Jessa Challa’s interest in geographic information system (GIS) mapping led her to start working in 2019 as a software engineer at Grand Rapids-based tech firm Mallowfields LLC. In September, she became CEO of the company. Challa wants to make the tech industry more accessible and inviting to everyone, which she contributes to by teaching free coding classes at the Grand Rapids chapter of virtual software bootcamp Grand Circus. Challa also created a GIS mapping tool in July that locates businesses owned by Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) individuals to help connect people with minority-owned businesses. On Oct. 25, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce awarded Challa with the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Champion award at the group’s annual EPIC Awards gala. She spoke with MiBiz about her latest software projects, an online minority-owned business directory she created, and why it’s important to promote equity and inclusion within the tech industry.
What is the main focus of your work at Mallowfields?
Our company was primarily doing agency work, but now we are moving into building our own products. Our first product will be called Junction, which will be a software that helps with mapping out workflow processes and tasks. We are in the process of building out Junction, and our projected release is probably June or July of 2022. I see it as being a tool to help pull nonprofits into being more technical without having to have an I.T. person on their team because usually they don’t have one. This will help manage and protect data and allow it to be shared with other nonprofits and build out work processes. So they will basically build a recipe on how to fill a role and do a certain task so it can be easily passed on in case a person were to leave and they had to hire someone new.
Why is it important for the tech industry to be more accessible to women and people of color?
It’s so important to get these perspectives of people who have different backgrounds in the tech industry as we move into the future. A lot of the current systems and even the collective data being used to create these new systems like (artificial intelligence) were created by people with old beliefs and incorrect data. That is why you see facial recognition technology that doesn’t work for people of color: The data that it was created from was not using a variety of faces and things like that.
Being able to show up as a woman and person of color in tech is allowing the younger generation and even people around my age to inspire them to have a role in the industry and take up space. (Mallowfields) has five owners, two of whom are Black and one is Latinx, and so over 50 percent of the company is owned by people of color. It has been hard to get venture capital investment and be seen in West Michigan as a tech company on top of being owned by people of color.
How did you get the idea to make the BIPOC Businesses in West Michigan map?
I always want to be making a positive impact using GIS to power maps that are usable by anyone who can access the internet.
I was inspired to make this map by two main things: There is a musician that goes by the name of Killer Mike that had this idea of making every Friday a “Black Friday” when you buy from Black or minority-owned businesses to be more intentional about where you’re spending your dollar. Also, a lot of people (in the community) would ask me if I knew of minority-owned businesses in certain fields. I thought I could provide a tool to help connect BIPOC-owned businesses with clients who want to be intentional about where they are putting their money.
What feedback have you recieved as you continue to add to the map?
I have 235 businesses so far and I started out at 174, so it’s grown quite a bit. I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from business owners, and it’s just been a fun journey to go to these new businesses that I’ve never been to before, whether it be a new restaurant or a place where I can buy a gift for a friend.
It’s important to acknowledge that this tool is powered by the community as well, and if anyone sees their business or a business that’s missing from the list they have an opportunity to submit it using the Google form that I provided so it can be added to the directory and the map.