It’s not every day that a school project results in an idea that can change the world. But Garrett Tolbert, a graduating senior at Florida A&M University, might be among the few individuals who know the feeling.
As a computer science student with an affinity for User Experience design (digital layouts created for ease-of-use), Tolbert is the sitting chief design officer of gBook, an application with the sole purpose of connecting college-student entrepreneurs with college-student consumers.
The idea came together when Tolbert met his partner, and current chief executive officer of gBook, Devyn Allen, at last year’s Google Tech Exchange program in Sunnyvale, Calif. Allen, a student at Prairie View A&M University, described how an inconvenient experience inspired the startup.
“Freshman year coming into Prairie View, I needed someone to cut my hair. There was only one option, and he wasn’t that great,” Allen said. “So I thought, why isn’t there an application for this? Then I thought, I’m a computer science major. I can build this myself.”
During their time at the program, Tolbert and Allen took a technical entrepreneurship class that not only solidified their partnership, but also taught them how to conduct market research for the demographic they hoped to serve. Tolbert described this experience as an enlightening one.
“We interviewed over 160 students across the entire country,” Tolbert said. “What that showed us was that this problem isn’t just at our school, it’s not just at HBCUs, but the problem is prevalent across the entire country. That’s when we were like OK, this is an issue that needs to be addressed.”
College students are often driven to websites like Craigslist, Ebay, and GroupMe to attempt to engage in local commerce, both as buyers and sellers. While they are well-known resources, there is also common knowledge that when conducting business transactions via these websites, it is “at your own risk” of being scammed, or receiving a less than quality product.
Allen explained the ways that gBook differentiates itself from the competition, by directly addressing grievances students have with more popular options.
“We are a centralized platform,” Allen said. “So instead of having to use Ebay or Facebook Marketplace where you are interacting with strangers, you are interacting with students on your campus. You know these are real people, so if someone tries to scam you, you can go find them or give their information to the police. So one, safety, and two, convenience.”
Allen also explained how gBook fits into a world where business has shifted to major social media platforms.
“Students really try to advertise their businesses through Twitter and Instagram, but they’re not getting noticed,” Allen said. “gBook is going to solve that problem.”
Jakiyah Bryant, a sophomore health informatics student at FAMU, described the nature of business when using GroupMe.
“I use GroupMe all the time,” Bryant said. “On campus it’s OK. Sometimes you get what you want, but sometimes you get what you pay for.”
When asked if she would be interested in utilizing an alternative to what is currently available, Bryant said she would try it out.
“My friend went to get her hair braided the other day and they turned her around,” Bryant said. “And she ended up getting her hair braided by a student at FAMU. So if we had something like this, it would be easier for her to just come to a FAMU student instead of going through that hassle.”
Joana Jackson, a junior business administration student at FAMU, echoed this sentiment.
“I’d be more open to using it because it would be college students like myself,” Jackson said. “So I feel like I would trust them more.”
Tolbert and Allen also emphasized what they want students to know about gBook and its mission.
“It’s for you,” Tolbert said. “I feel like this is cliche but this is an app by students for students. I believe in the problem, so therefore I believe in the solution.”
Allen explained the meaning behind the application’s name, and the goal to honor the essence of history through its operation.
gBook is a shortened version of “Green Book,” and is based on the true story of Don Shirley, a famous pianist in the 1960s who created a list of places of business where black residents could safely stay. This list of places was named the “Green Book,” and it became the subject of a popular movie in 2019.
With this story at the core of gBook’s conception, Tolbert and Allen have a vision for the application that begins in their respective college communities, and eventually expands outwardly.
“gBook will be a platform for entrepreneurs to come together and grow through community,” Tolbert said. “I envision gBook being national at HBCUs, HSIs and PWIs.”
Edward Whitfield, a senior computer information systems student at FAMU, is among gBook’s original vendors. He explained why it was an attractive prospect for him as a business owner.
“It was a nice platform, I liked the idea, what they were doing,” Whitfield said. “I’m also a small business owner so it’s also another avenue of exposure for my own company, so it was a mutualistic and progressive relationship.”
Whitfield is a former classmate of Tolbert, and had several positive things to say about the gBook team.
“I think that they are very driven and tech-savvy individuals,” Whitfield said. “Everything that I know they put their name on is in good standing. I look forward to seeing what they have to come in the future.”
gBook has received funding from Howard University to help the founders better execute their vision.
gBook is set to launch this spring. The online version is available now for viewing, as well as an email sign-up for individuals who wish to be updated as the launch date draws near.