Jessa Challa, CEO of Mallowfields, combines her passion for GIS with her passion for uplifting minority-owned businesses
Jessa Challa is having a blast discovering places to eat, shop and hang out – right in her hometown, drawn directly from a map she created.
Challa is using her Geographic Information System (GIS) skills to create the BIPOC Businesses in West Michigan interactive map, a directory of small businesses owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color from Muskegon to Battle Creek (so far).
Challa, 27, is CEO of Mallowfields, and a new Northern Initiatives loan customer. The corporate republic software company is developing a workflow and integration platform geared towards nonprofits, among other projects, and will use the loan on the payroll for their engineering team until initial product revenue starts coming in.
The ownership structure of Mallowfields – where everyone has equal voting rights, no matter their position – appeared to be an issue with other lenders, but “our loan through Northern Initiatives was more flexible,” Challa said, and allowed her and Kendell Joseph, Mallowfields Corporate Technical Officer, to be co-guarantors on the loan. There are five employee-owners of Mallowfields, all cofounders.
Support for Mallowfields’ loan came from partnerships with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Wells Fargo Open for Business award, designed to help entrepreneurs of color in West Michigan. Mallowfields is woman-owned and minority-owned.
Mallowfields has always been a company that reflects its founders’ own values, including transparency, fair and equal pay, and creating employee happiness. (They were certified B Corp in November.) Everyone is allowed time for continuing education or to work on projects; Challa’s time lately has been spent on the BIPOC Business maps.
“This is the kind of work I wanted to be doing with GIS,” she said. “Visualizing data; seeing it all on a map, plus lifting up people in my community, making them more visible.” As a woman of color, Challa understands how entrepreneurs of color often experience racism or have difficulty finding funding. She wants to help people make informed decisions about where to put their money.
The site has grown from 160 listings when in launched in July to more than 260 businesses, all including the name, industry, ownership, and description. Even online-only businesses, which aren’t mappable, are included in the directory. Anyone can submit a business through a link on the website; Challa then researches and verifies the ownership before adding the business to the directory.
And what’s a new website without rigorous testing? Challa has taken it upon herself to frequent the businesses she’s mapping and making wonderful discoveries along the way. “I’ll be out driving around with my boyfriend and we’ll be hungry and I can look to see what’s nearby. That’s how I found out Tamales Mary has more than one location!”
She shares her visits on a Facebook page, complete with photos of her new haircut, a mixer at a Black-owned art gallery, and drinks and munchies at local eateries.
She continues using her position as a Black woman in tech to lift others, including regular stints teaching coding where she learned to code – at the Grand Circus coding bootcamps. Challa was also named a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Champion at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s EPIC Awards this year.
At the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, the Mallowfields team joined forces with the Essential Needs Taskforce in Kent County to create a map of food resources, including schools, food pantries, churches, nonprofits and more, sortable by address, hours of operation, type of food, and format.
- Developing workflow and integration platform, targeted toward nonprofits
BIPOC Business in West Michigan guide