(Photo credit: Katara McCarty)

Katara McCarty is what some would call a do-gooder. Her life revolves around helping people in the furthest margins of society, finding new ways to make an impact in Black and brown communities, and creating inclusive safe spaces for women of color. She and her husband started helping people by creating God’s House, a nonprofit church in Marion, Indiana, which they ran for nearly 20 years. The goal of the church was to have people of all races join together and worship in one place. The couple eventually grew their congregation to more than 600 people and created an after-school program for at-risk children. 

But she wasn’t done yet. After deciding to move on from God’s House, McCarty and her husband connected with families in Zambia to help them build churches and schools. The couple later went on to co-found The Center for Success, a community center for children who are undervalued. McCarty eventually transitioned out of her faith-based work and became a professional coach for individuals and companies looking to improve their workplace culture. But despite her success in that field, she was struggling to find a way to connect to her community. 

After a number of Black people were killed by police in 2020, McCarty started to struggle with her mental health. The pandemic had hurt her business, she was overwhelmed by the traumatic state-sanctioned killings of Black people, and she was desperate to find a new way to connect with the Black community during their collective time of grief. So she started the Exhale app, a meditation app targeted specifically at Black and brown women.

Although the wellness space was uncharted territory, the Exhale app is an extension of the work McCarty has always done, in that it strives to help her community. The meditations aim to guide women of color dealing with anxiety and grief brought on by microaggressions, systemic racism, and police violence. It features various types of mediation and music targeted toward grief, stress, and trauma, and provides guided visualizations to help spiritually connect users with their ancestors. Tech wasn’t McCarty’s forte prior to Exhale. Imposter syndrome made her feel like she wasn’t qualified, but she knew there was a void to fill, and kept pressing forward.  

In our conversation she talked about being a Black woman entrepreneur, the everyday pressures Black women face, and her occasional struggle with imposter syndrome.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity. 

Carolyn Copeland: You’ve spent your entire life creating spaces for Black people to use their voice, learn, and take care of their emotional well-being. Why is this cause so important to you?

Katara McCarty: When I was born, my mother abandoned me at the hospital. I’m biracial, but it was Black woman, a gay Black woman, who took me in to her home and adopted me. She and her mother pooled their resources together to buy a home, and they raised me [together]. So [the Black] community is where my heart is. It’s my community and I feel at home there. I want to live my life there and uplift the community in the best way that I can because that’s who stepped up for me in my time of need. I think it really comes from a place of wanting to support and show up for my community, the Black community, in the way that they showed up for me.

Copeland: You’ve spoken a lot about being biracial. How has being a biracial woman impacted your work?

McCarty: I weave through life with a level of privilege that my mom, my sister, my grandmother, and other family members do not. I am closer in proximity to whiteness because of the way I look. I’ve had to ask myself how I can speak [out against] systemic racism, because while I do live with lighter skin I definitely have never been mistaken for white. I think that that’s part of why I’m doing the work that I’m doing. 

The Black community has regular stressors like everybody else, but those stressors are compounded because of systems of oppression. Systemic racism adds more trauma, more stress, and more anxiety to us. I saw my mom get treated differently because of the color of her skin.  She’d get called out of her name and I would be with her when those things would happen. She suffered from migraines and from distress. You have to figure out how to navigate that. So I identify as a Black woman more than I do as a biracial woman.

Copeland: You’ve led a fascinating life. How’d you transition from a life of running a church to becoming a coach to now starting an app with zero background experience in tech?

McCarty: When we transitioned out [of the church], my husband was kind of doing his thing in the corporate world, my daughters were off to college and living their lives, and I just had to sit with myself for a while. I had to ask myself, “What’s next for you, Katara?” I’ve been a mom since I was 19—my whole adult life. I partnered with my husband to serve the community for 20 years, and I had to really do some soul searching on what was next for me. I eventually decided to become a certified coach and [partnered] with individuals [on] their life’s journey. But then, in 2019, I looked around and I had an all-white clientele. I had to pump the breaks and figure out what had happened. I had to ask myself how I went from serving my community to now the serving companies and organizations with an all-white staff. That was not what I wanted to do and it wasn’t who I felt called to serve. 

