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MRIaudio: How one CEO in medicine strikes a chord

Who would’ve thought MRIs, audio, and music would cross paths? How do you ease the worries of a hospital patient strapped inside of a whirring, radioactive magnetic tube?

It’s a puzzle that MRIaudio CEO Spencer Howe set out to crack as a bright-eyed college graduate in his parent’s garage just over a decade ago. 

The pieces have since fallen into place, and the Carlsbad-based entrepreneur has swept the fruits of his labor into the imaging rooms of over 1000 hospitals and health clinics worldwide. 

After a statement year that put MRIaudio on the map with its patient-driven technology, the intrepid entrepreneur spoke of the values and experiences that road mapped his entrepreneurial journey to success.

MRIaudio joins the mix

Spencer Howe’s MRIaudio is making strides in a niche of medical technology focused on improving patient comfort.

Once a solo act without a dime of venture capital to his name, Howe now presides over a multi-million dollar company that posted $3,500,000 in revenue by the close of 2021.

MRIaudio has sold more than 3,500 units of its flagship technology to a clientele of leading health service centers including Sharp & Children’s MRI Center in San Diego, Scripps Memorial Hospital, UC San Diego, and Rayus Radiology.

A marquee partnership with GE Healthcare over the past year alone tripled MRIaudio’s business “overnight”, Howe says.

More significantly, for the Carlsbad-based founder, the numbers represent the realization of decade-long efforts to improve the quality of patient accommodations in an industry already rife with tragedy and life-changing moments.

“MRIs are considered to be an uncomfortable procedure. A lot of patients get anxiety and claustrophobia,” Howe said. “The presence of music and communication help alleviate that stress when a patient is undergoing an MRI scan.”

Magnetic resonance imaging is one of the most frequent procedures done by diagnosticians across the country. The average MRI center may scan anywhere between 10 to 20 patients per scanner.

“If you assume that each system we’ve sold helps 10 people per day, we help 30,000 patients each day complete their MRI scan and reduce the number of patients that require a sedative,” Howe said.

MRIaudio is not the first or only company to tackle the issue of integrating audio systems into MRIs. However, up until now, delivering audio to patients has come at the cost of sound quality due to the engineering challenges involved.

“An MRI at its basic level is a giant magnet. Most traditional headphones use magnets to create sound. So traditional headphones are not MRI compatible,” Howe said. “Most other companies that make MRI sound systems use piezo ceramic speakers which are MRI compatible because they are non-magnetic, but they only produce high frequencies.”

“This compromises the sound quality the patient hears,” he said. “I wanted to create a system that produces a full frequency response: high frequencies and low-frequency sound, bass.”

Howe consulted with a career audio expert who had plied his trade at Bluetooth speaker company JBL Audio. The pair sifted through ideas before settling on an older piece of engineering: tube television.

“Back when tube televisions existed, the magnetic speakers on the sides of the TV would interfere with the picture,” Howe said. “As a solution, the engineers building these tube TVs actively shielded the speakers.

This means using an opposing magnet as a shield on the speaker which significantly helps cancel out the magnetic field.” 

The perfect fit

It was a perfect fit for what MRIaudio wanted to achieve. A test run carried out by a speaker manufacturer confirmed that the engineering was sound.

“As it turns out the lower frequencies produced by the actively shielded speaker did a much better job masking the cacophonous sounds produced by the MRI,” Howe said. “With our MRIaudio system, the patients could better hear the music which reduced their awareness of the loud noises produced by the MRI.”

The breakthrough on full-spectrum audio delivery to patients during MRIs has garnered plaudits from the medical community.

Radiology Supervisor at Mount Nittany Medical Center Sherry Piper says that her staff at the facility’s Outpatient MRI center has “not stopped raving” about the system’s effectiveness and breadth of functionality.

“This system has proven to be the best MRI system that I have used in my 30-year career,” Piper said. “It provides adequate volume, even for people with hearing issues. It provides a vast selection of music including Pandora, I-Heart, Tune-in Radio, and Podcasts.”

The veteran radiologist was also impressed with the service provided by Howe and his team.

“Spencer was extremely helpful from the first phone call to the end result,” Piper said. “The pricing was excellent and they worked with our schedule to complete the installation.”

Service is the golden rule for MRIaudio

Photo Courtesy: MRIaudio

For Howe, customer service is the lifeblood of his company and his identity as an entrepreneur and founder.

“I joke with MRIaudio team members that we are a customer service company that just happens to make MRI sound systems,” he said. “Quality customer service means delivering what you promise and continuing to take care of the customer after the sale is made.”

MRIaudio provides a 30 day trial period for customers weighing whether or not the audio system is the right fit for them.

“If a prospect decides not to keep the system, the invoice is voided,” Howe said. “The only customers who move forward are the happy ones.”

The company also offers complimentary installation. Howe was frank in his assessment of the policy.

“We don’t make money off of installation, but it makes the customer’s life easier,” he said. “Our motto is to make the customer’s life as easy-as-possible.”

Howe has made it a point to make every aspect of his customer experience as convenient as possible. MRIaudio will also replace a broken component after warranty expiration overnight for free, for example.

“It is both satisfying and promising to hear a customer say ‘wow are you serious, that was so easy, thanks!’” Howe said. “And the next time they need to buy another MRI sound system, they call us.”

Howe says that customer service is an underrated tool to garner success as an entrepreneur, especially as a means to subvert catastrophe and create winning opportunities.

In one incident, a trusted customer — a mobile MRI distributor who outfits his fleet with MRIaudio systems — had been working with a major Boston hospital that had already been set back by other technical issues.

Tensions had already come to a head when the hospital reported that their MRIaudio system stopped working. With his reputation on the line, the distributor contacted Howe directly.

The CEO immediately helicoptered to Boston later that night to personally troubleshoot the system.

“The only issue with their MRIaudio system was that one of the cords had become disconnected,” Howe remarked. “It took me less than 10 seconds to fix it.”

Every single second paid for itself in dividends.

“That same very large hospital in Boston was so elated… that they bought 7 more MRIaudio systems,” Howe said. “Even though I knew I could help repair the system with phone support, they wanted me onsite. I obliged and showed up with a positive attitude — I consider this to be a win/win deal.”

It’s one of the five core values that Howe has hammered into the fiber of MRIaudio’s identity. 

“When you walk into MRIaudio’s office the first thing you see is our company logo and our 5 core values,” Howe said. “Every employee knows these core values and they are an integral part of decisions we make.” 

Win/Win: “Every deal should benefit both parties whether that be with a customer, a supplier, or internally.”

Teamwork: “I am a huge believer that if you want to go far you should go together. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Working as a team keeps everyone aligned and aware of what is going on outside their department.”

Simplicity: “I believe that the easier a product is to use and a procedure is to follow, the more it will be used. We try to make all of our products as easy-to-use as possible.”

Positivity: “Having a good attitude is critical to being successful. We spend most of our time at the office — we should enjoy it. That’s not to say there aren’t hardships at times, but facing a challenge or an obstacle with a positive attitude helps improve the quality of work and increases your chances of crossing the finish line.”

Celebration: “I believe that both big and small victories should be celebrated. Whether that be a high five, a company barbeque, or some other form of acknowledgment. We have a Gong in the office that people are encouraged to ring; for example when a sale is made or a big order is shipped.”

Each value goes a long way in fulfilling the basic requirement of customer service that has been the bedrock of MRIaudio’s story. Howe hopes that the wider corporate culture will one day adopt similar standards of customer care.

“Personally, I often feel disappointed with the customer service I receive and I don’t think I am alone with my feelings on the standard of customer service we’ve gotten used to,” Howe said. “I think often as companies grow, they try to cut as many costs as possible to increase their bottom line. I imagine they mistakenly see cutting customer service costs as an opportunity.”

Customer service satisfaction has been dropping since the start of the 2010s, according to a report by the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

“I think that skimping on customer service is short-sighted because you will eventually lose your customer base and damage your brand. I would argue that current customers are more important than new ones.”

