A woman in a field dominated by men, Black in an industry that is overwhelmingly White, and a Mississippi native, Sheena Allen is not your average tech founder.
But what really makes Sheena an exception is that when she launched her mobile app company, in 2010, she had no idea how to code.
Five years later, her six apps have garnered over two million downloads.
“You don’t have to be technical to build a successful tech company. I feel like I proved that,” says the 26 year-old.
The pint-sized founder, with a southern accent sweet enough to disarm anyone within earshot, is building a tech empire around entertaining, user-friendly mobile apps that enhance the social media experience.
“I didn’t do the traditional thing which is ‘if there’s a problem, how do I solve it?’ she explains. “It was more like, I had a problem.”
Sheena was still in her senior year at the University of Southern Mississippi when the idea for her first app struck her during a shopping trip at Walmart.
“I told my roommate, ‘I wish there was an app could keep up with my money and my receipts.’”
With zero knowledge of computer science or coding, Allen set out to create a checkbook app that would help her manage expenses. She designed it in Microsoft Word and scoured the web for a freelance developer who could bring her vision to life.
“Being from the South, especially Mississippi, there are no coders running around campus or my neighborhood,” she says.
That first app, Instafunds, was downloaded about 50 times, not quite a runaway success, but she fell in love with the process.
Within a few months, Allen began developing her second iOS app, Words on Pics, which reached five thousand downloads.
“Not a lot,” she admits. But it was enough to make her reconsider becoming an IO psychologist.
After graduation, she held off on graduate school and gave herself a year to see where this new-found passion would take her. After releasing her fourth app, Dubblen, her calling was clear.
The cloning photo app reached #37 in its category on Apple iTunes store, and created such a buzz that fans demanded an Android version.
“People were bombarding my e-mail and social media accounts,” says Allen.
Within three months, half a million people had downloaded Dubblen for Android. That was the moment, she says, when everything clicked.
“That’s the point when I knew that I had to get out of Mississippi, and I did.”
After a pit stop in San Jose, Allen relocated Austin, Texas, home to an emerging startup community and her mentor, venture capitalist Josh Kerr.
She followed up Dubblen with PicSlit, her most popular app to date, a photo application that allows Instagram users to construct banners on their grid. It’s garnered some mild criticism for filling timelines with blown-out, indiscernible images, but fans of the app, among them Trey Songz, Kevin Hart and K. Michelle, far outweigh detractors.
Allen ultimately did learn to code, though she admits she’s “not the best” and still uses developers, preferring to focus on the business and creative end of her brand.
She is currently creating two new apps and launching a second startup, ENFO, that aims to improve business conferences. With five years of experience in mobile app development, she is also overhauling her very first app, InstaFunds, which she plans to turn into a personal finance application to rival Mint.com.
“The new Instafunds will pretty much be a manual version of Mint,” she reveals, explaining that unlike Mint, Instafunds users can forgo providing sensitive bank account information.
In spite of her full plate, she has also spent some time contemplating her legacy and ways to “pay it forward.” That includes plans to eventually move the headquarters for Sheena Allen Apps back to Mississippi, her home state, and set up satellite offices in small cities and rural areas.
“There are not a lot of people that would be willing to do what I did, which is pack my bags and leave,” she says. “Some don’t have the resources. Some don’t have the mindset. But they definitely have the creativity. I think if I put [Sheena Allen Apps] in small cities, I’d give people a chance to start somewhere, to work for a successful company without having to just jump out there.”
An invited guest at schools and conferences all over the country, including Black Girls Code, Allen enjoys introducing young people to the world of opportunities in tech.
“We’ll listen to a rapper rap about 10 or 20 million and their Bentley,” she says, reflecting on contemporary hip-hop culture. “But then, I tell [students] that Bill Gates and his wife gave away ten million dollars for a scholarship. At first 10 million seems like a lot, and then you see a different world and you’re like, that’s chump change to them.”
As for aspiring tech entrepreneurs, Allen’s advice is to “dream big and be optimistic.” That optimism is particularly useful when securing funding, the most significant hurdle for entrepreneurs, particularly those of color. Allen bootstrapped her first company, relying on personal savings and two loans from family members to bring her apps to the marketplace, but this time around, for ENFO, she will pitch investors.
“I’m going to find a way,” she insists, displaying her trademark, bullet-proof determination. “If I have to crowd fund, if I have to sell some clothes out of the closet, I know I’m going to get it done.”
To keep up with Sheena Allen’s projects, follow her on Twitter at @whoisSheena.