Like many preachers, Nicholas Richards felt a special affinity for the pulpit.
“I didn’t choose the church,” he said during a recent interview. “The church chose me.” Don’t take our word for it. Watch him speak on Isaiah 9:1-6 as he interprets the passage, adapting and connecting it to contemporary life and classic literature.
Richards, who is in his early 30s, was on the fast track at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the third-oldest Baptist church in America. So it was a surprise last year when he announced that he was leaving the church. However, his departure had nothing to do with a crisis in spirituality. Quite the opposite, in fact: He was launching a tech startup that would make sermons more readily accessible.
Richards has started Roho, a company named after the Swahili word for “spirit,” and it’s an online hub for sermons and discussion about them. In a world where people are lost without their cellphones and more apt to congregate on social media platforms than in pews Sunday morning, it seems like an idea whose time is now. It’s been called the Spotify of the word of God—without, perhaps, the thorny issues of royalties. Another way to look at Roho is that it’s the TED Talks for the spiritually inclined. (Roho also helped Richards earn a spot on The Root 100, our annual list honoring the most influential African Americans ages 24-45.)
Richards conceived the idea during his tenure at Abyssinian, both from researching sermons and from congregants who wanted to share his work with others. Richards had some rudimentary computer skills, so he built a test website and held focus groups with several Morehouse and Spelman grads whom he had befriended while attending Morehouse, where he majored in philosophy.
The primary feedback was that there was a need for more than videos of sermons; the viewers wanted a community, a means to discuss and parse the minister’s words. With this template, Richards began to pursue seed money. The site launched last year with an initial investment of $500,000, raised from an array of African-American investors. Roho is also one of 46 companies that are part of the 18th batch of the prestigious 500 Startups business incubator.
Keesha Cash, general partner of the Impact America Fund, was one of the first investors. “We were impressed with how Roho uses technological solutions to advance and build community,” she says.
One of the biggest obstacles that Richards initially faced was getting the sermons, since some ministers feared that a robust online presence would diminish their attendance. However, Richards now proudly boasts a cadre of the leading religious voices in America on his site. Roho features sermons from Noel Jones, Lance Watson, Frederick Haynes, E. Dewey Smith Jr., Gina Stewart and Neichelle Guidry. The site has 25,000 hours of content and 250,000 monthly viewers. Richards’ hope is to generate revenue from both a premium tier and advertising dollars.
Casilda James, a New Jersey-based educator, is a frequent visitor to the site. “I like sermons,” she says, and she enjoys the diversity of points of view found on the site. “I often find myself saying, ‘Oh, I hadn’t looked at it that way before.’”
The growth of Roho has been validating for Richards, since leaving Abyssinian wasn’t an easy move. But he says that sometimes you don’t recognize your strength until “you step into the unknown.”