At the end of the day, the experiences of customers or patients are a direct representative of the trials and tribulations Howe had to overcome to build MRIaudio to what it is today.

A trip to the University of Wisconsin was enough to assure Howe that what he had set out to do was worthwhile.

“I was on-site while they were scanning a patient. The patient successfully completed their scan and thanked me afterward for installing an MRI sound system,” Howe said. “She was extremely complimentary of how the music helped her complete the MRI scan without needing anti-anxiety medication.”

“To me, this is confirmation that the product really helps patients and serves its purpose.”

The founder is already thinking about how to further improve the patient MRI experience. The company is working on an MRI-compatible display so that patients can watch video entertainment during scans.

Going it alone

Amidst the whirlwind of his company’s recent success, Howe loathes to forget where it all began: the nebulous days when even selling just ten audio systems seemed like a distant impossibility.

Reeling from a dissolved partnership and working without venture capital, Howe had very little else to rely on other than himself while navigating through the genesis of MRIAudio.

At its conception, the company flew under a different moniker. Global Imaging Source, Inc, was founded as an MRI parts brokerage company by a college friend of Howe’s at the University of Colorado Boulder.

It had seemed like a perfect union. The pair was on a balcony of a mutual friend’s wedding when Howe’s friend made the proposal to work on a new business idea together. Intrigued, Howe accepted.

The idea of an MRI audio system drew them together, but after several disagreements, the pair decided to part ways, with Howe plowing ahead with the project despite having no experience in the medical sales industry, he says.

The young entrepreneur was left with just an idea, a machine, and an open room to work with.

“Every day was hard and uncertain at first,” Howe said. “I had to figure most things out on my own, without damaging a multimillion-dollar MRI machine — fortunately, I never did — I had no capital and was building the systems in my parent’s garage.”

Despite the novelty of the challenge, he was determined to prove that he had the frame of mind to plow through. “I have always had an entrepreneurial mindset — MRIaudio is not the first business I started,” Howe said. 

He first ran a business earlier in his college career as the owner of a house-painting franchise for College Pro Painters.

Keeping the faith in MRIaudio

MRIaudio Bose Technologists Speakers
MRIaudio Bose Technologists Speakers

“I didn’t make very much money, but I did get a firsthand education of how businesses worked,” Howe said. “This motivated me to start another business. I was actively seeking another opportunity.”

And so with no capital and a steep learning curve to scale, Howe set to work to make the most out of the opportunity he had.

Howe used whatever he could get his hands on to build his first MRIAudio systems. An old computer speaker. An amplifier. A bundle of standard cables. A desktop microphone. Whatever he couldn’t salvage, he built on his own, though he was beginning to discover the limits of his resourcefulness.

“The primary system component is called an audio transducer which I had to custom design,” Howe said. “I built the first transducer out of pinewood. I knew a hospital would never purchase it and that it needed a more professional appearance.”

Bridging the gap in manufacturing quality was a necessary step, albeit an expensive one for a company without any venture capital.

Howe pinged his collegiate network, hiring a student from ITT Tech career services to design a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) speaker box. With the blueprints in hand, he pitched his project to roughly 50 different manufacturers over the internet.

Scrolling through quotes ranging up to $50,000, he began to feel discouraged. Then he spotted a $5000 quote from a family-owned factory in Tecate, Mexico. Howe grabbed his passport and drove down to the Mexican border from San Diego.

“One of the brothers picked me up and drove me to their factory about 10 minutes away,” Howe said. “I explained my situation and that if this product worked I would continue to order and we agreed on a total price of $3,500 for ten transducer speaker boxes.”

The deal was on after he field-tested the system’s compatibility in a local hospital. With the product coming together, Howe began to tend to other elements of his business, doing whatever he could to save funds along the way.

He spent late nights on his website to bridge the time difference working with a web developer based in India. He tapped a fellow student to design the company logo and used vista print to print business cards and brochures.

Sensing the markings of a proper business coming together, Howe turned his attention to cold calling and traveling to trade shows over the next year. The process, however, proved to be one of the most harrowing experiences of his entrepreneurial journey.

“Cold calling was free and I had plenty of time,” Howe said. “Anyone who has made cold calls knows it can be discouraging. The idea of starting a business was extremely exciting, but my initial sales proved to be more difficult than I thought it would be.”

In its first year, MRIAudio posted just $40,000 in revenue. At that point, Howe had little to no established clientele or feedback to gauge whether or not his efforts would come good.

“I spent almost all my time in my first year in business making cold calls. There was so much uncertainty whether MRIaudio would be successful, or whether I was wasting my time. I didn’t know if I priced the equipment properly, I believed I had designed a good product, but that wasn’t confirmed by any customers,” Howe said. “I had faith it MRIaudio would be successful, but I was so discouraged at times that I felt like giving up.”

Howe attributes many of his hardships to the intrinsic difficulties of ‘bootstrapping’ or starting a company without any outside investment or venture capital.

“In a lot of ways bootstrapping is a harder road,” he said. “If an investor would have offered me money when I first started, I probably would have taken it, although I would have regretted it now.”

The entrepreneur says there are plenty of upsides to bootstrapping, although he admits that the perks aren’t necessarily immediately clear.

“When you bootstrap you don’t have money to do all the things that you want to grow your business,” Howe said. “You carefully have to decide what is absolutely necessary and allocate your money to that cause. Because of this, I probably didn’t waste as much money as I would have had an investor given me $100,000.”

Living at his parents’ home also left Howe with fewer financial obligations, which created easier conditions for him to bootstrap MRIAudio. Now living independently, Howe admits that having investors would go a long way in terms of being able to have steady income if he started another business now.

Still, Howe swears by the financial liberation of forgoing venture capital.

“If you can get through the growing pains of starting a company organically, bootstrapping is a beautiful thing,” he said. “You don’t owe anyone anything, you don’t have a board to report to, so you can focus on long-term strategy instead of worrying about short-term earnings.”

From one founder to the next

With just over a decade worth of experience building MRIAudio in the rearview mirror, Howe offered a word of advice for the next entrepreneurs.

“Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems,” he said. “There were a few times where I thought I was going to be an overnight millionaire, that did not happen.”

Howe likened his journey to a steady upward trend with lots of ups and downs. “Most of the time things aren’t as bad as they seem,” he said.

The founder encountered his own fair share of bloopers, each seeming just as catastrophic at the time.

“I had this idea for these electrostatic headphones that were MRI compatible. I thought these were going to revolutionize the industry and invested most of my money into them,” Howe said.

When the move didn’t pay off, he was initially gutted. “They didn’t work at all, but it wasn’t the end of the world, I got through it.”

Howe also recounted a test run for an MRIAudio-compatible microphone that would let MRI technologists speak to patients.

“Unfortunately, on very rare occasions the microphone became live without being triggered,” he said. “This led to a few patients hearing the MRI techs saying things that they weren’t supposed to hear.”

Howe was horrified. “I immediately resolved the issue but at first, I thought my business venture was over,” he said.

Howe says that similar potholes will always come up, but that it’s important to continue to plow through. The entrepreneur invoked his own journey from humble beginnings and overcoming roadblocks to that point.

“Problems usually aren’t as bad as they seem. You can work through them and find a solution and learn a lot in doing so.”

Rome Fortune is a star waiting to explode in the NFT space

Who is Rome Fortune?

They say that the Eternal City wasn’t built in a day, but it can take just a moment in time for a universe to burst into existence. For one ambitious rap visionary in the NFT space, that moment is now.

Rome Fortune is a rapper based in Atlanta, Georgia. A veteran of the southern hip-hop scene, the Philadelphia-born emcee has returned from his hiatus to sink his teeth into an emerging horizon on the blockchain: crypto music videos.

Ahead of the release of his album debut in the crypto space, Mr. Fortune, Rome spoke on his journey as an artist and what the emergence of web 3.0 means for a music industry systematically wired against success.

Rome Fortune drops Mr. Fortune

With his blockchain debut album, Mr. Fortune released, Rome Fortune is making strides as one of the freshest faces at the intersection between music and crypto. 

