Nov 27, 2023
By Tara Suess, Head of Content at Umoja
Starting a company with friends, as in the Umoja Foundation’s case, it’s perhaps to be expected that the usual line between work and play can become a bit blurry. So, it wasn’t out of left field to receive a stream-of-consciousness note late Halloween evening from Founder Tiffany Stewart, as she casually contemplated Umoja’s position in the world’s future while unwinding with an episode of The Good Place.
“I know this show can be silly, but they’ve got some solid quotes,” she wrote in reference to the following:
“As humans evolved, the first big problem we had to overcome was me versus us — learning to sacrifice a little individual freedom for the benefit of a group. Like sharing food and resources so we don’t starve or get eaten by tigers — things like that. The next problem to overcome was us versus them — trying to see other groups different from ours as equal. That one we’re still struggling with. That’s why we still have racism and nationalism…”
— Simone Garnett, The Good Place
Her message continued: “Umoja aims to overcome the ‘us versus them’ by breaking down the trivial things that separate us and focusing on a world of shared resources and knowledge.”
Umoja, meaning unity in Swahili, embodies its etymology in multiple ways, using charity NFTs to bridge gaps between nations and technology access, and overcome cultural and economic barriers. But this creation didn’t happen overnight — Umoja, while in its infancy, was years in the making through the accumulation of Tiffany’s assorted, uniquely relevant experiences that would ultimately lead her to founding Umoja in June of 2023.
Meet Tiffany Stewart: the woman behind the Umoja Foundation
Entering the tech space in 2013, entrepreneurial-minded Tiffany first teamed up with Umoja’s CFO Dalton Roth in late 2017 to found Kaeles, a digital agency harnessing Tiffany’s eye for design and product, and Dalton’s marketing and financial expertise. While the venture enabled the partners to collect experience working on a variety of projects, the short lifespan and quick-turn nature of the campaigns ultimately lacked the meaning and long-term commitment Tiffany preferred.
It was only a couple years later in 2019 that Tiffany struck gold with the big break she had been waiting for: an invitation on Dribbble, a portfolio platform for designers to showcase their work. The sender? Christian Rudder, Chief Product Officer at the utility-focused blockchain network, Stellar Development Foundation.
“When I got the message from Christian, I was first enticed because of his background as the Founder of SparkNotes and OkCupid,” Tiffany recalls. She remembers thinking that he seemed to be someone who understands how to build products. “Plus he helped me get through high school English!” she jokes.
Tiffany admits that she didn’t know what exactly she was going into as Christian pitched Stellar, but she liked what she was hearing. “I knew nothing about blockchain, and I thought I had long missed the boat on crypto,” she says. What persuaded Tiffany was Stellar’s goal to help people by building a wallet for those in high inflation countries, allowing them to take better control of their assets and save for the future.
“It also scratched this itch to build something from the ground up, and not just be a cog in a giant company.” While any tech giant would be lucky to have Tiffany on payroll, her potential would surely be clipped with such a strong inner drive to achieve.
One of such achievements is the development of Vibrant, Stellar’s wallet product, which offered a crash course in learning how to make web3 work for web2 natives. “There isn’t a lot of strong human-centered design in the space because web3 is complicated and hard to make user-friendly,” she says, referring to key barriers to entry such as public and private keys in place of usernames and passwords.
Additionally, the international product has provided invaluable experience understanding the complexity of moving money from one place in the world to another. “Looking at the modern banking system, an ACH payment looks like a Rube Goldberg machine — it’s a mess!” Tiffany muses. “It’s this really cumbersome thing, but remittance-focused blockchain solves it.” While large financial players like CashApp and PayPal are slowly beginning to offer on- and off-ramp services to move cryptocurrency globally, a gap in the market previously posed a big challenge.
Through the past nearly five years helping to build Stellar, Tiffany has learned there isn’t such a thing as being “late” to crypto, and there are ways to apply real-world utility with blockchain technology. She notes, however, that not many projects have chosen to take that approach in the space. “There’s a lot of negativity in the air around blockchain, ‘pump and dumps’ are a huge problem in the industry, and many of the crypto projects I’ve seen over the past eight years have seldom turned out to be substantial companies trying to make an impact.”
Working in tech from the lens of a queer Black woman has also underscored a need for diversity. “Tech moves toward the majority, so when you’re not in the majority, it can feel like you have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition,” she says. “My team at Stellar is very international and incredibly diverse, and it makes us stronger.”
Tiffany is a firm believer that you can’t build a product or company on an island. “It’s the unique perspectives of all the individual contributors that come together to make a strong product. That’s why I think diversity is key — because you’ll get perspectives that you might not have even known you needed.”
All of this and more is where the creation of Umoja comes into play. Founded with a team of diverse backgrounds, a heart-fueled mission to support the residents of Dasom Ministries Orphanage, and Tiffany’s hands-on web3 education, she acknowledges the cooperative components with gratitude. “Everything in my life has primed me for this exact situation,” she says. Career experiences aside, “I understand what it’s like to not have any family or support system, I understand what it’s like to pull yourself up from your own bootstraps, and I know what it’s like to not have the ability to get a formal education.”
With the unlocked opportunities afforded by blockchain, Tiffany is optimistic about Umoja’s ability to rewrite some of the wrongs that have inevitably come about during the wild west of web3’s inauguration. “We’ve seen it at its worst,” she says. “What excites me about Umoja is being able to showcase web3 at its best.”
By leveraging charity NFTs to redistribute financial resources across borders to those with less access — circling back to that quote from The Good Place — Umoja aims to embody the spirit of overcoming the ‘us versus them’ problem.
“There is no ‘us versus them.’ It’s just us, and we’re on a tiny speck of dust in an unfathomably large universe.”
— Tiffany Stewart, Founder of Umoja
As Tiffany puts it, there comes a time in everyone’s life when they receive a call to do something to help make the world a “good place.” Whether you answer that call — well, that’s up to you.