Stock in trade: Steve Jones’ pocstock seeks to boost diversity in business media images

People crowd gleefully around a computer in an office. Somebody writes illegibly in a notebook. Someone else points at a whiteboard while another looks on in apparent agreement.

Stock images are ubiquitous in business. By design, they’re as generic as can be. … But, take a closer look, and you might find they’re also not half as diverse as they should be.

Steve Jones, founder and CEO of pocstock, certainly took notice. That’s why he’s leading a diversity-focused content company that offers more culturally-sensitive imagery for business media, marketing and advertisements. Or, as its tagline goes, they’re a stock media platform that “unapologetically” focuses on people of color.

It’s taken that mission to a global market. After several years of establishing the infrastructure of pocstock, Jones expects to scale up quickly in coming years. That’ll be accompanied by an expansion of its base in Newark, hiring new staff and developing “new and exciting” partnerships, he said. He expects pocstock, which just completed a $1.4 million investment round, to grow from a $20 million business to $100 million within two years.

One of the things Jones is most excited about is the rollout of pocstock’s new artificial intelligence image platform. He spoke about that and much more in a thought-provoking dialogue with ROI-NJ. …

ROI-NJ: We’ve all seen, or used, stock images. But you’re bringing diversity, and now AI, into the mix. Can you explain how that all comes together?

Steve Jones: Currently, the prevailing direction for AI is generative AI. When it comes to imagery, over the past 10 years, generative AI hasn’t gotten people of color correct in terms of identifying what’s an image. Meaning, a couple years ago, Facebook’s AI platform was classifying Black people as primates, apes. Recently, there was an AI platform called Playground on which this young woman from MIT, an Asian woman, uploaded her image and said, ‘Make me more professional.’ The AI stripped out all of her cultural features and made her look like a young white girl. They lightened her skin, thinned her lips, changed her eye shape, changed her hair color. Everything visually about this woman was different, because the AI thought when she asked to look more professional, she meant more white. Those sorts of challenges go on and on. Google will show you stories of AI getting race wrong going back 10 years. So, what we’re doing is building an inclusive AI image platform based on our unique position as a diversity- and cultural-focused image library. From inception, we’ve been collecting cultural and diversity data on our platform. So, we have a unique set of data that no one else has — or cared to have.

We have a (prototype) AI platform that’s not only looking to solve these challenges for pocstock, we’re solving it for every generative AI platform currently in existence. That will come in the future. We’re raising funds currently to support a commercial launch of our platform in 2024.

ROI: To back up, how did pocstock get started?

SJ: Prior to pocstock, I ran a digital marketing agency in Newark for about 10 years, and in North Plainfield before that. We worked with a lot of high-profile clients, from celebrities to platforms such as Cartoon Network. We started working with a lot of corporate brands, and a lot of more traditional Fortune 500 brands. They were focusing more on diversity around 2010. And I found it was very difficult to find good, quality images of people of color on the popular (stock photo) sites — the Getty Images, Shutterstock and others. That’s when I originally had the idea for pocstock. Fast-forward 10 years later, through some market research as I was looking for my next mission, it turned out no one had solved that problem. There was no abundant source of high-quality images of people of color, those from around the world and those with different lifestyles — images that don’t make people look goofy, is the word I’ll use. The stereotypical diversity images weren’t resonating with me. As an award-winning creative, I have an acute sensitivity when it comes to the quality of visuals. I wanted to make sure people had a source of positive images for their storytelling.

DeSean Brown.

My co-founder, DeSean Brown, and I were having a conversation. I told him I wanted to bring this idea to life. We decided to do it together. The company was born in 2019, eight months before George Floyd was murdered. That was an interesting time, as well. That’s where the company really started to come together.

ROI: Can you elaborate on how these platforms for media imagery have played into stereotypes — and how you’re doing it differently?