Since arriving in the space, Rome Fortune’s star has only added to its sheen, complete with exploratory sound and jarring – yet beautiful – visuals.

“I wasn’t even in the space for 60 days,” Rome remarked. Liquor store fiend, the artist’s first blockchain video sold on Oct. 31.

He promptly followed up with hoodrich disco — Rome’s second drop was already turning the heads of some of the hottest names in the crypto sphere.

Being a newcomer doesn’t faze him. Hardened from his years in the traditional music industry, Rome Fortune never doubted his worth. After tasting early success with an exclusive first edition of his debut album Mr. Fortune to PHLOTE, Rome has readied 370 editions of his work for the wider world to savor. 

He expects the drop to take the space by storm.

It’s by far the best project in NFTs’ short history. I stand by it. Mr. Fortune before 2022: the best album in the NFT space — quote that.

Rome Fortune

Beyond signaling a triumphant return to music, Rome says the album is a gesture of defiance against the music industry and a heartfelt salute to his most ardent supporters.

“It’s pretty much a symbolic pivot into the NFT space… saying, Hey, I’m going to reverse the funnel of giving my stuff out of the DSPS first and give it to people who actually understand or appreciate the art as it is,” Rome said.

Inheriting the throne

Rome Fortune never had to look far to find that appreciation for the arts.

The Philly-born artist comes from a line of jazz royalty including Nat Adderley, Cannonball Adderley, and Richard Adderley — his grandfather — who has played with the likes of Miles Davis.

“I always was exposed to a lot of different types of music coming up. Then when I was in high school, I made a real effort to book my own studio time.”

Over the next several years, Rome Fortune went on to become a fixture of his community’s hip hop scene, featuring alongside fellow Atlanta stalwarts iLoveMakonnen and OG Maco.

Since rising to prominence off the back of his 2013 Beautiful Pimp mixtape, the artist never looked back. Rome has collaborated with the likes of Toro y Moi, Young Thug, Glass Animals, and Gucci Mane.

Despite his success, Rome reiterated the difficulty of making it in the music industry.

Rome worked independently for several years before Atlanta-based promotional team Hood Rich reached out to him. The encounter led to a first-time partner in social media personality Gary Vaynerchuk.

Vaynerchuk, better known as Gary Vee, acted as the artist’s “angel investor” and manager, despite being new to the music scene.

“You know, we were both getting our feet wet in the music industry, so it didn’t reach the potentials that I think it could have just due to none of us knowing what we’re doing,” Rome admitted. “But it gave me a lot of insight into the music industry, in business and things that I don’t think a lot of artists are exposed to.”

“So I kinda at that point, felt as if it was wise or purposeful for me to be intentionally independent because I learned things — how to, survive in an industry that was pretty much designed for me not to.”

– Rome Fortune

Web 3.0 switches the script

Having since overcome the obstacles of the music industry along his journey into the crypto sphere, Rome believes that web 3.0 provides a golden ticket for artists like himself to reclaim their livelihoods from the music industry.

“When I say it was designed against people like me, business-wise, I’m not supposed to win…” he said.

Delayed royalty payments and piracy have long been systemic ailments of the industry. Due to a triopoly of the world’s largest music labels — Sony, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group — some artists have to rely on touring to make up anywhere up to 75% of their income.

Likewise, Digital Service Providers (DSP’s) — think Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, YouTube Music — are just as problematic. For example, Spotify generally pays between $.003 and $.005 per stream, which means that about 250 streams are needed to earn just a dollar.

In addition, syncing problems across databases often mean that artists lose up to thousands of dollars of revenue due to metadata errors.  “With the DSPs, and Spotify and all that you don’t get data. You’re not even given an identifier,” Rome said.

NFTs, then, are the perfect rebuttal. Each individual transaction is recorded, meaning that they are uniquely suitable for securing intellectual property. Furthermore, the decentralized aspect allows for greater freedom in artist-fan interaction.

“I think it gives a comparable, if not more, worth in value to your connection with your superfans, or your people who will go beyond just the initial search bar, or search query of your name,” Rome said.

“People want to be a part of your journey so I feel like, you can make your fans and supporters just extensions of your team.”

“Take out the middleman.”

– Rome Fortune

“You have a direct line with the people with who your art speaks, which is an incentive when you break it down outside of fame aspirations that artists have. That’s all they want: is just to be appreciated. And [web 3.0] gives you that.”

Welcom to the Rome Fortune universe

Despite seeing a new generation of music artists emerge in the NFT space, Rome spotted an opening to capitalize on.

“You know, I really was an admirer of what they were doing, but I saw that there was kind of a void for people with influence in the music space outside the Metaverse.”

Rome set to work, hopping into Twitter spaces whenever he could and getting to know some of the people working the trade.

“Yeah, it was interesting because I didn’t know how to enter the space. When I was entering the space, music in the past month in NFT spaces boomed,” Rome said.

“Prior to that, everybody was kinda giving me a format or a template to follow because there was no real frame of reference or a context for NFT’s with music.”

In the end, Rome opted to follow his own blueprint and to listen directly to his fans.

“I see a lot of people who offer these roadmaps, and it’s just a really great idea but there’s not a lot put in place behind that to execute it,” he said.

“I didn’t want to put that pressure on myself. I can offer these things. And I know the people who are interested and they’re all Fortune universe — these things will hold value to them. And then you know, we just grow this little mini-world from there.”

For Rome Fortune, that little world is the bread and butter of his intention in the NFT space.

“Especially since my presence in this space is very new, the people who are going to be collecting my NFTs and all of this stuff — these are the people to who the art actually means something,” he said.

“They are going beyond that initial, alright, I’m going to open up the app that’s already in my phone to find this person’s music or I’m going to search or foundation or store or whatever — these people have done so much work just to have access to me.”

Rome says interactions like these go beyond transactions. He feels responsible for being able to repay the faith in his craft.

“They need to essentially get what they’re paying for. Not just financially, but just with the effort. I know, what things make Rome Fortune work as a musician and artist, business person, but these people are here and they want something from me and I’m actually building a universe for them to interact with based on their actual wants and needs for feedback,” he said.

“That’s why I say it’s really cool because you can have a real rapport with your supporters, these people and you can give them exactly what they want.”

Rome laid out plans to create an exclusive platform for his fans as well as a new cryptocurrency in his likeness.

We’re going to pretty much give a payment of Fortune coring to people who collect my pieces, and Fortune coin is going to be a real coin worth, about four bucks per token. 

“Right now we’re building the Romey’s Homies universe, and we’re just trying to make sure that we make people have fun. Who doesn’t want free money?”

Rome is dead set on creating value for his fans. “I don’t want to give you a token that’s useless. Shit in life happens,” he said. “If you need to cash out those Rome Fortune coins you can do it.”

“In our world, why not make the best amusement park for the people? I’m at this amusement park, they have this tech, they had this ride that I can get on and I can do all these things.”

“And it just grows from there because you’re providing for people who actually want something for you as opposed to panting pandering to potentials.”

“If you have a skill, and you can handle the bandwidth, you are your marketplace. You are your amusement park for your supporters.”

Finding balance along the learning curve

Despite scoring milestones in quick succession, Rome says that the intrinsic pressure of the NFT space means he doesn’t have time to “revel at the moment.”

The stresses of keeping up with the space keep Rome grounded, he says. Despite making several considerable sales over two months since arriving, the artist remains self-critical.

“Why did we only sell for point five? Why didn’t we get up to this point? Why it didn’t do as well as it could possibly do? It’s a pessimistic way of feeling but it keeps me grounded so I don’t get too aloof and pat myself on the back prematurely,” Rome said.

“I have a lot of work to do.”

– Rome Fortune

The ascendant NFT artist also spoke on the grind of getting over the steep learning curve of the crypto space as well as the value of balance.

“My entry into the space was just overloading myself with information, being in every single Twitter Space that was related to NFTs and music, all that type of stuff,” he said.

Rome has since readjusted his priorities, seeking to apply his trade on his own terms. “Most people feel the need to have those real-time updates of everything. And I’m starting to see I don’t need that,” he said.

