On George Talks Tech: A blessing in disguise.
How Tonee Bell turned his drive for unity into a thriving small tech business.
Our editorial transparency tool uses blockchain technology to permanently log all changes made to official releases after publication. However, this post is not an official release and therefore not tracked. Visit our learn more for more information.
A few weeks back, I received a brand new Bluetooth speaker in the mail that doubled as a charging case for the Baraka wireless earbuds, nestled inside. I had never seen anything like it before, so I reached out to Tonee Bell, the CEO of A Unity System and the creator of the Baraka, to learn more about his amazing journey from the military to running his own audio technology company.
Born and raised in a small town with a population of 300, Tonee came from an environment where everything you had you either grow or raise yourself. “My grandmother, way back in that period of time, had a little corner store that she ran out of our house,” he explained. “So, I saw the entrepreneurial spirit in her.”
Later on in life, after retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard, Tonee took the drive his grandmother bestowed on him and started his own technology business. But he wanted it to be different from the rest. He wanted to build his company on the values of equality and unity, hence the name A Unity System.
“I went to a retail store and I was looking at all these different products and not a single one was made by or for a minority company,” Tonee said “I asked myself the question, what if I become the first?”
His biggest challenge was getting in front of the decision makers that choose what products are put on shelves. It’s one thing to have a big name attached to your headphones, but it’s a lot tougher when you are a small business. The big break came last year when he took part in the Verizon-hosted Billion Dollar Roundtable as a guest of Microsoft. The Roundtable is a group of major companies that have done at least a billion dollars in business with women- and minority-owned suppliers.
While there, he met Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg, who put him in touch with leaders in the device marketing and retail teams, and was then given the opportunity to sell his speaker at Verizon. Since launching late last year, the Baraka speaker has sold out at Verizon multiple times, something that Tonee is very proud of.
“The challenge was not only getting in front of the people that can make the decisions and have an impact, but also making sure that you know your product, that you know your market and that you know the trends,” he said. “Once you get that opportunity, you have to maximize it by showing that you have value to them and that market.”
So why did Tonee choose the audio headset market and what does Baraka even mean? “Right now, there's a huge market for earbuds,” he said. “For me, it was more about doing something different. Rather than just have earbuds in a case, let's put the earbuds inside the speaker.” The earbuds are hidden and charging within the Bluetooth speaker, but they are always there if you want to take a private call. As for the name, Tonee revealed that “baraka” translates to “blessing” in Swahili. He couldn’t ask for a more perfect name.
Pick up your own set of these ear blessings right here.
V Teamers, if you’re interested in learning more about people of color in STEM, check out some of these upcoming events:
- Check out the BOLD Men Speak event in honor of Black History Month on February 25 from 5 PM - 6 PM ET. There will be a panel discussion about men in tech featuring BOLD ERG leaders.
- Plus, Saturday, February 27, BOLD will be holding a Pathway to College volunteer event along with the National Society of Black Engineers. Look for it in the volunteer portal.
Check out Tonee's interview in Forbes to read more about how he built his business and how Verizon is helping small technology suppliers succeed.