St. Paul, Minnesota-based Civic Eagle seeks to simplify the process of understanding and participating in civic life with a social/mobile solution that will help the public better engage with elected representatives, participate in active legislation and become educated about political issues. Given recent numbers, political engagement in the U.S. is at an all-time low, with barely 50% of the population voting in federal elections, less than 40% voting at the state level, and about only 20% voting at the local level.
Civic Eagle founder Damola Ogundipe, a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, started his bootstrapped company with his four cofounders to help increase civic participation using technology and an engaging social community. Selected as a sponsored civic startup at the 2014 Code for America Summit and recently winning the Social Division of the MN Cup, Civic Eagle has garnered some attention. And with Election 2016 upon us, it seems like an opportune time for such a technological endeavor.
EBONY.com spoke with one of the co-founders, Yemi Adewunmi, about the company’s plans.
EBONY: There’s a longstanding joke that Black people don’t vote. Even with Obama in office, this joke still stands. I’m not saying it’s true, but if there are numbers to support this claim, how does launching a company like Civic Eagle make sense?
Yemi Adewunmi: It’s an unfortunate belief, but you’re absolutely right; the numbers don’t lie. In 2004, we saw the lowest voter turnout amongst eligible Black voters. But in 2008 and 2012, we also saw the highest percentages—Black voter turnout exceeded White voter turnout for the first time ever! And while that gets us excited, these percentages are still relatively low.
Our primary objective at Civic Eagle is to engage the public and raise the turnout percentages overall. In federal elections, the average turnout amongst Americans is only 60%. At the state and local levels, the averages are a disappointing 40% and 20%, respectively. And when we think about how much our government and politics influence our daily lives, we—as a nation—must turn these statistics around and get more people actively involved in all aspects of civic engagement.
EBONY: There’s always the argument that young people, minorities and low-income groups don’t understand politics. Is this a problem Civic Eagle can solve?
YA: We’re certainly eager to address this problem. Our goal is to connect people to politics by providing them with a source for news, a platform to discuss issues, and a place to communicate with their community leaders and elected officials, all through our social network—our free mobile application, Eagle.
There’s evidence that shows that these groups don’t necessarily care about partisanship, but rather are focused on the issues that impact their lives. We provide them with a platform to learn about and discuss these issues without the need to worry about the “politics.” This makes civic engagement more of a social experience, the way it should be, as opposed to strictly a political one.
EBONY: Likewise, it seems that young people don’t believe in politics. But they seem to believe in the power of social media and new technologies to have their voices heard. How does Civic Eagle close this gap?
YA: Young people don’t seem to believe in our traditional political process, but I do believe that we are political beings. We have opinions, we’re observant of the world around us, we’re energized and creative, and we recognize that the future belongs to us. Social media has definitely impacted the way that people participate in civic life. It’s helped people and communities connect with each other throughout the world, and has provided opportunities for the opinions of young people to be heard. We believe it’s about time that politics meet the people where they’re at. Eagle provides a very niche outlet for our users to engage with civic life.
EBONY: Most representatives and candidates now reach out to people through social media, such as Facebook or Twitter and even Snapchat. Does Eagle become redundant in this scenario?
YA: Eagle is a more tailored solution for engaging constituents through social media. The app focuses on fostering real policy discussions, while eliminating the “white noise” you often find on other social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
On Eagle, our users are able to learn about what’s happening in government and politics by reading up on news from a curated stream of top publications. Users are also able to find and connect with their political candidates and elected representatives. But what’s really interesting about Eagle is the ability for users to debate hot topics and policy issues directly through the app. We’ve provided a platform for users to have quality conversations through micro-video chats and messaging—a much more constructive way to talk about policy issues than Facebook rants!
EBONY: Civic Eagle plans to be non-revenue generating, and from what I’ve read, Damola Ogundipe has largely funded the company himself. What are the plans to keep this company afloat?
YA: We’re a for-profit company. We’re operating as a lean startup and using our own resources to prove that our business model is viable. But we plan on raising a seed round of capital within the next three to four months. What makes our model unique is that, while Eagle is completely free for the public, we’re adding additional platforms to our ecosystem that will generate revenue.
We’ve already developed our second platform, called Eagle Eye, that has been gaining national interest. It’s an engagement and analytics tool for government leaders and policy advocacy organizations. These are tools that the private sector already has at their fingertips, but has never been made specifically or affordably for our civic leaders. The ability to engage quickly and efficiently with the public is something civic leaders are looking for, and modern digital tools are the solutions we’re creating.
EBONY: What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of starting a civic engagement technology company in St. Paul?
YA: Our team of founders has a collective 25 years of experience working in government. One of the strengths of our team is that we have strong ties to city and state government as well as policy organizations, particularly in Minnesota, which is one of the highest ranking civically engaged states in the country. This has enabled us to work closely with them as we develop our platforms to make sure we’ve built them right. However, Minnesota isn’t well known for its investment in early stage companies, so access to capital within the state may provide a challenge. We’re optimistic though; this summer we won the Social Division of the MN Cup, a venture competition in Minnesota.
EBONY: When you look at a profile of your earliest adopters, who would you say they are, and what kind of feedback are you getting from them about your apps? And how many downloads have there been since your initial launch?
YA: One of the things we really pride ourselves on is our lean approach to development. We didn’t build a mobile app for the public; we built a mobile app with the public. We worked closely with a lot of our first users to tweak and iterate Eagle, and we were very careful with how we released it. In fact, we were in a public beta period for about 10 months. We officially launched earlier this summer and we have about 4,700 users with no marketing or advertising budget.
The majority of our early adopters are college-educated Black millennials, and we’ve started to also see an uptick in 30- to 35-year-old White males. We think that comes from the organic nature of our growth. We want to continue that strong organic growth and to learn from our users. But we do plan on making a marketing push to finish out the year, and to go into 2016 with even more momentum and expanding the demographic makeup of our users.
EBONY: I’ve read that tech billionaire Sean Parker is behind another civic engagement platform called Brigade, with private beta users having already shared one million views. That company will surely have massive marketing outreach. Is that of any concern to you and your cofounders?
YA: When it comes to changing the civic landscape of the country, we believe that all of us are in this together. There are other great civic technology companies tackling this problem as well, and we all want the same thing: to see a drastic improvement in the way our democracy works. Brigade is doing some great things, but we differ in many ways. There are over 100 million people that need platforms like ours and theirs, and the fact that users now have a choice of which platform they prefer is a testament to the viability of this market and civic tech innovation as a whole.
EBONY: A lot of startups seem to be about disrupting an industry or the status quo. What is Civic Eagle disrupting?
YA: We aren’t disrupting an industry; we’re disrupting the way people engage with their civic life. We’re disrupting the very fabric in which our democracy operates, forever.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.