“The more information that comes out the better. The more I don’t need to be first on this new development in solidity, or this new development overhead, I don’t need to necessarily be up to date on all of these things.”

“Everybody says presence, presence, presence — I agree, but at the same time you have to be present within yourself…”

– Rome Fortune

“You got to know what you’re bringing to the table. I see a lot of people know a lot about de-fi, a lot about crypto, a lot about NFTs, a lot about smart contracts. But they don’t know much about what they’re bringing to the table at all,” Rome said.

He believes that taking care of himself is the best way to bring the best of his work to the table. “I don’t need to constantly be everywhere just to show that I care about the space.”

At the end of the day, Rome wants other newcomers into the space to remain resilient and to avoid self-doubt.

Keep not caring, keep not overthinking, keep intuitiveness. If you’re in a certain place where you feel confident you feel comfortable in what you’re doing, just do it. Have fun. The year goes by fast.

Rome Fortune

Stonez the Organic ascends to a new spectrum of healing with NFTs

To one ascendant artist in the NFT and digital art space, the world is a classroom and healing is on the agenda. Stonez the Organic is that artist in every sense of the word. The Philadelphia native plies his trade as a full-time digital artist, rapper, curator, and founder.

Though his artistry manifests itself in many forms, the driving intention remains constant: to help others improve themselves and heal.

Stonez the Organic
Pictured: Stonez the Organic

His opus magnum SPECTRUM is the culmination of his life experience and creative identity. Last month, Stonez the Organic debuted a three-part study guiding viewers through a process of self-exploration via various mediums of art featured in each phase of the experience.

Ahead of the project’s finale, Stonez sat down to talk about SPECTRUM and how his own story of self-healing borne out of unprecedented circumstances fueled a creative journey where he could make his intention a reality.

“I like to heal through my art. I just like to bring a positive vibe while creating in as many facets as I can.”

$tonez the Organic

Exploring a SPECTRUM of self-love

The SPECTRUM series featured a different concept or medium of art in each of its three studies. Study one explored light and movement. Study two showcased color, while study three was an exhibition of sound.

The first study was an immersive in-person event held at local Philadelphia studio Fidget space on Oct 16. Stonez the Organic enlisted the help of long-time partner Tyspective, a classically trained dancer, to model movement in the interactive experience. 

The venue was dimmed to allow a variety of gradient lights to pop out in the darkness. Loosely draped in white cloth, Tyspective performed under ceiling installations of blacklight, with just her gown illuminated as she moved. 

The end result was an ethereal light show in which spectators could visualize a progression of movement mimicking the journey of self-acceptance before their eyes.

Spectrum Stonez nft
Spectrum nft
Spectrum  nft

“The whole point of it was just to focus on the figure to build a connection to the movement through the darkness,” Stonez said.

“In each corner in the building, I had lights radiating to express lighting up the corners of your life and searching through the dark parts of your life and being okay with that.”

spectrum nft

The next part of the series was an exploration of color through an NFT drop of 333 handmade orbs designed by Stonez himself.

The collection made waves as soon as it dropped, garnering hundreds of buyers and earning a feature on the homepage of 

In a storm of calming gradients and provocatively lapping colors, Stonez the Organic handcrafted each sphere at points where he felt vulnerable and connected with himself, seeking to draw out others’ own propensities for self-awareness.

However, the success of the NFT drop proved to be an eye-opening experience. With the project featured on the front page of, Stonez acknowledged that the transactional component of the mint was a bigger aspect of the experience than he expected.

“People were just like, buying my art to like flip it, which I didn’t mind. I love it, like people making money off of what I created is a beautiful thing, being able to sustain themselves,” he said.

It added another dimension to what he had hoped to achieve with the study. Regardless, Stonez is glad that he was able to bring positivity to those who received his art in earnest.

“My intention for it was for people to heal and spend time and really observe what they were receiving. A lot of people did love the art. I have people who contacted me just feeling inspired. It was just such an experience for me.”

Pieces from the visual study are still available can be found here.

For Stonez, a study of sound was the perfect epilogue to his vision. The final piece anchoring the SPECTRUM experience dropped on Oct. 29 as a multimedia EP tying together stunning visuals with nine tracks of original music.

“I gave people something to see and digest in a real-life experience. Then, to see, digest, and feel with spectrum part two through color — the sound aspect is the final part, tying it all together. “

If it was that motif of cohesiveness that Stonez wanted to convey to the broader community, he achieved it. The SPECTRUM finale was a collaborative effort, consisting of nine tracks featuring other prominent names in the NFT and music space such as Pat Dimitri, Black Dave, Weinbagz, and FuzzMack. 

Each track is also paired with visuals from featured artists to garnish the passages of beauty, art & love communicated in each song.

The SPECTRUM part three EP can be found here.

“It’s just healing, uplifting, pushing forward. Not letting things get to you because it’s so easy to let all of that stuff just beat you down and keep beating you down.”

Stonez swears by this mantra, citing his creative journey as a wide-eyed youngster to weathering the storm of the pandemic and finding his northern star in the mirror.

I’ve been creating for as long as I can remember. I find joy in turning thoughts into reality, connecting people and making things happen. I’ve always appreciated the art of process and admired those who consistently work on their craft. Everything else in life is a bonus.

$tonez the Organic

Stonez has been creating his entire life, owing to a pedigree of creativity spanning generations in his family. His grandfather, a career law enforcement officer, was a lead musician for church and three different bands. Uncles on his maternal side ran a rock hip-hop group throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.  

He recounts being in awe listening to his father’s Walkman. “Growing up, I would listen to their album, and I’m like, whoa, that’s my uncle. Like, that was my uncles doing it — that’s crazy.”

Other albums, such as A Tribe Called Quest’s The Lower End Theory, kindled a fascination with visual design. “You know, flipping through an album booklet is, like rare now,” Stonez admitted. 

“But that that first experience, being able to connect at such a young age, it really inspired me.”

– Stonez the Organic

Music and digital art became the bread and butter of his adolescence. He drew and doodled whenever he could. In seventh grade, he began writing his own music. By the end of his senior year in high school, Stonez added Adobe Photoshop to his repertoire. 

Stonez the Organic fondly recounts being able to share out his talents to bring others along his creative journey. Attending Temple University, he and his friends frequented his apartment to hop on the mic and freestyle whenever they didn’t have classes.

 “I was always like that friend who was editing our pictures and stuff like that growing up for like MySpace page… I would make our covers when we were making music and do all the branding and create our logos and all that type of stuff,” Stonez said.

But that intention to help others began manifesting itself in other forms, and Stonez didn’t always have the bandwidth to maintain everything at once. “I kind of stepped away from the creative side of like me,” he admitted. “Like, I don’t know, it is weird, like trying to do both.”

The Philadelphia native knew early on that he had a voice to give to just cause. Attending high school at an all-white private school, he ventured into social activism to channel his voice as the president of the black and Latino culture club. 

He continued along similar roads after graduating from college, working in several nonprofits, teaching K-12 at GESU school, and working with disengaged high schoolers via the Community College of Philadelphia’s Gateway to College Program.

The time Stonez spent teaching and coordinating community initiatives was some of the most meaningful of his life. “It was a really good experience — it was a beautiful experience.”

The pandemic, however, presented an inflection point that forced the educator into one of the darkest chapters of his life when school administrators pushed to return to in-person learning.

Stonez, teaching a classroom of third-grade boys remotely midway through the year, dissented the decision.

“They were talking about bringing the boys back and I didn’t agree with how it was going down,” Stonez said. “They asked people like, ‘hey, how do you feel about it?’ I just told him I would be more comfortable teaching at home and continue the way we had it.”

What the administration did next blindsided Stonez the Organic and his students.

“They literally email me on Thursday saying, ‘Hey, tomorrow’s your last day. We found a replacement for Monday.’ Bro, I’m at work! This is right after lunch. I get the email after lunch. And then all my students are coming back, logging back on and I got like a frog in my throat.”

