The Making Of The First Black-Owned Computer Brand
I confess that I was not familiar with A Unity System (AUS) or its CEO Tonee Bell. I stumbled upon them via a marketing email from Verizon that introduced the Baraka TWS Bluetooth Earbuds. This product has a unique 3-in1 design that brings together true wireless earbuds, Bluetooth speakers, and a charging case. The product sold out five times in its first month of availability at Verizon, is quite intriguing as it's like a Russian Doll of value at a very affordable price. Even more intriguing is the fact that Unity Systems is a Black-owned business.
As of 2020, there were over 2 million Black-owned businesses in the United States, with Washington, D.C. having the highest percentage. These businesses employ around 920,000 people. The most popular category for Black-owned companies is health care, where 32% of Black-owned businesses can be found. Other popular categories include repair and maintenance, personal and laundry services, advertising firms, and auto dealerships. I think you start to understand why I was interested in learning more about AUS. Consumer tech is not an area that sees a lot of Black-owned businesses. I did a quick search to find how much had been written about this company and its CEO. After all, this should have been big news in tech, even in 1999 when Bell founded his company. Yet, I found very little on this success story. How did tech media mostly ignore such a news item?
I reached out to Bell via email and set up a call for us to connect. Bell started by sharing how he got into tech and dressed the CEO part since he was in 9th grade. "When my mom took me shopping for school clothes, I picked a pair of slacks, dress shoes and one of those shirts with a thin tie and pin that went through the shirt collar. I chose a briefcase over a backpack. All the kids in high school called me Mr. CEO," recalls Bell. While he was eager to get into college, he put his sister's education first and decided to join the Coast Guard rather than put his family under financial pressure to support both him and his sister through school. In the Coast Guard, he learned a lot about navigating a professional environment that lacked diversity and developed a love for technology. One day while in a store, he noticed that the computer brands displayed and the people they targeted with their products did not look like him. He put his love for tech and that realization together and when he left the Coast Guard in July 1999, he founded his own computer company. In December 2001, his desktops were sold online and in 100 Staples stores. In 2002 his brand reached Kmart online and 100 stores; in 2005, Office Depot online in 2017, Walmart online. In 2020 AUS closed a vendor partnership with Toshiba and started selling online with Verizon. Not only Bell broke into the tech market, but he was able to bring his brand into the big retailers, something that is a considerable challenge for any business, let alone a Black-owned one. And Bell did all of it while being his business's sole investor.
The more I listened to Bell, the more I understood that it isn't in his nature to boast about his success or spend more time on PR than driving the business forward with products that don't compromise on quality features and yet, are affordable to so many. His work ethic is one of the reasons why he has come so far with his brand. This is what Farhana Chaudhry, Director, Device Marketing at Verizon, the executive who decided to work with Bell, told me in an email: "At Verizon, we always consider not only what we carry, but who we source our products from. I make it a point to respond to every inquiry we get about a potential product. When Tonee at AUS reached out to me, I could hear the excitement in his voice when he spoke about his products — these weren't just the latest widgets he was trying to sell from a big box company. That went a long way in getting his foot through the door. As a female minority in the tech space, I'm very passionate about products from companies owned by people that look like me. Tonee is inspiring as a tech leader and we look forward to working with him and other smaller, minority-owned tech companies in the future."
I wonder if I had not heard much about Bell and his company because the nature of the products they are bringing to market doesn't lend itself to big news stories. These are affordable products designed to be practical in the way they address customers' pain points. They are probably something sport and entertainment celebrities might overlook when looking for products to endorse. At a time when we are still talking about the digital divide and tech access, Bell has a significant role to play. I wish that useful, approachable tech products could capture as much attention as niche and expensive ones, particularly when the leader drives their market success against very strong odds. The portfolio is growing into new areas such as health, which is an exciting opportunity for the brand. AUS has formed an alliance with a major National Integrator in the security sector to focus on Elevated Skin Temperature Systems (ESTS) as a pre-screening for potential Covid-19 detection.
"I had to fight for every inch of opportunity that I had, but one thing you must know about me is that I don't know the word quit or stop when it comes to my business and what I've been trying to do," says Bell as I ask him how difficult it was to get to where he got to. "I don't look at problems. I look for solutions or resolutions. I find my way through it or talk my way through it. Let me ask the questions that I need to understand better what my potential buyers are looking for. So that I don't conform myself to the situation, but I can adjust myself to the opportunity," he adds. When I ask what kind of hurdles he faced, especially when trying to convince these big brands to take a chance on him, Bell remains incredibly gracious. He simply points out that he felt some questions about manufacturing capacity, location, or company makeup might have been more detailed than someone else would have normally faced. Even then, his focus was on getting them to see things differently, like how they could have maybe ramped up volume over time, starting in locations where the products would be a better fit for the community the stores were serving.
"Growing up, I heard my parents say that people don't mind when you try to get ahead. But they do mind when you try to get over," says Bell. For him getting ahead means being able to innovate and create new products that give customers a feeling that they get a lot of functionality at an affordable price so that maybe if they are parents trying to buy presents for their three kids or upgrade their systems for distance learning they do not need to pick which child will get it because they cannot afford to cater to all. Bell says that although partners and potential investors might not appreciate him saying, he is not revenue driven. He is mission-driven. His ultimate goal is to do philanthropic work on a much larger scale than what he can do within his community.
I end our conversation by asking what the secret to his success is, which I hope more people will be aware of after reading this article. I can feel the smile in his voice when Bell says: "The secret is a three letters word: God. God has shown me many blessings and favors because I tried to be a good steward over the opportunities I've been blessed with. This is so I can put myself in a position where I can help others. I grew up in an environment where you learn to give more than you take and this is true about my life and my business."
This article was originally published on Forbes