Less than 1 percent of tech startups that get funding from venture capitalists are founded by African-Americans. The FOCUS Fellows program by digitalundivided, a social enterprise that develops programs to increase the participation of urban communities in the digital space, is looking to change that by providing female entrepreneurs with opportunities to pitch to investors known for their diversity support, get one-on-one mentoring from industry experts and take part in the FOCUS Fellows program and conference. The program, which runs Sept. 30 to Oct. 5, coincides with FOCUS 2014, a diverse tech conference.
Kathryn Finney was a fashion blogger who jumped into the entrepreneurship world, helping women secure a stronger foothold in the tech industry. Honored as a White House Champion of Change, she was included in Black Enterprise magazine’s “40 Stars Under 40” and Ebony’s “Power 100.” She speaks widely about technology and entrepreneurship at events like the FOCUS conference, SXSW, New York Women in Communications Inc. and Women’s Funding Network.
Diversity Executive spoke to Finney about black female entrepreneurship, the FOCUS fellowship and tips she has for aspiring writers and business owners. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
What kind of knowledge and experience did you draw from your beginnings as a blogger and writer and apply it to bigger entrepreneurial ventures and speaking opportunities?
My early days as a content creator in 2003 helped me to better understand that success is driven by addressing a need that no one else notices. Back then, fashion sites catered to the aspirational, i.e., the high-end, size zero Kate Mosses that Vogue or Goop would more likely feature. When I decided to go the opposite end of the spectrum and blog about budget-savvy, plus-size fashion that caters to real women, there turned out to be a huge market there just waiting to be tapped. Over the years, other budget blogs mushroomed, but by then, I had already built up a solid following and media cred that led to my book deal with Random House and appearances in national broadcasts and papers.
Today, I would have probably been called a fashion disruptor, but back then, I was just happy to be a different voice that people chose to pay attention to and to amplify.
Can you shed some light on what kind of things the FOCUS Fellows program teaches?
The FOCUS Fellowship program exists to support and grow black female tech founders. During our weeklong, intensive training, we will cover topics ranging from investment basics, building a team, creating highly effective pitches and managing financials, to name a few.
Above all, we hope to teach our FOCUS fellows values and soft skills that are essential in surviving the tough startup industry: networking and relationships, commitment and the audacity to not wait for permission to start something.
Studies show that only 1 percent of startups backed by tech investors were founded by African-Americans. Why do you think that is?
Tech investors follow trends. Since the model from the very start was built by white male Ivy Leaguers, it’s hard for these investors to break away from the pattern. But if they start seeing more women and people of color with their own successful companies, we’ll definitely see that percentage grow. For now, we need investors and founders who can set the precedent.
What are some steps companies can take to increase the diversity in their applicant pool and teams?
Companies must be very explicit in their message of diversity. A great start is to engage in targeted recruitment efforts, such as internship programs with colleges or partnerships with relevant diversity-centered organizations such as digital undivided. These organizations will help companies better understand and shape marketing efforts to be about them.
Diversity must be a part of the workplace from the very beginning of the company. A diversity office (or even a lone representative, if a small startup) should be highly visible. Ask hired employees to refer their friends. Offer mentorship and training. Encourage them to apply for promotions, especially leadership posts.
Tech companies must make it a point to attend events like FOCUS that connect them with a wide range of talent who are building their careers in this space. Showing support for other cultural events within and outside the company will also help demonstrate an appreciation for other cultures.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs who may face some similar challenges you have had and are uncertain of their futures?
1. Ask for help.You don’t have to do this on your own. Seek out and build relationships. Contrary to what most think, tech is actually a collaborative industry with people who genuinely want to see you succeed.
2. Don’t be afraid to think big.Ambition can be off-putting and offensive to some people — “The higher you climb, the higher you fall” — more so if you’re a woman of color. Don’t let that stop you. Entrepreneurs stand out from the rest because they are not afraid to take big risks and they aim to please no one except the people who truly matter.
3. Be accessible.Network. Be willing to share your time with worthwhile opportunities (even if they are not always paid). Go to the bar and to the parties. Introversion or being busy are not valid excuses, not if you really want to succeed.
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