Stonez recounts the shockwaves that rippled throughout his classroom community when he mustered the will to tell them the next day. “They didn’t believe me. Mad emails from parents. Mad phone calls, it was just like, disbelief from everyone.”

The ordeal left him drained and devoid of a sense of purpose. “I was in a dark place for like a while because I’ve always been teaching, being able to put myself in a position to just show people how to do better,” Stonez said. “But then like that being taken from me, it made me think because I felt really good doing what I was doing.”

Stonez vowed to never let himself get into a similar predicament.

The next thing that I invest that much time in, or the next thing that I force myself to create, I’m just going to make sure that no one can take it from me.

$tonez the Organic

The harrowing experience did, however, lay the groundwork for a new venture. Andre O’Shea, another successful artist in the NFT space and friend, pointed Stonez toward the crypto-verse.

It was exactly what Stonez needed to regain his footing. “He kind of just like, threw me in the pool, and then just left me to swim. And then I came back a couple of weeks later, like bruh I’m loving it — like this is dope.” 

The result was a journey of rediscovery. “I already always had like concepts in my head. But I was just always so busy helping other people and doing all this stuff. And then like losing my job actually, like losing my job during the pandemic like forced me to sit down, you know?”

A leap of faith: Stonez the Organic ascends into NFT space

“I’m just so grateful. Like, and people have been telling me like, yo, I’m happy you lost your job, bro. Like, you wouldn’t be here,” he said.

The artist agrees with the sentiment but noted the trials and tribulations of overcoming the spectrum of turmoil that he experienced over the course of the pandemic. 

“Having something like being such a high point and being at such a low point so quickly… it really did suck but I can’t let these feelings consume me and change the type of person that I am or how I see the world,” he said.

To Stonez, that mantra is the foundation of all of his work, including SPECTRUM. “It was really about pushing through with that,” he said.

Since then, he has had no shortage of opportunities since arriving in the NFT space, featuring alongside the likes of Gabe Weis under Mark Cuban’s @NFT and Electric Token NFT drop funding the Jamaica Boblsed team’s qualification run for the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.

And now, Stonez is back to the core tenets of his trade: passing on knowledge as he lifts others up with him.

“It’s just been so much going on like auctions, bids, opportunities. Like I helped Goodie Mob with a drop, I helped Erika Alexander with a drop like these things just happened like week by week is just so fast.”

“Things have just been like, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling. And it’s been amazing, like, I’m so grateful for all of it because I just didn’t expect this, you know? I’m just happy to be here.”

Creation is a discipline of self-empowerment

“I was like, a nobody six months ago, and it’s just crazy to think about how you can have the intention and just be pure and just create and just be present, and just show up and have good ideas and execute and people appreciate you in this space,” Stonez said.

“It’s just beautiful. I’m completely in awe constantly like every day I wake up.”

Stonez the Organic says that being able to grind and hone a creative edge has been indispensable not just as a catalyst for success but a testament to the personal character as well.

“No matter what, keep creating and stay humble. I’ve been witnessing the other side of people gaining success and it’s like they change and start switching up. It’s really hard because I’ve had just a little taste of it.”

Breaks are by no means off-limits. Stonez emphasizes that mental health breaks are part of the process, as a ‘see you later rather than a goodbye.

“You could take a break, but always come back because I think that there’s just something special about it. I don’t know if it’s an escape, or if it’s a fulfillment, or if it’s just the essence of his magic. It’s just all of that, you know, combined, wrapped up in one and I think it’s beautiful to be able to tap into that.”

Stonez the Organic hopes that the next creatives on the come up will find reverence in the process and continue to hone their edge on what he believes to be the distinguishing factor powering the human experience.

“I think that’s our one power: to create, you know? Just create things. Whether it be a tin foil man, a beautiful painting, this conversation… Just keep creating — that’s what I got.”

– Stonez the Organic

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is here: How are families healing?

The exchange of pink ribbons shows that healing is a community enterprise. October marked the arrival of Breast Cancer Awareness month, and grieving families are looking beyond themselves to find healing.

From sharing the loss of loved ones to the stories of women emerging victorious from their battle with the disease, the breast cancer community is healing pain within its ranks by spreading awareness and educating others on practices that could save lives.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of death among women in the US, according to the latest report by the American Cancer Society. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime and 1 in 39 women will lose their lives to the disease.

Turning tragedy into traction

Many families have lost loved ones to those statistics, leaving behind mourning relatives to pay tribute to the memories of those passing on.

However, those left behind are also treating their ordeals as cautionary lessons. A central tenet of breast cancer advocacy is the push for early diagnosis — persuading those susceptible to take the mammogram test.

The numbers back their efforts. According to the American Cancer Society, relative survival rates for women diagnosed with breast cancer are 91% at 5 years after diagnosis; 84% after 10 years; and 80% after 15 years.

The goal is to make sure that others at risk of breast cancer are diagnosed early to maximize their chances of survival. For family members who have gone through the experience of losing their loved ones, it’s an endeavor worth telling their stories for.

Survivors flip the script

On the other side of the coin, positive experiences within the breast cancer community have also contributed to collective healing. Especially at a time where spirits are low in the wake of the pandemic, the success stories of cancer survivors cast a ray of hope to uplift and inspire.

One such survivor is MIT professor Regina Barzilay, who overcame and repudiated her breast cancer diagnosis in 2014 in full force to make strides in technology to save others from breast cancer.

breast cancer
Credit: Rachel Wu

Seeking answers as to why her own diagnosis couldn’t be found earlier, Barzilay completed an AI-based system in 2017 capable of breast cancer early detection by predicting whether a patient could develop the disease within five years.

Barzilay’s work landed her the AAAI’s inaugural 2021 Squirrel AI Award for Artificial Intelligence for the Benefit of Humanity, a $1 million honor awarding AI work with progressive benefits for society.

Climbing as a collective for Breast Cancer Awareness

Another survivor, writer, and attorney Kaye Steinsapir was diagnosed with stage three B invasive ductal carcinoma at the age of 39. As a breast cancer survivor and after overcoming her diagnosis, she has sought to share her experiences to help others who came to her aid during her struggles.

Steinsapir believes in the online community as a refuge for healing, having not just shared out her battle against cancer, but the tribulations of the loss of her daughter earlier this year as well. Her daughter, Molly had been put into the ICU after an accident that saw her suffer brain trauma when she reached out to Twitter for support.

“So many people shared stories of survival from traumatic brain injury,” Steinsapir told the New York Times.“The hope that all these strangers gave us was what sustained us. If we didn’t have that hope, I don’t know how we would have been able to do what we needed to do.”

breast cancer families
Steinsapir posing with her daughter Molly via Twitter Via Twitter

As a cancer survivor, Steinsapir strives to be for others fighting breast cancer what the online strangers who had helped her through her daughter’s ordeal were to her.

I’ve always tried to reach back and help others. It really helped me to see and talk to people who were ahead of me who were on the other side of that mountain when I was trying to climb up. So I always reach back and try to pull people along.

Kaye Steinsapir

With Breast Cancer Awareness Month in full force, Steinsapir’s experiences epitomize the very essence of how she and families impacted by breast cancer are healing: contributing and engaging with the lived experiences of others within a community.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month will last through the end of October. For information about early detection and other resources, click here


One WGU graduate is living proof we’re in a new era of higher education

After just one summer vacation, a 19-year-old is now a WGU college graduate, a cyber security analyst at industry-leading firm CrowdStrike, and a proud homeowner of a 2,300-square-foot San Antonio property.

Last June, the Moreno Valley native, Efren Zamaro, was just another senior tossing his cap to celebrate high school graduation at Valley View High. 

Shortly after graduating, Zamaro enrolled at Western Governors University, a fully online nonprofit university. Less than four months and just $4000 later, he emerged with a bachelor’s degree. Just three months later, Crowdstrike handed him his professional debut.

This is not how the game was designed to be played. In a college meta where just 1 in 4 university freshmen will graduate within four years — let alone months — the question remains: how exactly did he do it?

