Innovation at the intersection: An alum’s trailblazing ventures in tech, film, and social change

Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler on using tech for social good

Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler (Porter ’03, film and digital media)

Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler’s expertise spans across multiple disciplines. Ziegler (Porter ’03, film and digital media), is an award-winning tech entrepreneur, filmmaker, producer, social justice advocate, and scholar. Since graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 2003, he has founded four applications and platforms that address social issues head-on and provide solutions for them. These platforms include: 

  1. Trans*H4ck (TransHack) (2013): A two-and-a-half-day hackathon held in Oakland that invited transgender hackers and developers to come together and create software. The hackathon spotlighted the trans tech community, often underrepresented in the field. Although the hackathon is no longer active, its impact is still felt today.
  2. Ariel Spaces (2014): A virtual event platform that hosted educational webinars. In 2016, Ariel Spaces partnered with the White House to deliver digital education to 20,000 students from underserved communities. Ziegler’s company had also worked with Microsoft to create online education tools for students.
  3. Appolition (2017): Roughly 60 percent of people in jail awaiting trial are there because they can’t afford bail, which in many cases is just a few hundred dollars. Appolition allows users to set up automatic payments to fund a person’s bail. In its first year, Appolition attracted 8,000 users and raised about $140,000 — securing the release of 45 people nationwide. 
  4. WellMoney (2021): “Get money in emergencies. Give money when you can.” WellMoney is a community-driven application that allows users to request money for emergencies such as housing costs, car repairs, health needs, groceries, and more. Users can set up monthly payments to contribute to WellMoney’s emergency fund. 

The overarching theme: Ziegler is a social engineer increasing representation, prosperity, and community through tech. He has won multiple awards for his work. He was named among the Top 40 Under 40 LGBT activists by The Advocate Magazine, one of the most influential African Americans of 2013 by TheRoot100, and was listed in Diablo Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2017. His work with Trans*H4ck earned him an Innovation Award and a Nominet Trust 100 award in 2014. 

Ziegler says his work is inspired by his personal life and lived experience. 

“I think I’m very blessed to have known my purpose in life as a young soul, young human being, and I’ve been very much in tune with that,” Ziegler said. “And I’m very lucky to meet people who I know are part of my journey to help me build awesome things. I’m going with the flow and know that I’m here to use the resources and access that I have, and also, I think a lot of my intellect, to help people who may not be able to help themselves in a number of ways.”

Ziegler, a Black transgender man, grew up in Compton under challenging circumstances. He was raised by a family of single women and was exposed to multiple facets of abuse inflicted by extended family members. He was the first in his family to attend college. As a freshman at UC Santa Cruz, Ziegler took race and women’s studies courses that he says gave him the critical tools to reject harmful messages surrounding race, gender, and sexuality. In his third year of Ph.D. studies at Northwestern, Ziegler started identifying as gender queer and began his transition. 

Out of all of his platforms, Ziegler says that he resonated with Trans*H4ck the most. 

“It was my first venture into being an entrepreneur in the technology industry, and it showed that I could do it without even working in the industry. I didn’t know anybody professionally working at tech companies. I had to learn how to put those fears aside and do what I needed to do. Now, some years later, it’s like, ‘wow, I’ve been able to build multiple things because of that one platform.’”

Ziegler started the two-and-a-half-day hackathon with the hope that the platform would empower the lives of trans people financially, socially, and emotionally. Although Trans*H4ck is no longer active, its impact is still felt today. 

“It went like wildfire; so many organizations were coming out and emulating Trans*H4ck. Policy was shifted, and tech companies started driving bathroom conversations and medical conversations and began hiring more trans employees. Trans*H4ck also became the spark for trans people in tech who never thought that we could work in technology. They went to the first-ever Trans*H4ck, and many became successful software engineers or technical founders. So it was an amazing experience.” 

Ziegler graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a B.A. in film and digital media and a minor in computer science in 2003. He says that his time at UCSC played a crucial role in his development and in becoming who he is today. 

“I am very grateful for the experience because it has shaped everything in my life since then: professionally, personally, and in a very good way. As a young person, my first time away from home, I made amazing friends from all over the state and the country, and I got to walk away with a film degree. I became a filmmaker and could transfer the practical skills I got from the film and digital media degree to my personal work. UCSC really started my academic journey as well.”

Soon after graduating, Ziegler founded ZaMLabs (formerly Black Star Media) and produced the multi-award-winning documentary Still Black: a portrait of black transmen in 2008 which follows the diverse stories of six trans men. The film received an Isaac Julien Experimental Award from Queer Black Cinema International Music Festival and an Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary in the ReelOut Queer Film + Video Festival.

In 2005, Ziegler earned his M.A. in ethnic studies with a concentration in Black studies from San Francisco State University and a Master’s in African-American and Black studies from Northwestern in 2008. He became the first to graduate with a Ph.D. in African American Studies from Northwestern in 2011.  

Currently, Ziegler works as the CEO of WellMoney and as a tech entrepreneur with Ideas42. He spends most of his time fundraising for WellMoney and enjoys going to the gym and spending time with his fiance. 

Ziegler’s advice for current UCSC students looking to make meaningful impact and change in their communities: “Do it.” 

“I think people who go to UCSC are already aware that their presence is doing something good for California and our country as future intellectual scholars. I’ve never in my life let lack of money, where I come from, who I am, or what I look like stop me from ever achieving or pursuing things that I want to do. And I would encourage everybody else to do the same.”