about partnering up, because if their officers are doing the right things there’s nothing wrong with them being recorded. I’ve worked with them, and I want to continue working with them in the future.
Question from Audience: I view your app as a “stash it and hope I never have to use it” type of app. Any thoughts for advancing the app to have a more active engagement component?
Mbye: Yes, we’re definitely working on that. I want to have more push notifications for laws, and more information when laws change. We’re currently discussing within the app having people be able to have conversations about their local communities. Policing is a local community issue, so that’s one of the next steps in our roadmap.
Liz: Any parting words?
Mbye: I appreciate you for having me here, be sure to download the app and check out our website. If you have any questions feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . If you’re a current student, make sure to get in touch with Liz since hopefully we’ll start hiring soon. I’d love to have you all help us out with your skills and talent. I’m looking forward to working with the students and with Davidson College.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]