Pandemic breaks the deadlock

wgu bachelors degree
Efren Zamaro Pictured holding WGU Bachelor’s degree

In a world mired in uncertainty amidst a global pandemic spanning nearly two years, Zamaro was at least certain about one thing: he would make a career out of cybersecurity. Next, he just had to figure out how.

After graduating, Zamaro was at an impasse when it came to taking his first steps into higher education. On one hand, many of his friends defaulted to going down the traditional four-year college lane. On the other hand, he wasn’t even sure if he would attend college at all.

Having decided on cybersecurity since his junior year of high school, Zamaro had a general sense of what he was supposed to do, based on his reading up on the industry.

“You could work IT for a few years, get a couple of certificates, and just transfer over to cybersecurity. Or you could just get a cybersecurity degree and then go work in IT for maybe one or two years instead, and then work in cybersecurity,” Zamaro said.

He initially tried to plant himself somewhere between the two options, eyeing part-time enrollment at Riverside Community College while earning certificates at a full-time IT gig.

However, the continuation of the pandemic and the revelation of online learning throughout the previous year left him wondering if he could find a way to take advantage of the boom in remote learning.

After doing some digging online, Zamaro came across Western Governors University, a well-known institution in cybersecurity circles more broadly acclaimed for its competency-based learning model.

The university would allow him to work self-paced and had integrated the skill-based certifications he needed to advance his career that Zamaro would have otherwise had to secure for himself at a traditional college — WGU had everything he could have asked for.


When time is money: WGU and competency education

Western Governors University would argue that it, and its trademark learning model, has everything that everyone thinks they can’t have in higher education.

According to the university, competency-based learning is a model of education that prizes proficiency over seat time. In this model, students progress through courses as soon as they can prove they’ve mastered the material, instead of advancing only when the semester or term ends. 

As of the time of writing, WGU remains the only degree-bearing institution that principally relies on the competency-based model, which it has championed since its founding in 1997.

“The competency-based model really gives students at WGU flexibility, accessibility, and the ability to accelerate their pace or slow down at their pace,” said WGU Western Region VP Rick Benbow.

“ [It] gives people ownership of not only the time they spend learning, upskilling, and reskilling, but also being able to control the costs simply because they can self-pace through the program.”

– WGU Western Region VP Rick Benbow

While acknowledging his accomplishments as a “testimonial to his grit and resilience,” Benbow attributes Zamaro’s success to the potential of competency-based education and the benefits of self-paced learning amid sweeping issues in higher education being amplified by unprecedented circumstances with the emergent pandemic.

“As someone who firmly believes in the power of education, higher education, and what it can do to kind of change your trajectory…  But I also know at this particular time that that comes at a cost, right?” Benbow acknowledged. “It comes at a cost of time, and the tuition costs are, you know, escalating, increasing year over year.”

Rising tuition costs are just one of the numbers painting a bleak picture for prospective college students. According to a 2021 report, the average cost of college has tripled over the course of two decades, sitting at $35,720 per student, per year.

Meanwhile, student loan debt remains one of the most pressing financial crises facing a generation whose posts in the workplace aren’t guaranteed by their exorbitant education spending. Student loan debt in the United States totals at $1.73 trillion and grows six times faster than the nation’s entire economy.

The numbers also speak to a plague of inequity in access to higher education, compounding social disparities on communities of color that are already grappling with any number of systemic ailments such as gentrification.

To that end, one of the broader visions championed by WGU is to increase accessibility to higher education. For the university, its model represents a more financially responsible future for the upper echelons of academia.

According to Benbow, WGU’s average college tuition is a little less than $4000 for every six-month term during which students can take as many courses as they want, given that they pass.

The returns are also hefty. The average increase in salary pre-enrollment at WGU afterward within four years of graduation is $20,000, nearly two and a half times more than the national average of about $8200.

Photo Courtesy: WGU State

Turning back the clock to his days as a student, Benbow reflected on how motivating it could be to see some of the usual hangups in traditional universities being addressed in a fresh way.

“Those are numbers, those are figures that, again, remove some of those barriers in a traditional model. That lets me know that this is possible. And so from that standpoint, I can make a more informed decision and feel pretty confident about pursuing the WGU model.”

Indeed, the approach has proven attractive to prospective college degree seekers with WGU having most recently celebrated reaching 250,000 graduates in its 25-year history on October 8.

Marissa Price, the graduate that checked off the landmark number, hailed the university’s structure in her endeavors.

“WGU created an opportunity for me where I didn’t have to take time off from work and where I could afford it with help from my employer. There’s no way that I could have done it without WGU,” she said.

Making the most out of every second at WGU

Like his fellow graduate, Zamaro is more than satisfied with how he was able to make the most out of what WGU had to offer, though taken aback by the magnitude of his success when all was said and done.

“I definitely didn’t plan to only do four months, that’s for sure,” Zamaro confessed.

At the beginning of his tenure at the university, he figured that it would take between six to twelve months to finish the entire program. Ultimately, he ended up finishing 30 classes in the span of four months to earn his degree.

Reflecting back on the experience, Zamaro reflected on what it took to be able to achieve what he did in such a short amount of time.

“I just ground it out, working eight-hour days at online school, seven days a week,” he said. “Toward the end, I was spending 10 hours a day and just breaking to eat.”

Zamaro says he was able to fall back on his athletic background in jiu-jitsu and wrestling in order to motivate himself to follow through with his goals. According to Zamaro, fighting and cybersecurity share a common “brute force” approach, citing a common piece of advice given to struggling beginners by senior cyber security analysts: “have you tried trying harder?”

For Zamaro, it made perfect sense that the industry appealed to his tastes in the first place. The workplace philosophy meshed well with his personal ambition.

“The sort of mentality I had all my life is that if something’s theoretically possible then that’s more than enough motivation for me to try to make it truly possible,” he said.

It wasn’t, however, for a lack of doubt. Imposter syndrome was an ailment that trailed him as he worked long hours each day to get through the course material. But the stressful time crunch proved to be a blessing in disguise as he couldn’t dwell on any misgivings for too long. 

“I just don’t have the time to doubt myself, the only time that I have is to like, sit down, shut up, and just get it done,” Zamaro said.

He did just that.

“It’s been pretty surreal,” said Zamaro, who turned 19 this month. “I didn’t expect to get where I am this quickly. It’s a lot to process. But I’m glad I chose this route.”

He keeps in touch with high school friends who are starting their sophomore years at UC Riverside and Long Beach State. According to Zamaro, his friends represent a broader population of students spending four or five times more each year than he did for an entire degree, plunging into debt.

Although grateful for his own success, Zamaro lamented that his experience wasn’t mirrored across other campuses across the nation.

“The competency-based model needs to be adopted at more universities. I think the current model of a four-year university supports the average student, not the hard-working student who wants to go above and beyond and is passionate about what they’re doing.”

Snapshots of today and a word for tomorrow

Today, Zamaro marvels that he gets to ply his trade alongside the top experts in his field.

“I remember my first day at work when we were all introducing ourselves. Some guys were like ‘oh yeah I come from IBM’ and some other guy came from McAfee,” Zamaro chuckled. “Then I was like, oh yeah I come from school.”

Though intimidated at first, he found some familiarity in the constant grind in his workflow given the superfluous cybersecurity landscape. According to Zamaro, it doesn’t hurt to have a 2300-square-foot pad to come home to either.

The walls are thick and the “gorgeous” views of San Antonio nature and Six Flags help to remind him of how far he’s come his high school days in Moreno Valley.

Coasting forward with ample success in the rearview mirror, Zamaro hopes that the path he trailblazed will help to set a new standard of giving deserving students the keys to their education and liberating them to pursue their professional aspirations.

He urged everyone after him to push for those extremes.

“Never let anybody, including yourself, tell you what you can or can’t do. Because you are your own worst critic. You always tell yourself that you can’t do things, even though you’ll be able to do them if you just try.”

Efren Zamaro

Hispanic Heritage Month: 5 LatinX photographers telling powerful stories

With Hispanic Heritage Month in full force from September 15 to October 15, the spotlight is back on the Latinx community and its achievements throughout a year marked by a pandemic and the exposition of a myriad of social issues.

