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Bridging the gap for women of color in the tech world

Are the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world successful because they have some innate talent, or are they successful because they're incredibly talented and have backgrounds that allow them to be successful?

Kathryn Finney, Editor-At-Large at BlogHer, Inc and CEO of TBF Group, LLC, thinks that race, gender and socio-economic class might have a little something to do with it. Getting started in the tech world requires funding, and a lot of it. Without the right connections (that often come with privilege), that funding can be elusive.

In an ideal world, work would speak for itself, whether it was created by a man or a woman. Content would be judged not by the color, creed or gender of its author, but by, well, the content. And ideally, investors would fling their cash at brilliant ideas, no matter what the entrepreneur looked like. But we don't live in an ideal world. At least not yet.

But thankfully there are people like Finney, who are helping find ways to connect and empower women, and specifically women of color. The concept of a "black women founder" may be a "tough sell," but Finney hopes that the FOCUS100 Symposium and Pitch BootCamp will help make that sell a little easier.

FOCUS100 aims to connect start-ups founded/co-founded by black women with thought leaders and investors who are looking to tap into emerging markets and fresh ideas. The goal is to help 100 companies that were founded or co-founded by black women get funded or acquired by 2015.

Interested in taking part in FOCUS100? Meta Q readers can use a special discount code, METAQ2012, to receive 35% off.

“[W]omen of color in particular, consume social and Internet technologies at rates often higher than their white male counterparts. It was as if it was OK for us to consume tech, but not create it.”

How did DigitalunDivided come about?

KF: Several years back, I was a part of an incubator/accelerator program that left me feeling like the deck was firmly stacked against women, especially black women, in the start-up space. Yet, I knew from my work with TBF that women, and women of color in particular, consume social and Internet technologies at rates often higher than their white male counterparts. It was as if it was OK for us to consume tech, but not create it.

The idea that we can consume, but not create, technology bugged me for several years and it was at the BlogHer Business conference, where I was a mentor, that I actually turned that bug into action. Inspired by the conference, which helps women-led companies in a variety of fields build their businesses, I developed DigitalunDivided, a company that develops programs, projects and forward thinking initiatives that bridge the digital divide, first event, and the FOCUS100 conference.

The FOCUS100 PITCH BootCamp and Symposium connects rock star start-ups founded/co-founded by black women (African-American, Caribbean, African, or other parts of the Diaspora), thought leaders from tech and business communities looking to tap emerging markets, internal corporate entrepreneurs and executives from major Fortune 500 companies looking for fresh ideas and new markets.

“The concept of a 'black woman founder' can be a tough sell.”

The goal of the symposium is to have 100 tech-based start-ups with black women as owners or equal partners receive outside angel, venture funding or become acquired by the end of 2015 through bootcamps, workshops and mentorship.

I heard about Black Girls Code - a really cool sounding project - but I wanted to know what you think about how to inspire more young women of color to get involved in the tech world?

KF: The single most important way to inspire more young women of color is to show them what is possible. I firmly believe events like FOCUS100, that show successful founders of technology companies, who just happen to be black women and organizations like Black Girls Code, who create and expand technical capacity within our communities, are important because they show young women of color that being the head of your own tech company is not only possible, but something they have the skill set to do.  

Women obviously face different challenges in the tech field, but do you think there are still additional obstacles which women of color face?

KF: Yes. For the most part women of color have been invisible in the tech world, especially in Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley. While we’re definitely present in the space and often leaders at some of the top tech companies in the world, we haven’t been a part of the “who is tech” narrative. As a result, the concept of a "black woman founder" can be a tough sell.

Frankly, it’s going to be difficult to change this narrative until we shed light on successful black women founders and leaders in the tech community. That is what FOCUS100 was specifically created to do.

In a field where work speaks for itself and designers/developers are often an invisible presence, do you think that there still exists prejudices against women and/or women of color?

KF: While tech is a more knowledge-based industry than other industries, I would disagree with the idea that “if you build it, they will come.” At some point, in order to grow your business, you will need funding and funding, especially angel funding, and it's largely based on relationships. I can list several amazing startups that had super technology and a solid team, who weren’t able to raise the fund necessary to grow their businesses because they didn't have access to the right relationships.

“Are the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world successful because they have some innate talent that others don’t have, or are they successful because they’re incredibly talented AND have backgrounds [...] that allow them to be successful?”

In general, the whole startup ecosystem was created for a certain gender, class, and, in many cases, race. Few people, including most young people regardless of race or gender, can afford to work for a year with little to no pay. To be able to focus on just one thing for an extended period when you have a family is truly a luxury that many can’t afford, unless we have outside sources of support and income.

So the question becomes: “Are the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world successful because they have some innate talent that others don’t have, or are they successful because they’re incredibly talented AND have backgrounds (white, parents who can afford computer tutors, male) that allow them to be successful?” I would argue the latter.

I doubt Mark Zuckerberg would have been able to dedicate the time to work on Facebook if he had to work 20 hours a week in one of Harvard’s cafeterias as a part of a student work program. 

Who would you consider a good role model for women of color in tech? 

KF: The best role models are those who are where you want to be in life. At FOCUS100, we’re pulling the curtains back to show that we’re tech, too, by featuring top founders who just happen to be black women. All of these women are awesome role models (check out our speakers list). We have Heather Hiles, whose company Pathbrite, just received over $2 million in venture funding. We have Monif Clarke , a former Microsoft employee, who used e-commerce to totally disrupt a retail category. We have Majora Carter, a MacArthur Genius Fellow, who is redefining “who’s tech” by co-founding an incubator in the South Bronx. All of these women are great role models.

What do you hope to accomplish with DigitalunDivided? What would you consider a "success" in your first year?

KF: Success for the FOCUS100 event and for DigitalunDivided as a company, will be expanding the current narrative of “Who is Tech” to include not just women, but women of color. Long term, it's getting 100 companies founded/co-founded by black women to receive angel funding, venture funding and/or acquisition by 2015.

Photo courtesy of: DigitalunDivided
For more information, check out: FOCUS100


Lindsay McComb's avatar

Lindsay McComb

Writer and Content Specialist at Q Digital Studio

Lindsay McComb is a writer and content specialist at Q Digital Studio. She's a wordsmith with a wicked sense of style and a serious case of Wanderlust. Lindsay can be found tweeting at @themetaq and off-the-clock (and at all hours) at @lindsaymccomb.


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