SJ: In general, if you look at how people of color have been portrayed since there has been media, Black people were only portrayed as maids, butlers and buffoons in the early days. It took people breaking down doors to allow the whole story of what it is to be Black to be told. It wasn’t until the TV show ‘Good Times’ that you actually saw a Black father in a household with his children. That wasn’t even allowed on TV until Esther Rolle put her foot down, put her career on the line, and said, ‘I won’t do this role unless I have a husband representing the family with me.’ It took people like that to break down barriers after many years of a story being consistently told that Black people were angry, scary and coming for you. It makes people afraid of us. And it makes us afraid of each other. It keeps us from forming meaningful connections with other cultural groups, which is the ultimate goal. Negative stereotypes were made to be the whole story of who we are in the media. But, when you look at the CDC report on Black fatherhood, across all metrics that matter in terms of engagement with children, Black fathers outpace almost every other measured cultural group. The story in the media, however, was that Black fathers were deadbeats with 10 children from five baby mamas. So, those are some of the stereotypes I’m talking about. To counteract that particular stereotype — and I’m a father of five myself — we created what’s called the Black Dad Challenge. We host that every Father’s Day to showcase loving, caring Black fathers to the world. It’s a live stream through which we allow people to be vulnerable and tell the story of the challenges they’ve had to stay in their children’s lives. The goal is to humanize Black men as fathers, so that the next time there’s a George Floyd that’s murdered in cold blood on camera, people won’t look at that person as a thug or a person just resisting arrest, but as a poor Black father leaving behind a beautiful Black daughter, with a community that cares about them. And I know that we’re a for-profit business that’s here to sell images, but it matters what images people choose to put forth in their marketing. It matters whether they have imagery that puts people of color in a positive light.

ROI: I would imagine the business community’s recent emphasis on racial equity and justice had some overlap with what you’re out to do, but what’s your view on how well corporations have lived up to those commitments?

SJ: There was $50 billion pledged (to Black communities) by Corporate America, but less than $10 million was actually deployed in capital outside of real estate funds. It was really a weeding-out process to see who really wanted to participate in the creation of a more equitable world, and who just didn’t want to look like the bad guy. There were companies on both sides. We still have engagement with brands that really want to create a more fair and balanced playing field for people of color to have a voice. They recognize that the pie is so big, that by giving people of color a place at the table, you’re not taking food off the plate of the people who were already there. That’s a misconception — that in order for more people to have access to the American dream, so to speak, it takes away from others. The pie grows as more people sit down at the proverbial table to eat.

I will say that, on its face value, DE&I as a structure is flawed. But most things that are new are going to have a period of going from one end of the pendulum swing to another. DE&I needs time to work itself out and prove its value. In its early stage, it wasn’t as valuable as it will be five to 10 years from now, when I expect people will be more in tune with the corporations they represent in terms of their priorities. The first iteration of DE&I was, ‘Who’s a person of color I can give this job title to?’ They were given duties that didn’t always align with the company’s priorities, just so they could be on the cover of their website to see if they could keep their social capital and brand intact. A lot of those folks went on to lose their jobs later. That’s unfortunate, but it was bound to happen. It was a bubble. But businesses are going to learn from that, from what worked and what didn’t, in order to effectively implement change management in an organization.

Businesses are also learning how to separate the voices. There’s some folks (in DE&I) doing some really good work; there are some folks just yelling at people and shaming them, and that’s not productive. You want to educate people and not isolate or invalidate them in the process. We work with a lot of homogeneous, all-white teams, but we don’t go in with an approach like, ‘You’re wrong and you don’t know anything.’ Everyone is a human being with their own experiences. And if you want someone to identify with yours, you teach them. You show them. You can’t just say they’re not worth it because we come from different places in life. Everyone has to bring something to the table.

ROI: Sounds like you’re offering a whole lot more than stock photos. Do you want to end with a recap of all you’re looking to do for clients?

SJ: A lot of brands and agencies we work with, we’re not vendors or suppliers for — we’re partners. That’s a differentiation from any other company on the market. We don’t just bring images. We’re not a stock house that’s just storing a bunch of images to sell. That’s part of what we do, but the bigger part is partnering with people to make their productions — meaning their photos and video content — and making their communications internally and externally more inclusive and reflective of the world at large. Over the next 30 years, the majority of the United States is going to become what are currently considered minority populations. Communicating with communities of color, who collectively spend over $4 trillion a year in the U.S., is an imperative for any business. We help them to navigate certain conversations. For example, they might know what the difference is between someone who’s Puerto Rican, Mexican or Cuban. What do they have in common? What’s different? We’re looking at how that plays out in different cultures around the world. From a global perspective, we’re looking at how people of color would like to show up.