In a year that has seen powerful narratives put into perspective, it’s time to recognize what Latinx photographers bring to the table.

As a part of that exposition, the Latinx community’s visual storytellers have stepped up to bat. From COVID-19 to climate change to gentrification to Mickey Mouse, here are five Hispanic creatives who are telling high-impact stories through their photography.

Sebastián Hidalgo was raised among giants in Chicago’s Mexico

Sebastián Hidalgo hispanic photographer
Pictured: Sebastián Hidalgo

Proud to be “raised among giants in Chicago’s Mexico,” Pilsen native Sebastián Hidalgo plies his trade as a photojournalist by representing various facets of the Mexican-American identity as well as the pressing issues confronting the wider black and brown community.

His visual repertoire features coverage of gentrification, community infrastructure, and attitudes towards immigrants and policy.

The emergence of the pandemic was yet another chapter, and his ongoing project ‘History continues to do its dirty work’ continued to incorporate each of these themes to highlight the intersection between COVID-19 and systemic racism.

When 13-year-old boy Adam Toledo was killed by Chicago police, Hidalgo took shots of the ensuing protests to visualize the anguish of yet another life taken by the hands of police brutality.

A veteran photographer for the likes of National Geographic, The New York Times, ProPublica, and The Wall Street Journal, Hidalgo hopes to inspire the next generation to take up the mantle of telling powerful stories through photography.

“You can work most uncontrollable issues into something maneuverable. It take intension and a step by step process. Work with what you have. Build on it with a simple task to get started. Don’t give up.”

Sebastián Hidalgo

Hidalgo is currently guiding a local Chicago program unveiled by Apple and several other local groups offering five weeks of free training and access to photography resources to underrepresented youth.

See more of his work here.

Joana Toro is documenting stories of freedom

Pictured: Joana Toro

Documentary photographer Joana Toro is a Colombian creative on the move. Switching between two cities — New York City and Bogota — she captures issues of Hispanic Heritage, immigration, human rights, and identity confronting the Latinx community.

“Migration and identity are a constant in my work, they are the topics that I am interested in documenting, and they are stories that are worthwhile and that inspire others. They are stories of freedom.”

Joana Toro

To that end, Toro has an eye for finding unexpected angles to confront underreported issues. Her coverage of the pandemic through the lenses of as well as the costumed entertainers of Times Square and its effect on the underrepresented TransLatinx community landed her two features in the 2021 Photoville Festival.

Where is Mickey?’ covers how the loss of tourism during COVID affected Times Square’s street entertainers.  It features as a part of the ‘Eyewitness: Who Tell Stories of Our Time?’ project by the Pulitzer Center and Diversify Photo.

The latter series,‘TransLatinx Resilience against COVID-19’, was unveiled at the Queens Museum. Toro released the project in the wake of TransLatina activist Lorena Borjas’s passing, a heavy loss for the community.

Both works debuted on September 18th and will be available to view until December 1.

More of Toro’s work can be found here.

Josué Rivas is a stroytelling climate champion

hispanic heritage month
Pictured: Josué Rivas

An LA-based creative hailing from the indigenous Otomi community in Mexico, Josué Rivas uses his visual storytelling to champion the issues and perspectives of indigenous peoples and lead a charge to revamp mainstream media.

The reality is the photo, film, and art industry are colonized. By that, I mean that we have been telling the story of humanity from a colonizer perspective and I believe these are the times to change it… so that we can move forward and decolonize the media.

Josué Rivas

It is with this goal in mind that his photography focuses on the perspectives of indigenous folk. His work has covered issues such as fatherhood and the effect of climate change on indigenous communities, featuring in the New York Times and National Geographic, respectively.

hispanic heritage month
Climate change has further catalyzed the marginalization of indigenous peoples.

Seeking to spread his convictions beyond himself, Rivas has spoken at length about the importance of indigenous peoples telling their own stories. In 2017, he was invited to give a TEDx talk at Rapid City.

To view more of Rivas’s portfolio, click here.

It’s Hispanic heritage month all year round for photographer Verónica Sanchis Bencomo

Pictured: Verónica Sanchis Bencomo

A female member of the Latinx community and a photographer by trade, Verónica Sanchis has dedicated herself to promoting the storytelling of female Hispanic photographers while leading by example via her coverage of pressing foreign affairs.

One of her most recent contributions covered the crackdown and censorship of protestors in Hong Kong, Sanchis’s photography work featured Gotham, a student who was jailed for participating in protests in 2020 when the Hong Kong National Security law went into effect.

Seeking to elevate other Hispanic women using photography to tell powerful stories, Sanchis founded Foto Feminas in 2014.

The platform – currently curated by Sanchis herself –  publishes monthly features showcasing the visual stories of female photographers throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Hispanic Heritage
Photo Cred: Florence Goupil

The latest beneficiary of Sanchis’s venture is Florence Goupil, a French-Peruvian photographer handpicked for her coverage of human rights, identity, and indigenous culture.

Archives of other featured female Latinx photographers can be found on the Foto Feminas website.

Click here to see more of Sanchis’s portfolio.

Cristopher Rogel Blanquet is a social advocate in his own right

latinx photographer
Pictured: Cristopher Rogel Blanquet

Beyond his Hispanic Heritage, social issues have always been the focus of Cristopher Rogel Blanquet’s work. This focus has taken him beyond the borders of his home country of Mexico to throughout all of Central America to New York City to Syria.

Surveying Central America, Blanquet’s ‘Central American Exodus’ series chronicles the arduous journey taken on by migrant families.

Blanquet’s latest work is a series titled ‘Beautiful Poison’, a collection of photos encapsulating the pain and experiences of families marred by agrochemical practices in Mexico’s flower industry.

Shooting the project, Blanquet interacted intimately with the story he was portraying, staying with the family of Sebastian, a 19-year-old boy who was born with hydrocephalus due to the long-term effects of pesticide exposure beating the odds by outliving his predicted lifespan of five years.

His coverage of the public health crisis in Mexico’s flower fields has him in the running as one of nine finalists for the 2021 Eugene W. Smith Grant, an award celebrating compassionate photojournalism.

Blanquet spoke with Phoblographer about what getting the award for his project would mean to him.

“It’s an honor… But it is also a great responsibility that I take on with pleasure to continue with my work. I’m interested in telling stories that I wish didn’t exist, like that of Sebastián, a little boy who has been sick for a lifetime due to agrochemicals.”

Cristopher Rogel Blanquet

Five grant recipients are set to be announced some time in October.

To view more of Blanquet’s work, click here.

It’s mental health equity for us: 5 innovators of color setting a new standard

Drawing ever closer to the two-year mark of COVID-19, and with the month of September – National Suicide Prevention Awareness month – coming to a close, the spotlight is back on mental health equity in communities of color.

From xenophobic rhetoric to longstanding racial violence and police brutality that claimed the lives of George Floyd and many others within communities of color, the pandemic has been a reckoning for mental health.

The disparity in access to healthcare has also seen people of color disproportionately affected by COVID-19. That same disparity carries over to a mental wellness sector that has historically fallen short in representing people of color.

Here are 5 mental health app innovators on the come up that are looking to change that.

Shine puts a light on mental health equity

mental health equity podcast
Naomi Hirabayashi (left) and Marah Lidey (right).

Former coworkers Marah and Naomi met at social change platform before teaming up to spark their own change. 

Spotting a gap in mental wellness for working millennials of color, the two co-founders drew from their own experiences to launch their personal self-care app Shine in 2016. 

We started Shine because we didn’t see ourselves—a Black woman and a half-Japanese woman—and our experiences represented in mainstream “wellness.” Our bodies, our skin color, our financial access, our past traumas—it all often felt otherized.

Marah Lidey and Naomi Hirabayashi

Encouraging its users to create daily self-care rituals, Shine offers daily listenable meditations as one of three cornerstones that also include reflection and connection with a representative and inclusive community.

