Nicholas Richards is taking the black church into the digital age.
Like many preachers, Nicholas Richards felt a special affinity for the pulpit.
“I didn’t choose the church,” he said during a recent interview. “The church chose me.” Don’t take our word for it. Watch him speak on Isaiah 9:1-6 as he interprets the passage, adapting and connecting it to contemporary life and classic literature.
Richards, who is in his early 30s, was on the fast track at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the third-oldest Baptist church in America. So it was a surprise last year when he announced that he was leaving the church. However, his departure had nothing to do with a crisis in spirituality. Quite the opposite, in fact: He was launching a tech startup that would make sermons more readily accessible.
Richards has started Roho, a company named after the Swahili word for “spirit,” and it’s an online hub for sermons and discussion about them. In a world where people are lost without their cellphones and more apt to congregate on social media platforms than in pews Sunday morning, it seems like an idea whose time is now. It’s been called the Spotify of the word of God—without, perhaps, the thorny issues of royalties. Another way to look at Roho is that it’s the TED Talks for the spiritually inclined. (Roho also helped Richards earn a spot on The Root 100, our annual list honoring the most influential African Americans ages 24-45.)
Richards conceived the idea during his tenure at Abyssinian, both from researching sermons and from congregants who wanted to share his work with others. Richards had some rudimentary computer skills, so he built a test website and held focus groups with several Morehouse and Spelman grads whom he had befriended while attending Morehouse, where he majored in philosophy.
The primary feedback was that there was a need for more than videos of sermons; the viewers wanted a community, a means to discuss and parse the minister’s words. With this template, Richards began to pursue seed money. The site launched last year with an initial investment of $500,000, raised from an array of African-American investors. Roho is also one of 46 companies that are part of the 18th batch of the prestigious 500 Startups business incubator.
Keesha Cash, general partner of the Impact America Fund, was one of the first investors. “We were impressed with how Roho uses technological solutions to advance and build community,” she says.
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