Huggins’ Toronto-based business was founded eight years ago to develop school curricula for black and brown pupils across North America, which eventually evolved into the idea of providing students with a more personalized experience.
Huggins founded Spark Plug with her 13-year-old daughter, Talia Grant, as a black-owned alternative to current AI search platforms, particularly ChatGPT. Since then, the platform has partnered with US and Canadian educational institutions, concentrating especially on schools in underprivileged Black and Brown communities.
Huggins told TechCrunch, “Oftentimes, technology is designed without the lens of blackness, and therefore, the impact on black communities can be quite negative, especially when it comes to AI in general. It’s really about how we can identify the problems that exist within our own communities using technology to create meaningful, safe-tailored solutions that generate impact.”
The 37-year-old entrepreneur noted that Spark Plug’s linguistic model was trained by her daughter, a “Gen Z,” as well as Harlem Renaissance authors and Civil Rights Movement activists. Its first iteration allows users to translate classic literature texts into modern language, with Gen Z as its intended demographic.
The text translation is from normal English to African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a dialect that originated in the Black American community and is now widely used by Gen Zers on the internet.
Though its primary audience is students, the product is available to everyone as a web application that functions similarly to ChatGPT.
“Historically, black people haven’t always felt like they belonged, and as a result, we’ve had to create our own spaces. Technology is no different. As long as we are including the voices of those systematically left out of the conversation, AI can take us in the right direction,” Huggins expressed.
The mompreneur had the idea in 2019 and started working on the product while pregnant with her youngest child in 2020. Raising money became difficult, but after George Floyd was killed, many investors said they would support black entrepreneurs, even those in the ed-tech industry. Huggins, like many other black entrepreneurs, realized that most of these promises were unfulfilled.
However, after TD Bank invested in the idea late last year, many additional investors were interested. The Foundation for Black Communities’ Investment Readiness Program also funded Spark Plug.
The director of community investments at the Foundation, Omar Omar, disclosed that the platform “tapped into the undervalued knowledge and ideas that have allowed black communities to thrive in the most adverse conditions.”
“Instead of viewing racialized communities as empty vessels in need of capacity building, Spark Plug has placed the perspectives of these communities at the center of their work and, in doing so, has unlocked the true potential of the future of technology. Our investment in Spark Plug is an investment in making our youth leaders in the development of diverse and pluralistic technology solutions,” he added.
Huggins said that in addition to language translation, Spark Plug has developed an assessment tool called LearningDNA to assist educators in understanding how pupils learn best. For example, if a student learns best through listening, Spark Plug will present them with a hip-hop melody. The product also seeks to expand the number of dialects it can translate, especially given the diversity of Black voices around the world.
“A black child in Canada is very different from the U.S., and it’s very different in Haiti or Jamaica. We believe to see the changes we want to see in our community, we have to redesign the learning experience, and in order to redesign it, we have to personalize it,” she remarked.