With a timely line-up of focused meditation topics including AAPI mental health, black mental health, and navigating COVID-19 anxiety, Marah and Naomi’s Shine took home an App Store Best of 2020 award back in December.

Download the mental health app (here).

Elevate App raises the standard

Lincoln University graduates and friends Aaron, Greg, and Dante sought to bring their sense of brotherhood into a mental health space where black minds were being underrepresented, forgotten in the equity discussion, and cultural stigmatization and systemic barriers to resources held African-Americans back from getting the help they needed.

In 2020, the trio launched Elevate App, a platform focusing on self-motivation and community engagement.

elevate app
mental health app
mental health app

The app features daily inspirational messages, motivational videos and podcasts, safe spaces for community discussion, and self-improvement challenges.

There was a lot of stresses and traumas and obstacles that stood in our way that impacted our mental capabilities and our mental health. And during that time we would talk and vent to one another and provide each other inspiration, and that helped us…  We thought if this brotherhood worked for us — being a service and a resource for each other — then let’s build a platform where we can make it work for other people too.

Aaron Warrick

Download the mental health app (here)

Exhale reminds us to take a deep breath

mental health app founder
Katara McCarty

In the wake of a string of racial violence that claimed the lives of George Floyd, Breonnna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, entrepreneur and coach Katara McCarty was galvanized to find an outlet for the pain reverberating throughout her community.

“That’s been my community’s outcry for over 400 years, systems of oppression, that knee has been on our neck… I thought, what if we could access resources to help us get back to our breath, to exhale, to really breathe?”

Katara McCarty

A nod back to the motif of suffocation, Exhale is the first of its kind to specifically address the needs of BIWOC — black, indigenous, women of color —  with founder Katara herself overcoming her own adversities as a single mother and a black woman of color. 

Launched on August 25, 2020, the mental health app offers coaching, breath work, guided imaginings, meditations, and affirmations for women of color.

Since then, the app has garnered plaudits as a 2021 finalist in MIT’s Solve initiative for anti-racist technology and a 2021 Webby Award winner in the Health and Fitness Apps category off the back of a nomination in April.

Download the mental health app (here)

Liberate pushes for mental health equity

mental health app founder
Julio Rivera

Although he discovered meditation through Headspace, Julio Rivera found that it, and many predominantly white-focused apps, could not address his experiences as a biracial black and Latinx man.

A software engineer and entrepreneur,  Rivera decided to take matters into his own hands by founding Liberate, a meditation app built for the black community.

Launching in May of 2019, the Liberate app hosts a library of meditation content curated with teachers and speakers of color. 

liberate app functionality
The Liberate App

Following a successful launch, the app has already featured as part of the Apple Store’s Stand Up to Racism collection exploring black-owned apps and services for communities of color.

Julio has already stated what he wants to see next in the development of Liberate, seeking to better staff the project and inject funds through a combination of venture capital money and, more meaningfully, community-based equity crowdfunding.

“Not a lot of startups can really show our revenue numbers with no marketing spend. All of it has happened through the community, sharing it with others, and that’s just so touching for me. And I want the community to benefit from that not only through this transformation of their mental health, but also financially.”

Julio Rivera

Download the mental health app (here)

Find SOMEHWERE GOOD with Ethel’s Club

ethels club founder
Naj Austin is the founder of Ethel’s Club and Somewhere Good

Naj Austin’s first project was an exercise of adaptation that coincided with the emergence of the pandemic when it shuttered businesses. 

Ethel’s Club was originally a brick-and-mortar social club opened in Brooklyn that provided walk-in therapy, personal finance workshops, and meditation to people of color until the pandemic shut its doors just months after.

The community has since moved online, offering virtual services of the same variety as an online platform.

communities of color
directly from ethel site

Seeking to broaden the scope of her ambitions, Naj’s next venture-in-progress is SOMEWHERE GOOD, a platform centering on making a one-stop experience for people of color by bringing together a diversity of communities, including her own in Ethel’s Club, to interact with and fulfill their needs in a safe space filled with mental health equity.

In May of 2021, the platform secured a boost of $3.75 million dollars from investors.

Since then, early access to the platform has been made available ahead of its pending launch.

Join the waitlist (here).

Crypto and suicide prevention: How can we turn big money into charity?

Crypto and suicide share an unfortunate history. September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a time for inflection in a crypto community that has seen tragedy play out again and again among its ranks.

The volatility of crypto has long been a liability to the lives of its traders as well as longstanding efforts to appeal to the sector advocacy sphere.

crypto philanthropy

But attitudes toward blockchain philanthropy are changing, and the creative minds in the crypto community are stepping up to the occasion under the eyes of suicide prevention advocacy groups pondering the longstanding question of crypto’s potential: can it really work?

A legacy of loss

The bursting of the crypto bubble in 2018 was an event that epitomized trauma for the crypto community. It came to the point that the U.S. National Suicide Hotline phone number was featured as the top post in the crypto subreddit, r/CryptoCurrency.

The crypto market across the board recorded an 80% plunge from its peak, surpassing the 78% plunge of the dot-com bubble, leaving millions reeling from having lost their investments, and prepared to do the unthinkable.

The situation worsened when BitConnect, a major crypto lending and exchange platform at the time, was shut down on allegations of fraud. As a result, inexperienced investors who had wagered their life savings stared into the abyss of financial distraught with few options to escape.

This cycle of financial distress unto fatality hasn’t stopped since. In 2020, a bitcoin trader took his own life after killing his wife and two children. Just last April, a banker consumed poison after making ill-fated trades on behalf of her investors.

Meanwhile, the crypto community has sought to redefine its history with mental health by supporting advocacy efforts. However, these ambitions were hindered by the hesitance of the wider nonprofit sector — until now.

Following the bunny trail

Just over a week into National Suicide Prevention Awareness month, a psychedelic rabbit leaped from the NFT marketplace into the crypto domain of public good.

trippy bunny nft
This LSD-inspired rabbit was the face of a grassroots charity operation focusing on suicide prevention.

September 10 marked the 18th iteration of World Suicide Prevention Day since its inception in 2003 to promote mental health awareness on a global scale.

It was the same day that Trippy Bunny Tribe, a NFT project based on Solana, announced that 100% of its mint sales for its flagship drop would be going to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).

The drop was a resounding success. All 1,111 of the minted bunnies sold out, raising $220,886 for the AFSP by way of The Giving Block via Gemini dollars (GUSD).

For the team behind it all, the endeavor was undoubtedly a worthwhile one.

Each of our team has been touched by suicide in our lives, whether it be friends or family, and we felt this would be the greatest impact to the world overall, especially now.


The Giving Block, the cryptocurrency donation platform overseeing the transfer of funds to the AFSP, viewed the success of the operation as proof that crypto could be the way forward for suicide prevention and as well as other charitable causes.

This past April marked the launch of the organization’s Crypto Giving Pledge initiative, a call to action urging the crypto community to leverage its wealth toward social outreach and causes for the public good.

But questions remain on whether crypto can answer its longstanding reservations from nonprofits. Crypto’s volatility raises eyebrows about whether fluctuations could devalue donations.

Furthermore, anonymity is an aspect of blockchain technology that can be problematic to nonprofits seeking to track and credit donations.

Crypto and suicide prevention amongst other philanthropic endeavors could just work…

On the flip side, this anonymity lends itself to improved transparency over the transaction itself. Trippy Bunny NFT did go on to publicly publish the hash for the transaction for the world to see. Additionally, nonprofits stand to gain from the lack of taxes on capital gains of assets donated to charity.

Even while these considerations are still being weighed, more and more organizations have already opened up to crypto. The recent successes of Elongate and Munch saw over $3 million dollars raised altogether for a wide range of charities from the Malaria Fund to the GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund.

The world is ever closer to embracing the possibilities of crypto in philanthropy, and the ball is in the court of the community’s creatives to deliver on addressing a mental health crisis that hits especially close to home, like suicide.

Crypto does have a future where it can work with suicide prevention, and there are already little pawprints showing the way.

If you or someone you know needs help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 to reach at 1-800-273-8255.