Hardware startup amplifies women in tech

Memphian Kelli Meade is designing wearable fashion earphones for women and proving that success in tech entrepreneurship isn’t one-size-fits-all. 
Kelli Meade makes hardware glamorous. Her wireless headphones are as rich in high-tech features as they are beautifully constructed with pearls and rhinestones.
 
However, the path to founding her own business hasn’t always been glittery. She’s turned her Memphis home into a DIY production line for Gemphones.
 
“I sold my house in order to cut back and invest more money into Gemphones. I downgraded to an apartment and turned it into a Gemphones-making factory,” Meade said. “I would hire work-from-home moms to create based on my design schemes. I taught myself how to solder and package right from my apartment.”
 
Since launching in 2013, Gemphones has sold 1,400 handmade units.
 
Meade was working as an IT manager on a Naval base in Millington, Tenn. when she had the idea for Gemphones, a piece of hardware that would bridge her favorite industries, fashion and tech.

“I’ve always had a love for gadgets and accessories. This item is not new, so I started making my own. I was putting pearls on earphones, beads on earphones and getting feedback from sorority sisters that they would buy them,” she said.
 
With her business, Meade has taken a longstanding tool, the headphones, and given it a feminine twist. She hopes that Gemphones can make male-dominated tech fields more attractive to young women, and in her words, “inspire young girls to believe that tech is dope.”
 
Meade added that being an entrepreneur and a black woman has its challenges, especially when it comes to securing capital. There are many efforts to diversify startup founders, like StartCo’s Upstart accelerator for women-led companies which Meade completed in 2013. While she received $15,000 in seed funding from the Upstart accelerator, inclusion is still lacking among angel investors and VCs. 
 
“Trying to pitch to someone where fundamentally our backgrounds don’t meet is hard. Someone who is white or a male might not understand the cultural sparks that come from a black woman,” Meade said.
 
“We don’t have to see success as a multi-million dollar business. People who are looking to invest a minimum of $500,000 don’t realize there’s still a little black girl with a hair business that could be a great small business for her region or city, and eventually launch other products or businesses,” she added.
 
Meade got a healthy dose of exposure on the Oxygen channel show “Quit your Day Job”. As winner of the startup competition, Meade received a $10,000 investment from the investor panels as well as a deal with HSN. Her selection of Gemphones sold out within minutes of her television feature on HSN, and the headphones are still available for purchase on the HSN website.
 
Her lucky break came with controversy, however. On the Gemphones-featured episode, which aired in April 2016, a black female investor argues with the two other white female investors on the panel. The white investors protested that Gemphones is “too gimmicky” and “not even a real business," according to an Oxygen clip.
 
Less than a year after the episode aired, Gemphones has customers across the globe and has shipped products everywhere from New York to Canada to the UK. Meade is currently pursuing a $10,000 investment for Gemphones wireless via a Kickstarter campaign, which runs through January 20th. Gemphones wireless will be the first manufactured product for the company.
 
Meade’s goal is to add personality to an everyday tech accessory. Professional dancers and many women on social media have expressed their appreciation for Gemphones audio quality and glamour.
 
“I’ve danced with Katy Perry, Trey Songz, Shakira and Britney Spears, and I’ve never been able to hear my music better,” said professional dancer Deja Riley.  
 
Meade’s long term goals include launching additional consumer electronics and growing her brand organically.
 
“Gemphones proves that sound can have style. I really believe that women have an emotional attachment to a lot of our material things because it expresses our uniqueness and colorful personality. I believe Gemphones is a product to add to that mix,” Meade said.
 

Read more articles by Emily Rooker.

Emily Rooker hails from a small suburb in Michigan and attended college at Berklee College of Music. She is the Director of Community at Cowork Memphis, co-founder of The Lapel Project, active musician and freelance writer. Emily is passionate about community building, social activism, entrepreneurship, and living life like a tourist in Memphis.
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