I was trying to figure out how to pivot, but then in 2020 the pandemic happened and I lost all of my clients anyway. The world had stopped, and then there were uprisings that were happening because of all the stuff that happened to Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. There was this level of grief and hopelessness that I could feel collectively with the Black community that I had never felt in my lifetime. I was reaching out to resources to manage my grief, but all the meditation apps I found had white voices and were white-owned. I was like, “They are so out of touch with where my community is right now in real-time.” That’s when I started trying to figure out what it would look like for me to be able to put the resources I put into my clients into an app that is specifically for BIPOC women. The idea really came from a place of grief.

Copeland: It seems like the timing of everything worked out perfectly since you were already trying to figure out how you can show up for the Black community.

McCarty: It really was. I was also frustrated because at that time the news was reporting that COVID-19 was impacting the Black community disproportionately because we have preexisting conditions. That was the story. I was literally yelling at the TV because we have preexisting conditions because of racism and systems of oppression! It’s not because our skin is a different color. I was just really frustrated with that narrative. We do have stress and anxiety and trauma that makes us physically, mentally, and emotionally sick, but that’s because of systemic racism. I got the idea and got to work. And then George Floyd happened. The waves of trauma kept coming. Watching those videos is traumatic for the Black community.

Copeland: What exactly did you feel was missing from the other wellness and meditation apps?

McCarty: There were white voices that were not speaking to the hurt, harm, and trauma that the Black community was going through at that time. They weren’t speaking to it at all. I don’t say that to slam those apps. I know they record these meditations months in advance. It’s just, as a Black woman trying to manage all of those emotions in real time, it felt like representation wasn’t there when we reached for those apps. I didn’t hear us. I didn’t feel us. I didn’t see us.

Representation is really important for our community when we seek out wellness, or when we’re trying to begin our well-being journey. Even in our physical health and mental health, representation matters because if I have a Black therapist and I have a Black coach there’s this sense of understanding. They get it. They get what you’re going through and all the levels of oppression, and I don’t have to explain it to them. I think that’s what was missing in real time. They just aren’t even speaking to our community.

We send out daily notifications in real time, which makes us different [from other apps]. For an example, we were able to send out a notification to our users when the results of the trial for the police responsible for Breonna Taylor’s death hit the news. We wanted to let our users know that while our society doesn’t value and protect Black women we are here for Black women to support you in the hurt and reminder that today’s results bring. 

Copeland: Why did you think you were the person to provide this service, rather than passing along the idea and leaving it to someone else to create?

Katara: I knew that Black and Indigenous women needed this resource, so that’s what kept fueling me. I had to fight those limiting beliefs of who you think you are? You’re not a tech person. I kept having to remind myself that we need this resource. I need this resource. We need an emotional well-being resource out there to help us manage stress, anxiety, and trauma that comes from systemic racism. 

Copeland: One question I often ask Black women who have achieved a certain level of success in their life is how they deal with imposter syndrome. People everywhere deal with imposter syndrome, but for Black women and other women of color, it’s on another level. How do you deal with it, and what advice do you have for other women of color who struggle with it?

McCarty: It’s an internal fight. Even while I was coming up with the idea for the app, I came up against those beliefs of sure, you grew up in a Black community and you have a Black mom and a Black grandmother, but you’re not fully Black. What makes you think you can speak to this? Who do you think you are? Our inner critic is real. My inner critic was screaming at me that I shouldn’t do it, but then I would go back into my basement and remind myself why I’m doing this. I just kept moving forward. And when those voices would pop up I would just stop listening to them because I remembered my why. I’m around people having conversations who have been in the tech world for years. I might have a feeling that I don’t belong in that space but then I have to remember to own it. I tell myself that maybe I haven’t been in the tech space for 10 or 20 years, but I do deserve to be here.

As for advice, I’d tell other Black women to remember your passion and let that be your fuel to show up anyway. Be in your own corner and be your biggest cheerleader. Also, continue to step up in spite of that inner critic because those thoughts are not necessarily going to go away. You might have real people that will say things that you’re already thinking. Just keep going back to your why and own that space.

Carolyn Copeland is the News Editor at Prism. Her written work can be found in the Washington Post, HuffPost, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Palo Alto Weekly, Daily Kos, Popsugar, The...