Gambian Born Social Justice app Developer is Davidson College’s First Innovator in Residence
Mbye Njie, a Gambian founder of the App “Legal Equalizer,” has now returned to his USA alma mater as the inaugural Innovator in Residence at The Hurt Hub@Davidson. A position as Davidson College’s first “Innovator in Residence,” which comes with a $75,000 grant, is helping Mbye Njie expand his smartphone app that promotes police accountability.
Njie is the creator behind Legal Equalizer, an app that allows users to record audio and video interactions during encounters with law enforcement. Then, with the push of a button, linked contacts are notified by text with a message and the location of the stop. The app also features laws from all 50 American states to help users know their rights and step-by-step guides on handling different police encounters, from traffic stops to immigration.
So far, the app has more than 250,000 registered users and over 350,000 downloads through the iOS and Android app stores. That’s a significant growth in the past six months, Njie said.
The 2004 Davidson alumnus returned to his alma mater last month to begin the yearlong Innovator in Residence role at the school’s Jay Hurt Hub for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Along with hiring Davidson students to join his work, Njie says part of the $75,000 will help develop a feature within Legal Equalizer where attorneys can sign up, and people can call them for legal consultation in real-time.
Creating the position was a specific recommendation in response to a report released last summer by Davidson’s Commission on Race and Slavery. The group — chaired by alumnus Anthony Foxx, former Charlotte mayor and U.S. Secretary of Transportation — comprises students, faculty, trustees, and alumni guiding initiatives that investigate and acknowledge the college’s history with slavery and race.
Liz Brigham, the Hurt Hub’s executive director, said Njie beat out three other candidates to deliver on the goal of bringing in a Davidson alum who has a for-profit venture focused on social justice issues.
The Innovator in Residence role provides a $75,000 grant for one year to Mbye Njie and the Legal Equalizer team to grow their business while employing at least two Davidson students. Photo courtesy of Davidson College
He first conceptualized the idea in 2014 as protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after a police officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown. Njie also thought of his own experiences with the police.
Born in The Gambia, inspired by experience with US Police.
A native of the Gambia who grew up in Macon, Georgia, Njie remembered being continuously stopped by police while a student at Davidson. He got so frustrated during his sophomore year that he went to the library with one of his best friends and printed out the state laws in North Carolina. They highlighted specific laws in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Rowan, and other counties surrounding the town of Davidson.
According to the Pew Research Center, black adults, particularly Black men, are about five times as likely as White adults to say police have unfairly stopped them because of their race or ethnicity.
“The next three or four times when they stopped us, we’d literally pull out the book and say, ‘Sure, you can search our vehicle. But, here it says we need a search warrant, and we need your sheriff here,” he recalled. “They quit pulling us over. Then, my sophomore year to my senior year, they didn’t bother us at all.”
There was also the period in late 2014 when he was stopped three times within 10 days. Njie said he filed a complaint the third time after an officer handcuffed him and put him in the back of a police car, citing a warrant for his arrest. However, the officer released him 20 minutes later.
“I literally built the app just to have something where, A, if I got stopped, my mom can know exactly where I’m at,” he said. “And B, I don’t want to be on the news with people saying, ‘What did he do?’ I want them to see a video that showed I was saying ‘Yes, ma’am,’ ‘No, ma’am,’ ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’ and following rules or things they were telling me to do.”
Although Njie has yet to connect with police departments in Mecklenburg County, he says that he has gotten feedback from other departments across the country. He explained that the app is about accountability and transparency, not to promote anti-policing or to say that most officers are bad.
“I explained to them that having a live video actually is going to make it a safer situation for the police officer as well,” he noted. “They understand that.”
Beyond interactions with police, a new component of Legal Equalizer allows users to alert authorities in the case of school shootings and for domestic violence victims to notify their linked contacts to call for help discreetly.
Njie has bootstrapped the business over seven years, spending more than $420,000 developing the app. The Innovator in Residence grant is the second-largest individual amount he’s received — seed accelerator TechStars previously invested in the company. However, Njie says this is the first year his team has received funds large enough to work on it full-time.
Next, Njie said, there will be a crowdfunding campaign where others can invest in Legal Equalizer to become equity partners in the company.